May a merciful God preserve me from a Christian Church in which everyone is a saint! I want to be and remain in the church and little flock of the fainthearted, the feeble and the ailing, who feel and recognize the wretchedness of their sins, who sigh and cry to God incessantly for comfort and help, who believe in the forgiveness of sins.
– Martin Luther
Have you ever watched a movie with one actor and then watched another movie with the same actor and could not believe it was the same person? One name that comes to mind is Meryl Streep. You can watch Streep play a witch in Into the Woods, and then play a mother in Sophie’s Choice, and then play Julia Childs in Julie and Julia. She can put on one mask of a character and switch with ease.
Many times when we see a movie or a play we marvel at the acting skills. Books upon books have been written about how to portray characters with reality in performance. In fact, there are awards given for who can be the best character. It is not an award for being themselves. It is an award for being another person. Those who do not get nominated for an award tend to walk with shame as they have tried, but still cannot get it. In the film world, image is everything.
Have you ever felt like you were putting on another person in order to have an image? Is your image one of a successful Christian in order to hide what is really going on? Do our churches shame us into having an image?
Shaming in the Church
You have signed up for a small group. It is an exciting time to get together with your fellow believers to study the Word and help each other through struggles in your life. You are well aware of that one sin which keeps you down and stalks you in the shadows. The freedom you find in knowing a small group or a church that can help is celebratory… until the group starts.
You sit in a circle and begin sharing about your struggles in order to pray for each other. “Pray for me. I am struggling with staying in my Bible reading daily.” “I am struggling with pride.” Then all eyes watch you as it is your turn to share, “Pray for me. I am still struggling with (insert your sin here).” All of a sudden their eyes grow wide. Silence makes you feel claustrophobic. “Maybe I should have said pride or another less awkward struggle,” you think to yourself.
As the group dismisses, you receive warm encouragements of “I am praying for you.” Yet, as the week goes on, do you hear from them? The members of your small group begin to avoid you or just tolerate you. Then it seems like everyone in church knows. You feel shamed. Shamed to go to church. Shamed to speak out again. Shamed to even call yourself a follower of Christ.
The weight of your shame is back-breaking and you can’t take it anymore. So, you make an excuse. You say you have found victory. You slip on a mask of an image, and say, “I struggle with my prayer life.” In your mind, it is better to be a part of an image, rather than bear the shame of the church.
Have you ever felt like this? Do you know someone who has felt like this? Do you feel like you can be open about your sin struggles in the church? Or, do you feel like you have to keep them a secret and keep an image in order to not be shamed?
Shame is a powerful tool to use against people. In the church it can be used to keep an image of “perfect saints.” Sure, many will say their church is not perfect. But, when was the last time you heard someone open up and testify to God working in their hearts through a deep struggle? Does the church use sins like pride or lack of a prayer life to cover up what is really happening in people’s lives?
The Root of Shaming
Shaming in the church is real. It happens all the time. We hear people confess to not reading their Bibles enough or not praying enough. Yet, out of the blue they are renouncing their faith and joyfully embracing a life characterized by sin. Why did they not open up about this? Were they afraid of being shamed if they did? The fear of shame is powerful, and it causes many to not open up and let sin live in secret.
You do not shame someone unless you want them to change or adopt a set of practices. Shaming causes people to fall in line with an image presented. Many churches have an image of a nice building, people dressed to impress, and everything is right as rain. If someone comes in not properly dressed, or says something out of line there is an immediate reaction to nonverbally let that person know to fall in line. When that happens, the church is using shame to worship their image.
The root of shaming is image. When image becomes the most important, we make sure masks are provided to cover up things in our lives in order to be perceived as perfect.
The Real Image of the Church
So, what is the image of the church to be? Does the Bible say anything about this? Actually, it does.
I Corinthians 6:9-11 states what a church in the New Testament was perceived as. Paul states in graphic terms what sins the people in the church used to take part in: stealing, greed, homosexuality, drunkenness, and idolatry. Pride and lack of a prayer life is not mentioned. These are some pretty heavy sins that are mentioned. Yet, Paul does not glorify the sin. He glorifies the Savior who washed and cleansed them of their sins.
It is a story that is repeated throughout the New Testament. Ephesians 5:8 and 1 Peter 2:9 sing a similar song. The image of the Church is of individuals who were living in darkness and now called into the marvelous light of God. It is a group of people who recognize and remember where they were before Christ. They do not try to hide their past. They freely admit to it. Just like Paul does many times throughout his epistles. Paul clearly shares in detail where he was before Christ turned his life around. The image of the church is not one of perfection. It is one of a group of people being called out of darkness and into light, and the church elevates this story time and time again. The church’s motto is old made new (II Corinthians 5:17)
The Church That Struggles Together Shines Together
As we have seen from the New Testament the church is one that is being called out from darkness into light. Are we made perfect right away? No. Paul reveals in Romans 7:21-25 that he struggles with sin. He feels a war inside of him. Are we more perfect than Paul? No. But, should the church continue to sin that grace may abound? No.
However, we ,first, must acknowledge that all of us who are believers and inside the church are struggling with sin. If we say that we are not currently struggling with sin, 1 John 1:8 says that the truth is not in us. 1 John was not written to unbeliever. It is written to believer. The word “to have” in Greek is in the present tense. John is not saying if we do not acknowledge we have sinned in the past then the truth is not in us. That is not his focus John declares that if we deny we are currently sinning and struggling with sin, then the truth is not in us.
Everyone in the church is struggling with sin. And, we are not meant to struggle alone. In fact, we are commanded in Ephesians 6:10-18 to put on the amor of God and wage war. The commands “to take” are plural in Greek. The passage talks about our struggles. We are not alone in this. So stop pretending that you do not struggle with sin. Remove the mask that you have been shamed to put on. The church is meant to struggle together.
If the church was meant to be seen as perfect, people will be turned away. That is what is happening today. The church is to be a living, breathing, struggling demonstration of God’s glorious grace and redemption through the work of Jesus Christ and the transformation of the Holy Spirit. How much brighter would our testimony be when the world sees a church struggling together? What would the world say when they see the live transformation of people’s lives from salvation all the way till we meet Jesus?
Openness and transparency is difficult to cultivate. But, it is the way we see the working of the Holy Spirit. We can’t see God’s Working in the church when we shame people to hide their lives. When sin is kept in dark secrets, sin will only grow and destroy people. It must face the light of the Gospel. A church that shames people will only be concerned with an image and numbers. A church concerned with seeing lives changed and repentance will focus on openness and discipleship.
Jesus took the punishment for all our sins on the cross. We have been brought from darkness into light. Stop tell people this with only words, and start showing them how God is changing you. Put the mask down. We no longer have to pretend and be ashamed of the sin we are struggling with. Why? Because we are being sanctified by the washing of the Word and through the Holy Spirit. Jesus did not come to save the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance. We all need repentance because we all have sin since the truth is in us and points out our sin. But, if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
Shame leads to hiding God’s work in your life. Take off the mask. Don’t accept the award for being the best Christian. Tell the story of how God, through the death of His Son, brought you from darkness to life. This is the true image we should be proud of.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul
It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well with my soul