God and the Human Condition (Romans 1:18-25)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.

So they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (New Revised Standard Version)

Exchanging Good for Bad

Nature abhors a vacuum. Everything is filled with something. If one thing is given up, another thing will take its place. Change is actually more like an exchange of one thing for another. Something is taken out, then replaced with something different.

We have exchanged:

  • Behavior that attends to the common good of all persons, for self-interested behavior to what is good for me and my family and/or group
  • Good deeds done from a pure heart, for good deeds done from an impure heart which give me an advantage or leverage over another
  • Steadfast committed love of others, for hustled love that gets discarded whenever things get hard
  • Submission to one another out of a sense of sacred reverence, for disobedience to anyone I don’t like
  • Dignity of being an image-bearer of God for the shame and ignominy of self-image
  • Majesty and worth of all persons in the world, for becoming masters of small worlds
Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

And that’s not all, there’s more. We also have a nasty tendency to replace:

  • Freedom for shackles
  • Virtue for vice
  • Morality for immorality
  • Justice for injustice
  • Goodness for ungodliness
  • Truth for a lie
  • Wisdom for foolishness
  • Immortality for mortality
  • Honor for dishonor
  • Devotion for disregard
  • God for gods

These are all very poor replacements. In fact, the exchanges are so dark that they leave us in a state of guilt before God and all creation. Indeed, we all have sinned and fallen short of our intended purpose on this earth.

Guilt and Shame

Our response must not exchange guilt for shame because they are different words:

Guilt is assigned by God so that repentance and reconciliation might happen.

Shame, however, is introduced by us; we are the ones who label ourselves as a bucket of pig slop, not God.

Guilt is a function of the conscience, letting us know when we have said or done something wrong or hurtful; it is specific to a particular action or lack of action.

Shame, however, is a function of the “inner critic.” It interprets bad words or actions as we ourselves being bad, focusing not on actions but on our very personhood in the form of judgmentalism leveled at myself.

Guilt says, “I have done something bad.”

Shame, however, says, “I am bad.”

Guilt serves a redemptive purpose through alerting us that we need to deal with a wrong.

Shame, however, damages our spirits through telling us we are flawed and unworthy of love and connection with others.

Because guilt and shame are not the same, they need to be dealt with in different ways.

Guilt, if not faced and dealt with, becomes gangrene of the soul. Over time it festers and poisons our spirits, leading to significant emotional and sometimes physical problems. Forgiveness (both in apologies and in forgiving oneself) is the primary tool in dealing with guilt.

Shame, however, lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness. Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name your shame and tell your story – thus taking away shame’s power and giving it back to yourself. Vulnerability is the tool which erases shame.

“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged and healed.”

Brené Brown

Emotional Creatures

In the absence of light, there is darkness. Purging oneself of belief in God merely means that another god will take her place. Scripture labels this “idolatry.”

What’s more, in the absence of feeling, in the quest to absolve oneself of unwanted emotions, there still remains emotion – because humans are emotional creatures.

People mostly rid themselves of any god concept because of how they feel about it. In fact, we do just about everything in life based on our emotions. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. We get into problems and fuss about emotions mucking up things, only because we never faced those feelings to begin with.

A person will never know God unless they understand this. The worship of God and the practice of Christianity is not only to engage the mind and the spirit, but also the body and the emotions.

Emotions and feelings are not like foreign microbes that enter the body as unwanted interlopers. They didn’t enter humanity as part of the world’s curse, after Adam and Eve’s fall into disobedience. No!

Rather, we are our emotions, just as much as we are our body, mind, and soul. Therefore, every emotion which exists, resides in us, all the time. We cannot purge ourselves of our emotions any more than we can remove the heart, the brain, or the bowels, and then expect to live.

Denying our emotions, suppressing feelings, and leaving them unacknowledged is terribly unhealthy and will slowly kill us – because our emotions are vital to our very existence.

Getting Rid of God

There are millions of spiritually dead zombies walking the earth who have jettisoned God altogether – either deliberately or unwittingly – because they discarded their emotions, long before they exchanged the sacred for the secular.

We all sometimes get physically ill; it’s part of the human condition, and we all understand that. So, we go to bed, or to the doctor, or to the hospital’s emergency department – depending upon the severity of our illness. We even go to a physician when we are healthy, just to get a check-up and make sure everything in the body is working as it should.

We also all get spiritually and emotionally ill; it’s part of the human condition. But we all don’t understand that. So, we soldier on, going about our regular business as if everything is hunky-dory. We don’t attend to our emotional selves. We don’t slow down and address what’s going on, or go to a church, or go to anyone. Instead, we suffer in silence.

