She was so sweet. Soft spoken and kind, Wendy reached out to those who were new in our youth group, befriended those who were difficult, and set an example for others in many ways. In spite of all that, she almost allowed herself to be defined by a series of mistakes.
Due to some “wrong time, wrong place, with the wrong people” circumstances, she got suspended from school for a few days.
Although her emotions were tossing her around like a rag doll in a cage match, her mother did not offer what she needed in that moment — encouragement and hope. She tag-teamed with the enemy almost making her tap out when she said, “Wendy, I am so disappointed. Now God will never be able to use you because you are just like everyone else.”
Those words were the knockout blow as they played with Wendy’s own self-loathing and disgust to make her question her testimony, God’s love for her, and His ability to help her overcome.
Shame and Guilt
In my decades of ministry, I have learned that many struggle with the guilt and shame that come from poor choices and memorable mistakes. Some have crafted a lifestyle and reputation of messing up, while others have wandered into that territory momentarily, but the ramifications are always felt.
Until they have experienced God’s grace and forgiveness in a meaningful way, they are shackled by shame, they struggle to receive forgiveness and love, they reject joy, and wonder if even a loving God can love someone so unlovable.
These feelings become walls that keep good news and truth from affecting their hearts, and if you are going to help them embrace God’s love, God is going to have to break through. He just might use you to do that.
When dealing with people who are struggling as Wendy was, here are some tips that can help you begin to chip away at that self-made, but very real and powerful wall.
- Communicate Acceptance: When someone is bound with shame to a level that they are emotionally and spiritually paralyzed, they are convinced that everyone knows and everyone is either pointing and laughing or turning away and whispering. It may sound simple, but the first tool you need to use is eye contact and body language. Let them know with a smile that you are glad to see them and that you are not thinking of them as dirty, disgusting or broken.
I labeled this “communicate acceptance” because many would say “I accept them.” Due to the internal damage done, it is very important that you go out of your way to communicate it with more than words to overcome their assumption that you don’t accept them. You need to make clear to them, no matter how clear you feel it is in your mind, how you feel.
- Demolish the Lie: Wendy was dealing with the lie that she was too far gone. When dealing with people who feel they have gone too far, let them know that God has not given up on them. By the way … this is common among people who grew up only under the rule, not the love, of religion. They have been told that God is an angry God that holds grudges, not a forgiving God who embraces broken people.
When appropriate, remind them of the Prodigal Son. The Father was just waiting to welcome him home (Luke 15:11-32). Point to Peter, who denied Jesus three times but was also welcomed back with open arms (Luke 22:54-62; John 21:15-17). And don’t forget to relate to their pain and admit that you were lost, hopeless and undeserving of God’s mercy before you invited Jesus to save and forgive.
- Share Hope: When someone is bound by their past, they can’t find hope in the future. Take some time to remind them that their future hasn’t been written yet, and with God’s help, it will be full of hope, purpose, and impact.
Philippians 1:6 is a promise that they can embrace. God is still at work in them and He will bring them to maturity and completion.
Wendy had to learn to forgive herself and accept God’s amazing grace, but eventually she did. Instead of running from God and fortifying the wall of guilt and shame, she ran to Him and found comfort in His presence. She found healing in His Word, and she found joy in the process.
She did not become perfect overnight, but she did learn from her mistakes. And, because she went through her own personal valley of shadows, she became more compassionate and more understanding of others whose weaknesses were on display for everyone to see.
She didn’t embrace her mom’s words. She overcame them by choosing to believe God’s.
Sean Dunn is founder and president of Groundwire, a global ministry with the mission to lead every youth and young adult into a personal relationship with Jesus by leveraging current media channels to connect with them wherever they are. More than 116,000 made commitments to Christ through the organizations efforts in 2020. For more information, visit www.groundwire.net