This book shines the life-giving light of the gospel on the things that leave us feeling shame, directing our attention to the God who promises to forgive and restore usno matter what.
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About the Author
Heather Davis Nelson (MA, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a writer, counselor, and speaker. Heather writes regularly at HeatherDavisNelson.com and has been a featured writer at the Gospel Coalition, as well as a contributing author to the Journal of Biblical Counseling. She and her husband are parents to twin daughters and live in southeastern Virginia. She is the author of Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame.
Edward T. Welch (PhD, University of Utah) is a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. He has been counseling for more than 35 years and has written extensively on the topics of depression, fear, and addictions. His books include When People Are Big and God Is Small, Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away From Addiction, Running Scared: Fear, Worry and the God of Rest, Shame Interrupted, and Side by Side. He blogs regularly at CCEF.org.
Read an Excerpt
Exchanging Shame for Beauty
And I will deal severely with all who have oppressed you.
I will save the weak and helpless ones;
I will bring together those who were chased away.
I will give glory and fame to my former exiles,
wherever they have been mocked and shamed.
Zephaniah 3:19 (NLT)
One glance at your clothing, and I tend to make assumptions about who you are, what you do, perhaps even where you live. Why is clothing so defining? Clothes indicate purpose, even employment. When you're in aisle six at Target looking for your kid's favorite brand of cereal, you probably look for that familiar red shirt indicating an employee. Clothing serves to identify us.
Shame can clothe you or expose you. It comes after struggling yet again with the bad habit you're trying to break, or the temptation you've given in to after days of resistance. It's what I feel like I'm wearing when I have yelled at my children (again). I go back and ask them to forgive me, but shame is that lingering sense that I have failed beyond rescue. That I have failed because I am a failure. Shame clothes me because I have not met my own expectations, nor those of my culture. In our Western American culture, male anger is usually tolerated more than female anger. So when I as a woman erupt in anger, my shame increases because I am not supposed to struggle with this type of sin.
I know that the guilt of my sin is covered because I believe the Bible's promises, such as what we find in Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord," and Psalm 32:5: "I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.' And you forgave the iniquity of my sin," but how do I get rid of the shame?
Shame clothes me when my failure has been noticed by another. For instance, if I get condescending, judgmental, or pitying looks from fellow shoppers in the midst of my child's tantrum, I feel cloaked in the shame of being judged as a bad mom. If I give a public presentation that doesn't go well, I feel ashamed because I failed with an audience.
Shame is cyclical. Sometimes we feel shamed by another's behavior toward us, and we try to get rid of the shame by giving it to someone else. The problem is that shame cannot be transferred. It multiplies like yeast in a batch of rising dough. My husband shamed me/us through nodding off while talking to dinner guests, and I felt like he betrayed my standard of perfect hospitality. Therefore I returned the shame to him through a demeaning comment about him in front of our guests. Where does shame stop? How can we break the cycle of reacting to shame with more shame? We have to change our clothes, our identities. We need new clothing, and when exposed by shame, we need adequate clothing.
A Biblical History of Clothing
Our first parents discovered the problem of inadequate clothing the hard way in the garden of Eden at the beginning of time. In Genesis 3, we see Adam and Eve hiding from God, because after sinning by eating the forbidden fruit, they realized they were naked. Their first impulse was to sew fig leaves together to make clothes (v. 7). Of course, these clothes were not enough to cover their guilt and the resulting shame from knowing their relationship with God was broken. And so even while clothed, they hid from God as he walked toward them (v. 8). After their confrontation, which is full of questions on God's part and blame-shifting by Adam and Eve, God pronounces the curse — declaring the brokenness that would seep into all of humanity and creation because of their rebellion. They are expelled from Eden, and the chapter ends.
But before the bleak ending of Genesis 3, there is an act of mercy and love we often overlook. "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them" (v. 21). He who remembers that we are dust knows that the fig-leaf loincloths will not cover them sufficiently, so he does what they cannot do for themselves: he clothes them. The clothing required death of animals, and here we see the first sacrifice. Although it might seem like an unnecessary sacrifice because it did not atone for their sin (a Redeemer would have to come for that), it did cover their shame — at least temporarily.
Does your clothing do that for you?
In the very beginning of creation, at the point of sin's entrance into an otherwise perfect Paradise, clothing comes both as a result of sin and as covering for the shame sin always brings in its wake. Adam and Eve need clothing because sin has opened their eyes to their nakedness; but God gives clothing because his eyes are opened with compassion to the shame that now exists in them because of sin.
