Overcoming Shame to Serve Fruitfully

During our first year overseas I went through a season of deep spiritual struggle. I didn’t necessarily go into that year expecting that. I had crossed cultures twice before (once for university then after marriage). But during that time, many things came together to create a time of profound temptation and failure for me.

Unresolved grief, transition and culture shock were some of the variables that contributed to this time of struggle. What I didn’t quite recognize then was that I was a perfectionist. I had high and unrealistic standards for myself, my confidence in God’s delight in me was based on my performance, and I still lived in fear of punishment. As I struggled deeply with anxiety, jealousy, anger, and fears of all kinds, I also struggled with something else: shame.

I was seeing a dark side of me that I had not seen to that point. I felt ashamed of struggling and failing so much. I was sure others didn’t wrestle as much as I did. I was fearful this season didn’t make me acceptable to do ministry alongside others in our church and new city.

That first year helped me see I had actually struggled with shame a long time, and I didn’t even know it. The shame I’d felt was due in part to an overly scrupulous conscience and in part to growing up in a context where we didn’t quite get grace, among other things.

When we live with shame we, like Adam and Eve, try to cover up with fig leaves. We don’t want others to see what we are lacking, or what causes us shame. There are all kinds of fig leaves including self-protection and self-promotion. Perfectionism and rule keeping were two of my favorites. They were my way of seeking honor, hiding my feelings of “not enoughness,” and of falling short (of either God’s or the standards of those who were in authority over me). But fig leaves can’t deliver the honor they promise. They are not enough to cover our shame.

Shame can be a significant obstacle to serve Christ. It keeps us hiding from God and others. In my life I can see how shame affected my relationship with God and my ministry:

1) Wrong obsession: It was impossible to be obsessed with my honor and Christ’s honor at the same time.

2) Paralysis: The awareness that I am not enough for the labor He called me to do at times paralyzed me from engaging in ministry.

3) Unbelief: When shame and failure defined me, it was hard to believe I could actually bear fruit that was out of proportion with my limitations.

God is so full of grace that He used this time of struggle to draw me to Himself. He opened my eyes to see His gracious provision in Christ and His clothing. He is my righteousness. Even though I had failed to trust God in a year of drought, Christ never failed. He trusted His Father perfectly. He bore fruit even as He lived in the wilderness. His perfect obedience and faith were enough to appease God. I placed my faith in His finished work.

I am not enough for the life that Christ has called me to. I know He will continue to use precisely this life and ministry overseas to expose all the ways I need Him to live His life in me, because left to my own resources, I would fail. But being united to Christ, and having His honor gives me all the confidence I need. I don’t need to seek honor in being known in a new country. Whether or not I am accepted or recognized by others in leadership, is not what qualifies me to serve Christ. He has qualified me in the Beloved. If culture shock and transition come along with temptation and I sin, I have his power in me to repent and believe I am forgiven.

So if you are wrestling with shame:

Remember who Christ is. There is no one like Him. There is no greater hope for us than knowing our glorious Christ. Jesus chose to experience shame when he lived on this earth. He was despised by men. He washed our sins away by suffering outside the camp. He was rejected so that we could be brought near and be accepted. He took our shame, clothed us with His righteousness and gave us His honor.

Remember you are in Christ. Who He is the most crucial true thing about us, because it is Him that lives in us (Gal. 2: 20). The old you – fearful, anxious, controlling – is dead. The real lasting you is confident, generous and fruitful because that is who He is in you. Because we are in Christ, and Christ is in us, we can by faith, bear fruit that is out of proportion with our limitations.

Determine where shame is coming from. If you are feeling shame from violating God’s standards, then repent and believe you are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. But if you are feeling shame from violating other’s standards, maybe your host culture’s or even your own, if you feel shame because you are not enough, turn to God in faith. Seek His face. Those who turn to Him are never ashamed (Psalm 34).

What are some ways you have seen shame keeping you from being fruitful? How do you fight shame?

