Is Shame Affecting Your Relationships?
Waking up to a scandal.
This scene is almost too horrific to believe. Imagine going to church one morning and in the middle of the sermon, the men of the church drag a lady crying and half dressed in front of all the people to accuse her of being caught having sex with a guy to whom she isn't married. The situation and timing are awkward. Her affair has hurt a lot of people. The law calls for the death penalty and the speaker (Jesus) has to decide on the spot what to do with her. Everyone knows that there has been tension between the men in authority of the church and Jesus, so there is drama at many levels as the crowd watches to see if they can trap him and whether He will order her punishment. As they hurl questions at Him, the people pick up stones in their hands to throw at her as they await his response. What better time for the religious leaders to stir the pot than to drag her in front of Jesus while he was teaching a morning lesson at the temple?
This was all about hating Jesus.
That said, the Pharisees didn't really care about the woman or justice. The law called for both adulterers to be stoned, so singling out just the woman was unethical. This was about one thing: hating Jesus. He had questioned their authority, confronted their hypocrisy, won over the people, broke their rules, and displayed power that they could only dream of. From the moment Jesus became a public figure, the Pharisees wanted Him gone and the writers of the gospels record time after time when the Pharisees tried to trap Him, discredit Him, question Him, accuse Him, and kill Him. Jesus disrupted their whole system and their power. They stood to lose their authority and their position, but because of His popularity they had to devise a tricky scheme to take Him out.
Have you ever felt disgusted or angry with a person who uses religion to control people, look down on others, or gain power for themselves? Apparently Jesus did too! If you've never read the gospel of Matthew, Jesus' scathing rebuke of the teachers of the law is quite entertaining. Here is a list of some of His descriptions of the religious leaders and Pharisees, just from chapter 23 alone:
You Children of hell!
You blind guides!
You're like whitewashed tombs filled with bones and everything unclean!
You brood of vipers!
No wonder the religious leaders couldn't stand Him!!! He called out their mean, self righteous, phony behavior in front of everyone. He did radical things that they disapproved of-- like healing on the Sabbath, eating dinner with the sketchy crowd, and befriending outcasts.
Jesus was gentle with sinners and tough on religious hypocrites.
Here's a great example of the scene at the temple one day recorded in the book of John.
A Woman Caught in Adultery
Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote on the ground.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
John 8:1-11 New Living Translation (NLT)
I have so many questions about what happened that day. I decided to imagine the scene with two different theologies and views of Jesus. I am in no way trying to add to the gospels, but to challenge our understanding of grace and the divine love of God.
One of the next two paragraphs better displays my understanding of the person of Jesus through my fictional retelling of the woman caught in adultery recorded in the book of John. I’ll call her Ariana and add some details for the sake of imagination. You choose your favorite version. What would your version be like? Do you know Jesus? Which one sounds more like the Jesus you know? Which Jesus is more consistent with the person described in the gospels?
Jesus heard the agitated crowd assembling, interrupting his sermon. He was appalled at Ariana’s behavior when he learned that she was having sex with a guy she wasn’t married to. He wondered if anything would ever bring her to her senses. Ariana’s family had regularly attended religious services and she clearly knew better. Not only that, but her parents were community leaders and had been reputable role models. There was no excuse for this pointless promiscuity and she was hurting her family. He knew the Law, the Ten Commandments, and he knew how his Father felt about adultery and sex outside of marriage. Though he cared about her, he knew that she needed to feel the sting of her wrongdoing and begin making better decisions. As he watched the crowd, listening to the angry accusations and seeing the rocks in their hands, he felt a familiar disgust for Ariana that he knew would never go away.
He could forgive Ariana, but he would never look at her the same way. It was for her own good and the good of society that she understand that sometimes a line is crossed and we can never get back to where we were. He stood at a distance, observing. He was proud of those in charge for their difficult role in execution of justice, and trying not to be resentful at yet another sin he knew would be heaped on his own back as he thought about his mission, his upcoming crucifixion, and the way he knew his life was going to end. He wondered if it was worth it to die for the sins of people like her who never seemed to learn.
Ariana’s gaze met Jesus and instantly her neck grew red hot. Her face flushed with shame and she wished she could disappear. She hated the way she felt and vowed she would never visit the temple again or anywhere she may encounter the arrogant religious leaders directing the stoning. What were they doing snooping around her house? Why didn't they drag her lover out of the house, too? What about the Pharisee leader that everyone knows is a pervert and had an affair last year himself? Why wasn't anyone accusing him? Maybe what she did wasn’t right, but she knew she could never be so cruel as to enjoy humiliating someone else like they were doing to her. They didn’t understand her loneliness. No one in the crowd even seemed to care that she was about to die.