Just as it ludicrous to get rid of the body altogether whenever we get a disease, so we must not rid ourselves of God whenever we get spiritually and emotionally sick. We face the illness and deal with it. It might require surgery. Recovery will hurt. That’s all part of facing it.

Ignoring God is about as smart as ignoring a heart attack. It might go away for a short time, but it’ll come back with a vengeance and do you in.

Emotions aren’t to blame when things are rough. Neither is God to blame when bad stuff happens. Both our emotions and God are realities we must deal with.

Just like the force of gravity is always there and needs to be respected (by not simply walking off the roof of your house, believing you don’t need gravity anymore) so the person and the power of God is always here and we absolutely need to come to terms with that reality, instead of walking away.

What will you do?…

Mark 10:17-22 – Jesus Intervenes

Eastern Orthodox mural of Jesus and the rich man

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth. (New International Version)

We are all addicts. 

We all have our own sin addictions which keep us stuck in guilt and shame.

We may not all struggle with the same sin. Yet we all have some besetting sin(s) that we must be weaned off of. The most pervasive addiction found in Holy Scripture is neither substance abuse nor alcohol – it is the addiction to wealth and money.

Maybe your initial response was of someone else, besides yourself: “I don’t have as much money as____” or, “So-and-so has a real problem with that!” Those statements are what we call, in terms of addiction, denial. 

In truth, all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, investments, and owning material stuff. I’m no exception. I own more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime, and yet, I tend to believe I don’t have enough of them.

Even the poor can have an addiction wealth and money by thinking about it and wishing for it to an unhealthy degree, as if wealth is the thing that will ultimately make them happy.

People in denial rarely have any idea how much they are hurting others, themselves, and God.  In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. 

Because of denial, people need an intervention. They need to be jolted back to their senses. Intervention is a gift. Someone cares enough about the person to intervene. Yet, interventions don’t always work. The person can choose to walk away and refuse to change.

Jesus did a gracious intervention with a rich young man. The man was addicted to wealth and money, but he didn’t see it. In fact, he thought he was quite godly and spiritual. It’s a sad story because the man walks away untransformed by his encounter with Jesus and did not accept the gracious invitation to follow the Lord. 

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man, 1879

The man simply did not see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change. He held to his denial.

The man approached Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Whereas I would probably get all excited about being asked a question like this and launch into some long-winded gospel answer, Jesus immediately picked up on the attitude and the need behind the question. 

What must I do to get? It’s almost as if the man wants to acquire eternal life like he would acquire wealth. “I am a successful businessman with plenty of money, and a respected citizen with lots of wealth – now I want to be a success with God, as well.” 

The question may have been sincere, yet it was misguided. Eternal life is not spiritual real estate for an upwardly mobile person to acquire and possess. The man seems to believe he can purchase eternal life, as if everyone has their price, even God. “After all,” he may have been reasoning, “I have gotten everything else in life, so why not obtain eternal life?”

Jesus questioned the question. He went after the underlying assumption of doing something good to obtain eternal life. The fact of the matter is that the man cannot do anything. He can’t because only God is good. Jesus points him to God by changing the action from getting to entering. And he changed the language from a market acquisition to entering into a journey.

Jesus was inviting the man to walk with him.

Eternal life is a journey of faith in the God who is good, and not a transaction to get it. And, we too, must be careful not to treat eternal life as if it were a transaction, as if we must get a person to sign on the dotted line through a “sinner’s prayer” or some other formula that will seal the deal for eternal life. 

Instead, eternal life is a walk of obedience with God and his commands.

Jesus responded to the rich man with the Ten Commandments, specifically the ones which focus on human relationships. Jesus wanted him to realize that the path into the kingdom of God and eternal life goes through and not around how we treat our fellow human beings.

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889

The Lord sought to expose the impossibility of continuing in life on the rich man’s terms. The guy just could not imagine what he might be lacking. So, Jesus helped him out. Christ gave him some major interventional language…. Sell. Give. Follow.

Sell everything. Give to the poor. Come, follow me.

One cannot simply add Jesus to their life, like adding a new car or a new fishing rod. Rather, one’s heart must change in order to accommodate real, genuine eternal life. 

Jesus offered the rich man someone to be, rather than something to get

It’s one thing to give from what you have; it’s another thing to surrender your life and all you have. 

