Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Shame”

Sacred reality

I’ve been noticing in my reading of the Gospels that Jesus appears quite comfortable with reality–even when it gets messy and awkward. He doesn’t avoid, divert or deflect. He doesn’t put a spiritual spin on it. He’s never anxious or embarrassed.

Instead, Jesus allows life to unfold as it will. He steps in the midst of it and welcomes what is. It’s there that he does the extraordinary, and people are radically changed.

Real is sacred.

Case in point is the passage in Mark 9:14-29.

A desperate, distraught father brings his severely afflicted son to Jesus. It’s the man’s last hope.

He’s already asked the disciples to cure his son, but they struck out. A ruckus of theological debate breaks out as a result, and the tension is now running high.

I would have been looking for the nearest exit. I hate conflict. I could see no good coming of the scene being made.

At my best, I would have given Jesus an anxious look, letting him know he better step in and take care of this mess. The sooner the better, too.

Jesus doesn’t rush into action. He seems in no hurry to heal the son, nor relieve the father’s angst.

He simply asks a question. Then waits.

The father spills his story. He tells Jesus and the gathered crowd his painful secret.

Shame makes one keep their story of a demonized son silent. It’s best to keep such family secrets behind closed doors. We work hard to hide our shame, making sure no one knows.

But reality refuses to cooperate. Eventually life events converge and our secret leaks out. The cat’s out of the bag, and the father has little choice but to tell his story.

Just when it can’t get anymore uncomfortable, the son acts out right there on the spot. Right in front of God and everyone.

The son writhes and convulses. Dirt combines with spittle, smearing mud all over the young man. Shrieks add to the drama.

Jesus is unfazed. He doesn’t put an end to the scene. He doesn’t rush in to rescue the father or son. Jesus allows truth to spill out everywhere, for all to see.

No denying reality now.

The father can’t take it any longer. He begs Jesus to intervene. Just when we expect Jesus to save the day, one more bit of truth surfaces.

The father comes to terms with his conflicting thoughts and emotions. He confesses his doubt.

“I believe. Help me in my unbelief!!”

I imagine there were times when the man’s son was free from the demonic affliction. For days, perhaps weeks and months, all was calm. The father could conveniently ignore his son’s condition. Faith came easy. He had his theology and doctrine lined up straight.

But when your son is flailing and contorting and thrashing on the ground, saliva bubbling out of his mouth, streaks of mud on his face and clothes, screaming shrieks of anguish and obscenities—well faith tends to unravel.

Jesus lets it come apart at the seems. The father has an important confession to make. Miraculous intervention before the father has a chance to come to terms with his truth–before he wrestles with the reality of the paradox of faith–would be premature.

In due time, Jesus intervenes. The boy and his father are restored to wholeness.

A good deal of contemporary theology teaches us to minimize, avoid, deny and skirt reality. We invest much time and energy attempting to pray away reality.

We see it as an enemy.

We assume Jesus is uncomfortable with our reality as well. Shame convinces us we are unacceptable in our reality, so we opt for damage control and reality management.

We become heavily invested in our denial, self-protection and shame. We go great links to avoid acknowledging our truth.

It takes reality, real-life experience, to blow the covers off. Even then, we’re a hard sell.

But when reality comes, when we finally embrace what is real, we discover an amazing truth. Jesus is standing with us in the middle of it all.

Redemption comes.

The healing begins.




Wanting (Part 1)

I’ve written previously about the dynamic of giving voice to our wants (see “What do you want?” on November 29, 2012).

Reading through Mark recently, I noticed that in the second half of chapter 10, there are two occasions where Jesus asks people the powerful question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (vv. 36, 51).

When the author repeats a statement and places them back-to-back in the narrative, we should take notice.

Mark is up to something significant.

The occasions giving rise to the question are different. In the first story, Jesus responds to a favor that James and John ask of him.

In the second, Jesus directs the question to Bartimaeus, who happens to be blind. He’s been creating a commotion in hopes of attracting Jesus’ attention. His efforts pay big dividends. (I’ll discuss this event in a future blog entry.)

