“Got my feet on the earth, but my face to the sky.”
Toby Mac in Hey Devil
Imagine that next Sunday, your pastor or priest begins his morning talk like this:
“The longer I live, the more I am aware of my sinfulness, faithlessness, lack of courage, narrow-mindedness; the more I feel the surging waves of greed, lust, violence, and indignation roaring in my innermost self. Growing older has not made life with God easier. In fact, it has become harder to experience his presence, to feel his love, to taste his goodness, to touch his caring hands.”
Or imagine if instead it was a missionary that your church supported, laying bare his heart like this:
“As I said, I want a woman – just one to hold and press against me, to feel and fondle with my lips and fingers. Disgustingly, it could be any woman, as I cannot seem to bring her [his fiancée] fixedly to mind, and it is just the woman want [sic] that plagues me, the craving to feel one close to me.”
Or the same man recounting this near misadventure:
“Yesterday, walking back from Angu’s house after injecting Augostine (who, praise God is better after his near death struggle with pneumonia), I was alone in the cool, dark forest, and I knew then how vulnerable I am just now to attacks of fleshly temptations. Even then, I don’t know how it would have been had I met an Indian woman alone in the trail. O God, what a ferocious thing is sexual desire, and how often it is on me now.”
You’d probably be consulting the bulletin to see if you mistakenly wandered into a 12-step meeting, right? Or wondering, “Where do they get these guys? This is a pastor?! This is a missionary?!”
Imagine again then, that just when you thought you were as surprised as you could be at church, that you learn that the pastor (priest) speaking about his “greed, lust and violence” was Henri Nouwen, beloved and admired as a spiritual director around the world, and that the missionary suffering with “ferocious” sexual desire (which he calls “woman want”) was the martyred and revered missionary Jim Elliot.
We’re shocked. The church admires and loves these men. They’re supposed to be so much better than us. It turns out they have some pretty ugly desires. It turns out they might succumb to some pretty ugly behavior. We might even say of them, as we sometimes say of ourselves, “They ought to be ashamed.”
That’s how it works, right? When we become so powerfully aware of our sin, we beat up on ourselves, wrap ourselves in shame, and begin to distance ourselves from God. We understand why Judas hung himself. We understand why, after the Apostle Peter denied the Lord, he quit the ministry.
But this predictable response is a bad choice. The sin-shame cycle leads to a worsened spiritual walk and therefore to even more failure. It also causes us to run from God like Jonah tried to do. We can’t look at ourselves in the mirror, or God in the face. Gradually, if we perform well, we begin to feel more worthy (i.e., less shameful), and we move back towards God again – at least until the cycle repeats itself, which it inevitably does.
Fortunately, we can choose another response when we sin. Instead of receiving shame, we can accept conviction. Shame comes from our enemy – “the accuser of the brethren” and is destructive in its intent and poisonous in its experience. Conviction, on the other hand, comes from the Spirit of God and is therapeutic in its intent and healing in its experience.
* When I sin, God lovingly convicts me because he wants to restore me to fellowship with him and prevent my spiraling headlong into even more or worse sin. I can wholehearted “agree” with God in his verdict – “You’re right. I have sinned. It’s bad.”, and give myself to God’s healing work in me.
* When I sin, “the accuser” maliciously shames me because he wants to make he hate myself, and cause me to distance myself from God and become unhappy and ineffective. This sin-shame-loathing paradigm is the one I have to reject – rejecting both the shame and the loathing.
It’s not that we take our sin lightly. Just listen to Nouwen’s words. They convey pain and a longing to do better – to be better, healthier. It’s just that we refuse to beat ourselves up. We refuse to listen to our enemy instead of our God. Think about King David’s response to his sin in Psalm 51. Confession yes, shame no. And if we reread Jim Elliot’s words, they are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s words about being the “chief of sinners” – or “doing the things that he hates.” In each case we’re hearing a profound angst, a shockingly honest and bitter confession, but no self-flagellation.
