Grace or shame

And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?
(Rom 5:5-10 NET.)

One wonderful aspect of God’s love for us is that it is unmerited. That is the very definition of grace, unmerited favour. Much is made of Jeremiah’s desperate description of the deceitfulness of the human heart or mind (Jer 17:9) to demonstrate our supposed lack of value or moral fiber and by extension our unworthiness. While I wouldn’t disagree, there is nothing on earth that would be more dishonest than the human mind, Jeremiah isn’t saying we are incapable of honesty just that we are sick and broken and will never be fully healed (never?).

Paul acknowledges this in his letter to the Romans. He says that “while we were still helpless” God died for us and he “demonstrates his love for us.” While humanity is broken, powerless and sick, God still deemed us of value. In economic terms an item’s value is gauged by how much someone is willing to pay for it in a given time and place. Well God paid a lot for us and regardless of whether we think we are worth it, God believes we were worth a lot.

One of the primary sources of dysfunctional relationships and immoral living in the church stems from believing that we aren’t valued. Many people are probably wondering how I arrived at such a conclusion. Part of it is my own personal journey, my years of supporting hurting people and some basic lessons the counselling world can teach us.

The Christian religion as it is lived out in many churches is something of a doubled edged sword. Even though we proclaim grace what we often live by is shame. The message we often hear is that we are not enough. We aren’t enough as mothers and fathers. We aren’t enough as volunteers and elders. We aren’t enough as evangelists or caregivers. There is this standard we ought to live up to that we never do and we come away feeling condemned. Our only comfort is that we know that Jesus paid for all our sins so at least we can go to heaven.

It isn’t just the dark of side of religious belief that can fill us with shame. Any form of mistreatment or abuse has a way of embedding shame deep within our hearts. Regardless of how rational one might attempt to be in the face of verbal, physical, sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment, shame and feelings of worthlessness seem to soak in the deepest parts of our inner being.

Once we feel worthless, we start doing things to compensate. We might subconsciously turn to pride. We begin to rationalize how we are better than other people and begin to play games of one-up-man-ship to prove to ourselves and others how important and valuable we really are. We may seek to escape our feelings of shame and inadequacy through partying, sex, drugs and alcohol. We might put ourselves on a relentless track of perfectionism and become obsessed with our careers, financial success or other forms of achievement.

In my personal life I struggled with a lot of rejection and I was bullied a lot in elementary school. It did make me feel worthless and I ended up striving to prove to myself and others that I was worth something through different kinds of achievement. When I was no longer the best at one thing I found something else to be the best at. When I became a Christian I found new type of thing to be the best at: faith. Trust me when I say a lot of the good things people do are sourced in desperate attempts to find worth and value. There are a lot of people in helping industries (social services, counselling, psychology, clergy etc…) that are just broken people trying to find validation in helping others.

For me this cycle didn’t stop until I discovered the gospel of grace. My most memorable turning point started on a street corner the summer of 1996. An old friend who was on a very predictable trip to 7/11 started preaching to me about God’s love for me despite my performance. It sounded foreign to me but I had enough biblical training to know he wasn’t misquoting scripture. My friend, whom I really didn’t see much after that, took the center piece of the puzzle of my whole theological understanding and replaced it with another piece. That piece didn’t fit with all the other puzzle pieces around it and I started a long journey towards understanding what it truly mean to follow Jesus. That journey continues to this day.

It took a few years before this all sunk in. I ended up going on a big desert experience. I ended up putting almost everything I understood about God back on the shelf. I believed God existed and I believed that the testimony of the authors of scripture to be valuable and reliable with the understanding that each of them had their own unique experiences and vantage points.

After a few years even my friends noticed something different in me. I was kinder, more generous, more caring and much more gracious. Once I had value I didn’t have to build myself up or put others down. I began to see how much value everyone else had despite not being enough as Christians.

God loves you and God loves me. We get ourselves in to trouble when we lose site of this and start to emphasize God’s wrath over God’s love. Romans 5:9 is one passage where it seems like there is a binary tension between God’s love as expressed through Jesus’ death and God’s wrath which is described earlier on in chapter 1. I must admit I struggle reconciling the two. It sounds like Paul is saying that God came to save us from God. Perhaps Paul understood that God’s wrath in this life is some kind of universal cause and effect principle. Earlier on in Paul’s letter we read that Paul believed that as we turn away from the truth that is evident before us, we become futile and darkened in our thinking (Rom 1:21), our hearts become impure (Rom 1:24) and develop dishonorable passions (Rom 1:26). Regardless of how we try to reconcile these things one thing is abundantly clear, God’s love wins out over his wrath in Christ.

There are just far too many Christians that live believing they are worthless and deserve punishment and condemnation because they don’t act appropriately.