The other day my parents and I were discussing the complex nature of disciplining children. Although I did not appreciate rules and consequences much when in the midst of them, I have long admired my parents’ consistency and clarity in their approach to discipline in our family growing up. I long to structure the same kind of nurturing, yet firm, consequences for my children. My desire is to empower them to not only understand the difference between right and wrong, but also to have a heart that longs to make wise choices as a result of godly motivation. What a daunting task! As I expressed my concerns about certain methods of discipline and how effectiveness varies for each individual child and unique set of circumstances, the conversation turned to some of the discipline I distinctly remember receiving as a child.
The last time I ever received a spanking has always been etched in my memory. Memories are interesting. Even though each moment in our lives takes up the same amount of time as any other, some stand out so clearly, while others quickly dissolve from existence. Some memories surface and resurface so frequently they begin to shape our perspective of who we are and how we interact with the world. Meanwhile, other memories are neglected and slowly fade from remembrance, no longer holding any power or persuasion over our identity.
That last spanking is a moment I have re-lived countless times. Once again, my mind traces a well-worn path back to this memory. I was in fifth grade. I was having a difficult year in school, which is typical of preteen years. Friend drama abounded, while my personality preferred peace. My teacher didn’t think much of me, while I was accustomed to being trusted and respected by adults. And then there was math. With long division. Even though I had always been a straight-A student, I got my first “C” on a report card in math, and the blow to my perfectionist identity was crushing. My parents assured me that difficulty in life was a guarantee, and not everything would always come easily to me. They also reminded me that a letter on a piece of paper didn’t determine who I was. I had my doubts.
Right before the Christmas break, I received a packet of signed papers. The grades were dismally low. There were C’s, D’s, and even an F. I had never witnessed a number so low on a paper with my name at the top in my life. I was so disappointed in myself. Overwhelmed with shame and guilt, I stuffed the papers in my backpack, fighting tears for the rest of the school day. If my classmates knew the numbers on those papers, they would never see me the same again, never take me seriously, never think that I was capable of achieving anything of consequence. I knew I had to get my parents to sign the papers and return them to school after the break. But oh, how I dreaded having to show those papers to my parents. What would they think of me? What would they say? They would be so disappointed.
When I got home from school, I expected my mom to ask for the papers, but in the excitement over Christmas break and the many preparations taking place for family get-togethers, she never asked. I was sure she could see straight through me and knew the secret that burdened me, but the afternoon passed without a single comment. I put my backpack away in the school cabinet and pretended like the papers didn’t exist. At dinner that night, as we did every night, our family sat around the table and discussed stories from our day. I tried to talk nonchalantly about other things, but all my mind could see was that big red “F” at the top of my math test. I was a terrible liar. I hadn’t had much need to practice before that day. But somehow, I made it through the meal without any suspicion.
That night, after everyone was asleep, I sneaked out of my room, retrieved my backpack and stuffed it under my bed. I was afraid my mom might look in my backpack for some reason and discover the papers. I knew my parents would eventually see them, but I also knew it didn’t have to happen until school started back after the new year. Until then, I could pretend like everything was fine and not have to endure their disappointment.
The next few days until Christmas were busy. My parents were cooking, planning, and wrapping presents, and I was playing with neighborhood friends. Even though I thought I would be free of consequence until my parents discovered my secret, I was far from unburdened. I agonized over whether I should tell them, when I should tell them, how I should tell them, what would happen if they discovered my secret before I had a chance to tell them, and what they would do when I eventually did tell them. I was losing sleep. The papers under my bed seemed to be burning a hole through the mattresses in a modern-day “princess and the pea” situation.
On Christmas Eve, we traveled to my grandparent’s house about an hour away to spend the night and celebrate with them on Christmas morning. I was conflicted about what to do with the papers while we were out of town. I’m not sure why, but I ended up bringing the backpack with me, unable to leave the incriminating evidence out of my sight. That night as I lay in bed at my grandparent’s house, I couldn’t sleep a wink. I tossed and turned, and my stomach twisted into anxious knots. I finally decided I had to tell my parents. I simply couldn’t endure one more minute of my guilt-ridden self-torture. I unzipped my backpack and pulled out the papers. They seemed so heavy.
I had to drag my legs unwillingly down the hall to reach the living room where my parents were visiting with my grandparents. My heart was pounding in my ears so loudly I wondered if they could hear it. When they noticed me peering into the room from the hall, all of the adults stopped talking and looked at me expectantly. Everything in me wanted to turn back, but it was too late.
Perspiration seeped into the papers where I clutched them in trembling fingers, “Um, mom, dad, can I talk to you for a second?” I thought for sure that I was about to hit the floor in a dead faint. That actually wouldn’t have been so bad. “In private?”
My parents joined me in the hall, and I explained the situation to them with shaking voice and downcast eyes. Tears streamed down my face as I handed over the packet of papers, my cheeks burning in shame. They looked through them silently. They left to confer alone in the kitchen before rejoining me in the hall. I was sitting on the floor with my arms wrapped around my knees, awaiting my sentence.
They said they weren’t mad about my grades. They could see the mistakes I had made, and we could practice before the next test. They knew I had tried my best. They assured me that a grade on a paper did not change my worth or my identity, and it would never change how much they loved me. Then they said they were disappointed that I had lied to them by keeping the papers a secret. In our family, a lie always resulted in a spanking. For that reason, I would get a spanking when we got home the following night.
