Shame will tear you apart if you allow it to.
It works its way deep inside of your soul and convinces you that you are worthless, insignificant, and unacceptable. It’s a feeling that weighs so heavy that all you want to do is sleep so you have some respite but even in your dreams you find yourself running from all of the demons that taunt you, only to be woken again by the relentless heaviness of inhabiting a life you no longer want.
In times when you feel most inadequate, faith can either be the salve your soul needs or the poison that finishes the job.
We have a confusing picture of our own worth sometimes, sitting in between the curious paradox of being the bearers of God’s image and the actors of our own misfortune. We sing songs about a God who is good yet the goodness of God seems contingent upon recognising that we are just worthless sinners. It comes out in a myriad of different ways.
I used to have a friend who would deflect every compliment I would ever give him. I’d say something along the lines of “great job today man” and he would respond with “it was all God.” But it looked like you? Sometimes I would test him by firing compliments out as fast as I could and true to form he would deflect each one, as if accepting the fact that he had done something of worth would be robbing God of glory. It’s an interesting way to see God, when you think about it. He is up there – the picture of perfect goodness – and we are down here. There seems to be a fracture in our understanding of reality. If something is good it must be God and if something is bad it must be us.
As if God is so narcissistic he couldn’t stand for us to see ourselves as anything other than worthless and shameful.
Perhaps this is a caricature but I imagine if you look closely you will find the skeleton of this kind of a story everywhere. I think some of the twisted-ness of this comes from the way we read a particular story in Genesis. You’re probably familiar with the one I’m referring to. It’s the one with the fruit, the talking snake and a whole load of nakedness.
Just before Genesis 3 comes Genesis 2, and the last words of Genesis 2 are – not insignificantly – that “Adam and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.”Most people can’t imagine a life without shame, let alone a life filled with naked un-ashamedness.
Genesis 3 then launches into full tilt then when the serpent slithers into a conversation with Eve and, after quizzing her about the boundaries of her own involvement in the garden, begins to challenge her on the way she has understood things. In response to Eve claiming that she wasn’t allowed to eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden lest she die, the serpent responds,
“You will not certainly die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”
Did you hear that?
You will be like God.
This statement has caused many people to look at the story and claim that the great sin of the first humans was to aspire to divine-like status – their disobedience and striving for authority causing God to banish them from the garden, curse them with pain and labor setting the story of broken humanity on its course. This has caused a lot of people to view human efforts with no small amount of skepticism. We cannot acknowledge the good things that we do in case we slip back into the pattern of trying to usurp God.
Now let me be clear; I acknowledge that an unhealthy lust for power and strength and authority are a big part of human brokenness, and often cause us to act in ways that are more destructive than not. I'm just not convinced that's what this story is about.
I think before corruption, abuse and violence there is something else going on, and I think that something is shame. Let’s call it, Original Shame.
To me, the traditional way of understanding Genesis 3 (that is, the great sin was their longing to “be like God” and that’s why God cast them out of Eden) makes little sense for two reasons:
1. Because they were already like God.
Over and over again in Genesis we hear these curious words: “Let us create mankind in our image, in our likeness…” (2:26) or “When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God” (5:1). It would seem to be a curious thing indeed if God created humanity in his likeness and then punished them for wanting to be like him? What we know about the story is that these humans were bearers of the image of God, which meant that they had been imprinted by the divine, given the fullness of God. Is it possible that what the serpent actually did was convince Eve that she was less than all God created her to be? That she needed something else in order to be worthy? That God was withholding something from her and that in order to receive his goodness she would need to work just that little bit harder?
2. Because that’s not what God is like.
Not only did the serpent succeed in convincing Eve that she was less than all that God had created her to be – he also seemed to succeed in convincing her that God was also less. In the ancient world, it wasn’t the gods’ character that people aspired to but their powers. In order to protect themselves therefore, the gods would “jealously guard their divine prerogatives and status.” According to John Walton, this was the image of God that the serpent was espousing – one who was petty, jealous and insecure, a God who must protect himself from his creation by withholding his goodness from them. Unfortunately however, “such behavior is not at all characteristic of the God of the Bible. He is possessed of qualities and characteristics that he wants people to emulate or acquire”. Put simply, God was not trying to withhold anything from humanity – he was trying to give everything.
This seems consistent with the rest of the story. A God who would literally give everything in order that we might come to know him.
In Jesus we have the image of a God who doesn’t protect himself from us at all but actually steps into the story and is killed for his troubles. We don’t have a God who needs us to feel worthless and broken but a God who is continually moving towards those who are rejected in an attempt to restore their dignity and wholeness.
Is it possible that the great tragedy of the Genesis story is that humanity bought into the lie that we were less than all that God has created us to be, and that in the process we forgot who he was as well? What this led to was immediate and harrowing feelings of shame so strong that we ran from both God and each other.
The rest of the God story is one of God “coming down” and trying to show us who he is, in the midst of all of the chaos and violence that came as a result of us believing we were less that the divine images we are.
This is not to diminish the extraordinary power that sin and brokenness play in our lives. It simply recognises that brokenness comes from somewhere. People don't do things for no reason, and I've never met a person whose pain, anger or dysfunction isn't coming from a place of deep shame or inadequacy.
Perhaps God’s plan isn’t just to proclaim to us his own goodness, but it’s also to remind us of ours.