Apparently Jesus is interested in what we want and insists we give them a voice.

“What do you want Jesus to do for you?” is a great question to ask ourselves from time to time. It’s also a great question to ask those we lead and serve.

How we answer says a lot about us. What we don’t say may reveal even more.

In the first story, Jesus elicits the disciples’ true desires. It brings to the surface what they may otherwise would never admit.

To their credit, the disciples answer honestly. They don’t censure. They don’t cloak their response with spiritual jargon to make their desires more palatable.

“We want top billing. We want in front of the line. We want power, status and position. Furthermore, we want to beat the others to the draw and be the first to ask.”

I’m pretty sure I would have dressed up my answer. I have enough church experience to know how to make selfish, prideful demands sound more spiritually acceptable. I know how to bury my desires. I know how to lie.

Being involved in church and ministry has contributed to my propensity to cover my true desires and motives.

A good practice is to read this passage and put ourselves in James and John’s place. When Jesus asks us what we want him to do for us, answer with the first thing that pops in our mind–what comes spontaneously, immediately before we have a chance to filter.

If we can’t pull that off, then identify what we choked down. What didn’t we say but wanted to?

In my more honest moments I’d say things like:

  • I want lots of money.
  • I want a big church where everyone cheers when I speak.
  • I want somebody with clout to notice me and give me my big break.
  • I want the sins of my past to disappear without any consequences.
  • I want my life to be easy.

Jesus allows James and John to shoot straight. He invites us to follow suit.

Our wants tell a story. Acknowledging them gives Jesus access to our hearts. Like James and John, voicing our wants opens the door to repentance and transformation.

When I allow Jesus access to my desires, when I sit with him with my wants on the table, I come to realize that what I really want is:

  • I want to know I’m significant
  • I want this season of life to count and have impact.
  • I want to feel secure.
  • I want grace to free me of my shame.

I also begin to repent. What I initially wanted are substitutes for what I really need.

They are my demands to have life my way, on my terms.

They are substitutes for Jesus.

Wasting grace

God’s grace–what are we to do with it?

Grace may be more difficult to handle than it seems at first look.

Paul makes an interesting statement in 1 Corinthians 15:10:

“But God’s grace has made me what I am, and his grace to me was not wasted. I worked harder than all the other apostles. (But it was not I really, it was God’s grace that was with me.”

Paul mentions this in the middle of his discussion of the resurrection. He chronicles the occasions that the resurrected Jesus appeared to people. Paul lists Peter, the twelve as a group, then 500 believers, James, and then all the apostles again.

Lastly, Jesus appears to Paul. It’s as if he was born out of time, he says. He doesn’t consider himself worthy to be counted among the other apostles. This is due to Paul’s persecution of the church.

Paul sees his behavior prior to his encounter with the risen Jesus as a disqualification. Paul has no business being counted among the faithful, much less be considered an apostle.

Thankfully, God disagrees. God is undeterred in forgiving Paul. God readily includes him in the family of the faith. He generously invests calling and gifts, opening up a compelling future for Paul’s life.


What to do with it?

Paul doesn’t take it lightly.

He knows the gravity of his past. He’d been responsible for much suffering. People went to jail, experienced deprivation, and were no doubt tortured, on account of his misplaced zeal. Families were disrupted. Children were traumatized by the loss of parents. No doubt some of Paul’s victims died unjust deaths.

He could allow the shame of persecuting the church to continue to disqualify him.

Instead, he exercises the courage and faith to believe he’s been fully forgiven. With forgiveness comes the freedom to move forward.

Paul seizes the privilege. He throws himself wholeheartedly to the task.

Paul recognizes God’s grace has made him who he is, and he;s determined to not to let it be in vain. He jumps all in, faithfully applying himself to the task set before him. He partners with God in fulfilling his assignment.

This is no easy task Paul pulls off. The tendency is to keep looking back, to justify why our past should disqualify us.

We can be very loyal to our shame.

It’s audacious to embrace grace and dare believe we have permission to have a future.