It’s possible to be serious about sin, and to feel profound remorse for it, and angst when you look in the mirror, and yet not to embrace shame. These words from St. Jerome (345-420 A.D.) who had retreated to the desert to seek after God, illustrate that powerfully. He writes, “In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the scorching sun so that it frightens even the monks that inhabit it, I seemed myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome…. Many times I imagined myself witnessing the dancing of the Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. … I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations.” Notice, that he confesses that he has failed “many times” – and yet explicitly rejects shame: “I am not ashamed ….”
The choice to reject self-shaming is an important one. God doesn’t require self-shaming or want it. It’s counterproductive going forward, and it bypasses the path to healing. But what’s the alternative?
First, we need to allow for counterintuition. Self-shaming comes naturally to us. Refusing self-shaming and instead embracing conviction is counterintuitive. In high altitude mountain climbing you begin to feel sick, and desperately want to lay down, but that’s the worse thing you can do. You have to fight your instincts. You have to keep moving. In a similar way we have to renounce the shame that seems so natural.
Secondly, we have to embrace the conviction. For most of my Christian life, I’ve been taught to think at this point of 1 John 1:9. It’s a great verse, and appropriate here. But simply “confessing [naming] my sin” before God to enter back into fellowship with him is a treatment unequal to the disease. The confession brings the promised forgiveness – but doesn’t address the need for healing.
Third, we need to make ourselves available to God for healing. This is where we can return to Henri Nouwen. He tells us often of the need to find solitude and enter into silence. He tells us to spend time just being with God, offering up to him any weaknesses God reveals to us, and submitting ourselves to him for healing. In this way, our sin, rather than pushing us away from God, actually draws us to him. We come without fear of rejection. Indeed, we come because we have sinned. We come allowing him to reveal the harshest reality about us (Not just “What did I do?”, but “Why do I do that?”). We come “with expectation” that he will do this inner work in us. His care for me brings me to the point of a despair which is not despair, since in it I “… despair of myself in order that I may hope entirely in [God].” (Thomas Merton) In this process, if all goes well, we become “poor in spirit” – those who have nothing in themselves to commend themselves to God, but who can nevertheless feel confidence before him.
When we do this God responds with love and acceptance, and gently heals and restores us. (Like what Jesus did for Peter.) What we do transcends confession and petition. Instead we make time simply “to be” in God’s presence. We are just the “innkeeper, making room for the guest.” We attempt simply be present to him, and to whatever he wants to show us. He is in charge. Eugene Peterson’s words about worship apply to this kind of contemplative prayer. It’s what we do, he writes, to “… interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [It's the] time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God … because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and in other places.” Selah.
Author Gary Moon explains that when we approach God in this way – in solitude, in silent listening, waiting humbly and with willingness to hear the worst about our condition, that this “… holds our shame at bay long enough for us to see ourselves as God sees us in Christ.” This is how the shame can be dispensed, and this is how we can become healthier. When we give God the “time and place” that Peterson speaks of, God is able to deal with the root issues of our sin – in addition to forgiving their nasty fruit.
What remains to be seen is – who will we believe? Whose estimate will we embrace? Jesus explained that the devil is our sworn enemy. His ministry is destruction and death. That’s why he tells us we are worthless. Jesus is our advocate. He loves us more than we know. His ministry is truth and life. That’s why he tells us we are precious. Only one of these can be true.
So, every time I am overtaken by some serious, mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, slap-your-head kind of sin, I have to choose. I should remember the stories about Nouwen and Elliot, and about King David and the Apostle Peter. Who did they listen to? Did they embrace shaming? No, it’s clear they didn’t. If they had we never would have heard of them.
And so how about me? Whose voice with I heed? Will I listen to the liar or the Lover? Who speaks the truth to me?
In that moment of testing I’m truly at a “two-roads-diverged-in-a-wood” type crossroads. Much is at stake. I need to choose carefully. We all do.