Losing Our Big Shame Feb. 18/19, 2017
Today we are concluding our Biggest Loser Blairsville Style sermon series. We’ve been attempting to lose the hurts, habits and hang-ups that keep us from God’s best, and today we’re going to explore a topic that might be the heaviest burden we carry, the burden of shame.
When I was in high school, I was a big of fan of the Rocky movies. I thought it would be cool to be tough like Rocky Balboa, the Philadelphia born and bred boxer who overcame all obstacles. And like most teenage boys, “The Eye of the Tiger” sort of became my theme song. Rocky was a winner, and I wanted to be a winner. But there’s one scene from Rocky III that began to redefine for me what winning really looked like. In that scene, it’s clear that Rocky’s motivation had become stagnant. He’s preparing to fight Clubber Lang (Mr. T!), and he can’t seem to get past this big mental wall that’s he built. And finally, his wife Adrian has enough. She follows him out to the beach, chases him down and demand that he tell her the truth. And Rocky finally breaks down and says, “I’m afraid! For the first time in my life, I’m afraid.” And Adrian responds, “I’m afraid, too. And there’s nothing wrong with being afraid.” This is a pivotal moment that begins to change Rocky’s perspective, and it changes the story moving forward. But the story ONLY changes when Rocky confesses what’s really going on.
A young man who came to me several years ago and said, “I need to tell you something, but I’m not sure how you’ll react.” This young man was discerning a call into ministry, and he was someone who had, and still has, the gifts and graces to lead others well. But he had a struggle, a struggle so deep and intense that it caused doubt to creep in. He doubted his faith; he doubted God’s love for him. And for many years, he hid it, hoping it would go away, hoping that nobody would ever notice, because what would they say? “I’m addicted to pornography,” he told me, “and I’m so ashamed.”
I could tell you dozens of stories of similar conversations I’ve had over the years. Stories of people who were mentally and emotionally beaten down because of struggles, but they came out of hiding and rediscovered the redemptive power of Christ. They came out of hiding to discover once again a God who was for them and not against them, and a God who wanted nothing more than to give them life and build them back up one day at a time. But they first had to make the decision to confront their shame and come out of hiding. And it wasn’t easy. It never is.
Our struggle with hiding isn’t a new development. We all have those family gatherings where we never mention the elephant in the room, and we all have those “dirty little secrets.” It’s a human problem. Our struggle with hiding goes all the way back to the foundational stories of the Bible. These stories are meant to tell us about ourselves, to reveal the ongoing struggle we have with God and each other. As we read these stories, we’re meant to see our stories in them, to see our hopes and fears; to see existential truths that cut through the heart of every human being.
One such foundational story comes from Genesis 2 and 3. I want to read one verse from Genesis 2: 24-25. Do you notice in this story that both Adam and Eve are naked? And what’s so profound about this statement is that there is no shame. Without a doubt, there are some references to sexuality here, but the beauty is that there are no secrets and there is no hiding. Adam and Eve were one, together and before God. Nothing was hidden from the other and the result is a beautiful relationship between man, woman and God. This is what healthy relationship looks like, bearing it all with no shame. The closer we grow to each other, the closer we grow to God. And vice versa. But then chapter 3 happens. And notice the difference.
The presence of sin doesn’t simply lead to punishment or consequence (if it stopped there, it might not be so bad), but instead sin leads to hiding…hiding our scars, our warts, our nakedness from each other…and what’s more, it leads to hiding our lives from the good presence of God. What we don’t realize at the time is that hiding takes a lot out of us. I’ve found that hiding is exhausting work, because it was never meant to be our work. It was never meant to be our mode of operation. It’s exhausting to clean our search histories (or remember to do so!) every day so our spouses don’t find the x-rated websites; it’s exhausting to try to avoid our co-worker with whom we had a major disagreement; it’s exhausting to hide our problems from friends because we don’t know how they’ll react and all we can do is think about their reactions; it’s exhausting to go through life peaking from behind the bush, wondering if God will find us where we don’t want to be found.
That’s really why we hide our shame. We hide because we’re scared of the reactions others will have when let down our guard. We’re scared of being shunned; looked down upon; being judged; losing trust or confidence; being abandoned; disappointing others and God. We hide because we can’t control what the other will do when he or she finds out. And this hiding feels like a kind of prison. We don’t want to be there, but at least we can control it, even though our hiding keeps us from the life of freedom and grace that God longs to give. I had a professor who once said, “People prefer the misery of what they know to the mystery of what they don’t.” (M. Craig Barnes, Pastoral Care) But the story of our faith is a story of grace, the story of a God who doesn’t let us remain in hiding.
In a way, the entire story of our faith can be described as a God who, through the incarnation and life of Jesus, invades a hiding humanity and invites humanity to come out from behind the bush. Whether it’s David who is confronted by Nathan with his sin of adultery, or Saul who is confronted by a blinding light on the road to Damascus, or a man left for dead on the road whose only hope is a Samaritan, the Gospel story is an invitation out of the prison of hiding from God and in to the fullness of life God intends. But it only happens when we take that vulnerable step out of hiding.
Let’s go back just for a minute and read another section of this Genesis story. I want to read for you Genesis 3: 14-19, 20-24. Notice here that God doesn’t remove the consequences. Finding the courage to lose our shame doesn’t do that. We can’t erase the past or dictate the future. Coming out from behind the bush is a signal that we’re tired of hiding and we’re now ready to confront the challenges ahead- the marriage that will take some time to repair, the recovery programs that will need to be attended, the relationship that will need to end, the confession that will need to occur, the conversation that will need to happen.
But also notice what God doesn’t do. He doesn’t end life. He doesn’t put a “period” on the story. He doesn’t close the book. He offers grace – garments of skin for Adam and his wife- and although their lives will now be different, they still have life, and they have it with God at their sides. Our natural instinct is to run from God, to hide from him and from others, but that’s not the road that leads to life.
A pivotal moment in my faith journey was my first year of seminary when a good friend asked me to join him and a few others in a weekly accountability group. We read Scripture, we prayed, we sang a few songs, and then the questions came, questions that dealt with the soul- kind of like Adrian compelling Rocky to admit what was really going on behind that rock-hard outer shell. I’ll never forget the first meeting and the first question. How have you sinned this week? And we all kind of looked at each other, wondering if it was safe, wondering if our answers would jeopardize our future careers and callings, wondering what would happen if anyone in the room would run out and share our secrets.
One by one, we came out of hiding. Future pastors with sins- some trivial, some grave- speaking aloud what God already knew. And after feeling demoralized, imperfect, dirty and worthless, our friend invited us to look into each others’ faces and proclaim the following words of freedom: In the name of Christ, you are forgiven. And it was the most life-giving moment I’ve ever been apart of.
I don’t know what you’re hiding from God today, and I don’t know the shame that hounds you. But what I do know is that the only way to be everything God made us to be is to lose our shame and embrace God’s gifts of mercy, love and forgiveness. Today I simply want you know that it’s ok to come out from behind the bush because you will find that out here, where God has access to our deepest fears, is so much better than what you’ll leave behind. As we finish, I’d invite you to take a moment to confess that shame before God and let him take it away. Amen.