To do anything less is to discount the grace of God.

It’s wasteful.

It allows shame to win out.

And grace to be in vain.

Reading with different eyes

A recent reading Luke’s combined stories of Jairus and the woman with a hemorrhage (Luke 8:40ff), prompted me to ask God to read them with new eyes.

In the past I read stories like this assuming there were only a few options:

  • Read them as literal accounts (I still believe the miracles happened), which left me wishing miracles like this would happen for me.
  • Read them with the expectation (read pressure) to manufacture enough faith, or the right kind of faith, that would produce similar miracles. This led to a couple of outcomes: 1) wishful thinking that surely if I keep trying I could figure out the formula to make such miracles happen; and 2) frustration and discouragement because I could never pull it off.
  • Read them in from a dispensational framework. Miracles happened only in Jesus’ time because God treated people then differently, more specially, than He does today. Plus, they needed such miracles because theirs was a simpler, more gullible time. Now that we are so much more enlightened, we don’t need miracles. We have the Bible, after all.
  • Read them as fairy tales. Legends of miracles are helpful for little kids and those immature in their faith. But such miracles didn’t and don’t really happen.

None of these are particularly satisfying.

This time I found myself wondering what it would be like to read these stories from a first century, middle-eastern mindset? After all, it was such a perspective they were originally told and written. I still don’t know what that would be like.

But a new thought did occur to me. What if I read the stories from a shame perspective?

This seems consistent with their context. The Jewish world was one of hierarchies. People were put in categories and their qualification to merit God’s favor was ranked in order of most deserving to least. Those on the lower end were shamed by those in the upper level.

Both Jairus and the woman were facing their own form of shame that made approaching Jesus a monumental task of faith and courage.

I relate to that perspective. It takes the impact of the story to a deeper level than the extraordinary miracles that both experienced.

I find myself particularly relating to Jairus.

His stretch consists of facing the shame of admitting his need. He’s a respected religious leader with influence. Yet he faces a need that his position and reputation cannot solve. His knees buckle.

If he wants help and healing, his only recourse is to humble himself and go to Jesus.

The same Jesus that no doubt has been criticized and vilified in his synagogue.

He swallows his pride and confronts his sense of being “right” and goes to Jesus. He names and owns his need, his weakness.

Been there and done that.

I know what it’s like to have position. I know what it’s like to believe I’m above the problems others have. I know what it’s like being convinced I’m right.

I know the crushing reality of failure. Of facing brokenness. Of experiencing pain that brings me to my knees.

I know the fear of naming and owning. The power of shame in those moments can be lethal.

Thankfully, I’ve also discovered Jesus doesn’t play the shame game.

Jesus is more than happy to accept Jairus and respond to his need . He’s more than happy to take me in as well.

The story doesn’t end there. The woman with the hemorrhage interrupts the action. She has her own shame battle, but that’s a story for another time.

Jairus’ courage seems to be slapped in the face. Just when it appears all is going well and hopes are raised that his daughter will be spared, the woman butts in line and steals Jesus’ attention and power.

I hate to admit it, but I project my own thoughts and feelings into Jairus’ experience at this point.

I’ve had those times when I’ve been jealous and angry that others seem to get immediate answers and blessings from God. I’ve gone through the pain and angst of having my knees buckle, cry out to God, face my shame, name my failures and flaws, receive initial assurance of grace, have my hopes raised and then . . .


And wait.

I expect circumstance to change quickly. I assume the pain and discomfort to ease immediately.

But they don’t.

Sometimes, nothing seems to change at all.

While I wait, others seem to get immediate answers. New job opportunities appear out of nowhere. They get promotions they didn’t ask for. Somehow they figure out how to plan their future and success seems to follow. They have clarity. They reinvent. They get what they want.

And I wait.

I imagine Jairus doubting. At some level, it doesn’t seem fair. Why did this woman have to show up at this time and interfere? Why does she get preferential treatment? Why are her needs met immediately?