Clothing covers, and it identifies. Only clothing given by God can do anything about the shame you and I wear as a garment, or the shame that we feel we cannot escape because it perpetually unclothes us. We see echoes of this theme throughout redemptive history as it unfolds in the pages of the Old Testament. Those without clothing are marked by shame, and those with shame are marked by their clothing. The story of Tamar illustrates this tragically. She is raped by her brother Amnon who immediately despises her after he has violated her: "Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her" (2 Sam. 13:15). He calls his servant to put her out of his house, and the scene of what happens to her clothing is painted vividly:
Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves, for thus were the virgin daughters of the king dressed. So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went. (2 Sam. 13:18–19)
We find few scenes in the Bible more tragic than this one. God is moved to compassion for this woman in her shame because of sin committed against her, violation of the most tragic kind. He sees her shame vividly, even when her own father, King David, ignores it and minimizes it. God does not retaliate by giving violence back for violence as her brother Absalom tries to do (and subsequently throws the entire kingdom into an uproar). Instead, he promises a Redeemer who will be a perfect King and perfect defender. He hears, and he answers the question Tamar asks that falls on the deaf ears of her lust-filled brother: "As for me, where could I carry my shame?" (2 Sam. 13:13). This One will be moved to compassion by those like Tamar, we who wear the ashes of shame like a garment. He will carry her shame and ours to its full extent, with arms stretched wide on a beam of wood. Tamar was forced to wait for the perfect king to do what David could not do: bring the justice she longed for and restore the dignity Amnon stole from her. In Jesus, we now have the perfect King, who promises his people, "Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame" (Isa. 49:23).
Isaiah records Jesus's mission statement this way:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion —
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. ...
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy." (Isa. 61:1–3, 7)
Garments of Joy, Beauty, and Honor
No one who feels shame experiences true joy. A client once told me that it had been years since she was happy, and in the next breath said that she constantly felt shame. She could never shake the feeling of not measuring up, the feeling that God was angry with her. Although she knew the truth intellectually, she told me in tears, "I want to be free!"
Joy is a hallmark of one who is free from shame. Jesus comes to bring joy as he removes your garments of shame and gives you a royal headdress instead. In place of shame, he gives honor, beauty, joy, comfort, justice, favor, and freedom — what our hearts long for most when shame rules our emotions, thoughts, and desires.
We actually crave these more than empathy and vulnerability, which Brené Brown prescribes as shame's antidote. Practicing empathy and vulnerability is a start. They point you down a path of acknowledging how pervasive shame is to the human experience, but they offer no permanent remedy.
What about a holistic cure that reaches each aspect of shame's damage? Consider what Jesus offers:
Jesus comes to give honor instead of dishonor — all the ways you have felt and experienced rejection.
Jesus clothes you with beauty, removing the ashes of shame you've worn for your sin or for the sinful atrocities committed against you.
He comforts you as you mourn, releasing you from the shame of grieving alone or without purpose.
Whether in this life or in the one to come, he brings justice for the injustice you've suffered because of your race, faith, gender, or family.
Jesus brings favor — oh, favor of the Lord that is permanent and unchanging — instead of the vague cloud of constant disapproval.
And what is the result of Christ's work? Joy and freedom, the exact opposite of shame. Shame always steals joy and limits freedom. Shame binds us in chains that feel unbreakable to realities that seem unchangeable. Jesus frees you in the Spirit of the Lord.
The Great Shame Exchange
How can Jesus free you from shame? Through something as simple and as hard as faith. It is a faith that agrees that you cannot rescue yourself from your shame, that your attempts to clothe yourself have been as futile as the fig-leaf loincloths our first parents crafted. It is a faith that addresses the complication of shame mingled with guilt. This faith gives you an underlying confidence that your sin truly has been atoned for and taken away by a dying-now-resurrected Savior. It's a faith that puts you at the mercy of the only trustworthy One, realizing that his human image-bearers have failed you in a myriad of ways, and that you have also failed those around you. It is a faith filled with hope that freedom is possible because it is promised by this trustworthy One, guaranteed by the signature of a promise signed with his own blood.
