Shame, The Image Of God, And Gaining Freedom To Love
The longer I am a pastor, the more convinced I become that every person, regardless of her or his situation, is fighting a hidden battle with shame. Shame, the greatest enemy of God’s grace and also the greatest inhibitor of truth, justice, and human love, is something that must be addressed if a dysfunctional human community is to become functional, healthy, and mutually supportive.
Shame—the terrifying sense that something is deeply wrong with us—keeps us preoccupied with ourselves and inattentive to the needs of others. Shame tells us that we need to fix ourselves before we can focus on serving others. It tells us we must get our act together before we can ourselves act on behalf of friends and neighbors and especially the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, and people on the margins. Before we can give attention and energy to paving paths of flourishing for others, we must first develop our own sense of purpose and our own sense of self. “Charity starts at home,” we tell ourselves. If we don’t take care of ourselves first, then we won’t be able to care effectively for others. If we don’t get healthy ourselves, we will be limited in our ability to invest in anyone besides ourselves.
In a way, we assume correctly. When Adam and Eve’s shame was exposed in the garden, they both turned immediately inward. Adam looked away from God and Eve and toward the search for fig leaves with which to cover himself, and with which to hide his shame. Eve did the same. Man and woman sought independence from God, lost interest in one another’s flourishing, and looked out for number one. Adam blamed Eve for the new predicament. Then Adam blamed God. Eve blamed the serpent.
Adam and Eve set the tone for the rest of us. Ever since Eden, every man, woman, and child has been facing a hidden battle with shame. The vague sense that there is something deeply wrong with us compels us to hide, blame, and run for cover. Left to ourselves, we are helplessly and restlessly turned inward. We are desperate to create a counter-narrative to the shaming voice within and without. It’s just that our fig leaves in the developed world have become more sophisticated than the ones Adam and Eve used to cover themselves. Our fig leaves are represented in the ways that we compensate for the failed expectations that others place on us and that we place on ourselves.
Before relocating to Nashville in 2012 to assume the role of Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, I was ministering in an area of New York City with a high concentration of men and women who worked in finance. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, and as financial institutions crashed and careers were ruined, so many people expressed a feeling that they had not only lost money and a career, but they had also lost a sense of self. When you work on Wall Street, they would say, eventually you begin to believe that you are what you do, and you are what you make. “What is she worth?” is a question that is taken quite literally. The metrics of human value are measured in terms of salaries and bonuses. When the salary and the bonus disappear or get cut, so does the worth of the person. This becomes true not only in his peers’ eyes but also in his own eyes. One multi-billionaire lost half of his net worth in the crash. Though he was still a multi-billionaire, and though nothing about his quality of life had changed, he committed suicide. The shame of losing rank in the pecking order of the financial world turned him completely inward and caused him to self-destruct.
Kelly Osbourne, the famous daughter of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, disappeared from the public eye for an extended season. In 2010, she reappeared during Fashion Week with a new look and a new body. She had lost an amazing 42 pounds, which caused her new and curvy figure to become a major headline. When a journalist inquired about what motivated her to lose so much weight, she told the journalist that it was because she hated what she saw whenever she looked into the mirror. Kelly Osbourne measured her own value in comparison to other women, and she was undone by the comparisons. “Why don’t I look like this girl or that girl?” she would ask herself. But her shame was not only internal. It was also reinforced externally by a culture that says (absurdly) that thin has value and full-bodied is worthless. “I took more hell from people for being fat,” Osbourne said, “than I did for being an absolute raging drug addict.”
What if there was a way to detach our hearts from the pressures that culture puts on us to be rich and beautiful? What if we no longer felt a need to prove ourselves, to validate our own existence in the world’s eyes and also in our own eyes? What if we began to actually believe that God has not called us to be awesome, but rather to be humble, receptive, faithful, and free? What if our secret battle with shame was neutered, freeing us to turn our attention away from ourselves and toward neighbors who are near to us, and also toward neighbors on the other side of the world who need us?
This is my greatest joy as a Christian pastor. I get to tell people that such a remedy exists. When Jesus allowed himself to be stripped naked, spit upon, taunted, rejected, and made nothing on the cross—when he, the one who had nothing to be ashamed of, surrendered to the ruthless, relentless shaming that led to our redemption and healing—he neutered our shame and stripped it of its power. He who was rich became poor for our sakes, that through his poverty we might become rich. But our riches are more solid, so much more solid, than mere material riches. Our riches are the kind that free us from having to be affluent or thin, or intelligent or networked or famous or anything else that the world says we must be in order to matter. Our riches are the kind that assure and reassure us that we have nothing left to hide, nothing left to fear, and nothing left to prove. Because Jesus took on himself the full freight of our shame, we are no longer under pressure to exhaust ourselves with endless and futile efforts to make something of ourselves. We now have an inner resource that can liberate us from preoccupation with self. We now have an inner resource than frees us to treat all people as our equals. We now have an inner resource that endearingly and compellingly invites us to join God in his mission to love.
A few years ago at an awareness dinner in Nashville, Melinda Gates told a room full of pastors, leaders, culture makers, and influencers why she and her husband Bill decided to devote their lives and resources to helping people in the developing world. Her reason is plain and simple, and echoes a truth spoken on the very first pages of Scripture: Every person is equal. “There is no reason,” Mrs. Gates said, “why a woman in the developing world shouldn’t have healthcare and education and running water and opportunity just like I do. Because a woman in the developing world is equal to me.”
The notion that all people are equal is one to which any reasonable person will give mental assent. But when we come to understand that Jesus has taken our shame from us, and that because of this we have nothing left to hide, nothing left to fear, and nothing left to prove, we become owners of, and not mere assenters to, the notion that every person is equal. To the degree that we are able to internalize the freedom from shame that Jesus has secured for us, our energies move from preoccupation with self to preoccupation with the beauty of God and the flourishing of our neighbor.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. takes this affirmation further, reminding us not only that every person is equal, but why every person is equal:
“The whole concept of the image of God is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected…and this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this…There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.” 
CS Lewis affirms the same truth with equal eloquence and conviction:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” 
Because of the way that Jesus valued you on the cross, and because you are the image of God, you are among the holiest objects that will ever be presented to God, to your fellow human beings, and even to yourself in the mirror. Is this enough, and will this be enough, to relieve you of your own hidden battle with shame? Will it be enough to free you from a love-hindering, tiring preoccupation with self?
Because your neighbors who are near, as well as your neighbors on the other side of the world who need you, are also the image of God and are your equals, you have a privilege and responsibility to participate, as God leads you, in his mission to advance his kingdom in truth, beauty, love, and justice on earth…and to every square inch of the earth…as it is in heaven. Is this enough, and will this be enough, to stimulate your imagination as to how you, like Bill and Melinda Gates, can steward and share your privilege?
May it be so.
 Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image (Ada, MI: Baker Publishing, 2010), p. 91.
 CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle edition.