In my better moments, I’m still conscious that I have much to be thankful for. But that doesn’t always keep these thoughts from coming. It doesn’t keep me from being jealous or angry. I doubt God’s fairness and goodness.

Back to Jairus, I find myself hearing Jesus tell me to not fear but keep trusting (v. 50).

What does this mean for him?

For me?

I don’t believe that Jairus immediately turns a switch that changes his thoughts and feelings and doubts and pain. I don’t believe he’s suddenly convinced, confident and elated.

Interestingly, Jairus doesn’t say a word. He just follows Jesus back to his home and his now dead daughter. My hunch is that while walking home, following Jesus, he’s filled with grief, his mind swirling with anguish, confusion and pain.

But, still he follows Jesus.

That’s where I find myself at times. Even when it seems others have it figured out and are getting more immediate and clear answers from God, I still hang in there with Jesus.

Answers come in increments. Hope is revived a little at a time. Just when I’m ready to throw in the towel, a breakthrough, however small, surprises me. I am encouraged. So I keep following.

That’s how I understand faith.

Reading the gospel story in this light makes sense. I find connection and meaning.

It’s not okay

Forgiveness can be a very difficult process to accomplish.

This is no doubt true for many reasons.

While visiting with a friend recently, a new level of difficulty surfaced.

She was discussing a recent incident she had with her mother. It was yet one more painful encounter in a long history of disappointment and hurt she’d experience at her mother’s hand.

My friend has been growing a stronger self in how she relates to her mom, and wanted to address the current issue with her. In spite of my friend’s personal growth, she still felt a great deal of anxiety surrounding having the conversation with her mother. She wrestled with how to broach the topic.

To my friend’s surprise, her mom actually took the initiative this time. Furthermore, mom led by offering a heart-felt apology–brand new territory in the terrain of their mother-daughter relationship.

My friend’s immediate response to her mom’s apology was to say, “It was okay, mom.”

Mom immediately corrected her daughter. “No it was not okay. I was wrong.”

My friend told me she was speechless, moved to tears by her mom’s brave new posture of owning her wrong-doing.

I commented to my friend that I found it intriguing that her automatic response to her mom’s apology was, “It was okay.” I wondered aloud why she would believe that such treatment is permissible and “okay”?

“All my life I’ve thought I am supposed to let people treat me badly. I feel selfish to tell people that I don’t like when they hurt me.”

As we talked about the process of forgiveness, a light began to come on.

One of the reasons it’s difficult for many of us to say the words, “I forgive you,” is that it confronts our shame.

When we bestow forgiveness, we are making a statement that we believe ourselves worthy. We are saying that what the person did to us actually hurt. We’re stating that we are valuable enough to feel pain and acknowledge the injustice done to us. We validate our humanity.

That’s uncomfortable ground for shame-based people. It’s easier to swallow our pain. To take our lumps. To throw ourselves under the bus. How dare we have the audacity to speak up and validate ourselves?

It brought home to me once again the huge difference between saying, “It’s okay,” and “I forgive you,” when we’ve been hurt.

What do you want?

The story of Jesus healing the man at Bethesda (John 5) intrigues me on several levels.

The obvious is the remarkable healing. The man’s affliction had severely impacted him for 38 years. No doubt all hope had been long lost. Things weren’t going to get better. He just as well accept his fate and move on with life the best he could.

Jesus apparently didn’t get that memo. He isn’t limited by what conventional wisdom says is a hopeless cause. Jesus has no problem healing this man.

I’m also intrigued by the man’s difficulty in giving a straight-up answer.

When Jesus asks him if he’d like to be well (v. 6), the man launches into a lengthy explanation of why he hasn’t been able to get into the pool (read vv. 2-4, for the background on the significance of the pool). It was a simple, yes-no question. But the man never gives a clear answer.

Later some Jewish leaders corner the man on why he was carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. Such a simple task violated their strict interpretation of Sabbath laws.

The man again ducks and dodges. Rather than owning his own actions, he shifts responsibility (another way to say blame) to the “man who made me well” (v. 11).

