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March 22, 2017: "Shame, depart, thou art an enemy to my salvation." (John Bunyan)
As we make our way through the “Experiencing Grace” series, I would like to return our attention to the discipline of confession and, in particular, to that part of God’s mercy that must include our forgiving ourselves. There is only one small snag in my master plan: I am horrible at forgiving myself. If I should I feel just a little out of sorts when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think is “who do I need to apologize to?” So, I am going to give you three solid points on how to apply the Lord’s forgiveness to ourselves, with a necessary caveat. Let’s begin with the three practical tools that follow our sincerely confessing to God what we did wrong (or didn’t do that we should have done):
1. Don’t accept guilt over what you have confessed to God. Show Him you accept His forgiveness by refusing to feel the slightest bit guilty for what is now forgiven. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12, NIV) Imposing guilt on ourselves has a strange way of trying to atone for our past—which is actually competing with Jesus’ work on the Cross.
2. Hold your head up high, as if you never sinned and therefore have nothing to be ashamed of. We are commanded to enjoy His friendship and forgiveness. “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:14, NIV). In the goodness of that relationship, He will make your past work together for good as if the whole thing—including your failure—were His own idea. That is the way that the Lord lets us save face.
3. Boldly and unashamedly ask God to bless you even though you know you don’t deserve it. You ask, “How can I ask God to bless me? I have been so awful.” Why would He bless you? Because He wants to! “I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them…” (Jeremiah 32:40, NIV). It does not bless Him when you let your unworthiness govern your prayer life. The truth is we are all unworthy.
These are three good principles and I commend them to you. I have applied these practical tools and they work… except when they don’t. And when they don’t, it’s because there is something “more” going on that these three points cannot touch: shame. There is, if you like, an appropriate remorse or “shame” that carries a Godly quality. This would be the sort of shame that actually moves us closer to God so that we can receive His forgiveness. The sort of “shame” I am talking about, however, is highly toxic and highly destructive, and it will always move us further away from God.
Toxic shame will fasten itself to us over something we once got wrong, over something that someone did to us or even over something someone said to us. This sort of shame is like a stain on the soul. It leaves us with the haunting notion that deep, deep down we are somehow defective. We try to ignore it. We attempt to board it up. We move to another city…another country, hoping to shake it. We try waiting around for some sense of “perfection” to come to us—that somehow we will acquire a general sense of our own “good enough-ness” but actually that won’t happen because we cannot self-generate that. This sense of “good enough” comes only from the Father—and we are not about to let Him in to see our mess!
The key to God unlocking your soul from toxic shame is not forgiveness. You can’t forgive shame. Those three magnificent principles won’t touch it. Toxic shame needs something else; toxic shame needs to be healed. How is that going to happen?
1. Mercy: Shame is mercy-less. The enemy takes the worst images, cherry picks the moments that degrade and defile us, and then repeatedly thrashes us with them. And so we imagine that the Lord feels the same way about us that we do. We imagine that if all this really came into the light, He would throw up His arms in disgust and reject us—because that is our response to ourselves. The truth is that He does throw open His arms—but not to reject us, to embrace us. He sees our shame and He has mercy for us. Of the Cross, Paul reminds us, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:14, NIV). The Lord’s desire is to embrace, cover and cleanse us from our shame.
2. Compassion: As Jesus embraces us and covers our shame, we begin to apprehend His compassion. We suddenly understand that He knows the pain of our fear. We think, “The truth is worse than what they know…” That is true for all of us. We all have skeletons in the closet. But God has no joy in exposing our past secrets. He has no desire to embarrass you.
3. We begin to see ourselves as Jesus sees us: Fairly recently, I came across a photograph from my childhood. What I saw so clearly was a small boy who still felt (decades later) that if he had been a “better kid” his dad might have stuck around. This was the place that I was not about to let anybody into—least of all God. As I gazed at much younger me, it felt like a lot of light suddenly rushed into a very dark and lonely place, and in that moment I protested a little, “Don’t you see me?”. It was as if the Lord responded, “Yes, I see you, Drew. But not as you see you. Tell me, am I ashamed of you?” I looked at that old photograph for a long time but finally had to say, “No…I am astonished by this but, no, Lord, I can’t find it in my heart that you are ashamed of me.”
I suspect that I am not alone in living with a shame filled space in my soul. The good news is that we don’t have to. The Cross was most certainly for our forgiveness but, in His mercy, the Cross was also to heal our shame. Jesus went to the place of shame—outside of the city, crucified naked as an outcast—the ultimate public shaming. “For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2, NIV) And the completeness of joy set before Him was in our full redemption, forgiveness, restoration and healing; “bringing many sons and daughters to glory” (Hebrews 2:10, NIV).
Max Lucado puts it so well, “Your eyes look in the mirror and see a sinner, a failure, a promise-breaker. But by faith you look in the mirror and see a robed prodigal bearing the ring of grace on your fingers and the kiss of your Father on your face.”