For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present,
nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
--Romans 8:38-39 NRSV
On Sunday, I preached a sermon on Romans chapter 8. It’s one of my favorite passages of scripture. Its promise that nothing shall separate us from the love of God, not even death, is one I read at bedsides and gravesides. Its words comfort me in my moments of shame and doubt.
As I shared Sunday, in my decades of ministry, I have found that most people aren’t too afraid of the things on Paul’s list (with the exception of death) separating them from God’s love. No, what they are really afraid of is that their own failures, mistakes and hurtful actions are what set them outside the boundaries of God’s love.
What would American Christianity be if it didn’t have shame to heap on people? For a religion that is supposedly about a God who will give anything to be in relationship with us, American Christians sure spend a lot of time talking about how far away we are from God and God from us. Without people being motivated out of shame, I suspect most American churches would have to close their doors.
If one is at all honest, we all have secret places deep inside ourselves where we carry our shame. We keep those places secret, because we suspect deep down if anyone knew what we know about ourselves they could never love us. Frederick Buechner says these secrets create “the central paradox of our condition — that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
This desire to be known combined with our fear of being found out twists us into conflicted people who then act in all sorts of unhealthy ways. We medicate our shame through drugs and alcohol, block out our shame with non-stop sessions staring at our screens (phones, tablets, TV’s, etc.) and minimize our shame by competing with and putting down others. Sadly, American Christianity has done as much as anything else to make this condition worse.
The promises of Romans 8 stand in contradiction to the shame messages we are drowning in. If all the powers of creation—even death—cannot separate us from God’s love, then nothing inside of us stands a chance of doing so either. God knows our deepest secrets and our most shameful actions, but God still loves us. In my favorite novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes these astounding words, “Love is holy because it is like grace - the worthiness of its object is never really what matters." Hear that? It doesn’t matter whether we consider ourselves worthy of God’s love or not.
The social science researcher Brene Brown has become a bestselling author and a viral online sensation for her writing about shame. (It’s almost as if Americans are suffering from a shame pandemic!) She writes in a blog post,
I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.
I’ve been on the receiving end of truly vicious behavior from people in the churches I’ve served, but the most vicious of all were the people who secretly believed they were unworthy of love. Their secret belief, of course, became anything but secret, because their desperation to prove their worth informed their every action. Power plays, triangulation, cutting people down behind their backs, control issues, passive aggressive behavior—all result from people who deep down feel they are not loveable.
If only churches spent more time declaring the promise “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” then maybe our churches, and our society, would be much healthier. I wish for you more moments where you can live out of the assurance you are worthy of love.
Grace and Peace,
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