The leaders want to know who that healer could be. Curiously the man doesn’t know the healer’s name. I don’t pretend to know the full contextual nuances here, but I can’t imagine there being too many options other than Jesus.

Regardless, what strikes me is the man’s difficulty in finding his voice and speaking what is true in his life. Perhaps he wasn’t in touch with his own soul.

This particularly seems to be the case in Jesus’ initial question. Jesus straightforwardly asks him, “Do you wish to get well?” This is a no-brainer. A slam-dunk.

The man has been lame for 38 years, for goodness sake. Why would Jesus even need to ask such a question?

Yet the man doesn’t answer. He can’t say what he wants.

I can relate. Sometimes the most difficult question to answer is when I’m asked what I want.

Shame, insecurity, distorted spirituality, and the fear of becoming responsible for my desires intertwine to make seemingly obvious, straight-forward question complex and difficult.

I’ve gotten better at owning and stating my wants, but I’m not there yet.

Finally, I’m intrigued at Jesus’ use of words in his dialogue with the man.

Specifically, I find it significant that Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?” and not, “Do you want to walk?”

Again, I’m not a contextual or linguistic scholar here. So I may be barking up the wrong tree. But Jesus’ choice of words speaks to me of different levels of desire and need.

Level one is walking. At the risk of minimizing what walking means to someone who hasn’t walked for 38 years (probably this man’s entire life), walking can represent a superficial level of well-being.

Competency in walking can mask underlying incompetence. Many who walk are crippled emotionally and spiritually.

Walking accomplishes a lot of things, but it doesn’t meet the real needs of the soul. It can, in fact, numb us from feeling the pain of our emptiness and meaninglessness.

Level two is being well. This speaks of a deeper, more holistic view of healing. It reaches into the core of our being  to create meaning and purpose. It deals with significance, security, mission and value.

One can be well in this sense and still not walk. It’s not conditioned on walking.

I recognize that many times when Jesus (or anyone else) asks me what I want, I tend to answer in level one terms. I want a good job, a decent salary, good health, a fulfilling marriage and cooperative kids.

I’d rather walk than be well.

But Jesus insists on making me well.

When level two is in place, level one tends to follow. Without a solid level two, level one won’t ever satisfy.

What do I want?

Assorted thoughts

My wife and I had the privilege of attending the School of Theology recently in Oregon. SOT is an intimate gathering of about 20 people from around the country who assemble to discuss theology and its implications/applications. The specific theological focus on the table was exploring the beauty of the Trinity.

I’m offering a variety of thoughts, observations and statements presented during the week. I am purposely omitting names of the speakers. I’ve learned the hard way that Christians tend to become polemic around personalities.

We draw circles around theology, organizing theological “truth” by who is “inside” and who is “outside” our particular camp. We often refuse to listen to those outside our particular group, dismissing their views merely on the basis of who is speaking rather than being willing to evaluate actual content. We much prefer to listen only to those we already know agree with us.

We resist the discomfort of learning and growing. We opt for the psychological security blanket of affirmation and conformation.

As an ancient Greek philosopher noted, “It’s impossible to teach a man what he already knows.”

I can be as guilty as anyone.

With that, here are some nuggets of thought from SOT:

  • Much of what is presented as the “Gospel” is basically, “You suck. Try to suck less.”
  • In the fundamental, evangelical paradigm, what’s important is being “right.”  Unfortunately, everything else gets crushed, one way or the other.
  • You cannot compare your damage with anyone else. Everyone has their own capacity to bend, adapt and adjust. There is no simple solution to the healing of the human heart. This the beauty of the work of the Holy Spirit being poured out on every human heart, on a personal level.
  • “Unbeliever” is not a category. It’s an activity.
  • The lies that exist in our heart do not exclude us from the fact that God includes us in His love and His life.
  • Shame destroys our capacity to discern between an observation and a moral statement.
  • The value of ambiguity is that it reveals the heart.
  • The greater our maturity, the more we are like little children.

