When I was a kid, I had a debilitating fear of being seen. Like a lot of us, I was mercilessly bullied in grade school, told that I was stupid, ugly, awkward, and that it would be better for everybody if I just disappeared and stopped polluting others’ lives. So I tried. I became invisible: never talk, never stand out, and above all, never take the stage where others could witness my defects. It felt safer that way. It protected me from shame.
I don’t know anyone who’s never struggled with shame – and the few people who claim they haven’t are probably just ashamed to acknowledge it. Shame poisons and paralyzes us, and that goes double for shame about sexuality, which our culture views as somehow “worse” than any other kind. There are plenty of people who could easily witness our shame and make it worse. But there are also people whose witness can actually heal shame for good.
This is the kind of good news that might not sound like good news at first. Many of us have kept ourselves “safe” by hiding. “I’m unacceptable,” we think. “If people really knew me, they’d reject me.” You might be able to intellectually disagree with those statements, but sometimes the heart still believes them. And not without reason – as I tell my clients all the time, the number one rule of human behavior is, “We do things because they work.” Maybe not very well, and maybe not without terrible cost, but if we spend our lives hiding parts of ourselves, we’re doing it because, in some way, it’s “working.” Maybe it keeps us from re-experiencing the times someone did see us and brutally condemned us for what they saw. Maybe it keeps us from ever having that experience in the first place.
The problem is, that kind of “safety” keeps us far from love, too. In “The Four Loves”, C.S. Lewis wrote that “the only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” Hiding ourselves out of shame doesn’t guarantee that we won’t be hurt – it guarantees that we will. Hiding keeps us from being seen and known and loved, and that kind of disconnection hurts.
Despite what our fears tell us, it’s the process of being seen that heals our shame. In his book “Surfing For God,” Michael John Cusick writes, “Jesus proclaimed that God passionately desires to bind up the brokenhearted and set the captives free (Luke 4:18-19). But how can He transform our brokenness into wholeness when we insist on concealing it?”
Any time and any place, we can enter God’s presence, put away our pretense of having it all together, drop our defenses and masks and rationalization. We can stand in the presence of the One who knows everything about us already, and we can experience – maybe for the first time and maybe for the thousandth – His embrace, His acceptance, His love that drives out our fear (1 John 4:18). We can allow God to bear witness to who we are, what we’ve done, and what’s been done to us. We can talk to Him about all the things that shame us the most, and we can look up and see His face: not flinching, not turning away, but still right there, listening and understanding with the compassion and love we need most.
This one-on-one time with God is one of the most profound kinds of healing I know. And yet: this God who is love (1 John 4:8) isn’t content to stop there. He wants to invite others into this gift, this holy work of destroying our shame and liberating us from it. And so He gives us the opportunity to participate: to bear witness to each other.
For the one being seen and known, this is, admittedly, terrifying. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t, especially when we’ve never tried it before. It’s a lot like the first time I took the stage despite everything in me screaming, “Don’t do it!” It was at a high school poetry slam – a performance poetry competition where you’re bearing your soul and having people in the audience literally judge you. Like I said: terrifying. I wasn’t going anywhere near that stage.
Then a good friend of mine leaned over and whispered, “Hey, you should go up there. The stuff you’ve shown me is great!”
I shrank into my chair, lower and lower, until I hoped I was invisible.
“Hey, this guy wants to go!” she said, pointing right at me.
The betrayed scowl on my face could have melted iron.
And a funny thing happened. I didn’t die (a concern that felt very real at the time). I wasn’t booed off the stage. I wasn’t judged and found lacking. In fact, after three anxiety-riddled rounds of sharing my feelings in poem form…I actually won the slam! Despite all my expectations, despite my 100% certainty that letting anyone witness who I am beneath my don’t-notice-me mask would result in scathing disgust and rejection…I was accepted. It changed my life.
There’s a step-by-step progression in that story that mirrors the way I have – and you can – enter into the healing of allowing others to bear witness to our sexual and relational shame. Take it one step at a time. First, let God bear witness as you confess the things you find shameful. Then share it with a trusted friend or counselor, the way I shared my poetry with my friend in high school. Then share it with others, at your own pace. At each step, healing occurs that can’t happen when we stay hidden. At each step, we receive confidence and power to become one of the people who can compassionately bear witness to others’ shame and become agents of God’s healing and restoration.
As Paul puts it in 2nd Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” That kind of comfort and healing is available to you right now! May God give us the strength to bear witness and be witnessed. May He give us the strength to enter, step by step, into his beautiful plan for redemption.
Adam is a Licensed Professional Counselor Candidate on staff with Mayfield Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs. There, he gets to help men, women, and couples find healing and restoration in their lives and relationships. His areas of focus include trauma, porn and/or sex addiction, grief, and codependency. He is currently offering both in-person and secure online counseling, available to all Colorado residents. He graduated with a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado.
Over his 12 years in Colorado, Adam has been a performance poet, a case manager for people with HIV/AIDS, a preacher at Scum of the Earth Church, and a WGA group co-leader with Scott Kingry. When not spending time with his wife and daughter, he can be found getting lost in the mountains with a hammock and a good book.
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