10 Comments

  1. Heather Henson August 6, 2018

    Hi Lilly, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. While my story will be different to yours, shame, fear and perfectionism have been crippling life-issues that the Holy Spirit has been helping me to live free of, especially during this first couple of years living in a new-to-me culture (at almost 60 years of age). So, all that (and all that I haven’t written here) to say, what you have shared has been helpful for me to use in my conversation with Jesus. Blessings to you, Heather

    1. Lilly August 6, 2018

      Praise God Heather! so thankful for the Spirit produced freedom you are experiencing… I am praying for more and more of that in my own walk. He is so good and willing to do this for His glory and our joy.

  2. MG August 6, 2018

    All this and more sister! I feel you!! One of the blessings (that often feels like a curse) about living abroad is it forces back the curtains of our heart to see the ugly inside. Any part of our heart that says, “I’m going to do great things for God!” gets derailed until our heart realizes “I’m going to do something for a great God” (not my words… in a podcast I heard today) . The process, like you said, is crippling, obsessive, filled with tears, and “what in the world am I doing?” moments. I found that the Enemy underlined the lie “You are a FAILURE” throughout that year. A friend sweetly reminded me that we didn’t go abroad to succeed…. we went to obey. That means failure is not a possibility, just disobedience. I’m determined this next year to do what the Lord puts in my hands to do, refusing to believe the FAIL lie, and stop using my work as a means to fix what is broken in my heart. Only the gospel can fix that! The other side of the FAIL lie has been sweet freedom… and I’m finding His promise true: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet 5:10)

    1. Aylin August 6, 2018

      I love that verse in Peter. Thanks for that reminder. Obsessing in Christ has become part of this healing journey. Trusting His success is what I need to do. He finished the work and He will reconcile all things. His victory defines me, not even how well I obey. Resting in that – in his victory, in His obedience – is what enables me to be faithtul.

  3. Rachel August 6, 2018

    “Over scrupulous conscience” – I never heard it said that way but I like it. That is exactly what I had growing up! And performance was also my go to. That’s why I believed for years that God loved me because I performed well. Thankfully God has been taking me on my own journey-isn’t he such a personal God?!, in overcoming my own shame.

    1. Lilly August 9, 2018

      He is so personal! Yes! That is the amazing, wonderful thing about Christ becoming one with us, just like a husband becomes one with his wife. He takes all our burdens, concerns, needs so personally – because they are His own. He cares so much!! Thank you, Jesus!

  4. Lizzy Gorton August 8, 2018

    Hi Lilly, we will be praying that you will be able to trust God, even in your doubts. Ephesians 3:14-21 says “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, for whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through the Spirit in your inner being so that christ may dwell in your hearts through faith that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled with all fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the lower at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever, Amen.” Remember that God will always be there for you! Love, your fellow believers in Michigan

    1. Lilly August 9, 2018

      Thank you so much, Lizzy. I appreciate your prayers! That passage in Ephesians is pretty incredible, isn’t it? We need strength through the Spirit to experience the depth of His love.

  5. Ashley August 9, 2018

    This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear. I’ve been living in my first year as a unexperienced missionary without a strong sending organization or anyone else here that’s really from my culture, or even speaks English. The amount of days I’ve hid under the covers because I have felt shame in not holding up my own standards for myself is too many to count. This week though It’s been overwhelming me, stopping me in my place wrecking me on in the inside and honestly I couldn’t put my finger on what I was feeling. Know I am bawling with your words bringing light to the battle I didn’t even know I was fighting inside. Thank you so much for sharing. This is what God is telling me “You are enough in my love.” ❤️

    1. Lilly August 9, 2018

      Oh Ashley, praise God! Reading this makes me want to weep. I will be praying for you – I know Christ will continue to do the work He is doing in your life. Oh Spirit, glorify Christ, exalt Christ’s enoughness, His sufficiency, His faithfulness in Ashley’s heart more and more.

      Christ is enough. Fixate your thoughts and heart on this: He is faithful. His faithfulness enables yours.

      Have you heard the song, He Will Hold Me Fast? It is one of my favorites…

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