I’ve been doing some Lent activities this year, more than usual. I usually don’t give things up for Lent, nor do I make a resolution at New Years. “Why not?” You may ask. Well, people, I know that I will fail and I’m just not that good at forgiving myself. This is a fact that I don’t like to mention, but it’s true and in my meditations on Lent that I have been (mostly) doing, I was reminded of this fact. Just a few days ago, the meditation was on Psalm 32, the theme being “the Joy of Forgiveness”. Upon meditating on the first few verses, we were asked the following questions regarding forgiveness:
Do you ever find it hard to believe that God forgives you?
Do you ever find it hard to forgive others?
Do you ever find it hard to forgive yourself?
I answered “yes” to all three of these. I am not too proud to know that the answer to number two and three is “yes” only because it is a natural conclusion to question number one. I simply do not forgive myself or others very easily because I do not believe that I am forgiven.
Let me back into this statement for a minute. I believe I am forgiven in the Christian way in which we recite things that we have been taught in Sunday school and we know are a bench mark to our faith: I believe that Jesus died on the cross and forgave me from my sins. And I do believe the first part of this, I do believe that Jesus died on the cross. Therefore, I guess I do believe the second part of this statement, too. But I only do so much as I believe that a transaction at the grocery store takes place:
The man or woman behind the counter scans the barcode and tells me that I owe a certain amount of money. A +B = C here, and therefore if Jesus died on the cross, then my sins are forgiven. But the emotional, stop dead in your tracks belief about the kind of person, or the kind of God that would do this for me, is simply not at the forefront of my mind. I believe cognitively that my sins are forgiven, but it is hard for me to believe that was done out of love from a God who did so because He was fighting for me, wants me, and accepts me.
I know where this comes from, and I it’s taken me a good 25 years to get to the bottom of it. As is with anything in life, first impressions make a huge impact on us. And the way that I was first inrotudced to the good news of the cross has left an impression on me that has done more harm than good. I have come to understand that I have a few (ok a lot ) of shame issues associated with the evangelical Church and how the Gospel is presented. Often times I feel as though I have been backed into a corner or bullied into receiving grace as if it was something that God gave me begrudgingly and not full of love and delight. The narrative of the Fall was told like this to me:
God made Adam and Eve.
Eve was awful. She sucks.
She was starving and ate an apple, the one damn thing that God said not to eat.
Of course she did.
Adam didn’t. He was stronger, he can handle his hunger and obviously handle following instructions.
Eve ruined it for both of them., (There is also one in the bunch isn’t there?)
Adam and Eve realized they were naked, and being naked is the worst offense. (This will later lead to a horrible understanding of sex and the body, but that’s for another time.)
God was horrified and embarrassed and seriously disappointed.
God kicked them out of the garden and from that moment on saw all of his people in the same light: hungry folks who can’t control their hunger, desires, and are in desperate need to get back into God’s good graces.
But good luck trying, people. God is seriously pissed. And somehow, even though He created you, He is disgusted by you.
And so Adam and Eve live the rest of their lives ashamed not of what they have done, but who they are. What they did can be forgiven and Jesus comes and the cross replaces the apple and BAM things are better.
But forever, like Adam and Eve, all of us as their descendants (how in the world are we all related yet able to procreate and have kids??) must live with the same shame: humanity sucks. God is pissed and disappointed at who we are at our deepest core.
Somewhere Jesus fixes this, and He is less pissed.
He may even sort of like us.
Shame is a Bully
Where this left me, then, was this unhealthy understanding of the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt, being aware of what I have done wrong and where I need help and saving and correcting, actually does not take away from who I am as person. Shame, on the other hand, condemns not only the sinful nature and the choices made within that nature but also the essence of a person. When you meet your Savior as someone who is disgusted in His own creation in you, your view of Him for the rest of your life, and the view of yourself is totally messed up to say the least.
And I will be honest this still feels like a blurry theological gray area for me. Because on the one hand, we are sinful and in need of a Savior. But on the other, God made us as image bearers and loves us all for who He made us to be. I believe we are unique and we are formed differently and with a myriad of talents. I believe our names given to us matter, and our stories matter to Jesus. When I read the Gospels, I see a Jesus who is asking people what their names are, where they are from, and calling out their past and their future. He is stepping into their stories while simultaneously asking them to step into His. We are uniquely ours and our own, living out a narrative that is creating and being and serving as an integral part of how Jesus is at work in the world and God is using our unique personalities and gifts to finish His work and bring His Kingdom here and now. But you don’t come to this conclusion if you meet God as someone who is ashamed of who you are in your deepest core.
Shame is a bully. Shame knocks you down and tears you up, making it impossible for you to believe in yourself. Shame suggests that love is available but only at a price. Shame asks for a price of admission that usually includes the ability to love and forgive yourself and others. Shame, on it’s very best day, promises acceptance but instead gives birth to fear, anxiety and prison. Shame is the best friend that doesn’t allow others in, and soon you are isolated and stuck in a trap of trying to earn good graces that can never be reached.
If God is bullying us into the cross, then we become a people who approach the throne with our heads hung low, our tail beneath our legs, and we take our place of disappointment at His feet.
Grace is a Shield
But I believe there is another way. It’s the only thing that has gotten me out of this shame spiral with God that I have found myself in for the past twenty five years and it is this: Genesis 3:21. The story of the Garden doesn’t end with Adam and Eve being tossed aside and God disgusted, chatting about their misgivings with the angels in heaven, like a group of high school boys that are laughing at the outcast. It doesn’t end with them being banished and God keeping them at an arm’s length. If you haven’t read it, open your Bible and read what happens in Genesis 3:21.
God knits clothes for Adam and Eve.
As soon as they figure out they are naked, they are embarrassed and their go-to response is shame. But God? He sits with them, and he knits them clothes. He doesn’t leave them to be; lonliness is not an option. The clothes allow Adam and Eve to physically cover up, but they are symbolically a shield of grace. He does not leave them to fend for themselves or to sit in their shame and find their way out. No. He uses the same hands that formed the oceans and put the stars in the sky and he knits them garments of grace. It is his way of saying: I see you, and you need not be ashamed. My hands are big enough to carve out the Universe yet they are gentle enough to knit you grace. You need not be ashamed, you only need grace. Grace for yourselves, and for one another. You are still Adam. You are still Eve. You can forgive yourselves, you can forgive one another. You don’t need to point fingers anymore, you don’t need to hide. You can be exactly who I created you to be, you can share this story and I will make History out of it, and you can do it all with the grace of these garments.
Grace, is what is freely given so that we may live fully as yourselves and fully in Him. Grace is the only gift that can silence shame and take us out of shame’s grasp. Grace is forgiving, it is accepting and it is a shield. Grace protects us from the arrows that shame tries to throw, those that tell us we are not worthy, that we must hide from God and that we must figure out how to make things right. Grace reminds us that just as we were knit and formed by the same hands that created the wind and the sea, so too were we done with purpose. Our stories are not lost. Our essence is in tact, and we carry garments of grace around us all the time. And this, this intersection of grace and sin, this is where our stories come alive and that we invite God in as the same time He invites us in.