Popular, secular therapy proclaims the evils of shame. It’s wrong. Sure, shame is misused and abused, but deep-shame—deep shame alone—offers our only hope of grace-based healing. As J. I. Packer once suggested, “Seek the grace to be ashamed.” (This is a response to the anti-shame rant in the world around us.)
Scripture tells two stories of boatload catches of fish, the first at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 5:4-8) and the second at the end (John 21:2-7). In both stories:
Professional fishermen fish all night.
Their night of fishing is fruitless; not a single fish is caught.
The following morning, an amateur offers unsolicited and unusual directions.
The fishermen obey and catch so many fish that their boats begin to sink.
Despite their similarities, there is one, huge difference. After the first miracle, Peter exclaims to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” After the second, Peter casts himself into the sea and breaks an Olympic-record-freestyle to get close to Jesus.
What changed in Peter that drove him to Jesus? He had finally experienced deep shame.
I had a high school friend who was insecure, socially awkward, and overweight. He envied the skills (and good looks) of classmates; he vilified himself for his frequent social blunders; and he castigated himself for his shortcomings.
My friend, however, was in the top five percent of the honors class of a magnet, honors high school; he just never reached the top one percent. And he was the second chair trumpet of a nationally recognized orchestra; he just never made first chair.
Despite his many successes, he saw others do better and it discouraged him. My heart went out to him. We became friends, and in the lunchroom I listened as he told story after story of how students, teachers, and his parents misunderstood him.
His discouragement deepened into depression, and he finally sought a counselor. The counselor said his problem was self-hatred, and that he needed to grow his self-love.
I woke up last week to the blahs, like Marie Antoinette’s claim, “Nothing tastes.” This happens to me when I’m tired, and ten restless nights had drained me. I felt exhausted. And melancholy.
I wasn’t irritable (at least no more than usual). It was just a sense of doldrums. I tried a couple movies, but they didn’t grab me; I tried some good books, but they bored me. Nothing tasted. As a distraction, I did deskwork, but it all felt so dreary. Like doing taxes with a toothache.
I also tried praying. It wasn’t bad. I even felt a flicker of inspiration, but then it flickered out. (“Typical,” I thought.) I wasn’t particularly sad, but I did feel kind of … emotional.
How are Christians supposed to handle our emotions? It simply cannot be limited to:
The Emotional Prima Donna. EVERYTHING is SO EPIC! Like geysers they spurt tears at every Hallmark holiday. Their feelings make them the center of attention.
The Emotional Volcano. Pissed at the world, they erupt at the tiniest insult and explode at a slightest sign of disrespect. Their feelings threaten the world.
The Emotional Eunuch. Claiming to be mini-Spock’s, they stuff their feelings. But they lack his charm (and his cool, pointy ears). They seem like animated cabbage. Their lack of feelings make them alien.
Please, tell me I’m not the only one annoyed by these responses (although, come to think of it, maybe I am feeling a bit irritable).
Then—I kid you not—I read a quote by the pop star Madonna, and it began my recovery.
A couple years ago, I witnessed a well-known, incredible worship leader. His guitar strum stirred my heart, and his baritone voice felt like honey to the soul. I was awed—and a bit envious—as I watched him experience God. I understood his fame.
I praised his skills to my friends. When I wanted to write about leadership, that time of worship came to mind. I wanted to write about that. But then I remembered my first wonderment of a worship leader, someone you’ve never heard of.
When I was about twelve, I noticed that my church was singing louder and even tapping their feet (okay, we were Presbyterians, so we just wiggled our toes). We sang with an unfamiliar, inner-confidence. We began new verses in unison instead of a raggedy, smattering of voices slowly joined by others. I asked my parents what was happening.
They said we had just hired a new organist, Donna Picken. While “only” an organist (this was before pyrotechnical guitars and lighting were allowed in churches), she helped us worship with a gusto few Presbyterians allow in themselves.
The thing was, we never noticed Donna. We just sang better. We didn’t hear fancy organ bass runs (they were probably there); we simply felt freer to sing.
