good fear, guilt and shame

There are obvious reasons why fear, guilt and shame have a bad reputation inside and outside the Church.  There is really no need to illustrate this point, but…

Fear of judgment, rejection or punishment can be crippling.

Guilt that is exaggerated, overly-negative or simply mistaken is paralyzing.

Shame, too, when it is insulting, degrading and merciless, can be dehumanizing.

But that’s just simply not all there is to Fear, Guilt and Shame.  They can be not only unavoidable feelings that one will eventually encounter in life, but even helpful and self-protective tools to help us grow.

Fear can be protective.  It can keep us from doing things that we know will harm others or ourselves.  The opposite of this protective fear is selfish carelessness.

Guilt can be honest.  It can reflect the willingness to admit we have done wrong and the need to set things right.  The opposite of this honest guilt is the excusing or hiding sin.

Shame can be empathetic.  It can connect our logical awareness of wrong-doing to a heart-level grief that together can motivate (through God’s grace) our work to amend our ways and undo the harm done as much as possible.  The opposite of this empathetic shame is a calloused, arrogant or narcissistic heart.

grace and human effort

At the heart of the Christian faith is a conviction that salvation is God’s doing.  God takes the initiative in establishing, maintaining and perfecting the relationship with all of creation, and humans in particular.  Without God, there would be no salvation.  Period.

This conviction has tended to be accompanied by an emphasis that downplays the importance of human effort.  Most of all, it seems that in order to defend Grace, some feel the need to oppose any prescriptive statements about what Christians ‘ought’ to do, particularly when those statements are a) specific, b) all-encompassing, or c) strong.

I’m not going to get into the broad issues of biblical theology despite how relevant they are here.  Instead I want to focus on the basic compatibility of Grace and human effort.  And none of the following has anything to do with being under the Jewish/Mosaic “Law” (i.e. keeping kosher, observing Sabbath, or males being circumcised).

Augustine perhaps said it best:  “Without God, we cannot.  Without us, God will not.” (Google it)

Like a loving parent whose love moves them to refrain from doing everything for their children, God seems to require our active participation in our growth.  “God will not” do things for us against our will.

This not only means we must participate with Grace, but also that being exhorted, instructed, urged, or encouraged to do specific things should be a normal part of our training and instruction in Christian community.  This happens through preaching, teaching, discipleship and mentoring.  We need to be told what we should be doing.

Trusting in Grace doesn’t mean resisting being told what to do.  Quite the contrary, actually.

Yes, it is possible (and too common, actually) that “telling people what to do” is done from a negative posture of power, ego and control that runs against the values of the Gospel.  But it is also possible (and more common than we may admit) that “telling people what to do” is resisted simply due to our pride and arrogance of not wanting to do what we should.

The Grace and Love of God is so overwhelming, beautiful and true that it should cast out all forms of fear, including the fear of being told what to do.

Being told what you are doing wrong and what you ought to do instead, can indeed be a “gift”, and expression of Grace.  It can be a very practical way that God offers the power, assistance and help toward the transformation, healing and growth that all disciples of Jesus should experience.

love is grateful

I recently came across this gem of a quote on Facebook; beautiful in its profundity, and breathtaking in its brevity.

“Grace is the essence of theology; gratitude is the essence of ethics.” – G. C. Berkouwer

It captures the heart of what any Christian thinker has ever tried to say about the fitting human response to divine grace.  The only way to respond to being given a gift is to say thank you.

My curious (and a bit obsessive) mind, always on the look-out for frameworks, pondered what the opposite might be.  That earning merit (and love) is the opposite of being given Grace (and love), and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad theology.  And that entitlement is the opposite of gratitude, and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad ethics.

In the back of my mind, however, was the framework of love and fear (wonderfully expressed by Michael Leunig here, scroll down and you’ll see it).  It left me thinking there must be a correlation between gratitude and love, and between entitlement and fear.  So I wanted to tease that out below (all the while hoping for a bit of it to drip down from my brain into my heart!)…

Love is grateful.  Fear is entitled.
Love is surprised at what it has.  Fear always needs more.
Love can freely give as it has received.  Fear always takes.
Love can accept what it disagrees with.  Fear tries to force it to change.
Love can cope without recognition.  Fear clamours for attention.
Love is empathetic.  Fear is narcissistic.
Love sheds tears on behalf of others.  Fear only sees its own pain.
Love can fail and try again.  Fear gives up.
Love is life.  Fear is death.

moral fear

Ethical discourse, I suggest, is degraded and corrupted by fear.  I’m not talking about the healthy protective fear that flows from love, but rather the unhelpful power-grasping fear that is its own source.  Below I’ll suggest two equal-opposite examples of this power-grasping fear, and then I’ll offer a suggestion about a third, ‘middle’ way.

