A few years ago, I read a book that was a great help to me. The title was Shame & Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserveby Lewis B. Smedes who was, for many years, a professor at the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. At the beginning of the book, Smedes shares this story about his mother….
I was visiting with her at the hospital one afternoon. She was going to die in a few weeks, though only she knew it. The winter sun was setting, she was bone-tired—we had talked too long—her eyes closed now. Moist at the corners, and she heaved, “O Lewis, I’m so glad that the Lord forgives me all of my sins; I’ve been a great sinner, you know.”
Great sinner? As far back as I could remember, she was on her knees scrubbing people’s kitchen floors most days, up to her neck in the frets of five fussing children every evening, and, when late night fell, there she was on her knees again, in her own kitchen this time, asking the Lord for strength to do it again for one more day. When did she have time and where did she get the energy to do any great sinning?
What she was feeling about herself in those last weeks was what she had been feeling most of her life, that she was just not good enough, not a good enough mother, or a good enough Christian, or a good enough anything she could think of. But not being good enough felt to her the same as being very bad. And “great sinner” was the only way she could think of to describe the heaviness she felt…. My mother had a classic case of unhealthy shame. A lifelong affair with chronic not-good-enoughness. I learned my shame from her.
It saddens me still that such a triumph of a woman should have to die feeling like a wretch. Her shame was totally out of touch with her reality. She did not deserve to be stuck with so much shame.
I believe that unhealthy shame is one of the problems that John addresses in the next section of his letter. He knows that some of the things he has said already in this letter may be producing in some of his readers this very unwanted and unnecessary shame, so he wants to nip it in the bud before it spreads. Hear what John has to say on this very important topic from 1 John 3:19-24….
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
John tells us that the way to heal the shame we do not deserve is to realize that God is greater than our hearts. How does this knowledge heal our shame? Well, it is like this: all of us have a conscience. That, in essence, is what John is talking about here, except that he uses the word “heart” instead of conscience. The problem with our conscience is that it does not work correctly all the time. In some people, conscience is underactive. I imagine this has been true of many of the great tyrants down through history. Hitler had more than six million Jews killed in the gas chambers. If he ever felt guilt or shame over that horrendous evil, history has failed to record it. That is an extreme example of an underactive conscience.
On the other end of the spectrum is the case of many religious people. Many of us have overactive consciences. That is what John is talking about when he says: “if our hearts condemn us”. Certainly there are many times when our hearts condemn us properly: when we lie, cheat, steal, are unfaithful to our spouse, fail to honor our parents, fail to put God first in our lives. When we feel guilty about such failures, John has already told us what we should do: we should confess our sins to God and receive his forgiveness through his Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we do that, John tells us what happens: “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
However, sometimes we feel a vague sense of guilt, we feel shame, about thoughts, feelings, or actions about which we have no right to feel shame or guilt. What do we do then? We need to realize that God is greater than our hearts; God is greater than our consciences. When our conscience puts us on trial, God is the final court of appeal. We can ask God: “Is what I have been thinking, doing, or saying, really wrong?” How will God answer us? God may answer us in any number of ways: perhaps through some words in Scripture, maybe through the words of a trusted friend or counselor, but always through the work of the Holy Spirit. The bottom line is that when our hearts condemn us, we need to experience God’s grace and God’s love that is greater than our hearts.
Lewis Smedes tells one man’s story of encounter with God’s grace that heals shame. The man’s name was Racehoss Sample. He ran away from home when he was eleven years old and became a hobo. The Second World War broke out, and the army found him but soon found out it could not tame him. Racehoss went AWOL every month or so, and each time he did, he got into a fight and was sent to jail for assault and battery. Finally, they sentenced him to thirty years in the Texas state penitentiary. There he learned for sure that if you treat a person like an animal, he becomes one.
Racehoss spent considerable time in solitary confinement. In the sixteenth year of his captivity, he contradicted one of the guards and was locked in again, but it was not the same this time. This time he was terrified as soon as they shoved him in. He heard a sound of rushing water nearby, and he knew for sure it was going to seep in and drown him. He went crazy.
Here is the rest of the story in Racehoss’ own words….
I … ran around the walls. Then rolled on the floor like a ball…. I mauled myself, scratching and tearing at my body. Slumped, exhausted on the slab, I covered my face with both hands and cried out, “Help me God!! Help meeeee!!” ….