Donna was a great leader because we didn’t see her; we just sensed her effect. Donna was a great worship leader because we didn’t see her, we saw through her … to God.
Why did Jesus have to rise bodily from the dead? Why not just return spiritually to the Father?
Of course the song of resurrection inspires us. It harmonizes beautifully with all our other commonplace choruses, “It’s darkest before the dawn,” “Spring follows winter,” and “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” I once even heard a preacher conclude his Easter sermon with, “So Christ rose in our hearts.” The idea of resurrection feels good.
Such choruses are simply sappy, sentimental attempts to feel good in difficulty. But Paul claimed, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). If Jesus didn’t really, physically, bodily rise from the dead, our faith is just horse manure.
The resurrection is a big deal. But why? Isn’t the real gospel that he died for our sins?
When I was twelve or thirteen, I went on a church retreat in the middle of January. The temperature was below zero. With friends I crossed a low bridge that spanned a three-foot-deep stream. We wrestled a bit, and I accidentally fell off the bridge into the stream.
I was plunged into a pool of stabbing cold; I gasped in shock; the bitter chill astonished me. The icy water began to suck all heat from my body (though technically, I’m told, my tiny body tried to heat hundreds of gallons of ice cold water). We later measured the water to be just above freezing. It felt unbelievably cold. And so did I.
That is the condition of humans after sin; our life is being sucked away in an icy river of death. Sin is not just bad behavior (“I lied,” “You cheated”). Sin is the power of death that ceaselessly, relentlessly, inexorably drains every unit of warmth of every cell from every human being.
I am the son of a pastor. During my dad’s forty years of ministry, he did many great things; he probably committed a few stupid acts; and he occasionally had to make unpopular decisions. He passed away almost twenty years ago.
The “Smith” family was originally supportive of my dad during his Detroit pastorate (from 1963 to 1975). And then they suddenly opposed him. The Smith’s used to smile; now they scowled. My dad was unsure what he had said or done (or not said or done).
A sketch of my church in Detroit
He asked repeatedly what had happened. They denied, repeatedly, any hard feelings.
Pastor’s kids know almost everything that’s happening at church. I knew something was wrong. Mr. Smith had once mentored me. Then he began saying, “Sam, you son of a pastor.” But he slurred the last word to sound like, “Sam, you son of a bastard.”
He thought it was funny.
One day, when I was about twelve, a Frisbee landed on the roof of the sanctuary. The roof was probably twenty feet high, maybe more. I knew a secret access—pastor’s kids know every nook and cranny of their church—so I climbed up to retrieve it.
Mr. Smith happened to be on the ground right below me. He looked up and saw me. He sneered, “I dare you to jump.” Even as a kid I was shocked at his hostility.
I admit I was tempted, tempted to shout back, “Why the ‘F’ don’t you work this out with my dad?” But I was afraid of getting in trouble for cussing. Instead, I did what any bewildered twelve year-old boy would do. I simply stared at him.
Three decades ago, I reached the high water mark of my personal physical fitness. I ran thirty miles a week, performed three hundred pushups a day, and regularly boxed. (Ever since I’ve been on a downward slide, reaching new low water marks almost daily.)
Used with permission: www.judophotos.com
While in that peak physical condition (never mind its short duration), I met a man with a black belt in Judo. He was twice my age, plump, and he wheezed when he walked. I was lifting bars with heavy weights; I think he was visiting bars with many beers.
He was the first black belt of any kind I had ever met. I was curious, and a bit skeptical. Could this chubby, middle-aged man really beat me in a friendly fight?
Alas. The glory of my youthful strength was unmatched by any glory of real-world wisdom. That fool inside me challenged him to hand-to-hand combat.
Never since childhood had I spent so much time on the ground. The lawn and I quickly became intimate friends. I huffed, puffed, wheezed, and groaned (and maybe cursed), as he effortlessly tossed me to the grass over and over again.
It didn’t matter what punch I threw. Every jab, hook, and uppercut resulted in me lying on my back, staring at the sky, gasping for air, and wondering what had happened.