Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42


Lent could be the most looked-forward-to season of the church year.  That may sound odd, since we typically begin the service with the Ten Commandments and the confession of our sins.  Examination of conscience and confession of sins may be necessary, but hardly enjoyable, so what’s to look forward to about that?  Answer?  Freedom.

Really to appreciate Lent it helps to distinguish between guilt and shame.  According to the author Brené Brown, who has studied the subject, shame and guilt are two different experiences.  Guilt focuses on behavior, while shame focuses on the self.  Guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.”

Shame usually arises when we make a mistake, and yet the mistake may not break any of the Commandments.  I remember the first time I had to address a room full of clergy, and I hadn’t yet been ordained — I was so nervous I couldn’t stop my knees from shaking — in fact, they kept wanting to buckle.  I finally locked them tight, but still my voice squeaked and my hands shook.  When the ordeal was over an inner voice said, “What ever gave you the idea to seek ordination?  Now a whole room full of your would-be colleagues know you’re completely unfit.  Just walk away from here gracefully, go home, and don’t ever come out.  Learn to darn socks.”  Many of you know what I’m talking about; most of us have an inner voice that can hiss such things as, “You’re a weakling; or you’re a failure; or you’re incompetent, a fake, ugly, unloveable, a social misfit.”

Guilt is more easily dealt with.  In fact, we need never feel guilt.  Guilt arises from something we do, and always breaks one of the Commandments.  It’s important to know that, because the Ten Commandments exist, like ten shepherds, to edge us toward living in a healthy society where all members thrive, including ourselves.  So, to break a Commandment invariably hurts others and ourselves.  Of course, if I refuse to admit to my sin, then I will feel guilt.  Never to feel guilt requires that, as soon as I recognize my fault, I confess it, fully.  Done.  No more guilt.  I’ll tell you why in a moment, but let me say that if that sounds too simple, it’s because sin does entail an aftermath of grief; people have been hurt, and we cannot say: no more grief.

How can I say we need never feel guilt?  The psychologist Marshall Rosenberg talks about basic human needs.  They include food and shelter, but more importantly they include intangibles.  The list is long but not endless.  He includes the need for connection and autonomy, for honesty and meaning, for peace, play, and I would add, a sense of the sacred.  These are universal.  They are like a subterranean water table, something that all human beings have in common, that unites us, one to another.

Think of the Ten Commandments as divining rods pointing to something beautiful and precious within us, our basic human needs — gifts implanted in us by God.  Seen this way, the Commandments have no part in torturing us with guilt.  On the contrary, they exist to renew us.

For instance, take the first commandment, about not worshiping other gods.  What does this point to?  Truth.  Without truth, what can we trust?  How can we build a joyful life on falsehood?  Truth is one of our basic needs to journey toward genuine happiness.  Or what about the Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”?  That points to our need for the holy or the sacred; in other words, for what gives life meaning.  If I trample the name of God, or what is holy to me, under the foot of heedless language, one of my basic needs will go unmet.

I won’t go on about all the Commandments, but briefly let me suggest this.  The Command to honor our parents points to our own need for honor and respect.  You could tease out on your own the beautiful, God-given needs the Commandments are meant to protect and promote — the need to matter; the need to nurture or be nurtured; the need for understanding, for safety or security — and very importantly, for freedom, especially inner freedom.

Now, to return to the business of Lent, when it comes to an examination of conscience, try this four-step process.  It works, not by self-condemnation, but by self-compassion.  First, name what troubles your conscience.  Let’s say I lied.  Second, ask yourself, “What beautiful human need was I trying to meet with that lie?”  It could be one or several — security?  support?  respect?  self-respect?   Third, consider: “Did the lie meet that need?”  The answer is going to be no.  But notice!  There is no guilt involved.  The need is legitimate, precious, and God-given — a need God wants to be fulfilled; but my strategy for meeting that need did not work.  Sin is another name for a bad strategy.  Fourth, in a spirit of tender compassion for myself, I look for a better strategy.

This is the way God regards us when we sin.  God sees we are fumbling to meet those precious, God-given human needs, but we become confused when it comes to devising strategies that actually fulfill those needs.  Sometimes our strategies are not just ignorant, they are tragic, or even evil.  But however misguided the strategy, the intent is, at bottom, always good.  However misguided the strategy, this is not a cause for guilt.  It is a cause for grief, to be sure, for sin always does harm, and at times great harm, as we all know.

I’ve been speaking as if guilt were one thing and shame another; and they are.  But often they go together.  What can we do with shame?  We can reframe guilt as inappropriate — or at least unnecessary.  Is there any way to reframe shame?  There is.

This strategy comes from Thomas Merton; and I found it both shocking and potentially helpful.  First he says that to love others we must first love ourselves.  But how do we find something in ourselves really to love?  It is impossible unless we find the likeness of Christ in ourselves.

Next he says that we have a limited idea of Christ; and that keeps us from finding Christ in ourselves.  The limitation is that we look for Christ in our own idealized image of ourselves — us at our best.

Finally he says, and I quote, because here’s the shocker: “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves — on the contrary, He has identified Himself with what we resent in ourselves, for He has taken upon Himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins.  We cannot find peace in ourselves if, in rejecting our misery and thrusting it away from us, we thrust away Christ Who loves in us not our human glory but our ignobility.”

This answers the question: how can I reframe the sense of shame I feel?  Merton says: first disabuse yourself of the idea that Christ is found in the good people, the good qualities.  No!  He took upon himself just the opposite.  That is the great insight of the crucifixion.  He identified with all we deplore in ourselves.  Do you want to draw close to God?  To Jesus?  Then start to love all those aspects of yourself that embarrass you or shame you — your hidden (or not so hidden) weaknesses, addictions and mistakes.  Then seek that same Christ in others.  Christ will be most powerfully present in those you despise!  Seen in this light, shame can be an immense gift — the gift of humility, of putting on our true humanity, of being one with Christ.

Let me close with this.  Suppose Moses had refused to strike the rock — he said to himself: I’ll look like a complete idiot if no water appears.  I’m not going to risk the shame.  Or suppose Jesus had refused to speak to the Samaritan woman — he said to himself: I’ll lose my disciples’ respect if they find me speaking to a woman, and worse, a social outcast.  I won’t risk the shame.  Friends, let us commit ourselves to daring to do the right thing, despite the risk of shame.  It will call for an inner freedom, and thanks to Lent, we are developing that freedom.


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