This shame exchange is costly. Jesus willingly clothed himself with your dishonor, giving his shame-free identity to you if you will be united to him in faith. It is very costly for Christ, but not for us. All it costs us is the humility of admitting we cannot cover our own shame. We receive honor; he took our shame. We are lavished with grace; he was stained with our sin. We receive salvation; he experienced damnation. Because Jesus was separated from the Father, we never will have to be. "Indeed, none who wait for you [God] shall be put to shame" (Ps. 25:3). "None" except for one, Jesus Christ, who bore our sin, guilt, and shame, that we might know forgiveness, redemption, and freedom.
If you are wondering how to begin the shame exchange, try to pray along with these cries of the psalmist:
"O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me" (Ps. 25:2).
"Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you" (Ps. 25:20).
"In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!" (Ps. 31:1).
"O Lord, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you" (Ps. 31:17).
"You know my reproach, and my shame and my dishonor; my foes are all known to you" (Ps. 69:1).
"Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope!" (Ps. 119:116).
As you pray and cry out to this Lord, asking him that you would not be put to shame, remember that you pray with the cross and resurrection in the rearview mirror — a signature guaranteeing the certainty that we are heard and we will be answered. Shame is often tied to the past. We ruminate about past failures or sins, or past abuses we suffered, or words spoken to us in formative stages of life that seem to lodge forever in our heart's memory. We who dwell in shame must remember that shame's remedy is also past. "It is finished," Jesus cried from the cross, and that cry echoes into every corner of sin and shame and brokenness (John 19:30). We can know that what was finished on the cross will be fully realized at the end of days. Instead of living enchained to past shame, we can live tethered to future hope of our shame-free destiny. We will be clothed in wedding garments of "white linen, bright and pure" (Rev. 19:8). There will be no shame in the dwelling place of God, which our clothing will serve to reflect.
Where We Are Going: Shame Disappears in Community
Because we are clothed with Christ's perfect honor, we can put off shame's ragged lies now. I am no longer a shamed one; I am an honored one. And so are you. So how do we live in the present when shame raises its ugly head?
We must recognize that we are not alone. Shame cannot stand the light of community and truth-telling. As I sat with two friends at Starbucks one Saturday afternoon, I felt our shame melt away as we shared our eerily similar middle school shame stories, which had been triggered by present-day situations. I shared about the way that all the girls in my eighth-grade class decided that they did not like me. To feel and experience my peers' rejection at the age of thirteen deeply branded me with shame that has not been easily overcome. I feel it each time I come to a new group. Will they accept me? How long before the group turns against me? Shame tells me that I am unworthy and there is something deeply repulsive about who I am.
My friends joined in with their own stories. One shared about a list the girls in her middle school wrote about her, delineating all of the reasons they no longer liked her. We each described almost obsessive desires to include others so that no would ever feel rejected like we had felt. We are all recovering people-pleasers learning not to fear rejection and to speak up when truth needs to be shared in the context of our jobs and relationships. Many days we live confident of our unshakeable identities in Jesus, honored instead of defined by the past experience of rejection. We are committed to being part of our Redeemer's shame-eradication mission in each other's lives. We know that we can go to each other, share the shame we're feeling, and be met with empathy and a reminder of our gospel identity.
Your sin is forgiven, yes and amen, and how we need this daily! But Jesus came to do even more than give you a blank slate. In union with Christ by faith, honor is part of your past and your future. Beauty rather than ashes, joy instead of despair. You are a new person — not merely an "ex-sinner" but a redeemed saint. Do you doubt this?
Think about Paul's addresses to the churches in the New Testament. If the apostle Paul were writing your church a letter, it probably would not be a letter of commendation. The usual pattern in the Epistles is that there is egregious sin that must be confronted (e.g., the Corinthian church that was tolerating a number of sexual sins, as well as drunkenness at the Lord's Supper) and poor theology that needs to be corrected (e.g., the Thessalonian church that had stopped engaging in their daily work life because they were sitting around waiting for heaven). Poor theology always leads to sinful practice, and sinful living is always rooted in poor theology — misunderstanding and misbelieving who God is, what the Bible teaches, and who Christians are. Yet despite the brokenness of the churches to which Paul writes (reminding us that there has never been a perfect church nor will there be), he begins almost every letter the same way. See if you can detect the pattern:
"To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints" (Rom. 1:7).
"To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2).
"To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia" (2 Cor. 1:1).
"To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 1:1).
"To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi" (Phil. 1:1).
