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Faithlife

Shame (Mark 1)

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Good morning, thank you for having me. As I reflected on my talk, I thought I would discuss the topic of shame. Not because it is easy to talk about, but because it is hard to talk about. And yet, the more we avoid the topic, the greater the power shame tends to have. And the destructive power of shame is significant. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, suicide, eating disorders, and abuse. So it’s important that we not only understand what shame is, but that we also think about how shame can be overcome. And as we look at this passage in Mark, we will see not just what shame is, but also how Jesus moves towards us and deals with our shame.
Pray
We must understand the wider biblical context of this topic. In Scripture, shame starts off as nakedness, but layers are quickly added: The shamed ones are not only naked but (as with Hagar) also rejected – and by the time we get to Leviticus, we see that to know shame is also to be contaminated. The shamed ones are polluted, dirty and unclean. They are unacceptable, and they must be avoided. Let’s take a closer look at the life of a leper.
(read).
Imagine this for a second – waking up with what you initially think is a zit. Your heart sinks when you realize that it’s more than that. You go to the priest for an inspection, and he confirms that it is a skin disease. Your life is now over. You’re dirty. You’re contagious. You have to leave—now.
(read).
You have been exposed as unclean, and you must now continually remind others of your repugnance. You live in isolation, and the most frequent word on your heart and lips is this: unclean. Dirty. Unacceptable. Alone. Rejected.
Rabbis spoke of lepers as the living dead, and lepers were required to stand away at a distance of fifty paces. The custom developed that if a leper entered a house, he contaminated it, if he walked under a tree anyone else who passed under that same tree would be considered polluted.
This is how many of you feel – unclean, unacceptable. And even though you are surrounded by people, you live in isolation, in secrecy. Even in crowded rooms, you feel alone. Perhaps it feels like you’re invisible, shunned, rejected. Leprosy captures something of the essence of shame. So what is shame?
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Shame is the deep sense that you are disgraced, dirty and unacceptable in the eyes of others. [2]
Try to imagine what the emotional life of a leper feels like. Maybe you don’t have to. But if you do, try to imagine what the deep sense of feeling like you’re contaminated does to you. Carlos Acosta, the world famous Cuban dancer, gives us his reality: as a young boy he was sent to boarding school and while there, he started talking to cockroaches. When asked why, he said: “They and I had much in common.” I’m a failure, a loser, I’m a mistake. Shame has its unique contours for each of us, because it depends a little bit on how you became unclean. Shame can come to you in three different ways.
This is the shame of the victim: abuse, racism, betrayal. This is the shame that resulted when someone treated you as though you were less than human.
This is the shame of the perpetrator. Shame and guilt can go together – if you’ve abused someone else, hurt someone else, you’ll feel shame (or you should). When we treat people as though they weren’t people, we should feel shame.
This is actually the shame of leprosy – you didn’t deserve it, it just happened. Sometimes this is the most difficult kind of shame because it seems to serve no purpose – there’s nobody to blame. You wake up with leprosy.Maybe your shame is connected to something that is just part of who you are: a physical disability, an unwanted sexual orientation, a lack of physical attractiveness, academic prowess or financial resources. Perhaps you’re too short, too tall, too clumsy, too geeky, too awkward. Whatever it is, you feel like an outcast, you feel unacceptable in the eyes of others. You can even get shame by association – maybe you’re part of a people group that was shamed. Maybe you’re part of a people group that shamed others. But whatever it is, the reality is that you share in the shame of the group you are associated with.
So shame is the deep sense that you are disgraced, dirty and unacceptable in the eyes of others. You feel invisible, you feel exposed. You feel naked, and you feel unclean. It’s like being a leper – despised, rejected, and familiar with sadness. That’s the reality of shame.
Can you put your shame into words? It’s the hardest part of this process. But you have to define it before you can deal with it. If you don’t put it into words it remains in the emotional background of your life. You have to identify the contours of your shame before you can fight it.
Now I need to ask you a question: what does your shame look like? Can you put your shame into words? Can you put your shame into words? It’s the hardest part of this process. But you have to define it before you can deal with it. If you don’t put it into words it remains in the emotional background of your life. You have to identify your shame before you can fight it.
The reality of shame is the deep sense that I am unacceptable and dirty because of something I did, because of something done to me, or because of something that is a part of me.
If we had the time, I would explore the variety of false solutions to shame—but we don't. So we will look at the ultimate solution. So, finally, let’s get to our passage and start with learning from the leper.
Sometimes, the shame is so bad that it’s expressed by doing shameful things. Intentional vomiting, self-mutilation and degrading promiscuity can be part of this. One girl, after engaging in humiliating sexual behavior, responded to her counselor’s questions by saying: “I’m a dirty girl, and so I do dirty things.” That’s the problem with mere authenticity – it tries to numb the shame by expressing it. Living the shame doesn’t remove the shame.