I’ll share more at another time.  To close, here are a few pictures I took during our free time at SOT. Lake Sparks is part of the Cascade Lakes near Mt. Bachelor in central Oregon. It’s beautiful at sunrise.

All we like lepers

Lately I’ve been developing my holy imagination by meditating on the Gospel accounts of Jesus.

Instead of reading the stories for “information-about-Christian-living” or for “principles-to-live-by,” I’ve been simply seeking to get to know Jesus. I want to watch him at work, observe how he is with people, and listen to what his words convey about him.

I came across Luke’s story of Jesus’ interaction with a leper (ch. 5). In his account, Luke points out that the man is “covered with leprosy.” Not just a rash hidden under his shirt. Not just a spot on his arm.

But covered.

No hiding or faking his condition.

As horrible as leprosy itself was in this culture, the physical condition paled against the emotional pain of shame that leprosy inflicted on its victims. Lepers were labeled (the name itself is enough to cause one to shudder). They were ostracized and minimized and shunned. They were untouchable–a blight to society.

The self-disgust and shame  this man defined himself by is seen in his approach to Jesus. “If (and that’s a big IF) you are willing you can make me clean,” he tentatively offers to Jesus in his  request for help.

All this while laying face-down.

This man has fully bought into his shame and learned his place in society well.

Jesus is unfazed by the man’s leprosy and all that it was supposed to represent. Apparently Jesus hadn’t got the memo that such a person was too gross, undesirable and dangerous to interact with.

Jesus reaches out and touches the man. Touches him. This guy probably hasn’t experienced this basic demonstration of acknowledgment of his humanity in years.

As Jesus touches the man, he speaks words of life. “I am willing, be cleansed.”

These aren’t merely words packed with physical healing, as incredible as that is.

Jesus’ words obliterate the shame, rejection and unworthiness that have chained this man.

“You’re clean.” It’s a message of belonging, value, validation and permission. Permission to join in life. Permission to participate. Permission to contribute.

As I imagined Jesus interact with this man, Jesus’ seemed to turn his focus on me.

I realized that I’ve been carrying my own leprosy–the shame of my own sin and the accompanying assumption that I don’t really belong. I’ve believed I’m not worthy of participating in life-giving contributions in Jesus’ kingdom work.

I contemplated Jesus’ words to me. He was offering to remove my leprosy.

I was struck with the audacious nature of Jesus’ grace.

Jesus doesn’t seem to care that we’ve been covered with leprosy.

Jesus has the nerve to reach out and touch us in our grossness. His only interest seems to be cleaning us, setting us free and giving our value back.

It’s as if he were saying to me, “Come on and join the party. I don’t want you to miss out.”

It’s almost scary to take it in.

I don’t think I’m alone, either. As I shared this experience with some of my friends, each one acknowledged they, too, have their leprosy.

As we explored our respective leprosy we concluded that at its core, leprosy really isn’t the particular sins we’ve involved ourselves in–addictions, lust, porn, jealousy, prideful competition, whatever.

Rather the real leprosy is the sense of shame of not being good enough. Whatever our stuff is, it tells us that we don’t measure up, don’t qualify and don’t belong.

I’m thankful that Jesus doesn’t buy into our beliefs in and loyalty to our leprosy stories. I pray we can hear him loud and clear.

“I don’t believe a word of your leprosy. All that stuff it says about you doesn’t mean a thing to me.  I’m all about cleaning you. Come on and join in the party. You belong. You’re enough.”

The “I’m-Not-Good-Enough” Syndrome

I came across blogger Jessica Chilton and a post she wrote on “Good Enough.” Here’s an excerpt:

“This notion of ‘not being good enough’ is so pervasive in our society. It is so common for women to have thoughts like:

‘I’m not skinny enough.’

‘I’m not successful enough.’

‘I’m not pretty enough.’

‘I’m not brave enough.’

‘I’m not strong enough.'”

The pervasive nature of “not being good enough” is not limited to women. It saturates our culture. We live in a shame-based world that tells us all we’re not good enough.

Unfortunately, the church is not immune. While preaching and promoting grace, the church system often create its own version of “not being good enough.”