Jesus noticed the angry crowd assembling as he taught. As he was sitting, men came dragging Ariana before Him and the Pharisees interrupted his sermon to announce her sin in a loud voice. She winced and resisted as they yanked on her arms. Young boys laughed and women exchanged smug glances. All too aware of the Law, The Ten Commandments and His Father’s standards about adultery and sex outside of marriage, His heart was heavy as he scanned the crowd for Ariana. He longed for the people to know how much happier they would be if they could obey the law meant to protect them, but He was heart broken by her public shame and desperation. He knew that pain is inevitable for mankind because perfection is impossible. She had broken the law, but He knew the impure thoughts of the Pharisees accusing her as well as the improper way this was being handled. The excitement of the mob made Him cringe and He grew angry thinking about how the Pharisees used this woman to get to Him.
He had known Ariana for a long time and seen her suffer from several broken relationships and choices she had made. Upon spotting her, He walked amongst them to go nearer to her and stand beside her, averting His gaze. A hush came over the crowd as the hostile accusations quieted, replaced by the peoples’ eager curiosity at this surprising move of the Teacher. The religious officials eagerly begged for His decision and awaited His rebuke, especially those who remembered the time He cleared the temple with whips, angrily overturning tables. They knew that Jesus knew the law of Moses and their pulses quickened, eager to see if He could be trapped in this awkward moment. Her rebuke never came. Instead He spoke to them, inviting whoever was without sin to be the first to throw their rock. That odd invitation caught them off guard as they looked around at their peers for anyone who might accept the challenge and go first. After a few moments, He spoke softly to Ariana as he looked down and traced His fingers on the ground. And then, one by one, the people began leaving, beginning with the oldest. When the last walked away, with a grin He asked, “What, did they all leave? Didn’t anybody condemn you?”
Mercy with a bit of cheerful humor was like a cool drop of water to a parched and weary soul. Ariana couldn’t help letting a smile escape through her tears as she lifted her head for the first time to make eye contact. She knew she should be dead and had no idea what to expect next when Jesus looked into her eyes. He turned to Ariana and said: “Neither do I. Now go and don’t sin anymore.”
The kindness of an undeserved act of friendship made a permanent mark on Ariana’s heart that day, but it wasn’t until the events of over a year later as she watched His hands and feet nailed to a wooden cross in an all too familiar blood thirsty, accusing mob that she began to somewhat understand who He was. The death she escaped was real now for Him and she couldn’t stop it. Her heart broke as she listened to the insults and saw them spit in His face. She wept uncontrollably, knowing that the friendship Jesus offered cost Him his life. Many years later she would realize that her mistake was paid for that day, not excused, but never held against her because it was held against her Savior instead at the cross. If she could have disappeared that day, she would have vanished in a heartbeat. But, she was so grateful that because of the painful circumstance, she came face to face with Jesus, whose kindness altered her life forever.
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." -- Maya Angelou
Which option do you prefer? Which version better portrays the Jesus you’ve always imagined? Read the real Bible story for yourself. You decide. Ask God to show you His heart toward sinners and guilty people. Ask Jesus to reveal how He really feels about you.
Where you are in this story, may I ask? Are you a child hurt by the actions of a family member? The guilty person who has been caught sleeping around? An angry member of the mob who knows what it's like to be cheated on? A heartbroken friend worried about someone you care about? A good person who doesn't believe you need Jesus? We can all find ourselves in the story somewhere.
To clarify, my point is NOT that Jesus excused, minimized or dismissed her sin with a what's the big deal-- we've all messed up attitude. Some scholars point out that Mosaic law requires that there had to be two more more witnesses and/or that both parties had to be there for the stoning to be legal. Since her partner was not there, maybe the stoning was out of compliance. Others argue that Jesus knew her accusers were guilty of the same thing. My focus is on God's heart of love for people. John says that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but fulfill the law. Jesus did not come to condemn, but to love and save. Through Christ, we are made righteous though we have been unable to uphold a perfect standard. Our sins are paid for by Him and we are considered holy and without blemish because of what He did and despite what we have done. Jesus took our punishment.
No child likes to be disciplined at school, whether it's getting a hack in the 70's or a suspension in modern times. But kids always know whether the person dislikes them and whether the punishment is driven by love. I have seen students expelled, employees fired, and citizens arrested with no ill feelings toward the person in authority. They know they are guilty and know the person cares about them. I have also seen students expelled, employees fired, and citizens arrested who seethed with hatred for the person in authority. One thing I've never seen is a principal or parent who asked to take the hacks for a child, or a police officer who served prison time in place of a felon.
We cannot focus on the issue of right and wrong to the exclusion of how Jesus treated people. I am no Bible scholar, but I know that we all know what it's like to receive discipline, punishment, or correction with dignity and what it's like to receive it by someone who wants to shame us. I think that if we could go back and interview the woman, she would feel loved unconditionally by Jesus. I think she would feel judged, used, and shamed by the religious leaders.
Jesus alone stood with her.