A ray of light between my fingers. Slowly uncovering my face, the whole cell was illuminated like a 40-watt bulb turned on. The soft light soothed me and I no longer was afraid. Engulfed by a presence, I felt it reassuring me. It comforted me…I breathed freely. I had never felt such well being, so good, in all my life. Safe. Loved.
The voice within talked through the pit of my belly. “You are not an animal. You are a human being.” And “Don’t you worry about a thing. But you must tell them about me.”
After that, God was real. He found me in the abyss of the burning hell, uplifted and fed my hungry soul, and breathed new life into my nostrils.
The way that Racehoss Sample experienced God’s grace may not be the way that you or I will experience it. That does not matter. God’s grace comes to us in many ways and many forms. One thing is certain: when we experience God’s grace, when we realize God is greater than our hearts and that God loves us, knowledge of that fact changes us. God’s grace changed Racehoss Sample. He left prison and became the first ex-convict to ever work out of the governor’s office, the first to serve as a probation officer, the first to serve on the State Bar of Texas as a division head. He received the Liberty Bell Award and became the Outstanding Crime Prevention Citizen of Texas in 1981. Racehoss received a full pardon and changed his name to Alfred Sample.
Once we begin to experience God’s grace in such a way as to heal both our deserved and undeserved shame, John tells us there are certain results that will follow from that experience…. The first result is that we have confidence before God.
When we have experienced God’s grace through Jesus Christ then we can approach God without fear, in total trust. The Greek word for confidence, παρρησιαν, means to speak with all boldness. The valued right of citizens in ancient Greece was free speech. Paul tells us we are citizens of heaven and adopted children of God. As such, we have the right of free speech before the throne of God. We can come before God with whatever is on our minds and in our hearts any hour of the day or night.
Paul Borthwick tells the following story….
I was traveling from Boston to Denver, and the departure area for my flight was buzzing with stern-looking men in dark suits talking into their lapels. I asked a flight attendant what was happening. She replied, “Just wait. You’ll see.”
After we settled into our economy-class seats, two of the dark-suited men arrived in first class, followed by former President Gerald Ford. I sat a few rows away! I thought, I’ve never met a President before. I’ll go introduce myself.
But then I wondered, Why would he want to meet me?I didn’t even vote for him!
Then I remembered that during my years in seminary, I had met President Ford’s son, Mike. So I marched toward first class. Before the Secret Service men could stop me, I spoke boldly: “President Ford, I just wanted to meet you. I know your son, Mike.”
We talked briefly, mostly about Mike. Mike’s name gave me “authority” to approach the President.
The same thing is true in our relationship with God. We can approach God with boldness because of our relationship with his Son Jesus who died for us. Boldness is the first result of having an experience of God’s grace.
A second result of having an experience of God’s grace is that we receive from God what we ask of him.
How can this be? Does this mean we can ask God for a million dollars and receive it? The answer is yes and no. If we ask God for a million dollars in order to spend it on our own selfish concerns, then we are not going to receive it. Our receiving what we ask of God is dependent upon our obedience to God’s commands, doing what pleases God. When our hearts are in tune with God’s will then we will naturally ask God for those things that God wants to give us. In some cases that may mean: asking and receiving a million dollars for God’s kingdom purposes. In other situations, we may simply have to ask God for patience to endure and God will give us that patience. However, the main thing we need to see here is that we can ask God with boldness for whatever we need because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross.
John Newton, author of Amazing Grace, once said,
Thou art coming to a King,
large petitions with thee bring,
for His grace and power
are such none canever ask too much.
Steve DeNeff and Dave Drury tell the following story in their book, Soul Shift:
One time, my dad wanted to congratulate me on something I had accomplished in the sixth grade. He took me to K-Mart and made a wide sweeping gesture with his hand toward the whole store from the entrance. He said, “To congratulate you, I’ll buy you anything in this whole store tonight.” My eyes widened as I thought of the possibilities.
At the time, I didn’t have a full grasp on how money worked or how much money Dad had. So I sort of limited things in my mind. I didn’t even look at the huge stereo systems, expensive bikes, or anything that cost more than one hundred dollars. Instead, I chose a cassette tape case that was less than fifty dollars. I was content with just that case. It was more than I could afford myself, for sure, so I chose that one. It was nice. Only many years later did I find out from Dad that he had one thousand dollars cash in his pocket that night. What’s more, he brought his checkbook just in case that wasn’t enough. In my selection, I limited his blessing in my life.
Imagine how much God has in his pocket for you. You don’t ask God for all the spiritual power you could because you forget that you are his child. Like me and my earthly father, you don’t realize all he could do for you, in you, and through you.