Shame and Identity

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached by Brice Laughrey on August 15, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, thank you, Lord, for your presence, for your love, for your compassion. Thank you for your mercy and your patience with us. Thank you for the way you are persistent and faithful in our lives and all of creation. Thank you for the way that you demonstrate for us in Christ and in the Spirit and in our lives that you are present.

We know, Lord, that this is not something that everybody sees, but we hope that our presence will be a reflection of yours, Lord. We hope that the things that we do in life would reflect your love and your mercy and your compassion — would reflect your justice and would not reflect the hate and the violence of the world but would stand against those things, Lord, in ways that are visible, in ways that are empowering for people, in ways that draw people into your Kingdom and help them to find those safe spaces that you create for us.

We hope, Lord, that as we examine scripture — not only now but every time that we look in scripture — that you would help us to see more deeply and hear more deeply the love that you have for us, the way that you are Love in creation, Lord, the way that you are persistent and present with us. Help us to combat the feelings of shame that society thrusts upon us so that we can accept with humility and with joy the deep relationship that we have for you. We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

Good morning, again.

I want to talk about love and shame this morning. I want to talk about love and shame, because they’re two really big topics in our society. I think they’re probably big topics in every society, because I think they’re really big human topics. Everybody wants to be loved, and unfortunately, almost everybody experiences shame. Shame, here, doesn’t mean guilt and doesn’t mean embarrassment and doesn’t mean feeling like you made a bad choice. That’s not what I mean by shame. What I mean by shame is the feeling that something about you — something you did or some label that you have associated with yourself — is a reflection of your core identity [in a negative way]. We turn our labels into who we are.

Sometimes we do this in little ways that aren’t necessarily shameful or shaming. For example, if somebody says, “Well, there’s Brice, and Brice is a preacher.” Yeah, I preach, but they don’t generally mean that “Brice is a preacher, and that’s all that Brice is.” They’re not generally boiling down my identity to just one thing. If I say, “Dave is a bus driver,” I don’t generally mean that Dave is just a bus driver, but when it starts to become that way — when the reality of how I deal with people starts to become a boiled down version of them where I hone in on a certain attribute — that’s when it starts to become problematic. The problem is that we tend to take a tiny bit of something that we know about someone, and we turn it into all of who they are, and then it blinds us to the rest of them. We do this with all kinds of things.

We do this with occupations, where we have people we contact just because of what they do, and we never contact them for anything else. We don’t want to know what their life is like, and we don’t want to know how their family is, and we don’t want to know what struggles they have. We only contact them because we want some answers. Essentially, we treat them like a commodity.

We do this with racial issues, where we boil everything that we need to know about a person down to the way they look — down to the color of their skin. Or we do it with cultures and heritage, where all we need to know about them is what region they’re from or who their family is. We do this with economic status, where all we need to know about them is how much money they make or what income level they live into. And, especially in America, we realize that if we can put on this facade of looking like this certain very small demographic of people, then we can be respected and accepted, then we can get likes and follows, then we can be money-makers and powerful figures in our communities.

But all of that boils people down to really limited descriptions — to tiny labels that we give to people. When we start doing that, jealousy starts to set in. For example, if you are identified as “my [best] friend,” I might start seeing you just as my best friend, so when somebody else comes in and becomes your friend and you become their friend, I might start to get jealous. “That’s my best friend,” and then if you change and say that someone else is your best friend, then I become upset, because for me, you were under the label of “my best friend.” I boiled you down to a singular thing, a singular characteristic about who you were.

If we look over in John chapter 8… John chapter 8, we have a group of people who are approaching Jesus who’re trying to do this very thing to a woman who has committed adultery. In John chapter 8, starting in verse 1, it says,

“But Jesus went to the mount of olives. At dawn, he appeared again in the temple courts where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now, what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap in order to have a basis for accusing him.”

John 8:1-6, NIV

The people who brought the woman before Jesus, they wanted to boil down her existence to a single act. It doesn’t matter if the act happened over the course of time. It doesn’t matter if she was having an affair with somebody for 10 years. It doesn’t matter. The point they were making has one thing about her: she’s an adulterer. She is an adulterer.

