Walking through the crowded, college cafeteria as students devoured their lunches after a long morning of classes, I sensed something was off. I was not a popular girl by any stretch of the imagination, and I was definitely garnering unprecedented attention. Dismissing my alarm bells and chalking it up to insecurity, I grabbed a tray and stood in line for a quick sandwich. After waiting in line, I turned toward the drink station where my eyes met a table of guys (Christian men, no less) who immediately averted their eyes and muffled their snickering as I passed. I glanced down to see if there was something amiss, didn’t see anything, and continued on.
Filling my drink, I felt a palpable and unwanted attention. Being the introvert that I am, I began to conjure up all sorts of scenarios in my mind. Only a small tap on my shoulder snapped me back to reality. Turning toward the girl now close beside me, I saw a hesitant, awkward look on her face as she quietly informed me that the back portion of my skirt was tucked up in my waistband. I had been walking around campus for hours with my flowy, peasant-style skirt leaving little to the imagination. These were the days of thin nylon pantyhose, and I had chosen black. Over white undergarments. This “situation” was hard to miss.
Inner horror. Dawning realization. Blurred vision. Would I pass out right here and make more of a spectacle of myself? Had no one noticed before or had they chosen to let me suffer in silence? How could I not have felt the draft as my skirt swished back and forth?
My small, Baptist campus left me little place to hide. Word spread at lightning speed. Those who didn’t know me surely would now. I would be THAT girl. A new identity. A nickname. A joke.
I did what I could to muster the strength to find my friends and join them for lunch. I wanted to run out crying, but I felt something within me resigned to face the moment with strength. After joining my friends in my usual spot, I ate with my head down in survival mode. But as soon as I was back in my dorm room, I broke down sobbing. I was embarrassed and humiliated.
From Embarrassment to Shame
Do you know how to define embarrassment? It means “causing self-conscious confusion and distress.” This accurately described my emotional state at the time. Confused and distressed. I didn’t leave my room for days and rehearsed the horror in my mind a million times.
I beat myself up for not checking my clothing before leaving the dorm. I berated myself for my choice of clothes and undergarments. Shame took a prominent position over this mishap. And it led me to withdraw and fear eye contact for quite some time. I knew what students were thinking…or I supposed I did. I am sure most of them quickly moved on, but I was stuck. I couldn’t extend grace to myself over the clothing malfunction. The shame turned inward and started attacking how I felt about myself as a human being. It was ugly, and I was unforgiving.
From this most embarrassing moment, I learned that nothing good comes from shame and condemnation. While this story now causes me to laugh, I remember how devastating it was at the time. It highlighted my perfectionist tendencies that rendered me incapable of living in my humanity.
Don’t we do this with God too?
We say we are forgiven but replay and rehash every dumb, sinful thing we have ever done. We shame ourselves for setting resolutions without following through. We fear embarrassing ourselves in front of others and miss out on opportunities to take risks and walk in faith.
The apostle Paul knew what it was like to have a heavy past hanging over his head. He was aware of his reputation. Yet, he knew God had met him on the Damascus road, transforming and forgiving him for everything he had done prior to meeting Christ. Paul believed God had called him to serve and suffer for the gospel. Philippians 1:20 (ESV) says, “… it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or death.” Paul lived in the full knowledge of his forgiveness, redemption, and calling. He didn’t allow Satan to deter him with the shame of his past failings but lived with courage.
Shame works to embarrass us, causing us to live self-consciously in confusion and distress, while the blood of Christ covers all our shame. In Christ, we are new.
Courage allowed me to show my face on campus again. Grace helped me to accept my “skirt incident” as a part of being human. A necessary lesson in forgiving myself.
If we could only believe that He can use us no matter what we have done after confessing our sins to God, we could live in true freedom. There is no condemnation for those in Christ (Romans 8:1). His grace is made perfect in our weakness, and I am thankful. Because of Christ, you and I can walk out of our shame and into a courageous life of faith.