This past Wednesday, I spoke at the Gospel, Redemption and Shame conference run by the Transforming Shame group. (You can watch the talks on their YouTube channel – mine is up already and others will be posted in the coming days.) Transforming Shame is a diverse group of people I’ve been journeying with over the past year or two as we have explored how to place shame and its restoration in the context of the Christian faith.
The conference was a really thoughtful time of engagement with the issue of shame in a range of different areas, and if you’re reading this blog, then you’re probably interested in the topic so you should certainly go and watch the videos.
I did a short slot followed by a discussion session on the Gospel and shame, where I talked about the metaphor of death and new life as a potential way of presenting the Gospel. I asked if death and new life was an appropriate metaphor for those looking for a way out of shame. If I’m totally honest with you, I wasn’t really looking for a genuine answer so much as for affirmation of what I already believe! (How many of our questions are like that?)
But in fact, I was very happy to be provoked and challenged by one person from our discussion group. She said that people with an experience of shame come to Christians seeking acceptance of who they are, and a message that says “you must be put to death” sounds like more condemnation of who they are, not acceptance. That’s completely true, and is a really important point, so it’s worth thinking about further.
Before I do, it’s worth saying that I didn’t land on the metaphor of death and new life by accident, or out of some dark fire-and-brimstone theology. The idea that death is the only way to deal with personal shame has been noted by psychologists such as Leon Wurmser, and can be seen played out both in a literal sense – in Middle Eastern and Eastern cultures – and in a metaphorical sense in our culture. Think about the words people use to describe shame: “I could have died of embarrassment”, “I wanted the ground to swallow me up”, and especially the word “mortified”, a synonym for shamed which literally means “put to death”! (Chapter 7 of my book, and our academic paper on the topic has more evidence for this.) And death and new life is, I would argue, the main metaphor that Paul uses for entering the Christian faith – it’s a theme he comes back to in many of his letters. (See, for example, Romans 6, 7:4, 1 Cor 15:22, Gal 2:19, Col 2:20, Col 3:3, 2 Tim 2:11.)
But I accept the point that, depending on what you think about yourself, it’s not a particularly welcoming message. And this is where it’s important to realise that shame is a very broad spectrum, and different kinds of shame require different responses. For me, a fresh start away from the mistakes of my past was precisely what was looking for. I didn’t just want those things forgiven; I wanted to not be the person who had done those things. I wanted to hit the reset button, to get a fresh start, and I found it in Paul’s message of death and new life. For some people, though, where their shame comes from a sense of not being acceptable to others, the message of God’s unconditional acceptance – mediated through God’s people – needs to take centre stage.
I think in these situations there needs to be quite a complex dance. I wish I had a neat answer here, but … let’s face it, most real life situations aren’t neat.
Perhaps a better way to think about the question is this: When someone comes to us in need of acceptance, what is it about them that we are accepting? On the one hand, the message we have as Christians is that there is a radically different way to see someone than the way the world sees them. When we see and accept someone, we do so on the basis of them being a beloved creation and child of God. God’s image in them gives them intrinsic value, and that makes them unconditionally acceptable. We affirm that God’s criteria, and not the criteria by which the world makes judgments, is ultimately what matters.
On the other hand, when someone comes to the church struggling with shame over their identity and/or what they have done, those proximate things do matter to them. It is dismissive and unloving for us to say that what matters to someone does not matter to us. So we need to hold the tension of affirming the preeminence of God’s-eye-view of the world (you are acceptable despite) within someone’s lived experience (you are acceptable because of). As I explain in the book, this is more obvious when played out in community. When people see that the church has “left the playing field” and does not judge anyone based on the value systems of the world at all, they will quite naturally also begin to use God’s measure, and not the world’s measure, on themselves.
And on the third hand (for the body of Christ has many hands), as someone said in my discussion group, “God loves us as we are but loves us too much to leave us as we are.” Transformation from old to new, which the Bible describes in terms of death and new life, is still a fundamental part of what it means to come to Christ.That is a radical discontinuity, and I would be wary of playing that down.
As I say in my book, the Gospel message is highly contextualised. “Jesus told Simon and Andrew to follow him, Nicodemus to be born again, the rich man to give away his possessions, and Saul to stop persecuting him.” Each time he dealt with a person, he knew precisely what they needed to hear to bring them liberty.
How Jesus brings freedom to those in captivity to shame will, similarly, depend on their needs. Everyone you meet is an exception. Following Christ means being sensitive to his Spirit, not relying on a pre-determined programme. Maybe on reflection, then, I’m glad I don’t have a neat answer.