Dr. Edward Welch, in the course of his research on the subject of shame, asked his undergraduate students a bold question. To a full class of young people aged 22-28 he asked, “We are going to talk about shame this evening. Have any of you ever experienced shame?” No one raised a hand. He circled back one more time, “Have any of you ever experienced debilitating shame?” This time the entire class raised their hands. There is, if you like, an appropriate remorse or “shame” that carries a Godly quality. This would be the sort of shame that actually moves us closer to God so that we can receive His forgiveness. The debilitating “shame” that Dr. Welch was seeking to uncover is very different. It is highly toxic and very destructive, and it will always move us further away from God.
Welch believes that there is not one mandatory definition of toxic shame. Rather, it is a type of shame that distinguishes itself by leaving us with a deep sense that we are unacceptable because of something that we did, something done to us or something associated with us. To put it another way, we feel disgraced because we acted in a less than human fashion or we were treated in a less than human manner. Toxic shame is pervasive. It stalks, in disguise, beneath myriad other problems such as anger, fear or guilt. It is very likely that you will find the root of these feelings to be shame. This is the kind of shame that embeds itself within our souls and we can come to believe that it is the truth about us. It is adept at sounding just like our own voice. Guilt can be hidden; toxic shame feels like it is, or is about to be, publicly exposed. It is not a mirage. Wishful thinking, self-affirmation, medication, alcohol, a change of scene, a new job — none of these will fix toxic shame.
John’s Gospel records what begins as a harrowing account of shame. Very early in the morning, Jesus had gone to the Temple. The crowds had discovered Him and so He sat down (as is the classical Rabbinical tradition) to teach them. The scene is interrupted when the scribes and the Pharisees push a woman before Jesus with the accusation that she has been caught in the act of adultery. The scene is wretched and utterly shameful. Here is shame that is publicly exposed, naked, unclean. This is shame so toxic that it strips this woman of her humanity, with no value save but to satisfy the law and the bloodlust of the crowd. In cases of proven adultery, Deuteronomy 22:22 clearly called for a mandatory death penalty for both guilty parties. How does Jesus respond to this woman’s shame? In her story and Jesus’ response, we find our story and our freedom and healing.
John records the initial interaction between the accusers and Jesus: “’Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ …Jesus bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground… And once more He bent down and wrote on the ground.” (John 8:4-5, 6b, 8). There are various theories as to why He might have done this. Perhaps Jesus is playing for time. Maybe He is deep in thought or in prayer. I believe, however, that Jesus is being much more deliberate.
There are only two other instances in the Bible where God is described as writing with His finger. “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” (Jeremiah 17:13). The other was when, amidst a debauched and Gatsby-esque party in King Belshazzar’s palace, the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall. Neither the terrified Babylonian king nor his wise men knew what the writing meant. Daniel was brought before the king and he gave the interpretation: “…you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven… you did not honor the God who holds in His hand your life and all your ways. Therefore He sent the hand that wrote the inscription. This is the inscription that was written: …you have been weighedin the balances and found wanting…” (Daniel 5:23-27).
In His silently writing in the sand, what we have here is a parabolic action that immediately turned the Pharisees’ finely-educated minds to exactly these Scriptures. Jesus is communicating to her accusers: “You are those of whom these Scriptures speaks.” He need not have written the Scriptures in the sand — the gesture was more than enough. In writing in the dust, Jesus silences their accusationandmeets the accusers’ judgment with judgment. He is rejecting their unforgiveness and mercilessness. It is as if He is saying, “You think you are being faithful to the law. You hypocrites, if you knew the law, if you truly knew the heart of God, you would find mercy and not condemnation. In denying this woman God’s mercy, you are calling down judgment upon yourselves.”
In the healing of toxic shame, Jesus will always begin by silencing that voice of condemnation. He will literally derail the accusations. And in the silence that prevails, He will lead us into mercy. As the crowd pressed in around her, bearing their rocks to stone her, there is not one moment when Jesus is not standing at her side. Initially, He is literally her physical shield from their condemnation. In standing at her side, Jesus is also placing His own life in peril.But as the crowd drops their stones and slink away, it is just Jesus standing alone with her. The ground around them is littered with the debris of discarded rocks that had been held in angry fists. And as the dust settles, in that moment of silence, Jesus asks her a question:“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”(John 8:10).Why would He ask the question that He already knows the answer to?Because He is making a space for her to see the bigger event. She says, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus states, “Neither do I condemn you…” (John 8:11). He is the only one in the crowd without sin; He is the only one who could legitimately have cast the first stone. But He is the one who chooses not to condemn her but to stand with her, shield her and forgive her. This is the radical mercy of God. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” (John 3:17)
Finally, when Jesus told the woman “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11), it is important to understand that this statement is not a threat but an invitation that is offered in love. It is an invitation, although an urgent one, because it allows for the freely given love that Jesus has lavished on her to permeate the whole of her existence and her relationship with God and others. Has this woman ever really been loved for the person God made her to be? Certainly her “lover” is absent from this scene (though the law deemed him to be equally culpable). To the scribes and the Pharisees she was simply an object, a pawn whose life was dispensable in their political game to test and trap Jesus. Raniero Cantalamessa wrote, “Jesus came especially to redeem human beings from this situation, to manifest to them how much they are loved for themselves freely without any preconditions…[Jesus] reveals to her that He does not love her the way others have, that is to possess her or use like refuse. He makes a gift of love wholly directed toward her… to recover her identity as a beloved child of God… the way the Father always made her to be.”
How did Jesus accomplish this? In the supremacy of His love, He took upon Himself the burden of her sin, the torment of her shame. She walked into freedom; He went to the cross.
How did it all work out for her?We can’t be sure, but Jesus does give us this insight through a conversation He had with a Pharisee named Simon that is recorded in Luke’s Gospel this way: “’Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.”(Luke 7: 41-43).
It is only the love and mercy of God that has the power to transform our lives from the inside out. This woman’s new identity was not forged upon her now living a perfect, sinless life but upon living out of the love that she had been shown. And for us? Our identity in Christ is equally formed by living in response to the love of God. And because we are, all of us, a work in progress, it is a love that will always lead us back to His mercy. Time and time again, in the fullness of His love, Jesus will silence the accuser in our lives, stand with us when we are at our very worst, forgive us our sin, heal us and set us free from the bondage of shame.
This article originally appeared in the Greenwich Sentinel. Used with permission.
Drew Williams is Senior Pastor of Trinity Church Greenwich, a writer and engaging public speaker. Drew’s ministry has been directed toward helping people find and deepen an intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Prior to ordination in the Anglican Church in 2000, he practiced as a litigation attorney. Drew and his wife, Elena, came to the U.S. in 2009 to lead and serve Trinity Church.
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Publication date: May 30, 2017