If I were to try to convince someone to become a Christian, shame is not a quality I would advertise. I would probably talk about the wonderful sense of being set free from guilt, the comforting presence of a communicating God, and the indescribable joy of Spirit-infused life. Not shame.
Certain verses have come alive to me in the last five years, as I gain a sort of experiential knowledge that replaces what was merely intellectual knowledge before. Recently, reading this verse brought that familiar twinge of oh, I think I’ve experienced that! Not fully, to be sure, but the beginnings of identifying with Christ are there.
looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2 (ESV)
What does it mean to despise the shame? In this context, despising means something closer to disregarding, or paying little attention to shame. This isn’t typically the way we use the word “despising,” so the phrase is a little confusing until we dig deeper into the meaning.
Jesus experienced the ultimate shame. While being part of a strongly honor-based culture, He hung naked on a cross for sins not His own. He was rejected, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isa 53:2). He humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross (Phil 2:8). But he could despise–or look away from–this shame, because He saw the glory that would be revealed (Phil 2:9).
Shame is an ugly thing, and I have spent years slowly opening up the festering shame-wounds in my heart, bringing them to light so they can heal. Shame has often tricked me into a false identity; made me feel sick and unsafe instead of secure in Christ. Some of the shame came from arrows lodged from people around me whom I love; other darts of shame came from religious systems that promised what they could not deliver. Trust turned to self-hate, love morphed into fear. Shame is ugly.
As God heals me of this shame, I am simultaneously discovering that a certain type of shame comes from being a radical Christ-follower. But this shame is different–it does not give me a false, fear-based identity. It does not strip me of who God created me to be, but is part of a journey into wholeness.
Growing into a deeper understanding of who I am in Christ has led me on a rocky journey of being able to embrace the shame of the Gospel, while rejecting unhealthy shame from the devil. It is a treacherous process at times, but I am finding my way. Here are two areas in which I have experienced the Gospel’s shame in my own life.
Living, breathing, and teaching the Gospel makes me sharply counter-cultural. I don’t fit any political or religious paradigm, and I often feel a keen sense of dislocation and inability to explain what I know in my heart to be true. I want to belong somewhere on this earth, and I never find a complete sense of earthly connection because I belong to Jesus.
As much as I want to sometimes, I can’t remake Jesus to conform to sticky situations that arise. I can’t reinterpret the Bible to make it more palatable and to better match my idea of what works in the world today. I can’t instruct the Holy Spirit to do what makes sense to me. Being a Christian means I am a misfit, and God’s ways will often be misunderstood even among the religious world.
This is hard for me, because I want to fit in. I want to be accepted and liked. Confrontation or disagreement of any sort is very difficult for me, and when the Gospel runs counter to popular thought, being the “salt of the earth” (especially when it ostracizes friends and family) is enormously uncomfortable.
But the foolishness of the cross is powerful.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
I Corinthians 1:18 (ESV)
Besides being counter-cultural, another way I experience the shame of the Gospel is by believing what I can’t understand. I’d like to be able to neatly package up my beliefs and back them with indestructible proof, but the fact is that I can’t. Some things about God and the Bible baffle me, and I couldn’t tell you why they are the way they are.
I suppose many of us have a chink in our armor, a certain weakness that makes some part of God and/or the Bible a stretch of faith for us to believe. I know I do. And I also know many Christians would probably be horrified at the thing that makes me stumble–the belief in the resurrection of the dead.
Life without the promise of a resurrection seems completely intolerable, and I know the resurrection is central to the Christian faith. But still, sometimes I get sucked into doubt. I have no way to prove an afterlife. I don’t have any problem with believing in God or in a created world or the authenticity of the Bible. But that one thing–the resurrection of the dead–hits me now and then, and I have to read the Scriptures and wrestle through embracing what I cannot prove.
I can’t explain everything, and I have to accept the shame of not having hard evidence to prove my faith.
For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed–a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Romans 1:17 (NIV)
I’ve found that whether through being counter-cultural or through being unable to fully explain God or the Bible, this shame of the Gospel promises a true identity. And that is why I am a Christian.
And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father! So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
Galatians 4:6-7 (ESV)
Embracing the cross of Christ and its discipline and shame requires deep humility. But this humility paradoxically leads us into glory, the dislocation to a kingdom unshakeable, and the faith despite uncertainty to a reign forever with Christ.
If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him
2 Timothy 2:11b-12a (ESV)
How have you felt the shame of the Gospel? What things about God and the Bible do you find hard to believe?