The popular version of this is: “God doesn’t make junk.” That usually doesn’t work anyway, but insisting on your self-worth is a road leading nowhere. After the initial jolt to our pride, this is actually really liberating. Self-worth suits our ego needs but it has the disturbing effect of making the cross of Christ less valuable.
Take a look at verse 40, “a leper came to him.” The way out of shame begins with going to God. The leper is our role model, our hero. He shows us that the way out of shame begins with turning to God.
Take a look at verse 40, “a leper came to him.” The way out of shame begins with going to God. The leper is our role model, our hero. He shows us that the way out of shame begins with turning to God.
Again, let’s try to imagine the life of a leper. Lonely, isolated, contaminated. Untouchable, unwanted, rejected. But this leper has seen the swarms of people, and heard the rumours of cleansings, healings and exorcisms. So he gets moving but you better get out of his way because for the first time in a long time, he’s got hope. And he’s not stopping for nothing. So with this audacious hope, he moves in to see the King. And he makes a request: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” In other words, “I know you have the power. But I’m not sure if you have the desire. I know you can cleanse, I’m not sure if you want to.” Shame is the deep sense that you are disgraced, dirty and unacceptable in the eyes of others. This includes God. You know God has power, you know the solution has to be found in Him, and that He is able. You just don’t know if He wants to. Is God willing to make us clean? That’s the question on the lips of the leper, and those like him.
Shame is the deep sense that you are disgraced, dirty and unacceptable in the eyes of others. This includes God. You know God has power, you know the solution has to be found in Him, and that He is able. You just don’t know if He wants to. Shame even poisons and distorts your view of God. Is God willing to make us clean? That’s the question on the lips of the leper.
So how does the King respond to the Leper? Verse 41 (read). Shame tells a story, this verse is the counter-narrative. Let’s move through this beautiful verse slowly.
The first response to shame is compassion. ‘Moved with pity’ translates one Greek word that refers to compassion. Deep compassion, heartfelt compassion. King Jesus feels for the Leper. He has compassion for the shamed. No matter what shame tells you, God cares. God loves. God moves towards you. Be careful at this point – shame is going to fight you on this so you have to fight back. Shame is going to tell you that your feelings of worthlessness are truer than God’s compassion. Lie alert: Fight lies with truth, and the counter-narrative begins with the compassion of the Lord.
Shame can be contagious – don’t get too close to others, they might get what you have. The unclean make others unclean, so never touch them. But no-one told Jesus that because he violates the rules, he crosses the ceremonial boundaries, and he touches the untouchable. Be surprised. Don’t limit God’s character by your expectations. God, full of compassion, is not scared to touch the untouchable.
Jesus speaks cleansing words, healing words, therapeutic words: “I am willing – be clean!” He adds verbal affirmation to the physical act, he declares the leper clean. We get our English word catharsis from this, catharsis (in psychoanalytic literature) is commonly understood to be an emotional release but here Jesus accomplishes a much deeper catharsis – this is not just the release of negative emotions, or relieving emotional tensions, this is spiritual purification. Jesus’ words accomplish what they proclaim – so when he says “Be clean” – you’re clean. His therapeutic words really do purify, they really do cleanse the deepest part of your soul.
Verse 42 (read).
Jesus was filled with compassion for the unclean, unexpectedly touched him and instantaneously healed him. Jesus made the unclean clean. Jesus purifies the leper, Jesus cleans the unclean, Jesus makes the unholy holy. This is a picture of what God has done for all Christians. We’re all lepers, and the only way to become clean is to admit you’re unclean, to run desperately to Jesus, and beg for mercy.
Two implications, really quickly: what does this mean psychologically, and what does this mean socially?
Being cleansed brings humility and joy. Humility because you realize that you’re not better than anyone else, that you’re a leper in need of cleansing. Even if you don’t sense you’re uncleanness, the Scriptures teach that we’re all unclean, we’re all born polluted and corrupt. We all need to be cleansed. This realization produces humility. But being made clean also produces joy because God really has cleansed me, He really has loved me, and he really has healed me. Even though I didn’t work for it, deserve it, or merit His love, He loved me and now says to me: “My Son. My daughter. Clean. Pure. Holy.”
Being cleansed fosters empathy. Empathy should be natural, because the truth is: the church is an ex-leper colony. We’re all cleansed lepers. So how can you judge someone else? How can you have condescending sympathy when you should really have genuine empathy? If you struggle to show empathy, it’s because you don’t really believe that you’re a cleansed leper. If you have no compassion for others, it’s because you don’t realize or haven’t fully embraced how much compassion God has shown you. So you have to revisit your own cleansing in order to show empathy to others.
