The convergence of two events this past week – The special called General Conference of the United Methodist Church and the release of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, A Sexual Reformation – has me thinking a lot lately about how broken we all are.
Everywhere we turn there is sexual brokenness to be found. The brokenness is found in the big and obvious ways, like the daily stories of sex abuse we learn about both inside and outside the Church, the 97 billion dollar pornography industry, the ever growing sex trafficking industry, the never ending news of adulterous affairs and sexual deviance among everyone from our highest political offices to celebrities to our neighbors. And, of course, it’s present in more subtle, less obvious ways, like how it’s getting increasingly difficult to find much that is taboo or blush-worth, or how something so commonplace and celebrated is so difficult to discuss with one’s children or peers.
Many among us today survey the scene of brokenness before us and conclude religion is to blame. Purity culture, they argue, because it uses shame to toe the line, has created the environment where abusive and illicit, secret sex thrives. Nadia Bolz-Weber wants to bring a sexual reformation to a broken world by relieving us all of our shame around sex. The purpose of faith, the reason Jesus lived and died and rose again, is so that you and I would no longer live in shame. So long as you are not hurting yourself or another, eat, drink, copulate, and be merry.
I am no stranger to shame. As a recovering addict, washed-up pastor, divorced man, mediocre (at best) father, shame has long been the garment I’ve sewn together and hid behind for many years. Wallowing in my shame was both the fuel and the excuse for my addictive behavior. As debilitating and harmful as shame is, though, there is something far worse: The sin beneath it.
Shame, which whispered to me that I am a bad person, that I am beyond repair, that I am unworthy of being loved, that I have gone too far, that I would be more useful dead, is the result of some breaking away from God. It’s genesis is sin. Prior to Adam and Eve partaking in that which was forbidden, they were naked – laid bare before each other and God – and knew no shame (Gen. 2:25). But when they sinned against God, taking a bite from something which in their eyes seemed harmless, good, even desirable, they experienced shame.
Imagine telling Adam and Eve that the problem isn’t what you did (disobeyed God) but the feelings you have over what you did. That might seem absurd, but that is precisely the argument increasingly being made today: Jesus didn’t die so much for what we have done (disobeyed God) but to free us from the bad feelings we have over what we do. Because after all, what we do is good (so long as it’s harmless, good, and desirable (like the forbidden fruit)), so you shouldn’t feel ashamed.
Friends, we are being sold a bill of goods. The enemy of this world, the same one who deceived Adam and Eve, is a master at presenting us with lies wrapped in light (2 Cor. 11:14). When I was wallowing in my shame I yearned for a God who would alleviate my shame and make me feel better about myself. Such a God was very attractive to me. But what I needed most was a God who, with kindness, mercy and love, brought me to the end of myself, showing me that my real problem was a sin problem, not a shame problem. I needed to cry out like the Apostle Paul, “Oh wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death!?” (Rom. 7:24-25).
Jesus didn’t live, die and rise again to make us feel better about ourselves (although we will). He did all of that to make us new (2 Cor. 5:17). The good news of the gospel is that the chains of sin and death are broken, we are reunited with God our Father, and as heirs of the kingdom we can now walk in the Spirit, not in our flesh, which God knows will lead to more brokenness, more shame.
May God’s holy Church repent of her designs to rid the world of shame and instead redirect our energies to that which God through the Holy Spirit directs his: convicting the world of sin and leading them to Jesus, the forgiver of sin. Amen.