Cause and effect. If one runs a red light at a busy intersection in all likelihood they will crash. Red lights are there to keep us safe. The impatience or distractedness of the careless driver can result in themselves and another being hurt. The driver, if he survives, should feel a sense of shame for breaking the law and harming another. This is legitimate shame. They caused an accident. It is their responsibility to pay for the damages that brought harm to the other person.
Imagine the other driver was going to Dairy Queen to get a milkshake. They’d had a long day at work. The temperature had reached a 100 degrees and the milkshake was calling her name. She wasn’t in a hurry. She patiently sat at the light and drove carefully through when it turned green. All of a sudden she feels another car crashing into her sending her car into a wild spinning motion and slamming her into the side of the overpass. It’s a miracle that she survived. Her car was a crumpled mess of metal. After the Jaws of Life cut her out of the metal and glass she is bleeding and broken all over, but hours later in the hospital as she stirs to consciousness she is told she will recover with a lot of time.
Several days later the victim is lying in bed in terrible pain with tubes attached everywhere. Her mother sits beside her holding her hand doing whatever she can to comfort her. The victim of the crash begins to cry. She declares to her mother she’ll never get a milkshake again, because it had resulted in her having an accident. No matter how many times the mother tells her daughter the accident wasn’t her fault, somehow the victim believes her desire for a milkshake had caused the accident. It’s insane right? Thus the nature of illegitimate shame.
It is bad enough that the victim has months of recovery from an accident that wasn’t her fault, heaping shame on herself on top of all that will only make matters worse. I hope if I was in a car accident and it was someone else’s fault I could place the responsibility in the right place. I think most of us could in this situation.
But for most abuse victims it isn’t that easy. They struggle and are often paralyzed by illegitimate shame. Someone else made the choice to harm them in a terrible way. But rather than place the responsibility on the victimizer, somehow in their suffering and loss of dignity the victim places the blame on themselves and their longings. And the pain already experienced from the abuse is intensified.
Illegitimate shame has crippled me for most of my life. I was a victim of a terrible crime committed by a very sick man. It wasn’t my fault and as a little girl I was powerless to stop it.
In the book The Longest Journey Home Andrew J. Schmutzer explains how the abuser clearly disregards boundaries when they make the choice to harm another.
What seems to characterize the person who commits a sexual offense from the person who does not is the individual’s behavior…To cross the line, so to speak, the offender must violate several internal and external barriers. First, the offender must move from a passive desire or impulse to acting on an urge. This requires breaking societal norms and laws. Some sexual offenses involve extensive preplanning and preparation. Secondly, the offender must violate moral or religious prohibitions in the form of personal conscience. Thirdly, the offender must override sympathy and compassion for the victim. Some sex offenders actually justify their behavior as being desired or pleasing to the victim. Many *pedophiles, for example, *groom their victims through the development of trust and a special status. They may coerce a trusting victim rather than threaten and force a resisting victim. While this does not diminish the *trauma for the victim, it allows the offender the mental protection of not seeing the victim appear to suffer at the time of the *molestation. The ability of these offenders to arouse their victims can be a source of great pride, while the memory of being aroused during a sexual offense can be extremely shaming and psychologically traumatic for victims.
The abuser made a clear choice to abuse, just as the driver of the car made a choice to run the red light, but the abuser takes it a step further often placing the blame on the innocent victim in an effort to justify his behavior. It would be absolute insanity for the driver of the car to blame the other driver’s desire to get a milkshake for him making the choice to run a red light, but that is exactly what an abuser does. And what’s even more insidious is the abuser many times goes through a process of grooming his or her victims by manipulatively coercing them. They pour on compliments or offer gifts. They often have tremendous insight into their victims, what their hearts long for, and like the fish hungry for the worm, the victim swallows the bait hook, line and sinker.
