For the next two weeks I’ll be preaching sermons on the Book of Psalms. Psalms are incredibly important. The Bible is full of stories about who we are and why we are here that help teach us how to live, but Psalms have their own distinctive role. As the poetry of the Bible, in psalms we see the giants of faith working through their own struggles, and we keep reading their struggles to help us work through ours.
Psalm 31, which we’re reading today, has its own voice of struggle; its author—who we’ll call the psalmist—the psalmist struggles between deep faith and an overwhelming fear. At times he says confidently, “You are indeed my rock and my fortress…you are my refuge…you have redeemed me.” But at other times the same voice is crying out in doubt and pain: “my life is spent with sorrow…I am the scorn of all my enemies…my strength fails because of my misery.”
What’s really at the heart of this struggle is shame. It is referenced in the opening verse: “In you, O Lord, I take refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame.” Just about all of us struggle with shame at one time or another, though some much more than others; and that may be most sad because shame is not what God wants for us.
Shame is a big deal; it can tear one’s life apart. Shame is like guilt that has taken on a life of its own. Psychologist and popular author Brene Brown writes that shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are…unworthy of love and belonging (Brown, Daring Greatly, 69). The great Rabbi and author Harold Kushner—who died this week—he said guilt is feeling bad for what you have done or not done, while shame is feeling bad for who you are (Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be?, 35); or in other words, guilt is knowing “I’ve made a mistake,” but shame is feeling like “I am a mistake.” The difference is that we can usually live through and get over many of our mistakes, but there are other ones that stick with us and haunt us—we are afraid they are going to get unearthed at some point we cannot anticipate and sneak up and destroy us. And the power they carry makes us afraid to live.
Psalm 31 suggests that even Jesus struggled with shame. Jesus called upon the words of this Psalm in his dying hours. You may not have thought about it this way, so great is our esteem for Jesus, but hanging on the Cross, in the presence of all, Jesus is publicly shamed. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, reserved for crimes where one had criminally challenged the authority of the Empire. Crucified persons were shamed for their attempts to disregard the power of Rome.
Of course, Jesus committed no crime other than loving God more than the Emperor. His life was lived in the midst of a world that devalued human life, that treated most people like worthless cogs in an economic machine that powered the empire (maybe that rings true in our day as well). Jesus reminded people that in spite of what the world seemed to saying that God loved them still—that they had worth and belonging; that their Creator had a plan for them, greater than anything they could yet see. Rome hated that message—it threatened their whole strategy. So in his death, Rome hangs Jesus on the Cross as if to say, “All you have worked for and everything you have done is a failure. Ours is really the way of the world. You are a loser. Your struggle was worth nothing. You are a failure; you are a mistake.”
Perhaps you can relate to some part of this. Perhaps in some noble moment you’ve been dressed down at a family gathering or insulted at a cocktail party for being overly compassionate or kind or hopeful. This was Jesus’ whole life; he was shamed for it, shamed to his death.
Of course, for the rest of us, shame is often different than it was for Jesus. Some of us, it is true, are shamed because we stand up for what is right. But for most of us, shame is about ways we have failed. And remember, shame is not simple guilt over something we’ve done, it is that feeling that our whole life has been overshadowed by it.
Shame is the young child who has already internalized the message that I am a “bad” kid. Shame is the teenager or young adult who has made some sexual exploration and wonders if it means he’s going to hell. It’s the parent who has made some mistake in childrearing or the professional who has made an unethical business decision and these things feel unforgivable. Shame is when we carry these things with us—for years and even decades; they take on a life of their own; we hide from them. Like the author of the Psalm, in shame we see our past deeds pursuing us like an enemy, tracking us down to expose us for what we have done and destroy our life. To cancel us, because what we have done is unforgivable.
Shame is usually carried out as a secret; in thinking about it this week I was led to the website of an artist named Frank Warren. Years ago, he began an art project called post-secret. He invited people to send him anonymous personally decorated postcards and to write their secrets on them. He’s received hundreds of thousands of submissions, he’s published books of them and now you can read them posted on the web. Some of them are hysterical, if a bit sad: the quiet ways people have taken revenge on a nasty boss or the betrayal of a spouse; others cross the line into territory that is deeply troubling, we can see in them the cruelty and despair that comes from shame. Just about all of the secrets—and the incredible number of them—show us just how many secrets are out there. One person has written this of Frank Warren’s project: “Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart. If we could just remember this, I think there would be more compassion and tolerance in the world.” (Warren, The Secret Lives of Men and Women, 49)
So this is the Psalmist’s struggle. He is living with shame. He is deathly afraid that someone is going to com along who will “put him to shame.” His past is going to catch up to him; how can it be otherwise? How can he live? But as I said previously, this is not a one-sided Psalm, and in the midst of the shame he carries, he is also aware of what will save him. His hope is in God—because God does not deal in shame.
This is what our shame has in common with the shame of Jesus—there’s a way out. And the way is the knowledge that God did not create us for shame, and does not want it for us. Hanging on the Cross, the last words of Jesus are a quotation from Psalm 31: Into your hands, O God, I commend my Spirit. When shame is overwhelming to us, it is God who is there to save us, to remind us of the value and goodness of our lives and that there is nowhere we can ever go where God does not love us still. For Jesus, all of the words of shame that are woven through Psalm 31 were true, but so was its declaration that God is a rock and fortress for us, that God removes us from the net in which we are trapped, that God wishes to set us again on a good and broad path, so that we may walk forward in life.
If it seems naïve and silly to suggest that we are still loveable, that’s because it is. This is the part of the story of Christ that is most bizarre, and most contrary to just about everything else in the world. The life and death of Jesus are meant to teach us that in the midst of our brokenness, we are still worthy of love. This is the great irrationality of the Gospel; this is the miracle of grace. But as irrational as it may be, it is not wrong! It is a notion so powerful that when the Romans intended to shame Jesus into submission through death on a Cross, quite the opposite happened. His death transformed the history of the world.
In God’s eyes, we are never put to shame. There is no sin that is irredeemable, no mistake that can cause God to regret our creation or to believe that we are no good. The power of this unreasonable, irrational message is what has drawn countless believers to Christ through out the ages. God loves us still.
Often we imagine ourselves to be much more unforgivable than we really are. If the worst of our secrets came into view, perhaps there would be a time of reckoning, a need to come clean, but not in a way that would truly ruin one’s life. Often, continuing to live with our secrets is more damaging than what would happen if we allowed them to be known. Certainly that’s the case with so many among us who carry shame over addiction, depression, mental illness of so many kinds. In those very circumstances, the witness of our faith is so very important and powerful—that God is not ashamed and we need not be ashamed of ourselves.
Jesus’ life does not end with shame on the Cross, and because his life was lived for us, we inherit the power of his message.
Shame can be overwhelming; in situations where it is coupled with the power of mental illness it is deeply threatening, and sometimes takes our very lives. In those circumstances, we pray for the day when every child of God will stand before the One who created us and learn once and for all that we are good and lovable in ways we never imagined could be true. There are also people seated in this very room, watching online today, whose lives have already been transformed by the power of the love of God; they have found a way to let go of their shame—in a twelve step group, or to a pastor, with a friend, or in therapy. We give thanks, and pray that when we talk about shame out loud, others will learn from their stories. Often the escape from shame begins with an unreasonable and yet profound and powerful truth: that our God is not ashamed of us, and loves us still. This church is not a place of shame; it is a place of healing and grace. Into your hands, I commend my spirit, O God. Let me never be put to shame. Amen.