Washing Away Shame
Jesus cleanses whatever the Enemy throws at us.
by Mary Anne Quinn
“The problem with you, Mary Anne, is that you want to be special.”
It’s a problem to want to feel special on my fiftieth birthday? I flinched at the force of disdain assailing me from the woman who had tenderly guided and cared for me as a spiritual mother for years. In the past, she had communicated in so many ways that I was special — to her.
Now I wrapped my arms tight across my chest, attempting to shield my heart against the litany of offenses I had apparently committed over those very same years. Without warning, my identity dissolved from beloved spiritual daughter to emotional blackmailer, with every gift of love now framed as having been coerced by my neediness.
I pulled further into myself, and my breathing shallowed. Yet with each halting expansion of my lungs, shame tightened around me like a vise of broken glass. It pushed its jagged shards deeper into my soul, shredding my sense of security and value as a person.
Over the following weeks, the intensity of this woman’s verbal attacks grew. Expressing my personality diminished as I tried to eliminate everything about me that offended her and hold on to even a little of her love. I was more afraid of losing my relationship with her than of losing myself. I lost both.
Over time, a supportive counselor helped my mind embrace the truth that those cutting words had originated in pain triggered by traumatic events in my spiritual mentor’s life. They had nothing to do with me. Understanding this empowered me to accept the loss of the relationship and to reclaim some aspects of my lost personality.
Still, shame retained its hold on my heart. I could not overcome my belief that if she treated me that way, I must have deserved it.
I stopped celebrating my birthday. My anxiety rose with the simple act of opening a birthday card from a friend. Though I appreciated the gesture, I warned my heart against receiving its message.
Whenever someone expressed appreciation of me as a person or treated me in any special way, and I caught myself enjoying their affirmation, I felt compelled to punish myself for the crime of thinking myself worthy. I was terrified of trusting and losing again.
Desperate, I made an appointment with my spiritual director, Cecilia, to pray with me and ask Jesus for help.
As she welcomed me into her home, soft worship music playing in the background eased my anxious spirit. A plaque in her living room read “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Hope whispered to the despair in my heart. I whispered back, “I trust You, Jesus. You are the giver of all good gifts.”
Cecilia prayed, “Jesus, thank You that You are always present with us. I ask that You enable Mary Anne to perceive Your presence and receive the love and help You have for her today.”
Then Cecilia surprised me by thanking Jesus for me, naming qualities she appreciated that He had created in me. I started to panic. I had so internalized the shame that it felt wrong to allow someone to speak positively about me, even to thank the One who had created me.
In my mind, I saw a large glob of dirt smack onto my arm. I couldn’t brush it off. It stuck tight, taunting, “There is nothing good about you. You are dirty and disgusting. That is how you should expect God and others to think about you. That is how you deserve to be treated.” I felt hopeless, afraid the shame had become such a deep part of me I would never be free of.
I described the image to Cecilia. She gave me a tender look, then continued praying. “Jesus, what do You want to say to Mary Anne? What is Your heart toward her in her struggle with shame?”
I sensed Jesus prompting me to focus on the difference between my arm and the glob of dirt. Then a new image popped into my mind — a fun memory from my childhood.
During the summer, when my brother and I were little, we practically lived outside in our backyard. We spent our days performing acrobatic feats on our swing set, digging up dandelions (for a penny each!), picking and snapping beans from our vegetable garden, and decorating mudpies with flower petals and berries.
My mom loved to share stories with us about her childhood on a farm. One of my favorites was of her following a group of fluffy yellow chicks into their coop and getting stuck inside.
Considering she was pulled out hours later by my grandmother, tear stained, sweaty, and covered all over with straw and muck, I’m not surprised we never got in trouble with my mom for being too dirty, as long as we wore our play clothes. In her view, the dirtier we got, the more fun we were having.
At the end of each joy-filled day, my mom would pour dish soap into our plastic kiddie pool and turn the force of the hose on high, raising a mountain of foam for us to dive into. We laughed and splashed in the bubbles, pretending to be dolphins or sharks, never realizing she was giving us our bath.
Then, as crickets chirped and fireflies sparkled around us, she would hose us off, wrap us up in beach towels, and shepherd us inside to get ready for bed.
Jesus spoke to my heart. “Your mom wanted you and your brother back in the house. She just didn’t want the dirt. She knew the difference between her kids and dirt. I know the difference between My kids and shame. This shame is not you. I can wash it off, just as your mom washed the dirt off you.”
And so He did! With the dirt gone from my arm and heart, there was just me — clean and free. Jesus took me in His arms and held me close.
Our identities are shaped by the words spoken over us. We have an Enemy who looks for every opportunity to smear us with shame. Now, instead of shrinking into myself because I’m afraid it’s wrong to be me, I stand strong against the Enemy’s attacks.
I remember that Jesus is my Creator and that His opinion of me carries the ultimate authority. When He looks at me, He sees a treasure He created to delight in and to shower with His love.
Whenever I do find myself locked in the grip of shame, I regain my freedom by asking Jesus for help and focusing on His face and the words He speaks over me — that I am His beloved child (John 1:12), “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), as well as “precious and honored in [his] sight” (Isaiah 43:4).
As I let Jesus’ love and acceptance wash over me, the image of me becomes as clean and pure as my mom wished I’d kept my white tights. In response, “his praise will always be on my lips” (Psalm 34:1).
The psalmist David wrote, “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame”(Psalm 34:5). Jesus knows the difference between His kids and shame. Special is never a “dirty” word with Him.
Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.