Jesus doesn’t deny that she’s an adulterer. Jesus doesn’t say, “No, you’re wrong.” He doesn’t say, “Do you have evidence?” He doesn’t say any of that. He bends down and he writes in the dirt with his finger. It says,

“Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older first, until only Jesus was left with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir, she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you, Jesus declared. ‘Now go and leave your life of sin.’”

John 8:6-8, NIV

Jesus didn’t concern himself with whether or not the woman was an adulterer. I don’t think it was because Jesus didn’t care. That is to say, the fact that she was an adulterer was still important, but not so important that it should consume her entire identity or that it should justify the way that she was going to be treated by these men, and it didn’t have anything to do with what the law said or didn’t say. We talked about that last week — the way that we tend to hide behind the laws as justification for our hatred. That wasn’t the idea, here. Jesus wasn’t concerned with those things.

Jesus’s concern was this: you can’t boil down this woman’s entire existence to a single action. He wasn’t about to condemn her just because she did commit adultery, because for Jesus, people are not [single actions]. They’re not single labels that we place on people. Yes, she is an adulterer, if what they say is true. Yes, she did commit a shameful act, if what they say is true. But, if that’s all that she is, then we sin against her by ignoring her humanity.

We do this with people all the time. “He’s a murderer.” “He’s a thief.” “He’s a liar.” You know what? They did a study on children between the ages of two and 18, and they found that something like 98% of children in the study lied. Over 90% lied between the ages of two and 18. People lie. If we’re going to identify people as liars, then we have to acknowledge that everybody lies. You might say to yourself, “Well, I don’t lie now,” but do you not? Do you not lie, or do you just not tell blatant falsehoods with the intent of manipulating people? Do you lie by omission? Do you conceal your real thoughts and feelings from people in the workplace so that you don’t get ostracized? Do you walk in and give only certain information so you can be perceived a certain way? Do you present yourself on social media as a particular kind of person only to know that there’s all these other sides of your life that you don’t show people?

People lie. We lie about who we are. We present what we want people to see, because we recognize that there is a certain kind of shame when you present yourself openly and honestly, and more than that, we judge people and shame them for who they are. That’s why we know to hide who we are. We learned that.

We learned that through experience and through observation that we can’t really be honest with people in our society or they will shame us, and we do that to others, but we don’t want to acknowledge that, because then we would be like these people in John 8 — complicit.

They can’t stone this woman. They can’t, because whatever Jesus is doing on the ground is showing them that they are just like her, and Paul tells us the same things in Romans. All throughout the book, when he talks about how we are all sinners and no one seeks God and no one is good — and we’ll look at that in a little bit — but all throughout scripture we find that idea.

The problem goes both ways, though. In the same way that we use others’ labels to identify them and blanket them into a small idea so that we can judge them and shame them, we do the reverse to ourselves. We take a very small thing about ourselves or we take a label that we give ourselves, and we use that to defend against all other possibilities.

For example, we say to ourselves that we are good, and if I am good, then I can’t possibly do the things that “bad people” do. Does that make sense? A person says, “You’re a racist,” and you say, “I can’t be a racist; I’m a good person.” We take the label of “good” and we use it to protect ourselves against some other label or category of action.

Since when do racism and being good have mutual exclusion? You can be a good person, you can be a Christian, you can be a righteous person and still be a racist. That is, you can still do racist things. You can still support a system and a structure that does racist things. You can still fly under the radar by presenting a certain side of you in order to avoid the issue of racism. And that’s just one example. You can take any issue in our culture and throw it in there — any issue you want that causes you discomfort or causes you to think that a person is a bad person — and you can distance yourself from those issues by telling yourself you’re a good person.

“I’m a good person, therefore I would never… I could never… I don’t…” but it’s simply not true. Just like people are not just the labels that we give them, we are also not just the labels that we give ourselves. We are not just good people. We are not just righteous people. We are not just children of God. We are human beings with all of the imperfections that come with them.