The response of God to the reality of shame is unexpected, surprising, tremendous, cleansing. The outcast is brought in, the rejected is included, the dirty is made clean, the mud and the dirt and the grime is washed away. You are clean. And it is an enormous struggle believing that this counter-narrative is true. That you really are cleansed, that deep catharsis has actually occurred. Time and again in counselling, I have seen how hard it is for folks to deeply embrace the fact that Jesus has cleansed and restored them. One of the reasons this is so difficult to believe is because we’re not sure how God can do this. How can the Holy One love the unholy? How can the clean make us unclean, how can he treat us as though the shame is gone? As though the dirt is gone?
One of the reasons this is so difficult to believe is because we’re not sure how God can do this. How can the Holy One love the unholy? How can the clean make us unclean, how can he treat us as though the shame is gone? As though the dirt is gone?
Let’s keep reading the story.
Something curious happens. Jesus instructs the former leper not to tell anybody about his miraculous healing (read verse 43-44). Jesus says this sort of thing all throughout the book of Mark, as you know. Nevertheless, the cleansed leper, ignoring Jesus’ exhortation, goes out and starts sharing the news (read verse 45). And sure enough, the crowds hear about, people start flocking to Jesus, and he can no longer openly enter a town. So he leaves, and the passage ends with Jesus out in desolate places.
But do you see what has happened?
Mark began this story with Jesus on the inside and the leper on the outside. But at the end of the story, the leper is on the inside and Jesus is on the outside. The leper and the Christ have traded places: the outsider is brought in as the Chosen One is cast out.
Mark’s structure is telling us something very important: This is how we get cleansed. For us to be made clean, Christ had to be reckoned unclean for our sakes. Jesus didn’t overlook uncleanness; he traded places with it. Jesus deals with shame not just by cleansing us but by taking our place. Jesus removes our shame by embracing our shame.
Mark chapter 14 tells this story in more detail: Jesus gets shamed. Jesus is betrayed, abandoned, abused, mocked. Treated as a liar and a blasphemer. What about his friends? “They all left him and fled” (). What about the leaders that should have received him? “They all condemned him as deserving death. And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him ‘Prophesy!’ And the guards received him with blows.” ().
The Son of God is misunderstood, insulted, betrayed, denied, mocked, spit on, cursed abandoned, stripped and crucified. The passion narrative is dense with abuse, dense with shame.
Why did this have to happen? Why was a reversal of shame necessary? Remember, you can’t stand in God’s holy presence without being holy yourself. Shame means we’re unclean, we can’t be in God’s presence. We need someone to take away our shame and give us cleansing. Jesus lived a perfect life, an acceptable life, a clean life – yet His life was taken for us, and his perfection was given to us. He took our shame, and gave us His purity, so that we could know the Father. This means that we’re now clean, consecrated, holy – we belong to God. Not just forgiveness but fellowship, not just cancellation of sin but restoration of soul. Now you’re holy – to be holy means you’re pure, you’re set apart for Him. Jesus took your shame. The clean one cast out so that unclean ones could be brought in. The cross is the great exchange – he is cast out so that you can be brought in.
Remember, you can’t stand in God’s holy presence without being holy yourself. Shame means we’re unclean, we can’t be in God’s presence. We need someone to take away our shame and give us cleansing. Jesus lived a perfect life, an acceptable life, a clean life – yet His life was taken for us, and his perfection was given to us. He took our shame, and gave us His purity, so that we could know the Father. Jesus is our Great High Priest, and He has come by us, and sprinkled His blood upon us. This means that we’re now clean, consecrated, holy – we belong to God. Not just forgiveness but fellowship, not just cancellation of sin but restoration of soul. Now you’re holy – to be holy means you’re pure, you’re set apart for Him. God makes us holy and enables us to share His love with others.
Jesus took your shame. The clean one cast out so that unclean ones could be brought in. The cross is the great exchange – he is cast out so that you can be brought in.
So what’s the way out of shame? Learn from the leper. Go to God. Implore Him. Listen to Him (and keep listening). Be surprised at His compassion (and keep being surprised). Believe in His love (and keep believing). Remember your cleansing and share his love with others. Turn to Him, turn to others. Persevere in His grace. God loves us, and through the cross of Christ, makes us his holy people, His treasured possession. He was willing, and through faith, you are now clean.
Let’s pray.
[1] Leland Ryken et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 507.
[2] See Ed Welch, Shame Interrupted for a biblical theology of shame. Much of this talk has been shaped by Welch’s insights.
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