She sat there, a teenage mother holding her infant son, looking out over the Pacific Ocean from the cliffs above a California beach. Her heart was deeply lonely and she felt empty. For hours each day she sat there looking, yearning for her Navy husband who was at sea. She would cry and hold her child, drawing comfort and life from him.
My father told me this story about my mother as he was grieving her recent death. He shared it with deep regret. Dad went on to tell me that he married a woman from the “wrong side of the tracks.” He was the son of a wealthy entrepreneur, and she was the daughter of Dust-Bowl migrants. He told me that I, as the firstborn son, became the hope of uniting the two families.
As he described this time in my mother’s life, my father was describing the way I had felt most of my life: my mother’s emptiness, my father’s absence and the need to be the one to bridge the gap in a family where image was highly valued. I had to be the best, to be perfect, while starved for love and affirmation that was neither given nor received.
A seed of self-hatred was growing in me, as was the deep shame that I would not live up to the expectations of my family. I could not have put it into words then, but I was hungry for touch, for the safety of a father who would affirm me. It is my belief that this scenario set me up for the sexual abuse that came in my early teens. An older male relative showed me attention and affection, and I was drawn in like a moth to a flame. The touch set off a storm in my heart. I knew it was wrong, a shameful secret I could never share. Yet it touched something in me that needed to be touched. It set in place a broken understanding of sex and skewed my masculine identity.
As a young adult, my friendships were full of sexual mind and heart games. I was often overpowered by the fear of failure and rejection. Image became all the more important. I certainly did not believe myself to be a gift, so I became what others wanted me to be. Behind the image was a lonely and hungry and shame-ridden boy.
I came to Christ in the context of a church experience where image was valued. I loved God, but felt I could never tell anyone my real sin and the shameful feelings of same-sex attraction. I was terrified at the prospect of my secret being exposed. The longer I was a Christian, the more I became my own Pharisee. If my behavior was under control, I felt better about myself, but if I acted out in some way, I stood over myself as my own religious accuser. The wrong kind of shame and religious self-hatred troubled me deeply.
I had passion for Jesus and in my early 20s married a young woman who loved Him too. I went to Bible college to train for the pastorate. We had two sons. I excelled academically and received the affirmation my heart craved. However, in the midst of this success, I fell deeply into a same-sex relationship with another student. I was trapped in a cycle of shame and need, of promises made and broken. Now the secret I had lived with merged with a reality I did not know how to escape. The experiences of shame, self-hatred and confession with promises I was sure to break were destructive and powerful. I could tell no one for fear of loss of image, and the ensuing shame was unthinkable to me.
I entered pastoral ministry, extricating myself from the relationship I had fallen into. I shared with my wife, but we had no context in which to deal with it, so now this became our unspoken secret. I put on the pastor image and we served Jesus with the best of our ability. But inside the shame was stifling. After a few years in ministry I began to read Andrew Comiskey’s book Pursuing Sexual Wholeness. I read about the need to admit the brokenness in my life, and that this was the doorway to the wholeness I longed for. I could not do this; it felt like death to me.
I wanted Jesus; I wanted to be a good dad to our two sons and the husband my wife deserved. But there was a Pharisee standing in the road I was on. He was comprised of the one from within and the one I had met in the church. He stood there, pointing his finger at me and reminding me of my failures. He overshadowed the cross and its grace and mercy. For a long time I could not push past him.
Then one morning while praying I kept hearing the questions: Is the image of being a gift better than being a true one? Is the image of health more important than actual health? Am I getting whole by my own futile self-effort? I made the choice to push past the Pharisee and get into the presence of Jesus and others. It was hard! I shared my story in great pain, anger and shame with a couple of men I hoped I could trust. I thought I would die. In fact, a part of me was beginning to die. I was dying to the image I had projected and the Pharisee I had become. My secrets were beginning their death on the cross.
In the context of a new church where others were seeking wholeness through Living Waters, I began to learn the difference between the bad shame I had lived with and the good shame that led me to the cross with others for confession. These people could see in me the gift I was created to be, and they affirmed me in loving ways by speaking of Christ’s love for me. They spoke prophetically over my life and told me about God’s loving strength coming through my weakness. I learned to confess and renounce self-hatred. The message was hard to believe, but over the years their words, the words of Christ to me, have proven true.
Jesus invited me into a friendship full of mercy and empowering love. Confidence and hope grow stronger in me each day. As time passes, I continue to become the true man, husband and father I want to be. Jesus is empowering me to share my story without shame. It could never have come had I not learned to be real and honest about my brokenness. I have found that real needs for love can be met when we admit how much we need God alongside others who love Him and share the journey with us.