As a pastor, I encounter wonderful people on a regular basis. Many of these folks, often interested in God or committed followers of Jesus, have inherited harmful narratives about Jesus. Because of this, shame often gets the final word when it comes to part of their identity.
Whether we like it or not, our world, culture, organization, and families all influence how we imagine God–often giving us false images of God.
One of the greatest idols of American Christianity is the creation and maintenance of shame inducing narratives. For many who grew up in the church, the reason shame is so thick is that they grew up with lists of spiritual ‘musts’ that define who is really in. Those who fail are second-rate or backslidden Christians, according to such ideologies.
So, Christians spend their time feeling shameful about the so-called spiritual things that they have failed to accomplish that day. This mentality, produces a spiritual shame rooted in a mentality of scarcity.
For being a religion that preaches grace alone, it is amazing how often people encounter Christianity as ‘shame’ alone. Often, this is a subconscious result that churches (and their leaders) don’t intend. Shame can be a powerful invisible force that destroys goodness in the world–sometimes propelled by folks who believe they are proclaiming hope and healing. No wonder the New Testament claims over and again that Christ came to conquer shame! Sometimes, this victory, needs to be re-announced in the church, as though it were brand new.
Deconstructing the shameful stories that we internalize about Jesus is part of spiritual decluttering. In an increasingly globalized world, there forces at work that influence our picture of Jesus. Some of these are quite good, by the way. We do better to see a global picture of Jesus over a merely Western one. However, we are now exposed to more things than a tribal and local human being was designed for. That alone can be overwhelming. Our world influences our picture of Jesus in ways that keep us overwhelmed.
So also our culture influences our picture of Jesus. Many Christians I know are ashamed to be called “Christians.” Why? #SocialMedia. What do I mean? Well, social media continues to be a great resource in this new globalized world we inhabit. However, the pace of stories and the struggle for thoughtful and humanizing discourse around said stories, leaves us overwhelmed. In the past couple of years, many of these stories have been ones that conjure up shame and exclusion as they bring light to parts of Christian discourse that leave a foul taste in one’s mouth. Evangelical now means right-wing extremist, for instance. But if we want to discover the real Jesus, although not wishing to neglect cultural discourse, we do well to not allow it to determine the terms of our own conversations and narratives about who Jesus actually is.
And of course, as I’ve already mentioned about, organizations influence how we see God. The most obvious ‘org’ is the local church. And this ‘org’ can be an amazing source of wisdom for decluttering Jesus from shame narratives. However, it often provides reinforcement for such stories. Then, of course, there is the ‘orgs’ of business, government, education, and so on. These all have the power to shape how we come to know and experience God. They add clutter to Jesus.
And then of course there is family. For many people I know, this is the most challenging of the lot. They are often dysfunctional at best, and abusive at worst. Do you hate holidays because you worry about family dynamics? Maybe your parents continue to reinforce ideas (as though they are Christian ideas) such as male-dominated households and churches, a particular brand of politics, a posture towards God that is rooted in the fear of judgement, etc. Family cultivates important spiritual ground, and when this is done in healthy ways, we can experience Jesus in that sacred context. But even the best of families give us cluttered narratives that need to be dealt with.
So, where does that leave us?
Well, it at least leaves us with a life-long journey of experientially decluttering our picture of Jesus.
So many people go from one extreme–let’s call it ‘religiosity’–to another extreme–let’s call it ‘faithlessness.’ This is heartbreaking. I wonder if many people who walk away from Jesus and the church are actually walking away from false narratives about Jesus and the church. What could be the most healing thing to do might be to find a path forward where shame-inducing Jesuses are replaced with the Biblical Jesus. The Jesus that we see vividly revealed in the New Testament has one primary descriptor: love.
God is love. Love must get the first and last word, not shame. Let’s start there. And let’s allow the decluttering of Jesus to begin.
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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