How To Uncover the Gospel of Shame

This past weekend, some friends and I were gathered together over warm beverages and small people (it’s been unusually cold and rainy in Colorado recently, and our little community has been unusually fertile over the past year) when the topic turned to shame. We’d been talking about John 6:16-21, digging in deeper than the basic Sunday School answers to find some incredible treasures together. We’d noticed how Jesus didn’t scold the disciples for losing heart and setting out across the Sea of Galilee without Him, how He didn’t point out to them that in their moment of despair they turned away from instead of toward the One who wanted to bring them comfort.

Then my friend Nathan said what had been simmering beneath the surface for all of us. He pointed out that the first time he read the passage, he’d judged the disciples, and had assumed Jesus did, too. But nowhere does it say that the disciples were getting it wrong by heading to Capernaum (which Nathan pointed out means village of comfort/consolation, and can also mean village of repentance). Nowhere does it say that striking out in a direction—any direction, really—is to be despised, even (or especially?) when Jesus doesn’t seem near.

I have a mentor who says that how we judge characters in Scripture is how we judge ourselves, and I believe that to be deeply true. As my friends and I were reading John 6, we were judging the parts of ourselves that aren’t inclined to do the “holy” or “spiritual” work of waiting patiently (emphasis on the quotation marks) when Jesus is nowhere to be found and instead head out for the nearest city of comfort. It was a low-level, underlying message for most of us, something just beneath the surface that took some extreme measures to unearth.

That’s the thing about shame, though. It’s incredibly sneaky, and it works its way into our theology and our relationship with Jesus without us even noticing we’ve taken it on. Shame hides underneath “should” and cloaks itself in “righteousness” (more of those quotation marks) so we don’t see it for what it really is: a gospel-stealing usurper of grace.

“Don’t be afraid. I am here,” says Jesus to the terrified men in the boat, shuddering under gale-force winds. How we hear the tone of those words says so much about how we interpret the heart of Jesus toward us, storm or no storm. Read those words one way, and you’re free to receive the goodness of God for you, right now, as you are. Read them another, and you’re bound up in chains of performance and transaction, forced to “earn” God’s approval with your good behavior.

Want to uncover whether or not you’re living under the Gospel of Shame instead of the Gospel of Grace?

Try this simple, but radical, experiment.

Pick almost anything that Jesus says. To the disciples. To the Pharisees. To those He heals.

To the end of whatever Jesus says, add the words: “you idiot.”

To follow along with our discussion this weekend, let’s try Jesus’s words in John 6.

“Don’t be afraid. I am here, you idiots.”

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Well, I hope it does. But for many of us, adding the words “you idiot” simply makes explicit the tone that we’ve been hearing from Jesus for a very long time. Oh, we haven’t named it outright, but it’s been there. The shaming-inducing sense that we’re missing it, and that Jesus is fed up with us, just like He’s fed up with His bumbling disciples, the arrogant Pharisees, the clueless people whom He’s saving.

If adding the words “you idiot” after anything that Jesus says in Scripture doesn’t change the tone of Jesus’s voice for you at all, you’ve been living under the Gospel of Shame for too long, my friend. It’s time to throw it off.

Because Jesus never has derision in His voice for His beloveds. He doesn’t shame His people. He isn’t exasperated with you.

In fact, just like in John 6, He’s coming for you. Right where you are. You don’t have to be different. You don’t have to feel less afraid or more hopeful or be heading in a different direction. You don’t need to have “gotten it” (whatever it is) by now, and you definitely don’t have to have life with God figured out just because He’s come for you before. The disciples, after all, had just witnessed the feeding of the 5,000. Feeling lost and alone can happen even after the most amazing events; in fact, it often does.

Jesus comes, and He comes with life and brings all of Himself to bear. He comes without condemnation or shame. He comes and He says, ever so kindly, ever so grace-full-y, “Don’t be afraid. I am here.”

And that’s enough. It’s enough to receive Him right there in that moment, or any other moment. As soon as you do, you’ll arrive, just as the disciples do, at your destination. The city of comfort. Because that’s always the place that Jesus is, wherever and whenever you are together.

So the next time you’re feeling like you’ve blown it, feeling like you should have done something different, feeling like you need to get your act together, try exposing those voices for what they truly are. Shame can’t stand the light, it lives in the darkness. Push it to the forefront by adding “you idiot” to what you think God might be saying to you, and you’ll see how quickly the real Gospel comes to drive the false away.