As a child I longed for attention and affection from my father. This is a normal and natural God given desire. The small house my adopted father lived in only had one small gas heater. My bedroom was at the other end of the house and got really cold. His bedroom was right off the den. He’d ask me to sleep with him at night. My memory isn’t clear after this, but one of the memories that flashes in my mind was the desire I felt while the abuse occurred. This is so confusing. The normal and natural longing for a child to receive love and affection was twisted into something dark and evil. Rather than blame my adopted father who obviously planned and made a conscious choice to abuse me, I blamed my own desire.
It gets complicated later in life when I am spiritually abused by my pastor, because I ran some red lights. I have been untangling the illegitimate shame from the legitimate shame.
My pastor went through a grooming process with me. He was thirty years older than I was. My heart was still longing for a father figure to love and accept me that would somehow cover the deep sense of shame I felt for myself. When he told me I was beautiful, intelligent, the light of his life, and his soul mate it was like getting a cup of cold water on a scorching day. I was not aware of the shame or desperation in my heart at the time. All I knew was that I wanted what he had to offer more than anything I’d ever wanted before in my life. When he told me he loved me everything that was wrong in the world seemed right in that moment. His proclamation of love seemed to cover my shame.
But then his true motives became obvious. He wanted to be more than a father figure to me. It was sick and twisted, but it was also the same thing I’d experienced as a child. The only thing that made sense to me at the time was there must be something wrong with me that I brought this same desire out in my pastor as I did in my adopted father. It was at this point that in my overwhelming shame I made a confusing choice to run the red light. I say confusing because on one hand I knew coveting this man was wrong, but in the fog of my own illegitimate shame I convinced myself it was all I deserved. As the relationship progressed from covetousness to sexual sin and idolatry I now had legitimate shame as well as illegitimate shame to deal with and I became trapped in the relationship for almost ten years.
But thank God in Jesus Christ He never let go of me. Patiently He worked in my heart giving me the truth of the Gospel over and over again until one day I finally heard it and realized the destructive path I had been on. He was calling my name to come home, and when I saw Him in the distance I ran and so did He. The blinding light of His love exposed the lies of the abusive relationship I was in, and I agreed with Him that it had to go.
Dan Allender says in The Wounded Heart Heart …everyone experiences shame to some degree. But sexually abused people often feel marked for life.
He also defines the difference between legitimate and illegitimate shame. He says, Legitimate shame exposes depravity, and illegitimate shame shines a light on some element of dignity.
Human beings after the fall experienced moral corruption and wickedness for the first time. They were aware that they were naked and felt shame. This is the legitimate shame that results from our human depravity.
Illegitimate shame results when we feel ashamed because of an evil committed against us.
But the part of ourselves we hate the most is our longing to be wanted and enjoyed. If we didn’t want, then we would not care. If we did not care, then we could not be shamed by others’ rejection. This will help us begin to understand why shame is such a significant part of sexual abuse. Consider the damage done to the soul when the abuse is fused with the legitimate longings of the heart. The flower of deep longing for love is somehow hideously intertwined with the weed of abuse. Longings are wed to abuse, abuse begets shame, and shame is inextricably related to a hatred for one’s own hungry soul. Any significant abuse causes the victim to despise the way he or she’s been made: a person wired for deep, satisfying, eternal involvement with others and God.
I recognize clearly as I write this that His love was all I ever needed to cover all my shame. Both, the legitimate shame that came because I believed someone else could cover my shame better than He could, as well as the illegitimate shame that came about from another’s decision to harm me. It’s all covered. Thank you, Jesus.
If you’ve suffered the way I have, I hope my words bring you peace. It wasn’t your fault and isn’t your fault if you are still in the relationship. It is not for us to take responsibility for another person’s evil actions. Though our longings for love and affection might have put us in a place that we could be abused, we have NO RESPONSIBILITY for their choice to sin. God wants to deliver you from all of the shame. Please see my resource page for places you can find help and encouragement.
Thank you for reading and going on this journey with me.