Sin vs. Shame—How I Learned To Let Myself Be Loved

by Austen Hartke

As a kid, I was a big reader. My favorite books centered around characters who would take off to live alone in the wild, sometimes with a furry friend for company.

Often these characters felt that they were different from everyone else—like they didn’t belong.

Many kids grow up feeling this way, and this sense of being a misfit has contributed to a lot of great literature—the wonderful and popular Harry Potter series being a great example. As I got older, I began to get attached to characters who, on top of feeling like outsiders, also felt a deep sense of what can only described as “wrong-ness” inside themselves.

Sometimes this feeling stemmed from having a parent who had done bad things and a protagonist who would worry that they would also inevitably become one of the bad guys. Other characters worried that because something bad had happened to them, they had been irreparably damaged and were now not capable of being good.

Though my parents were not villains, nor did I go through any major trauma as a kid, I still felt that deep sense of “wrong-ness.” My family attended non-denominational churches that were big on Bible stories—characters like Noah, Moses, Abraham, Joseph, and Mary were very real to me. I remember each story being read like one of Aesop’s fables, complete with a moral about how you should live your life, or about how the world came to be the way it was.

At some point I connected my internal sense of wrong-ness to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.

I thought what I must be feeling was probably that great evil I was told we all needed saving from—Original Sin. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I didn’t feel right, but I assumed that because Jesus came to save us from sin, eventually he would save me too. I thought salvation would help me feel right in my mind and in my body!

Fast forward about fifteen years, through coming out as gay in high school, through college, and then through a master’s program in Old Testament Studies at seminary, and I’ve finally found terminology that reaches beyond “feeling wrong” or “feeling right.”

I now realize that what I felt as a kid, that sense of feeling “off,” was a recognition that my growing body did not look the way I had always assumed it would, and that the joy I felt as a ten-year-old with a bowl cut when I got referred to as a “nice young man,” was actually part of a very spiritual calling. I’ve come to understand, after many years of talking, reading, and praying, that though I am human and do fail to hit the mark, who I am—including my identity as a transgender person—is not wrong.

Many LGBTQ people, especially those who grew up in unsupportive religious communities, face similar feelings of shame about who they are.

Brené Brown, the well-known shame researcher, says that shame is “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” She further clarifies the difference between shame and guilt—that guilt has to do with things we’ve done, while shame has to do with who we are.

My mistake growing up was to confuse my feelings about my gender (and the accompanying internalized shame) with the theological concepts of sin and guilt. This confusion led me feel as if I was unworthy of love—even God’s love.

The truth is that shame and love can never truly coexist. God calls each and every one of us to live and bloom into the people God created us to be. While guilt helps to move us toward each other by calling us to repentance, shame moves us away from each other, away from our true selves, and away from God.

We might feel guilty about something we’ve done, in which case we go to God and to our siblings in faith to ask forgiveness, but we should never, never be made to feel shame about who God is calling us to become.

I take comfort from the biblical stories of people once excluded who become loved into community.

As I live into my own story of becoming, I now look to biblical figures like Ruth, Rahab, Zacchaeus, and the Ethiopian eunuch for strength. I also owe my courage to the LGBTQ people of faith who have gone before me, including those who have helped to read biblical texts through a lens of love and inclusion, and who have created a whole genre of queer theology.

Most of all, I thank God for calling me out of my own head and out of the depths of shame and isolation into a new life where I can say, both aloud and in my heart, that I am happy to be who I am—a transgender Christian.

Though being your true self, and letting yourself be loved for it, can be difficult, it’s the life God calls us to—a life lived authentically, together.

Photo by Ariel Udel

Comments (2)


So glad you learned to love
So glad you learned to love yourself, just as God loves you. Best wishes to you for your happiness on the journey that is life. xx

Shadrach Jensen

Would a God who is holy,
Would a God who is holy, perfect, just, and pure call us to live our lives in a way that is not the way creation intended to be? We believe in all the freedom, we believe in all the love, but do we forget to live in all the stewardship of what God has given us? Do we forget to live in all the responsibility of honoring Him with literally everything we have? God cares more about our character than our comfort, which I would say this society now labels as freedom. Jesus calls us to die to ourselves for a reason. I believe that is because we are imperfect (we all agree on that). Dying to ourself means placing Gods desires before our own. Placing who God wants us to be before who we think God wants us to be. Which means we have to fight desires of our own. It is not easy.

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