If we look over in Luke 18, we find an example of this, and unfortunately for the Pharisees, it’s them again being called out. In Luke chapter 18, starting in verse 9, it says,

“To some who are confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable. ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evil doers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of all I get.”’” Luke 18:9-12, NIV

There it is: exactly what I just said. He looks at himself. He says, “I’m not like others. I’m good. I’m a Pharisee. I’m a teacher of the law. I’m not like a robber. I’m not like a tax collector. I’m not like evil doers. I’m not like adulterers.” All he does is take the labels of other people and say, “That can’t be me. I don’t do those things. Therefore, I must be good. I’m good, therefore I wouldn’t be a tax collector.” He just draws this line in the sand between himself and everyone else, but it’s a deception.

It’s a lie that we tell ourselves, which, by the way, is ironic, because if you say, “I’m not a liar,” and then you do this to yourself, then you’re a liar. And so, we draw these lines in the sand, and we do like he does, and we say, “I fast and I give. Therefore, I must be good, and if I’m good, I must be different.” We reason ourselves into it. We say, “I go to church every Sunday morning. I go to Bible study on Wednesday night. Therefore, I must be good. Therefore, I must be righteous.” We say, “I give my time to charity. I give my money to charity. I help my neighbor take out her trash. Therefore, I must be good, and if I’m good, I can’t possibly be whatever.” Fill in the blank — anything you think is sinful or bad. “I can’t possibly be a racist. I can’t possibly be hateful toward my LGBTQ neighbors. I can’t possibly be hateful toward people in how I make decisions at work. I can’t possibly be an oppressive boss. I fast. I tithe. I go to church. I go to Bible study. I’m a good person.”

It’s not true.

That’s not to say that you’re not a good person. It’s to say that when you identify yourself or someone else purely off of labels and actions, you deceive yourself, both about yourself and about others, into believing that both you and they are things that you are not and that they are not.

Notice, though, that the tax collector makes the same error in the opposite direction. The tax collector says, in verse 13…it says, “The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” I was taught for years that this was the appropriate attitude to have, and what I realize, now, is that that’s not true either, because what the tax collector is doing is allowing the shame of his culture and society to become his identity. He believes that he is not worthy to approach the altar of God. He believes that he is a sinner as his core identity, and so he feels shame for who he is. It’s simply not true.

Notice what Jesus says at the end of the parable, verse 14: “I tell you that this man rather than the other went home justified before God,” and if you stop there, you say, “Look, his attitude was good. He went home justified and the Pharisee did not,” but [Jesus] says, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

[The tax collector] wasn’t justified because he felt shame. He was justified because God’s going to come into his life and remind him that he’s wrong. God’s going to come into his life and remind him that he is worthy. God’s going to come into his life and remind him that he is loved. He’s justified because God wants to exalt him because of his humility, not because he felt shame for who he was.

That’s the problem with being the one who shames others. When we’re the ones who shame other people, God goes to them and tries to exalt them — to lift them out of the shame that we have placed on their shoulders — and when we justify ourselves by telling ourselves that we are good and righteous, God comes into our lives to humble us. We have placed ourselves in opposition to people, and yet God comes in to humble us and exalt them.

Shame is not compatible with love, and God combats it at every turn. Remember the John 8 passage with the adulterous woman. Jesus didn’t call out her sin. He also didn’t deny it, but what I think Jesus did is he called out everybody’s sin. He said, “All of you have sin, so whichever of you thinks you don’t, you can throw the first stone.” It’s one thing to justify ourselves as good people. It’s something different when you have to stand up in public and say, “I have no sin, at all.” Nobody’s willing to make that claim, but did you notice how they tried to subvert that issue, and Jesus wouldn’t let them.

That’s what we need to do in our own lives. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to come in and convict us of what is the reality of who we are, not to shame us, but to remind us that we have no right to shame others — to humble us so that we don’t shame other people — so that those people can then be exalted into love the way that we are humbled into love.

John 3:16: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. I know there’s more to that verse, but consider that for just a minute. God loved the world so much that he gave his son. There is no shame there. It doesn’t say, “God loved the world so much that he shamed them into conformity, and then once they had changed, he accepted them into his family.” It doesn’t say that. That’s ridiculous, and anybody who knows that scripture knows that that is a ridiculous claim, and yet we live as though it is true.