I believe from years of Bible study and experience that the second version better illustrates the heart of Jesus and attitude toward the woman caught in adultery. Though the law of Moses called for stoning, God wanted to show us His heart of mercy and grace toward sinners. Stoning seems so harsh and punitive for our society that it's a difficult issue. When in doubt, look at Jesus to know the heart of God. Know Jesus, know God. Trust Jesus, trust God. Jesus was the only true friend Ariana had that day. Only Jesus stood beside her and faced the angry mob on her behalf, not presiding from above. Jesus was the enemy of the Pharisees and religious leaders. Jesus was the friend of the outcast. Jesus claimed that He died on the cross and was resurrected to save us. Jesus is my Friend. He has been my only Friend at times. I want Him to be yours, too.
Hurting people liked Jesus.
Could we explore another part of the stories now? I’m interested in the silent conversations no one else hears. Voices, light and dark, battle in our minds. Which thoughts we believe result in our actions. The thoughts that only we hear can cause discouragement and confusion. The dark voice is capable of trapping us, paralyzing us, imprisoning us. It silently breaks our heart, sucks the wind out of our sails, and clouds our hope.
"Don't believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that -- thoughts." -- allan lokos
Maybe to an unfaithful spouse a voice whispers:
You are a failure. You are a loser. You never get it right. You will never be more than your worst mistake. When people think of you, they will think of this. This is who you are and this is how you will be remembered. The world is better off without you. Your kids would be better off without you. They wouldn’t want to hear from you so don’t even bother. It’s too late. You’ve done enough. They don’t need you to come and make things worse. You are stuck and it will never get better. Maybe next week you could make the call. Maybe next year the timing will be better but don’t worry about it today. Do whatever it takes right now: drink what you need to, smoke what you want to, look at whatever you want, and spend or type or think whatever you like to think to make yourself feel better and deal with the pain. Hide from God because He is disappointed with you. God could not fully love someone as despicable as you. When God thinks of you, He will always think of this. Punish yourself, because that is what you deserve and everyone knows it.
Maybe to a child it hisses:
You don’t matter. You aren’t lovable. Nobody cares about you and your life isn’t worth anything to anyone. Your own father doesn’t even love you and he is too busy for you. This is all your fault. You’re not enough. Maybe if you were better or more beautiful or smarter or more successful or a better athlete he would love you, but you’re not and you know it. You are a fool to think that God loves you. If God loved you, why did he let this happen to you? You are a nobody and nothing will ever be different. You aren’t worth your father’s time and you’re not worth God’s time either. You are stupid. You are ugly. You are a loser. You are dirty. Give up. The world would be better without you. Nobody is coming for you. Nobody hears you or sees your tears or cares. Punish yourself, because that is what you deserve. Do whatever it takes, drink whatever you need to, look at whatever you want and think whatever you like to think to make yourself feel better and deal with the pain. Hide from God because if He does exist He is disappointed with you and your pain will never go away.
Have you ever had these thoughts? What do we do when this hateful voice whispers to us and we suspect that it is true? Where do we go when we don’t have the strength to fight? Who knows your fears, the ones you can’t even say aloud? Are you afraid that if you told someone they might agree with the lies? Have you accepted these negative thoughts about yourself?
A good friend helps us be kind to ourselves.
I work with hurting kids and people and I hear these things often. One thing I’ve noticed is that when a child hears something enough, they tend to begin to accept these lies as truth. When a student tells me that they believe that they are stupid, for example, I often enlist the help of others. "As his friends, do you believe he is stupid?” I ask. Without fail, the friends shake their heads NO! and become shocked and sad at the lies their friend is believing about them self. It seems to help to get the lie out in the open. I think that when we voice the belief that torments us to someone who cares about us, it takes its power away. It also starts a conversation where others are saying me too. Together friends can support each other to replace this harsh taskmaster with a more kind and gentle voice of truth.
As humans in relationships, we can make things better or we can make things worse. I have made things better and I have made things worse. I have thrown rocks and I have offered grace. I understand both.
I know that you have heard many of the same lies. I know you have the same questions. Am I enough? Do I matter? Am I worthy of love? Is God good? Can I trust Him?
I can relate to the inner battle of throwing rocks or offering grace. Be encouraged. If you wonder how God feels about you, I urge you to learn from this story of Jesus. Jesus showed Ariana she mattered and that she was worthy of love and forgiveness. Jesus even loved the Pharisees. We are all worthy of love because the love of God doesn’t depend on what we do, but on the very nature of God. God IS love.
All people are loved by God because His love doesn't depend on our behavior but on His nature.
Would you consider believing, despite your past or your doubts, that Jesus longs to show you kindness?
Ariana’s silent enemy tried to kill her with accusations, shame, and humiliation for her wrongdoing. Religious leaders eagerly sought her humiliation. Grace appeared beside her to stand as a Friend who took her punishment on Himself and silence her accusers.
With just a little faith, we can believe that God is our Friend… the friendship we don’t deserve but might as well enjoy.
I love you. Jesus loves you more.