CPL: Your sermon dealt with the issue of shame. You suggested that this is the lens through which most people outside of the US and the West view sin (versus guilt). Tell us more about the implications of this dynamic in how you preach about atonement specifically but other topics too.
As I explained in the sermon, guilt lives in the courtroom, whereas shame lives in the community. Guilt has to do with what I've done. Shame has to do with what others think of me. When we speak of Christ using atonement language, we address guilt, but not shame. I may know intellectually that my sins have been paid for, but for some reason, I still feel dirty, inferior, and unworthy before God and others. That’s our shame talking.
It's similar to what a convicted felon experiences when he is released back into society. His penalty has been paid. He has done his time. But for the rest of his life, he will carry the stigma of his crime and be viewed by society as a lesser human being. This is the way of the world. The good news is that Jesus came to usher in a new kingdom in which we are not just forgiven, but also redeemed, restored, and fully accepted. He did not only come to pay for our sins, but also to lift our shame.
When Christians have not been freed from shame themselves, they will tend to use shame as a tool to control or manipulate others, all in the name of Christ. We naturally get frustrated when people don't act the way we think they should. If we are not careful, we end up playing "Holy Spirit Junior" and use aggressive, in-your-face tactics to get people to shape up. It happens all the time. All too often, the underlying message becomes, "What in the world is wrong with you? How could you think this way? How could you act this way?" I've been to men's conferences where one speaker after another took to the stage and spent 30-40 minutes berating the men for being lousy husbands or fathers, even cussing at them. I was horrified.
Shaming can be difficult to detect. It often manifests in subtle ways. A sideways look. A whispered murmur. A failure to include someone in conversation. One of the tasks of the preacher is to identify these patterns in the church and help people recognize the shame in their own lives and how they inadvertently perpetuate a culture of shame in their relationships with others. Any behavior in our churches that runs counter to the gospel of grace needs to be lovingly but firmly corrected from the pulpit and confronted in person.
CPL: In the conversation following your sermon ‘Shameless,’ you spoke about different kinds of shame. Can you enumerate those and how you preach about them?
Shame is not necessarily a bad thing. There is such a thing as healthy shame. Healthy shame says, "I am flawed, but I am not worthless. I am limited, but I am not unlovable." Toxic shame, on the other hand, says, "I am no good. I am garbage. If anyone ever knew the truth about me, they would want nothing to do with me." This kind of self-talk is extremely debilitating, and it certainly does not reflect the truth of the gospel. God sees the truth of who we are and loves us in our brokenness and pain.
Our culture’s response to shame is to promote the idea that we have nothing at all to be ashamed of, that we are fine just the way we are. But the inability to experience healthy shame, to feel no shame whatsoever when we sin, is not good for us either. When I experience toxic shame, my instinct is to hide from God. When I experience no shame, then I have no reason to go to God. But when I experience healthy shame, my recognition of my flaws and weaknesses drive me to God. I know that my sins do not disqualify me from His love and grace.
The basic pattern of grace-based preaching goes something like this: (1) You were made for X (to experience joy, freedom, love, purpose, etc.); (2) This is why you can't have X (we are fallen, sinful, broken); and (3) This is how the gospel transforms us so that we can become the people God created us to be. Shame is not bad if it leads us to Jesus.
CPL: Tells us more about the sermon series that started with ‘Shameless.’ What were the other topics you preached about and texts you preached from?
The entire series was called, “From Shame to Honor.” We took a team approach because I felt that a multiplicity of voices would be helpful.
The second sermon in the series focused on the radical inclusivity of the gospel as presented in Acts 10-11, when the early church had to decide what to do with the Gentile believers who didn’t act like their Jewish counterparts. When it came to determining who was in and who was out in regard to the kingdom, traditions such as circumcision, Sabbath, and adhering to Jewish dietary laws were no longer what marked the people of God. The only evidence that really mattered was whether a person had received the Holy Spirit. If we are to become grace-filled churches that seek to set people free from guilt and shame, it’s vital that we stop measuring people against false standards of behavior. We can disagree in matters of theology, practice, politics, behavior, dress, and a wide array of issues and still love and accept one another as family. If God has demonstrated that He accepts someone by virtue of the fact they have received the Holy Spirit, then we must also accept them. This acceptance from the community of faith becomes a public testimony that a person’s shame has indeed been lifted.
During the course of the series, we also talked about how to identify and confront spiritual abuse, discussed practical ways to heal from shame, and spoke openly about the ways in which women experience shame due to mistreatment from men. Shame comes in many forms and from many sources. We touched on some of the most common ones, but we felt we just barely scratched the surface of this very important conversation.
If anyone’s interested in listening to the rest of the series, all the sermons can be found on our website at http://trinitychurchmp.com.
CPL: Why was this series important for your people to hear at that particular time? How was it received?
I knew that many of our people were struggling with deep-seated shame in their lives and expected the series to resonate with them. But I was still surprised by the immediacy and magnitude of the congregation's response. Many people broke down in tears as years of shame came to the surface. We lingered in the sanctuary and prayed with anyone who desired it. The conversations continued into our mid-week small groups. We saw a lot of healing take place.
I've come to realize now that shame is not limited to the Asian or Latino community. It is just as much of a problem in the Midwest as it is in Southern California and other parts of the world. Wherever people live, shame is a problem, because it is in our fallen nature to judge and exclude. It’s been said that we accuse others of sin in order to excuse our own.
Obviously it will take a lot more than six-week sermon series to transform our churches and culture. First we have to get our theology right. We have to understand that we don't just have a sin problem. We also have a shame problem. And that breaks our Heavenly Father's heart. When we are liberated not only from the penalty of sin, but also the shame of sin, only then can we overcome the power of sin. So long as we are still in bondage to shame, we will never truly be free.
CPL: At the Conference, you told us that folks in your congregation don’t respond to what most of us would consider to be an altar call. Why? And what are some other ways you provide for your parishioners to respond to your sermons?
People who are bound by shame are terrified of having their pain, brokenness, and sins exposed in public. The walk from the pew to the altar can be extremely daunting. If I stand and come forward, what will people assume about me? What secret sin will they think I’ve been hiding? To come to the altar is to admit I am weak and needy. I may be confident that God will accept me, but I have no assurance that I will be accepted by the community. It’s just too risky for people who come from a shame-based culture. Your honor is everything.
I think sometimes in the West we want immediate, tangible evidence that people are responding to our preaching. I can’t deny that seeing people come forward right after I speak makes me feel like I’ve done a good job. I wonder if altar calls are sometimes more about satisfying our own egos and making a spectacle than what is best for our listeners.
On a couple of occasions, I’ve displayed my cell phone number on the screen at the close of the sermon and invited people to text me with a simple response if God had touched them in some way. This was a more discreet way for people to respond, and gave me the added advantage of being able to follow up with specific individuals. I actually get more responses this way than a traditional altar call.
I also publicly invite people to drop by my office during the week or make an appointment. It’s important to draw people into a deeper relationship not just with Jesus, but with the body of Christ. People need time to process what they hear and allow the truth of the gospel to marinate in their spirit. We encourage people to discuss the sermon in their mid-week small groups. These more intimate settings provide a safe place for people to respond in a more thoughtful way, to have questions answered, and to hear others’ reactions. Altar calls typically don’t provide this opportunity.