In the New Testament Gospels, there are no easy conversations with Jesus. He gets personal in every encounter and gets under everybody’s skin. Christ doesn’t settle with superficial small talk when there are people whose hearts are little more than idol factories. 

Jesus never leaves us alone, because there is always the invitation to “Come, follow me.”

Christ exposed the wealthy man’s divided loyalties – he was trying to serve both God and money. But he would have to choose between the two. 

And that is our choice, as well. 

The question for us is not, “Am I completely devoted to money?” Instead, the question from our Gospel story today is, “Am I trying to serve God while maintaining a moonlighting job with the world?” 

God wants from us an undivided heart; the Lord desires absolute allegiance.

Jesus is looking for those who are poor in spirit, who recognize their great need for God – instead of believing that they are okay and just need to add a little Jesus to their lives. 

God is looking for spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and don’t practice denial by sugar-coating their actual spiritual state.

Like a drunkard who won’t give up his vodka; like a sex addict who won’t give up strip clubs or emotional affairs; or like a workaholic who just can’t come home; the rich man would not give up his disordered love for money and possessions. 

So, Jesus did an intervention. 

The Lord Jesus didn’t ask everybody to do exactly as he called the rich man to do. He didn’t ask the very wealthy Zacchaeus to do it, and he didn’t tell Peter to sell his fishing business. 

But Jesus does tell us to do something which seems impossible. Yet, where the impossible exists, so exists grace.

Blessed Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without loving generosity are worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 107:1-9, 43 – Let the Redeemed Say So

Psalm 107 by Hope Smith

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
    and the hungry he fills with good things….

Let those who are wise pay attention to these things
    and consider the steadfast love of the Lord. (New Revised Standard Version)

The psalmist encourages and invites us to consider God’s steadfast love (Hebrew “chesed”). In all truth, an eternity of pondering and discovering such love will never plumb the depths of the Lord’s faithful love.

Maybe there is so much hate, bitterness, and vitriol in this old fallen world because people don’t consider the God who is Love. After all, there isn’t much room for malicious anger whenever people are expressing gratitude.

We are divinely hard-wired to give and receive affirmation, gratitude, encouragement, and love. Doing the opposite of that throws a huge monkey wrench into our daily living. It’s not sustainable to live by criticism, ingratitude, judgmentalism, and hate. It goes against who we are as humans.

Instead, it is sage to acknowledge, appreciate, ponder, and express the great love of God for humanity. The Lord’s love never runs out – it is inexhaustible.

Many people have stories of wandering far from Love, stumbling in the darkness, and finding themselves in desperate straits. Like the prodigal son, they are found by the God who is Love. And instead of being chided for their herky-jerky life, they are given a prominent place in God’s kingdom.

Some of you wandered for years in the desert,
    looking but not finding a good place to live,
Half-starved and parched with thirst,
    staggering and stumbling, on the brink of exhaustion.
Then, in your desperate condition, you called out to God.
    He got you out in the nick of time. (Psalm 107:4-6, MSG)

Praise and thanksgiving become the reflexive practices of the folk who have returned home to God. And the psalmist calls us to speak out those stories of hope and deliverance.

Telling our spiritual stories to others is important – both for the storyteller, and also for those who listen. Together, the spiritual community of the redeemed becomes strengthened in their bonds of faith; and everyone is emboldened to share with others. 

Far too many Christians are reticent to talk about what God has done or is doing in their lives. Shame, embarrassment, or a host of other reasons might prevent us from being vulnerable enough to let others in on God’s deep work within.

We all likely have had the privilege of hearing another person share their heart and experience of hardship and God’s deliverance. It was uplifting, encouraging, and helpful. So, let’s not keep our stories to ourselves. Stories are meant to be told, not hidden. Bringing to light our faith journey is healing for all, as well as declaring that Jesus is the light of the world.

Author Frederick Buechner wrote a book several years ago entitled, “Telling Secrets.” Buechner tells of his own experience of keeping some stories inside and never letting them see the light of day. One of those stories was growing up with an alcoholic father and all the other stories that went along with that singular story.

It was only in finally telling the family secret of alcoholism that he discovered a better path forward to healing and blessing. He writes:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets, too, because it makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own.”

Frederick Buechner, “Telling Secrets”

Buechner went on to say:

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it, the chances are you will recognize that, in many ways, it is also your story. It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

Shame is like a vampire. It lives in the shadows, feeding upon secrets. But when our stories are told and see the light of day, the vampire of shame is destroyed by the bright rays of truth and vulnerability.

