Sex and Shame

Your past does not define you

"You should be ashamed of yourself!”

It’s a phrase you may have heard growing up when you hit your younger sister or stole a pack of gum from the grocery store. Yet it seems as though no one had to tell you to be ashamed of yourself for other offenses, particularly offenses related to sexuality. Perhaps you can’t stop feeling ashamed for what you’ve done or what has been done to you. Abortion, sleeping around, same-sex experimentation, rape, pornography—each of these acts can sentence women to a lifetime of shame. Even if you look put-together on the outside, the nagging shame reminds you of your past—a past that always seems to define you.

The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

Because we often use these two words interchangeably, it can be difficult to tease out the difference. Guilt is rooted in something we have done. We can be declared “guilty” by an authority like the legal system. Feelings of guilt are healthy when they reflect our true state of guilt.

While guilt is rooted in what we have done, shame is the condemnation of who we are.

But too often our feelings of guilt don’t correspond with the reality of our guilt. For example, while some women backstab, slander, and manipulate others without losing a wink of sleep over it, others can feel tremendous guilt for events that are completely outside of their control. Our feelings of guilt (or lack thereof) are not a reliable barometer for measuring the reality of our guilt.

While guilt is rooted in what we have done, shame is the condemnation of who we are. True guilt can lead to repentance and restoration, but shame looms like an oppressive cloud, separating us from knowing the love of Christ.

The Gordian Knot of Sexual Shame

For many women the world of sexuality represents a Gordian knot of shame and guilt that seem to forever be entwined. It seems impossible to separate actions and motives that we legitimately feel guilty about from a sense of being forever tarnished by violation and immoral sexual acts.

As a result of this confusion, there are many women who have trusted Christ but still live under a cloud of pervasive shame. They feel like “second-class” Christians, unable to experience the freedom for which Christ died. They have—consciously or subconsciously—accepted the lie that some sins are too dirty for Christ’s blood to fully cleanse.

My friend Ginger Taddeo lived much of her Christian life this way. From age 11 to 18, Ginger was sexually, physically, and emotionally abused in her home. In her late teens and early adult years, Ginger lived a sexually immoral lifestyle as a result of her pain. Eventually, Ginger accepted Christ as her Savior. But even though she now knew (in theory) that her sins were forgiven, she continued to live under the dark cloud of shame.

Any one of us who has carried feelings of deep shame has asked herself this very question: If people knew the “real” me, they wouldn’t want to associate with me . . . so why would God love me? This painful question is particularly powerful when it is tied to our sexuality. I invited my friend Ginger to share some of her own journey through sexual shame with you.

Ginger's Story

If I were one of the sinners at Matthew’s house, Jesus would not have turned his back on me because of my sin.

Ginger: I have had a personal relationship with Christ for 35 years. It wasn’t until these last 6 years that I truly believed with my heart that I am loved and accepted by God. It took 29 long years for this truth to sink in from my head to my heart. I read what Scripture said, and I heard what was taught in church, but there was still a huge disconnect. I would even tell others that God loved them no matter what, but deep within the recesses of my soul, I would whisper to myself, It’s just not true for you. Your sin is way too disgusting for him to forgive. I was stuck in despair and self-hatred.

Not long ago, the Lord used a simple passage in Scripture to show me that he did not see me in the light of shame. Matthew 9:10–13 records Jesus having dinner at Matthew’s house with many other tax collectors and sinners. This passage tells us that Jesus ate with them, which meant he spent intimate time with them. He did not see them as too disgusting to associate with.

If I were one of the sinners at Matthew’s house, Jesus would not have turned his back on me because of my sin. He would have eaten with me, fellowshipped with me, maybe even reached over and touched my hand in compassion. He would not have hated or despised me. His penetrating eyes could have beheld all that I was without looking away. His smile and his hands would have offered me love, acceptance, and hope.

Love for who I am and not for what I have done.

Acceptance because nothing I have done or could do can keep me from his holy embrace.

Hope in him when my soul is troubled. Hope in someone who is stronger than my self-hatred. Hope for healing and forgiveness for past sins. Hope to live with him eternally and never be rejected.

Seeing Jesus’ love for sinners exposed my lack of faith. I realized I’d believed that God’s love had limits and that it could not apply to me. I’d believed that Jesus was not powerful enough to forgive me, that his sacrificial death was not great enough to cleanse me from my sin. I’d believed that my logic was greater than God’s promise to forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

When I realized that I’d been believing lies, I wept and repented of my lack of faith. The truth is that nothing I have done, am doing, or will ever do can separate me from God’s love.

Freed by Love

Juli: As my friend Ginger experienced, Satan works to keep us bound by shame. While godly conviction brings us to repentance and freedom, shame keeps us shackled in unbelief. There is nothing beyond the redemptive love of Jesus. There is no shame so great that his sacrifice can’t cover it. As Paul wrote, there is no condemnation (or shame) for those who are in Christ Jesus and absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus!

There is nothing beyond the redemptive love of Jesus. There is no shame so great that his sacrifice can’t cover it.

Even before Jesus came to the earth, King David knew this truth: “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin . . . . Wash me and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:1–2, 7).

Some of the most loving, compassionate, and godly women I know (like Ginger) once walked in the shame of sexual abuse and sexual sin. For years, these women were caged by shame, believing that they must pretend to be “normal” in order to be acceptable to God and to fellow Christians. Each one of these women has had her own encounter at Jesus’ feet—pouring out the truth in worship. And each one has had her identity transformed by the Redeemer.

Believing in Christ for salvation isn’t simply about going to heaven. He gives us the incredible gift of forgiveness from all guilt and shame—not because we’ve “paid our dues” but because in his limitless grace, Christ took our sin upon himself at the Cross.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Juli Slattery

Juli Slattery is a TCW regular contributor and blogger. A widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional, she co-founded Authentic Intimacy and is the co-author of Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?

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