I slept so well that night. I don’t remember getting the spanking, although I know it happened. I do remember the hour-long drive home, anticipating the spanking, thinking about what I had done, and wishing that I had been honest with them from the beginning.
I think this memory resurfaces so often because of the overwhelming shame I felt over my failure to make grades that I was proud of, the fear of disappointing my parents, guilt over not being honest with them, and insufficiency to uphold my identity as a perfectionist. There is some small part of me that always feels like I disappointed someone I love when I remember that day. I know that my parents love me and are very proud of me, and I know they said a grade wouldn’t change that. I accept this truth on an intellectual level. But my parents have also been with me since birth, so they know all of my shortcomings. I can’t help but think that my shortcomings have some effect on their opinion of me. When they look at me and say that they love me, is there some part of them that thinks about that Christmas Eve when I showed them my signed papers? Do they ever think, “I want to believe her, but there was that time she wasn’t honest with us about her grades.”? While I do believe them when they say those papers didn’t affect their love for me, my internal response didn’t match that faith. On some subconscious level, I was convinced that this memory, which had left such a mark on me, had left a similar mark on them.
As I was discussing discipline with my parents, I mentioned offhandedly how I regret the time I had hidden my signed papers at Christmas in fifth grade. They both looked at me with blank faces.
“I don’t remember that,” my dad replied.
“Me neither,” my mom shook her head.
“What?” I asked in disbelief, “You don’t remember?”
How could they not remember that moment? The moment that I had unconsciously allowed to define me. The incident that made me believe that not only have I lied, but also that I am a liar. The day I realized my best attempt at perfectionism was so far short of the mark that I had to use evasive measures to save face. The circumstance I had convinced myself added a lens through which my parents viewed me for the rest of my life. I didn’t realize that that memory had held such power over me until the moment they admitted they had no recollection of it ever occurring.
Slowly, I realized my parents had never communicated any of the feelings I had been experiencing. I had materialized them all myself. I can’t express the freedom I felt in that moment. A weight of shame that I never realized existed was lifted. The only person still holding onto that moment was me. If I release it, it can fade away and no longer hold any power over my identity.
How many times do we experience the same unnecessary shame with our Heavenly Father? When He looks at us, He sees us as His children, whom He loves dearly. Nothing we have done or will do can separate us from His love.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV).
On a good day, we believe this on an intellectual level. But we have trouble accepting this truth on a soul level because we know our actions don’t warrant this level of unconditional love. Thankfully, we aren’t expected to earn it- it has already been secured by Christ on our behalf. When we fail to live like we believe we are unconditionally loved in our everyday lives, we demonstrate that Jesus’ death and resurrection were not enough of a sacrifice to cover our sin.
What does accepting this unconditional love mean for us in practical terms?
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV) says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
We hear these verses so often they seem to lose their luster, so let me expound on a few of these phrases.
Love is not easily angered. God is not looking for reasons to point out our shortcomings. He is not disappointed when we fail miserably. He is disappointed when we feel we can’t bring our failures to Him because that shows our lack of understanding of who He is as our Father, and what He desires for us.
Love keeps no record of wrongs. God does not keep track of our sins to use as evidence against us. Instead, He casts our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). He doesn’t simply draw a line through our sins, He tears the page out of the book. They are gone. He does not remember them.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God knows everything about us, but He is not trying to leverage His knowledge of who we are to prove our worthlessness. He is leveraging His Son’s holiness to receive us as blameless and pure, a new creation.
Love always protects. When we receive discipline from God, it is for our protection and our good. God does not give consequences to incur shame or guilt. We create those narratives from our own imagination. Viewing His discipline as harmful is an indication we have traded His grace and love for a performance-based attempt at salvation.
Love always trusts and hopes. God doesn’t let our sin skew His perspective of who we are. When He looks at us, He sees blameless children, hidden in Christ. He orchestrated the power of Christ’s redemption. He promises to seek and save what is lost. He knows that His Word will not return void. He is able to trust and hope always, not in us, but in His own ability to complete the work that He has started in us.
Love always perseveres. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love in Christ. “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given” (John 1:16, NIV). His everlasting love is manifest in grace upon grace. We cannot ever come to the end of God’s love. It is ever-replenishing, running over from an eternal spring of living water.
When we truly understand God’s love, as much as a finite mind can grasp such inconceivable breadth, we see the glaring inconsistency between our self-defined identity and who we are in Christ. When we choose to entertain recurring memories of guilt and shame, we reject God’s grace and put ourselves back into the slavery from which Christ bought us with His blood. Paul understands how easily we fall prey to this thinking when he encourages us in Galatians 5:1 (NIV), “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Do you have a memory that brings shame to the surface? Do you have fear approaching God with sin that needs to be confessed? Do you experience guilt over past mistakes that have already been forgiven? Do you struggle with still trying to prove to God that you are worthy of His love? Do you feel defeated by the idea that your past actions will always define you?
We have all been there. But God’s love, poured out to us by Christ’s defeat of sin on the cross, has already unlocked the door to that cell. The choice to stay behind the bars or to walk out in freedom is ours. So let’s rewrite the narrative of shame in our lives. Let’s release those memories, lay down the burdens we were never meant to carry, and walk in the identity of freedom in God’s love for which Christ has set us free.
Written by Erin Greneaux
Featured Image By Annie Spratt
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on greneauxgardens.com.