NPR posted another "water is wet" article, about a study that found that shockingly, shaming overweight people does not help them lose weight. I posted this because it's a topic I'm intimately familiar with. After being diagnosed with weight related complications, I made the decision to start a weight loss program and lost about 140 lbs over two years. Much of my life prior was an exercise in suppressing rushes of shame that would come about when shopping for clothing, going to the pool, sitting in a seat, or eating a meal with others. Shame is an emotion, not a thought. I could tell myself that my slow thyroid and unfortunate genetic makeup was to blame, but that didn't stop the emotional evaluation of myself as unworthy. Those emotions are noxious and paralyzing, and ultimately useless for changing anything, because the more we feel them, the more we want to hide them until they own us. When I started losing weight, it wasn't because I thought I was worthless and irredeemable, it was because I had a huge cheerleading section telling me I was worth this effort--that who I am and what I'm called to do is too important to be hampered by poor health. Recognizing my worth is what enabled me to move.
There is an enormously obvious theological connection here. Shame is due to the inability to measure up. The allegory of creation illustrates this perfectly. When humanity fell and ate the proverbial apple, we suddenly became aware of the yardstick--the tree was that which revealed the knowledge of good and evil, and from that moment humans became painfully aware that there was a bar, and that because of our disobedience, we would never reach it. Lutherans call this "the law" and it has two functions--to teach us to live in community and to convict us. In conjunction with the gospel, this is actually a good thing, because it helps us connect to each other and points us to to the cross which redeems. But the gospel is mysterious and counter to how we usually experience the law. Without hearing the gospel, the law pretty much serves to make us aware of our failings. We feel it in our bones. When we do something that isn't 100% selfless, a voice condemns us. When we are greedy or gluttonous, a voice convicts us. When we don't measure up, a voice convicts us, and that conviction leaves us feeling alone. When I was heavy, there was a bar of beauty and self-control and whatever that told me I was bad and that was because of a personal failing which made me unlovable and unworthy.
This comes in all shapes and sizes. I use this example because it's an obvious one in my life, but there are less obvious sources of shame. To use another personal example (I'm using these because putting them out there takes away their power--yes, I am going to be a pastor and I struggle, no, I am not perfect! Nobody is!): I have always felt dumb. When you have very bright, educated parents, it's hard not to have some pretty high standards for yourself. This was exacerbated by having very bright siblings who were bright in very different, much more socially valued ways than myself (math and music, two things I do not excel at). But it can be as simple as feeling lazy. Americans have ridiculous standards for our pace of life. Or whatever. Everybody experiences it, but nobody talks about it because we are afraid we will be judged and rejected--we are afraid we will be disconnected. But in hiding in shame, we are disconnecting ourselves from a community which is, at its best, meant to support and nurture us through our weaknesses. Again, this is law taken and twisted and wrongly applied to us. It's law without gospel.
My job as a minister is to speak the gospel to people (and often to myself). The gospel is the thing that connects us by adopting us as daughters and sons of God. The gospel is the thing that declares that we are made worthy not by what we do but because of who Christ is. The gospel is that our failings are exactly where God is and wants to be, for God's "power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:9) The gospel adds a but where we desperately need it. I am not a size 2, but... I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am not an energetic marathoner, but... I was given gifts of silence and calm. I am not... but God has... And because of that, our shame and pain and the ugliest things about ourselves are just a starting point, and the fact that Christ had to come for the whole world only proves that the whole world needed him--because we're all in the same boat. Suddenly our failures aren't things to hide, but things to celebrate because we are connected by our communal need, and more importantly, by the gift that the whole world has been given. There's a billboard or bumper sticker or something I've seen around that says something like: "The church is not a hotel for perfect people but a hospital for the wounded."
I think the job of the church, aside from radically declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ risen for all, is to stop pretending to be so damn perfect. We're not. I'm sure not. There are divorced people and abused people and tax dodgers and speeders and adulterers and sick people and hurt people and fearful people and anxious people, but I guarantee there are no perfect ones. If we would speak more openly about the ways we've failed maybe we could start to chip away at this insidious idea that we need to be a certain way or do certain things. We don't. We never can, never could, never did, never will. But God does. And because of that we're free, knowing how valuable we are, to live our our calls to minister to other broken people.