What the church needs to know about shame

Why do adopted/fostered children often feel a heightened sense of shame?

'Our shame was deeper than the sea,' we sing, acknowledging the depth of God's love to cover the shame caused by our sin.

But do we really feel that shame? I would hazard a guess that most of us probably don't, at least not regularly.

For children who have had a traumatic early start to life, however, the sense of shame is one aspect which is developed - over-developed, in fact.

Why do adopted/fostered children often feel a heightened sense of shame?

Those of us who have been brought up in stable homes with strong attachments know what it is to feel guilt: a sense of having done something bad, and (hopefully) needing to make things right.

Those who are neglected, abused or rejected at an early age by those who were supposed to protect and nurture them develop a sense of shame: this is a sense of being bad, rather than simply having done something bad.

Even a child who is removed at birth and placed directly with a foster or adoptive family can still develop a deep sense of shame because his birth mum - the one with whom he has a nine-month long attachment, through hearing her voice and feeling her heartbeat - could not ultimately care for him once born.

Subconsciously, he receives the message that he is worthless, unloveable, bad - in other words, a deep sense of shame permeates his whole being from a young age. And where this shame is present, it will take a long time (possibly a lifetime) to unpick and heal.

What does this shame look like?

Shame can manifest itself in a number of ways:

  • Sabotage of something the child owns or has made (believing that he does not deserve to own that item, or what he has made holds no value)
  • Sabotage of plans involving the child, especially when they involve something fun (the belief that he does not deserve to enjoy life and/or the desire to protect himself by sabotaging plans before they are sabotaged by someone/something else)
  • Lying (because admitting a wrongdoing and/or saying sorry might bring the deep-seated sense of shame to the surface, with unknown consequences)
  • Running away (to avoid confronting his own behaviour as the shame is too much to deal with)
  • Hiding (again, avoiding a difficult situation in case the resulting shame becomes overwhelming)
  • Stage-fright or fleeing from attention (not believing that he is worthy of favourable attention and/or a difficulty in reconciling the sense of worthlessness he feels with the worth that others are putting on him; sometimes a fear of letting down those who he perceives to be valuing him based on how he 'performs', even if their love is unconditional)
  • Self-preservation (withdrawing from those who want to draw close, in case they let him down like others have done)
  • Self-harm (hurting himself because he feels he deserves pain)

What is the impact of this shame on a child's faith?

When a child is being raised in a Christian family, shame may be one of the biggest obstacles to putting their faith in Jesus as their Saviour and Friend.

Firstly, turning to Jesus involves a recognition of our sin, our wrongdoing, the many ways we separate ourselves from God. For a child whose sense of shame overwhelms them, with limited capacity for dealing positively with it, ignoring or running away from Jesus - and the acknowledgement of their sin - may seem like a much safer option.

Second, accepting Jesus also involves believing that we are God's beloved children, made in His image. For a child who believes he is inherently bad, this can be a step too far. Not only does his oldest, most established identity require unpicking, but he is now being told that - far from worthless - he was planned and made in the image of God, the creator of the universe.

Thirdly, for a child who can only hold others at arm's length, the trust element of coming into a relationship with Jesus may be problematic. If this child has been let down in life - even if only subconsciously, by a birth mother from whom he was removed - he will find it difficult to put his life into God's hands and draw closer in relationship with Jesus.

And finally, the Biblical truth that we have all been 'created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do' (Ephesians 2:10) could well be a stumbling block in the discipleship of a child dealing with shame. If he feels inherently worthless, he may struggle with the truth that he has God-given gifts and abilities which God wants him to use in helping to build up the church.

So how can churches help their children overcome shame?

This is a long process - possibly life-long - and I would offer a note of caution to anyone who believes there might be a short cut.

Yes, we believe in a God who is omnipotent, but He doesn't always choose to heal people in an instant. Sometimes there will be a dramatic answer to prayer, but isn't it also the case that God often heals over time, using current research, medical advances, and healthcare professionals?

So it is with the emotional 'sickness' of shame. There are things we can learn from the professionals who work with our children on a regular basis. And we can pray! In fact - we must pray.

One of the many beauties of adoption, in my experience, is that God chooses to involve us in the healing process. He gives us training and access to resources which can help our children. He releases new gifts in us, and uses the experience we already have, to nurture our children. In short, He has gifted us these children - either to our families or our churches - to love and nurture. It is a great responsibility, and one that grows our faith too.

We can help our children firstly by recognising that surface behaviour often represents the fears and anxieties caused by shame. While there needs to be consequences for wrongdoing, our initial response to a child who kicks off in Sunday school should be to reassure them that they are safe and loved, recognising that it is these feelings which are under threat. The consequences can come later.

Secondly, we can use helpful Scriptures to chat with them about their identity, praying these verses over them as much as is appropriate. Such verses might include:

  • "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:23-24) - reminding our children that there is no amount of shame that God's grace cannot redeem; that we do not need to run away from our feelings of shame, as God can heal us if we let Him.
  • "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them... God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. " (Genesis 1:27, 31) - reminding our children that they are made in God's image and, as such, are 'very good'. This doesn't mean that we always make good decisions - the Bible is clear that our hearts are capable of evil - but, as part of creation, God is pleased with how He has made us.
  • "The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold... In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears." (Psalm 18:2, 6) - a reminder that God can be trusted as a solid 'rock', a protective 'fortress' and a rescuing 'deliverer'; He is also there to hear us when we cry out in 'distress'. Our shame, our past, our trauma is not too big for Him to deal with.

Thirdly, we can simply recognise that the path to salvation is not an easy one - for any of us, but particularly those who are drowning in shame. But with this recognition comes a hope: that none of us are beyond salvation, beyond hope, beyond relationship with Jesus and an eternal home with God.

And finally, this hope compels us to pray, knowing that only God can ultimately heal the shame which arises from a traumatic experience.

What can we learn from our children's shame?

As we learn as a church how to minister to children (and adults) who feel deep shame, so we learn a compassion and humility that deepens our own walk with Christ.

We realise that we, too, carry shame; that our sin is more shameful than we'd imagined; that the path to trusting God fully with our lives is always a difficult one, full of setbacks and doubts, but that God's grace is wider than we'd ever believed possible.

As we grow in awareness of our own shame, through ministering to those whose shame threatens to overwhelm them, we become aware of just how much we need our Father God, and how little we can do without Him.

'Our shame was deeper than the sea; Your grace is deeper still'

(Matt Redman, You Alone Can Rescue)

Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft of The Hope-Filled Family

Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft of thehopefilledfamily.com



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