We then become open to genuine relationships without propping up a false self to pose for others. We place ourselves in a position to receive and give love. In other words, we can meaningfully connect with both God and others because we found our voice and told our story.

Great God of deliverance, I praise you that I have a story to tell of your grace and faithfulness. Help me to tell of your mercy in my life so that the name of Jesus will be exalted, and that your people might be built up in the faith.  Amen.

Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16 – Holy Saturday

I take refuge in you, Lord.
    Please never let me be put to shame.
        Rescue me by your righteousness!
Listen closely to me!
    Deliver me quickly;
        be a rock that protects me;
        be a strong fortress that saves me!
You are definitely my rock and my fortress.
    Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name!
Get me out of this net that’s been set for me
    because you are my protective fortress….

My future is in your hands.
    Don’t hand me over to my enemies,
    to all who are out to get me!
Shine your face on your servant;
    save me by your faithful love! (Common English Bible)

Holy Saturday is a quiet place sandwiched between the ignominy of the Cross and the celebration of Resurrection – a day of solitude, silence, and stillness. 

This isn’t a particularly popular day. People don’t rave about Holy Saturday. Many Christians haven’t even a thought that this day could have any significance. Yet, this very day has its place in the scheme of the Christian life.

Whenever Christians quickly jump to triumphal language about victory and speak little-to-nothing about suffering, then we are left with a cheap grace which has been purchased with the counterfeit currency of velocity. 

Today is meant for us to get of our heads and wrap our hearts around the important reality that Jesus Christ was truly and bodily dead in the grave. 

It was real suffering on Good Friday, and it is a real death on Holy Saturday. There is no movement. All is silent and still. Jesus is in the solitude of a dark tomb. 

There’s no getting around this: If we want a Resurrection Day with all its celebration and glory, then we cannot circumvent Holy Saturday with its quiet and somber sadness. 

Holy Saturday must be observed if we are to experience real and practical freedom from the bondage of shame. And shame is powerful. It keeps a person locked within themselves, alone with their secrets hidden far from others.

Far too often we may try and cope with our shameful words or actions through promising to work harder, pledging to have greater willpower, or complaining that life is unfair. None of this gets to the root of our shame.

Unlike guilt, which our conscience identifies as specific behaviors to repent of, shame is the message of our inner critic who obnoxiously decries that we are somehow flawed, not enough, and inherently lacking intelligence, courage, or volition.

Shame is the insidious mechanism which interprets bad events as we ourselves being bad.

Shame is the vampire who lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets – which is why the posture of shame is to hide our face in our hands. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness. 

Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name our shame and tell our stories. In other words, nailing the stake of vulnerability into the heart of shame, and exposing it to the light, causes it to disintegrate and vaporize.

In contrast to the unhealthy hiding of ourselves within prison walls of shame is seeking refuge and hiding ourselves in God. Even a cursory look at today’s psalm evidences an open and vulnerable person who wants nothing to do with shame. The psalmist unabashedly and without shame is quite forward in presenting his wants to God.

The psalms are meant for repeated use, to be voiced aloud again and again. In doing this simple activity, we shame-proof our lives. God’s face shines upon us and takes away the shadows of shame. It is no coincidence that Jesus forsook the shame of the cross through publicly uttering the words of this psalm: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

Unchecked verbal violence will eventually lead to physical violence.

If wordy persecution comes from others, the primary tactic will most likely be shaming the people such persons want to control. Such enemies will frame a justification for violence because the people for whom they are leveling shame are “bad,” even “monsters.” If the verbal persecution comes from within, the shame can reach a critical mass of suicidal ideation and perhaps outright attempts at ending one’s life.

There is no existing with the living death of shame. But the good news is that we don’t have to. Instead, we can live in the strong fortress and the rock of refuge which is God.

The Lord traffics in redeeming mercy and steadfast love, not in the demeaning judgment of shame. We can flee to God and find grace to help us in our time of need. There is no shame in reaching out for help. We all need deliverance from something. It’s a matter of whether we are open to ask for it, or not.

Holy Saturday is here for you to know that Jesus Christ absorbed all of the world’s massive shame, yesterday, on Good Friday. Christ died. And the shame he took on, died with him. It is no more and will rise no more.

But someone will rise….

Father God, into your hands I commit my spirit – everything I am and all that I hope to be – so that Jesus Christ might be exalted in me through the power of your Holy Spirit. I choose to leave shame where it belongs – nailed to the cross. With your divine enablement, I shall walk in newness of life through expressing my needs and wants with courage, confidence, and candor. May it be so according to your steadfast love. Amen.