From Shame to Security
Tim has been married for 10 years and is a father to a 9-year-old boy. He is passionate about discovering the Father's heart and about sonship, about gentle parenting, and about education reform in Singapore.
Shame was a constant theme for me most of my life. It works strangely, acting like a blanket one can hide beneath, but also as a fire that one strives to avoid.
Up Onto A Pedestal My mother was a teacher who prepared students for the national Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE). When it came to my turn, she tutored me so well I scored beyond my parents' expectations, placed second in my primary school. Instantly, I became a mini-celebrity of sorts among my school and extended family circles. I was heralded and congratulated for having "made it". One teacher even told me my future was secure just after he signed my yearbook. Being only 12 then, these messages meant a lot to me, especially as I grew up with an obvious facial birthmark that had made me rather self-conscious.
This pedestal was further raised, when after the first day of Secondary 1 Orientation in my father’s alma mater, my parents transferred me to the premier boys’ school in Singapore. In the four years there, my sense of self-worth and identity became enmeshed in exam success and in being a student of a premier school.
From Pedestal to Pit But the wheels began coming off when I was 15. Puberty had come; I was increasingly self-conscious, specifically when it came to interacting with girls. Having coasted academically so far, I was also not prepared for the rigour of new academic subjects. As I began failing badly in my academic subjects at the Upper Secondary level, my motivations waned, and along with this, my sense of self-worth and identity.
My parents did not know what to do, so they brought me to psychiatrists and counsellors. I was prescribed medications which helped for a short time, but failed to fill the void in my lonely and confused heart. This cycle of failure perpetuated for another decade or so. Seeking academic success, with the ultimate goal of getting a good tertiary education, I embarked on repeated attempts to reclaim the pedestal I once had. But all my efforts invariably ended in ignominious failure. Each round covered me with a new layer of shame. Beneath the shame was a deep pit. The emptiness and the pressures were my constant companions. In my own eyes, I was never good enough until I achieved something. I felt responsible to make something of myself, and my past failures were constant reminders that I may never succeed.
Thus, shame made it impossible for me to separate my failures from my personhood and identity.
Could I ever be free from the shame that darkened my days?
From Shame to Security From 2020, I began to encounter the presence of God in a very real way. During certain church services, I would experience something akin to a waterfall of His presence continuously falling onto me. It seemed to wash away the layers upon layers of dirt that I had allowed to build up within me. In these encounters, God began to show Himself to me as the kind, faithful and good Father He is, and not the judgmental taskmaster I had worked to please all of my life (but whom I thought I had kept disappointing). He showed me how loved I am as a child of His, and how He has always parented me in a kind and patient way. Slowly, I let go, and as I did, I also began to embrace who I was in Him, a son of God on account of what Jesus had done, and not on account of my own effort or works. I also began to see and embrace my birthmark as a part of this identity. Gradually, my past history no longer had a hold on me. In the light of God’s love and embrace, the shame began to unravel and I was loosened from its grip. Truly, as Jesus said “So if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36). In the years since, I find myself more at peace and more joyful. I know my worth and value from my Father in heaven; I know I am loved, and I know I have the capacity to be a blessing with my life story and my giftings. In this ongoing journey, these things continue to be instrumental - the God encounters, the honest conversations with Him, learning to hear His voice and feel His heart for me and others, and journeying with other kindred spirits in community.
Shining His Light on Shame Even as I find myself becoming free, I am now able to see how pervasive shame can be, like a thread tied intricately within the tapestry of the spheres we live in.
In families, it emerges when children break the rules, perform below expectations, or do something that tarnishes the family name. In education, it exists when teachers and peers speak with derision or discouragement to students who deviate - by choice or not - from perceived standards of achievement. In church, it comes in the way we exalt success and relate to those who have fallen. All of these continually make us focus on our performance rather than the unconditional acceptance that God offers us.
As a result, shame is often an undercurrent in our society that creates unhealthy cycles from which questions of self-worth and fragmented identities spring up.
It is time to shine the Father’s light on the darkness that is shame, to bring back His sons and daughters into His secure embrace, into our secure identity in Him.