In Romans 5:8, it said, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” If John 3:16 wasn’t clear enough, Paul comes in in Romans 5 and says, “Yeah, it wasn’t just that he loved you and gave his son for you. While you were still sinners, he loved you and gave his son for you. While you were still sinners, Christ died for you.” Even in the midst of everything that goes on in our lives, God says, “I love you.” There’s no shame there.

Romans 3:10-11, he says, “No one is righteous.” Not one person. No one seeks God. No one understands. We have no right to stand up and shame others and exalt ourselves, because if that happens, we become the Pharisee and not the tax collector. We should be looking to exalt others and humble ourselves before God has to come in and do it for us, because if we’re not for the mission of God, then we are against the mission of God.

In Romans 13:8-10, which we talked about last weekend: love everyone. Love everyone, because love is the fulfillment of the law, and every command —  every single command — any command that exists as a part of God’s mission in the world is fulfilled in love. Shame and love are not compatible.

This is where we deceive ourselves the most. We think that we can shame other people and love them. We think that we can shame ourselves and love ourselves. You can’t shame and love at the same time. It’s the same way that fear and love are not compatible in the same moment. You cannot both be afraid of what they’re going to do and love someone. You can’t both be afraid of somebody in your heart and think poorly of them in your fear and still act in love toward them. This is the problem with things like prejudice. When we’re prejudiced toward people, when we’re afraid of them because of stereotypes, we can fail to love them — we have already failed to love them.

In the same way, when we shame people and we start to label them and tell them that their identity is based on some label that we’ve given them — whether it’s that they’re a sinner or an adulterer or a murderer or a thief or a liar or whatever it is — we cannot then turn around and love them. We’ve deceived ourselves into thinking that we can hate the sin and love the sinner. It is not possible, because when we hate the sin so much, it becomes a part of who the person is, and we can’t separate the two, because people are people. They’re not categories and labels, and we inevitably fail to love them because of the shame that we feel they should have because of their sin. We deceive ourselves.

When we fail to love ourselves because we shame ourselves, we believe we are unworthy of love. When we shame others, we believe that they are unworthy of love. To both of these, we must argue back — against ourselves and against the shame of others — that both we and they are deserving of love. More than that, [we must argue] that God has already given it and continues to give it through Jesus, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, through [God’s pursuing of] all creation.

You are not only deserving of love but you are loved, and there’s no shame in love. You can be a good person and still do bad things. You can do bad things and still be a good person, because who you are is more complicated than some label that somebody else puts on you or that you put on yourself, and until we learn to love ourselves — until we learn to combat shame in our own lives — we can’t love other people, not the way that we’re supposed to. Until we start combating shame on other people, we can’t love them, not the way that we’re supposed to, because all the commands are summed up in this: love your neighbor as yourself, and love is the fulfillment of the law.

We have to learn as a society, as a community, as a family, how to identify shame — shame in our lives, shame in our minds, shame in our workplaces, shame in our neighborhoods. We have to learn to discern the ways that we shame people even if we don’t realize it, and we have to be humble enough to recognize it and accept it as a part of the system we live in, and only then — only when we start to recognize it and combat it — can we even hope to start loving people the way that we’re supposed to. [Only then] can we even hope that the kind of love we have does no harm to a neighbor and no harm to ourselves.

I believe that is the way. That’s the way of Jesus. That’s the mission of God in all things — that we love ourselves and we love our neighbors and we love God and we combat shame and fear at every turn.

If you want to be part of that… If you want to be part of that as the mission of 1310 Ministries… If you want to be part of that as a Christian… If you want to be part of that as a non-Christian… If you say to yourself, “That sounds good, but I don’t believe in Jesus,” then that’s ok, too. Because part of what we do is we pursue the mission of God in the world — in everybody’s lives — and we believe that part of that mission is pursuing love for our neighbor as ourselves. You don’t have to necessarily believe in Jesus to be part of that, but you do have to commit to loving your neighbor as yourself. If you want that, if you want to talk more about what that looks like, if you want to talk more about the love of God, if you want to talk about baptism, if you want to talk about sin, if you want anything from us and need anything from us, we will be here.

Reach out to us on social media, or come see me in the back, if you’re here, as we stand and sing the invitation song.

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