"To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae" (Col. 1:2).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Unashamed"
Copyright © 2016 Heather Davis Nelson.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Ed Welch,
Introduction: Shame: Everyone Has It,
1 Exchanging Shame for Beauty,
2 Living Shamelessly through Christ-Formed Community,
3 Clothed in Christ: Body Shame,
4 United to Christ: Social Shame,
5 Free in Christ: Performance Shame,
6 Response to Shame,
7 Shame in Marriage,
8 Shame-Free Parenting,
9 Shame and the Church,
Conclusion: A Shame-Free Destiny,
Appendix A: Clinical Definition of Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Eating,
Appendix B: Further Resources on Abuse,
What People are Saying About This
“Heather Davis Nelson has written a wonderful work on the topic of shame. She brilliantly weaves her own stories and those of others into the larger story of what God does with our shame. She fearlessly brings the light of Jesus to shine in the dark recesses of our souls as she helps to free us from the pain of shame.”
Paul E. Miller, author, A Praying Life and J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life
“Most of us can quickly point to a shame story from our pastthat moment when we believed that we were shunnable, rejectable, and maybe even despicable. We, as heirs of God, so often live with a low level of misery caused by shame, even though Jesus came to set us free. In her insightful new book, Unashamed, Heather Davis Nelson explores the chains that bind us and then reminds us that we’re not just ex-sinners; we are saints who have been made new. Like a trusted friend, who also happens to be a therapist, Heather walks you to a place of freedom so you can be all Jesus intended you to be.”
Susie Larson, national speaker; radio host, Live the Promise with Susie Larson; author, Your Beautiful Purpose
“Unashamed proclaims that Jesus Christ secures freedom, honor, and glory for us and applies that truth to the many ways we all suffer shame. Because shame makes us feel naked, filthy, and excluded, we need to know the healing that comes from God’s declaration that in Christ we are clothed, clean, and accepted into the family of God.”
Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, authors, God Made All of Me, Rid of My Disgrace, and Is it My Fault?
“It is difficult to understand shame apart from the gospel. This book is all about the great exchange: shame for beauty. It will flood your soul with life and give you a breath of fresh air. Heather has given all of us who counseland all of us who strugglea gift.”
Rod Mays, Adjunct Professor of Counseling, Reformed Theological Seminary; Executive Pastor, Mitchell Road Presbyterian Church, Greenville, South Carolina
“Heather Davis Nelson speaks from an authentic heart on a subject too painful and embarrassing for most to admit they struggle with. Unashamed is much more than informative or inspirational. This book could be life-changing. Heather does a beautiful job uncovering the amazing story of grace and redemption, showing how Christ can break the endless cycle of shame that leaves so many in bondage. I highly recommend Unashamed for anyone who desires to live a life of freedom and hope found in Christ, and for anyone who desires to point others to see beyond their shame and live victoriously.”
Monica Rose Brennan, Associate Professor and Director of Women’s Ministries, Liberty University
“Heather Davis Nelson has made a significant contribution to addressing the critical topic of shame, which is often ignored or misunderstood among the people of God. I declare myself her debtor for the help her work has been to my own sanctification.”
Joseph V. Novenson, Pastor, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
“Unashamed helped me see my misplaced shame and accept the freedom and love Jesus Christ offers me every day. I’m thankful for Heather’s heartfelt approach. Here is a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and biblical work.”
Trisha R. Wilkerson, author, Everyday Worship; biblical counselor
“Shame is a paralyzing, life-hindering reality we all experience. Unashamed, written by my dear friend Heather Davis Nelson, is not a book written primarily from her writing desk or her counselor’s office. This book was written from her personal faith journey through shame as she has sought to abide in Jesus and his Word through tears, pain, and faith crises. This is what makes the book so powerful. This is why I recommend the book for anyone. It is a signpost to Jesus and his healing, transforming gospel.”
Ellen Mary Dykas, Women’s Ministry Coordinator, Harvest USA; editor, Sexual Sanity for Women
“Heather Nelson has refreshingly and freely brought to light a topic that isn’t discussed much in Christian circles. I found myself breathing many sighs of relief as I realized I wasn’t alone in my experiences of shame. Heather continually pointed me to the only One who can fully cover and release me.”
Julie Courtney, Director of Women’s Ministries, seeJesus
"Nelson draws on her work as a counselor and her education at Westminster Theological Seminary for this probing look at shame and its effects on many corners of our lives. . . . Nelson's choice to ground the topic firmly in scripture and counseling experience offer a valuable framework for addressing shame."