We crave affirmation and praise. This is so because we are made in the image of God, who is both the object and source of love, adoration, praise and wonder. Yet we are haunted because there is much about us that invites shame more than it does admiration. We miss the mark and we miss the boat, failing not only to measure up to God’s standard, but also our own.
To make matters worse, instead of facing our deficiencies head-on, we self-medicate with cover-up strategies to make ourselves look OK even we are not. We clean the outside of the cup while leaving the inside untreated. We are imitators of Adam and Eve after they got caught. Rather than humbly owning and repudiating our quest for independence and obsession with self, we become defensive, shift blame, and avoid relationships that might expose us. We hide the worst in ourselves at every cost. But the “safety” that comes from hiding also comes at a cost. We become alienated because every self-protecting cover-up erodes intimacy with God, other people, and our actual selves. Rather than live free, we schlep through life carrying the cargo of vague guilt and shame-induced anxiety. If we are somehow awakened to our condition, we will cry out for healing from these painful realities. We need help—a kind-hearted rescue from outside ourselves. We can’t get there alone.
rescue from outside ourselves
Although we are exposed and found lacking, Jesus moves toward us as a living hope and ambassador of peace. It is his peace—the declaration that through him, all hostility between heaven and earth, the infinite and the finite, God and humanity, has been demolished—that makes us rich in the truest sense. His peace resources us with an emotional wealth that lets us face our deficiencies more honestly, and in a way that does not crush us. In Jesus, all negative verdicts against us have been reversed. Our vague sense of shame, both illegitimate and legitimate, the shame that comes from outside of us and the shame that comes from inside of us, has been neutered.
We are fully known and fully loved.
We are exposed and not rejected.
We are seen and embraced.
No need to run for cover. In Jesus, there is nothing left to fear, nothing left to prove, and nothing left to hide.
Several years ago, the American Music Awards featured an arrangement of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” but with one very significant revision of the lyrics—“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved someone like me.” Perhaps you identify with the revision because you find the original lyric (“a wretch like me”) offensive. Non-religious people especially resist the idea that there is a wretched tone to the human condition. To err is human, but deep down all people are basically good, the assumption goes. Believing in the inherent goodness of people, a non-religious person might counter the vague sense of shame by denying that shame exists. Live and let live. Or, as Billy Joel famously sang, “I don’t care what you say any more. This is my life. Go ahead with your own life. Leave me alone.” The problem, however, is that in this scenario, shame is suppressed and denied, but it is not healed.
There is also a religious form of denial. Some call it self-righteousness, others call it hypocrisy. In Luke 18:9-14, for examplee, a religious Pharisee hides behind a résumé of good deeds. He prays about himself, or, according to the original text, he prays to his own soul, “Thank you, my God, that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers, tax collectors. No! I am a devoted religious man! I fast twice a week! I give away a tenth of my income! I attend church!” In this prayer he mentions God only once and himself multiple times. Strangely, his “prayer” neither sees nor savors the grace, truth, beauty, goodness, glory, and magnificence of God. Instead, it is a narcissistic moment of self-congratulation. In truth, the self-congratulation is also a self-salvation strategy, a desperate attempt to medicate a shattered and terrified ego.
Not only does the religious man rehearse his own virtues as he sees them, he also uses his virtue as a basis for looking down on other, “lesser” people with contempt. Rather than humbly confessing his weakness and need before God, he separates the world into “good people” and “bad people,” assuring himself that he is one of the good people. What ensues is a counterfeit feeling of superiority that makes him feel, at least for a time, that his shortcomings are not nearly as serious as the shortcomings of others. The problem, however, is that the vague sense of shame is merely suppressed, but not dealt with in a healing way. In the end, his “I’m good, they’re bad, I’m right, they’re wrong” posture corrupts worship and kills community.
Jesus Gives Graces
But Jesus doesn’t separate the world into good people and bad people. He separates the world into proud people and humble people. What’s more, he opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble.
The Jesus gospel, unlike the false “gospels” of the non-religious and religious, assures those who believe that all is well, and that we are OK, not because we are superior to others or because we have accrued an impressive moral record, but because of Jesus’ self-substituting love for us. Jesus lived the perfect life that we were unable to live. Then, he transferred the merits of that perfect life to our account. Because of this, God “reckons” every Jesus person as a perfect person, not because we have lived perfectly but because Jesus lived perfectly in our place.
What’s more, Jesus absorbed the horrific, alienating punishment that was due to us—death on the cross and the removal of God’s smile. Now, because of Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross, God looks at every Jesus person with pleasure. He hasn’t a shred of disappointment or shame toward us, because Jesus took the fall in our place. He has taken every negative verdict toward us and turned it into a “Not guilty.” He has released us from our own, self-imposed prison and told us we can live free. He has shown mercy to those once called, “No Mercy.” He has said to those once called “Not My People” that “You are my people.”
Because of Jesus, everything that’s true about Jesus is true about us in God’s eyes. He leaped over the bar of God’s law in our place, then got crushed by the bar of God’s law in our place, so that the burden of both would be lifted from our shoulders. Now, we who trust in Jesus are embraced by God as radiant, beautiful, lovable, and guilt-free, all of the time, on our best and also our worst days.
Because it’s not about what we do for him.
It’s about what he has done, and continues to do, for us.
He who began a good work in us will faithfully complete that work.
What better reason to start getting honest about our lives—that we are incomplete works in progress on the way to being made complete—without fear of being rejected or dismissed?
Take heart. In Jesus, you are loved. In Jesus, there will always be a seat for you at the King’s table. Jesus, your Elder Brother, is not ashamed of you.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides. You can connect with Scott at scottsauls.com or on Twitter at @scottsauls.
Originally published at scottsauls.com. Used with permission.