On the one hand, we can see a fearful response to ‘misbehaviour’.  This kind of fear is reactive, and wants to (at best) guide or (at worst) control human behaviour.  It often takes the form of wanting to ‘raise’ ethical standards, or perhaps turn back the clock to prior times where standards were ‘higher’.  The logic seems to be along the lines of:

  • People misbehave
  • People misbehave because they don’t know what is good behaviour, and/or cultural moral standards are too permissive
  • Therefore, to improve behaviour, more moral instruction and/or more strict morals is needed

On the other hand, there seems to be a fearful response, not to misbehaviour, but to the effects of perceived misbehaviour.  This, too, is a reactive fear, and wants to protect people from (at best) false guilt or (at worst) any guilt.  It often takes the form of ‘updating’ or loosening ethical standards.  The logic seems to be something like:

  • People harm themselves and others
  • People harm themselves and others because they feel acute moral guilt
  • Therefore, people will harm themselves and others less if we loosen ethical views that are too outdated and/or strict

The point here is not to say that morals never need to be adjusted in either direction.  Arguably, they can be unhelpfully permissive or unhelpfully strict.  The point has to do with the way that fear plays a role, both in the desire to make morals, ethics, and laws, more strict, or less strict.

As suggested above, fear can be helpful.  Among other things, we should have a healthy fear of false guilt. Auckland-based theologian Neil Darragh calls this ‘disabling guilt’, signalling the way that victims of it are disabled from feeling and acting and being as they should.  But this false guilt is flanked by what he calls ‘enabling guilt’, which – contrary to what we often hear – is actually helpful in that it assists us to face our wrongdoing, take responsibility for it, and amend our behaviour and grow morally and personally.

The problem with the two types of reactive fear above is that they tend to short-circuit moral discourse and reflection.  Fear cements people, cornering them into angry and aggressive (or passive-aggressive and condescending) dismissal of those they disagree with.

Patient discussion is better.  People may not instantly agree when it comes to a particular activity and whether or not feeling guilty about it is enabling or disabling.  But at least they might be able to understand one another.

the uncomfortable freedom of Grace

I just finished a job at work, and not only did it take longer than I thought (I had to return to the job site to fix things), I didn’t do as good a job at it as I would have liked to.  The clients are satisfied and will pay the invoice, but the workmanship was not my best.  My errors involved trying to same time and effort: a.k.a. rushing and being lazy.

I was doing another follow-up job last week and I noticed a mistake that had been made by another team member.  It seemed that he had also tried to save time and effort.

It is so much easier to focus on the mistakes that others make than my own.  My tendency is to maximize and catastrophize the seriousness of others’ mistakes (“Wow, that’s pretty bad…“) and minimize and normalize the seriousness of my own (“Ahh, it’s good enough…” or “It’s not as bad as…“).

Grace is good news.  We are loved as we are in spite of our mistakes.  Grace covers our sin and shame.

But that’s not all Grace does.

Grace-powered love casts out and frees us from our fear, saying with the authority and voice of Christ, “Fear not.” (Me phõbos)  One type of fear we can let go of, thanks to Grace, is the fear of not being perfect.  When we don’t have to be perfect, we can admit our mistakes (or sins), even the serious ones; and we can be a bit gentler on the mistakes (or sins) of others.

This may be one example of the less “comfortable” work of Grace.  After all, Grace “teaches” (paideuousa) us (Titus 2:12).  This word for teaching is diverse enough to include usages concerning discipline and punishment or training.

I can’t speak for others, but I am grateful for the ‘uncomfortable’ help of Grace in assisting me to admit my mistakes and accept the failings of others.

hegemony, homosexuality & homophobia

(Leftovers from a great and long chat with a good man today.)

Almost 100 years ago, Antonio Gramsci proposed the idea of “cultural hegemony” where a powerful idea or culture carries immense and controlling force.  One key indicator that a hegemony is at work is when dissenting voices are kept silent out of fear.

A conservative ethic regarding homosexuality – and the homophobia (any level of social discomfort relating to homosexual people) that too often rides on its coattails – has been and can be often so strong in church (sub)cultures, that gay people feel suppressed and silenced out of fear of judgment.  A homophobic hegemony pushing gays into closets.

The irony is this: a liberal/accepting ethic regarding homosexuality – and the angry angst that too often rides on its coattails – has been and can be often so strong in many post-Christian ‘developed’ contexts and culture, that conservatives also feel suppressed and silenced out of fear of judgment.  A liberal hegemony pushing conservatives into cloisters.

Or in other words, for every action there is (often?) an equal-opposite reaction.

  • Action – some conservative Christians heaped shame on people attracted to the same sex.
  • Reaction – some liberal Westerners heaped shame on people who heaped shame on people attracted to the same sex.

As a Christian with a conservative ethic on homosexuality, rather than defensively fight for my ‘right to be conservative’, I’d rather go to the source, and oppose the homophobia which feeds the shaming and intimidation of people attracted to the same sex.