the shape of leadership

Overcoming Shame

Our identity is in Christ, not in our trauma or insecurities

Nona Jones on February 3, 2020

Warning: This article recounts a traumatic event that may trigger individuals who have experienced sexual abuse.

I was 5 years old the first time my mother’s boyfriend sexually abused me. She left me in his care while she attended her sister’s funeral in New Jersey. Although I told my mother I didn’t want her to leave me with him, she assured me it was only for a few days and I would be fine.

The first night she was gone, I locked my bedroom door because I instinctively felt unsafe. But I learned that night a straightened wire hanger could unlock the door. It’s difficult to accurately describe the terror of not being able to make someone stop hurting you, of knowing that your tears and screams mean nothing to a heart dulled by perversion and ears deafened by selfishness. That night, he not only broke my body, he broke my spirit.

The abuse continued for two years before I told my mother. Although she believed me and had her boyfriend arrested, she picked him up from jail the day of his release and brought him back into our home, where he proceeded to abuse me again.

At 9 years of age, I tried unsuccessfully to take my life. I attempted suicide again at age 11. I couldn’t imagine a life worth living, and I certainly couldn’t see how my life was worth saving since my own mother didn’t value me enough to protect me from her boyfriend. What began as a feeling of emptiness grew into a sense of shame for what I thought it must mean about me. I felt it was my fault, that I was defective.

I carried in my heart this belief about myself as I moved into adolescence, but I kept it hidden. I was smart and developed an outgoing personality, which afforded me many leadership opportunities that expanded my influence and honed my gift for public speaking. I excelled academically, earning a full college scholarship. But no matter the achievement, there was always an internal voice telling me it was an accident because I was defective.

As my career blossomed and my itinerant ministry grew, I would speak at an event and receive the applause of thousands of people, then return to my hotel room feeling rejected.

As I studied Scripture, God began to open my eyes to His truth.

I had all the trappings of success, but I felt more trapped than successful. I didn’t have joy or peace or contentment. I constantly needed outward validation of my worth because I didn’t believe I was worthy. I couldn’t let go of the shame.

But as I studied Scripture, God began to open my eyes to His truth. I saw how Jesus ministered to people in their shame — whether that shame came about as a result of willful sin or circumstances beyond their control.

I read the familiar story of Peter denying he knew Jesus. When the rooster crowed, Peter remembered that Jesus had told him this would happen. Matthew 26:75 says Peter “wept bitterly.” Though the story is very different from mine, I related to Peter’s brokenness and shattered sense of identity.

But this story isn’t one of defeat; it’s a story of victory. You see, before the rooster told Peter he was a traitor, Jesus told Peter he would play an important role in God’s plan. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

An incredible plot twist in Peter’s story occurs in Acts 2. It was the Day of Pentecost, and Peter was gathered with 120 disciples in a room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit fell on them and enabled them to speak in languages they didn’t know. It just so happened that Jews walking the streets outside the room spoke those languages, and while some were amazed and praised God, others denied it was a miracle and just said the disciples were drunk.

Peter heard their denials. Perhaps as he listened to them, the rooster began to crow in his mind, reminding him of his own denial of Jesus. But instead of listening to the rooster, Peter lifted his voice and affirmed the very Jesus he had once denied. And because of his words, 3,000 people became Christ followers that day.

I have come to believe that God doesn’t want to use us in spite of our past. He wants to use us because of our past. God wants to show us He is able to turn our pain into purpose and our trauma into triumph.

We all have two identities warring within us: the rooster telling us who we could never be, and God telling us who He created us to be. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and choosing to believe Jesus is choosing to believe the truth.

You are not what happened to you, and you are not what you did. You are fearfully and wonderfully made on purpose through Christ Jesus.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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