The Un-self Self
By Linda Rex
A while back I was getting some help with health issues from a local chiropractor. It was good to receive some assistance with my problems, but I was appalled at the way shame and guilt were used there to try to motivate people to take care of their bodies through eating right, exercise and chiropractic care. If a person did not leave that place feeling bad about themselves, I would have been surprised—it was hard to escape the message that was being given.
As I began to look around me, I found many cultural messages that try to tell us we are guilty and ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Often it is churches or parachurch groups that push this message—with the best of intentions, of course. But it can be seen and experienced in many places, even in advertising and in the business place.
I remember a pastor saying once that guilt and shame are healthy—they tell us when we have crossed the line between wrong and right, and they show us our need to repent. That’s all well and good, but I really don’t see Jesus using shame and guilt as a motivator anywhere in his ministry. Even his call to repent pointed people to himself as the coming and presence of the kingdom of God in their midst.
For example, when the woman who is caught in the act of adultery is brought before him, he merely asks that the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. So instead of shaming the poor woman further, or making her feel more guilty than she already probably felt, he pointed out our common humanity—that we are all imperfect and in need of grace. Then he invited the woman into a new way of living and being—“Go, and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus’ ultimate invitation to a new way of living and being came through the cross. The apostle Paul helps us to understand that in Christ we are all new creatures—all that old self with its guilt and shame was taken up with Christ on the cross, crucified, buried and resurrected into a new self. God not only gives us a perfected humanity in Jesus, he also transforms us by his Spirit into a new person who can fully participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father.
At some point we all face the reality that we are not what we should be. It isn’t helpful to pile on guilt and shame in such situations. It is a whole lot more helpful to address such personal failures through love and grace within the context of community and loving relationship.
In other words, we are offered in Christ and by the Spirit a relationship full of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness, predicated on Christ’s perfected humanity and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us into alignment with all we were created to be as image-bearers of God. We offer this same relationship to one another, understanding that Christ defines our humanity now, and our shortcomings and failures, which are real, are buried in Christ and transformed by the Spirit as we are willing to participate with God in his work of transforming us into Christlikeness.
There is an appropriate time to speak truth into someone’s life about the harm they are doing to themselves and to others. This is a participation in God’s justice, and must always be done with love and grace. It is not constructive to go from there to shame and guilt—it is much more productive to offer forgiveness and unconditional acceptance while at the same time refusing to allow the person to continue to hurt themselves or others.
I’ve heard this called passive resistance. I once heard someone say that this is actually what Jesus was talking about when he said to turn the other cheek. In the culture of the time, turning the other cheek wasn’t about letting someone abuse you freely, but rather about exposing the one who was being abusive to the public exposure and criticism of his behavior since it was culturally inappropriate and wrong to be abusive in that way. And therefore, within the context of community, the person would be motivated to change.
This means our communities and relationships need to be places where love and grace abound, and where people are accepted and forgiven rather than overwhelmed with shame and guilt. They need to be places where we point out our common center in Christ, and where we invite one another to grow up into all that Christ won for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Here the Holy Spirit is welcomed and obeyed, as he leads us into all truth and creates in us and among us the holy fellowship of the Triune God and the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ our Lord.
In this place of our common center in Christ, we both acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses, but we also acknowledge where others are growing up in Christ as well. We create a safe environment in which people can face up to their shortcomings, confess their faults and receive the grace and help they need to begin to change. We open ourselves up through spiritual disciplines and shared community life to the work of the Holy Spirit who is the only one who can truly transform a person from the inside out.
This is what James Torrance and others call Christian community. This is a sharing in the divine fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit. It is a wonderful experience to participate in such a community, so I encourage all my readers to find a group they can be a part of where such grace, love and truth are lived out in the presence of the Triune God. It can be hard to find people who are willing to be this transparent, humble and gracious. But it is definitely worth it.
Father, thank you that through your Son and by your Spirit you have freed us from guilt and shame, and you offer each of us participation in Christ’s perfected humanity and your Triune life of love. Grant us the grace to offer one another this same love and grace, and to live in fellowship with one another as you do. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.
“But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Eph 4:20–24 NASB
But What About Positive Expectations?
Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at in our church, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5
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