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Beyond "grace" … Towards love

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

The leader shouts into the microphone, “Come on Jesuus!!”  Somewhere in the congregation, a well-dressed man in his sixties has spontaneously fallen over, dropping back as if in a dead faint.  Those at each side catch him just before he hits the ground and, kneeling down next to him, they start to pray in an unintelligible language, their hands hovering over his horizontal body.  Then somewhere at the back, someone has started sobbing.  “Yes!” cries the leader, “The Holy Spirit is here.”

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“Justice is getting what you deserve;

Mercy is not getting what you deserve;

Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.”

The basic premise of evangelical Christian faith is that we are all bad.  In fact we were born ‘sinful’, and no matter how many good things we do, we will always ‘fall short’ of God’s standards.  Since God is by nature Just, all evil must be punished.  The unspoken ‘what you deserve’ in the quote above that is commonly used in evangelical sermons, is therefore death.

In fact, we are so bad that God/God’s ‘son’ had to come to earth in human form and not just die but be tortured and killed to pay the price for our badness.  The ‘good news’ is, that although we deserve death, God/God’s ‘son’ was killed instead of us.

In hindsight, believing that I deserve death seems extreme, but I know I argued passionately for it at school.  “What if I’m a good person?” someone would inevitably ask.  It’s not just our actions, I would contend, it’s every word that we speak and every thought that we think and every feeling that we experience.  If we are less than perfect in any way, we deserve death.  And now Jesus has been crucified for us, we are free from ‘sin’; free from the power of ‘imperfection’ and the ‘sinful nature’;  free, finally, to be good.

Unsurprisingly, this belief can instil a deep sense of shame in believers.   Shame is not just the feeling we get when we have done a bad thing, rather it is the feeling we get when we think that we are bad.

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As Brene Brown put it: “Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” (Brown, TED talk: The Power of Vulnerability – click on the picture to link to the talk)

Guilt leads to making reparations for any hurt we may have caused, creating deeper relationships.  Shame, on the other hand, can lead to depression, anxiety, isolation and low self-worth.  Teaching people who are not Christian that they are inherently sinful encourages them to feel shame in the hope that they will ask for forgiveness from God and be ‘saved’; meanwhile teaching Christians that they are now ‘free to be good’ means that when they make mistakes and don’t live up to that standard, the regret is more likely to be accompanied by a sense of failure, which can lead to further shame.

In some evangelical churches, the feeling of shame gets re-branded as being ‘aware of your need for God’ / ‘hungry/thirsty for God’ / ‘reliant on God’, all of which are sentiments that are encouraged.  It is common for people to say prayers like, “God we are nothing” (i.e. ‘we are worthless’ = shame) and “We desperately need you” (i.e. ‘we have such a sense of our own inherent lack’ = shame).  In some churches these prayers will be mixed with earnest tears from the believer.  While expressions of shame through prayer or tears can provide a sense of catharsis, the believers then return week after week (or several times a week) as church becomes the place where they are accepted, even in their shame.

This is powerful. One can feel accepted in an evangelical church like nowhere else.  However it is also dangerous: when feeling and expressing shame leads to feeling acceptance, the positive feeling of acceptance is dependent on the continuation of the unhealthy sense of shame.  Shame, then, is both managed and perpetuated by each church meeting.

Shame stemming from a doctrine of unworthiness is the fuel that drives many evangelical churches, drawing in new believers and ensuring those who already belong won’t leave, and it gets reinforced in this way, week after week.

Let’s be clear: “I love you despite what you deserve” is not love.  No parent would say it to their child; no lover, sister or brother.  It is at best manipulation.

I would add to the adage quoted above:

Love is where any thought of deserving becomes totally irrelevant.

In choosing to go beyond evangelical church culture, I have started to learn to let go of my own shame; to forget about what I may or may not ‘deserve’; to learn that I am worthy of love.  That I am loved and lovable for myself, not just because of what someone else has done to get me ‘off the hook’ but simply because I am a human being; that God loves me and I love me, and others can love me too.

Surely this is Good News.

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