Chilton’s list for women raises a couple of questions.

  • What is the Christian’s list of “not being good enough?”
  • What is the pastor’s list?

More importantly, what if we were to discover that God doesn’t create or maintain such a list? What if His message is just the opposite–“you are good enough”?

Tombstones and Death Wraps

In John 11, we find the story of Jesus raising dead Lazarus to life again. Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus, had been seriously ill. Jesus delays coming to his aid, even when Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send an urgent plea for Jesus to help.

Lazarus dies.

Finally, three days too late, Jesus shows up. The girls let him have it. Had Jesus cared enough, He could have healed Lazarus and spared them all of heartache.

Jesus shares their grief, but is undeterred in His intentions. He has a method to His apparent tardiness. He’s laying the groundwork for something big, something that will catalyze faith in those involved.

Jesus doesn’t allow their emotional reactivity to distort or rattle His sense of self. “I’m the resurrection and the life, here and now. Lazarus’ death doesn’t change any of that. The story isn’t finished yet. If you dare to believe it, a resurrection is about to take place.”

Mary, Martha and the disciples look on, understandably perplexed by the events unfolding before them. Jesus tells the crowd to roll away the stone covering Lazarus’ tomb.

Martha can’t keep silent at this point. “It’s been three days, Jesus. What are you doing? This is ludicrous. It’s not proper. Don’t toy with us like this. There will already be the stench of death.”

Jesus holds His ground. Their doubt doesn’t become His own. He pushes them to trust, to dare, to see beyond the conventional. “Believe and you’ll see the glory of God here.”

The stone now out of the way, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Once out, Jesus turns His attention to the onlookers, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Belief breaks out in the crowd.

While this is one of the all-time great stories, for a long time it made me uncomfortable. It goes back to an experience in college.

I was involved in a charismatic student group that was caught up in the hyper-faith teaching. We were told that faith was measured by results. You pray, you get exactly as you pray–an obvious indication you have faith that God rewards. You’re successful.

You pray, you don’t see prescribed results–well, a faith-failure. God is not pleased.

This put large amounts of pressure on the members of our group to compete with each other over our levels of faith. My hunch is that we faked each other out for the most part. After all, who would really know if we actually paid our school bill on time, or if we got that prime parking spot we prayed for?

But something happened one fall semester that threatened to expose my faith for the sham I feared it was. A friend of mine got married the summer before. One weekend, he and his new wife were in a head-on car wreck, and his wife was killed instantly.

I grieved for my friend for his unspeakable loss. But a thought began pestering me. If I really had faith, I would be able to raise my friend’s wife from the dead, just like Jesus did with Lazarus. In fact, not only could I, I should do it. I had a responsibility.

I sat through her funeral, tormented. A real man of faith would stand up in the middle of the funeral and create a Lazarus moment. But I stayed glued to my seat, immobilized by fear and doubt.


Shame taunted me.

Thankfully, I’ve since grown through that stage of my Christian formation. My theology has matured. I now understand faith differently.  But the Jesus and Lazarus story has always carried a level of discomfort.

I recently experienced a new insight on the story. I was visiting with a man who was describing the impact his abusive childhood is having on his life. He has bought into a belief system that says he possesses little personal value, is not allowed to voice his opinions, and cannot state what he wants and needs. He’s adopted a life pattern of placating those around them, particularly  his spouse and family members.

It dawned on me that this person is wrapped in the grave clothes of false beliefs and ineffective life strategies. This bondage limits his capacity to experience the joy of loving and being loved. The stench of death hangs heavy on him, snuffing out each flicker of life.

But like Lazarus in his death wraps, the person God created is still in this man, buried under his pain, beliefs of worthlessness and ineffective relational patterns. God continues to see his value and potential. The real person, the authentic expression of who God made this man to be, waits to be released, set free to live.

Jesus uttered three commands that play into the release of new life and freedom.

“Remove the stone.”

“Lazarus, come forth.”

“Unwrap him, and let him go.”

There are layers upon layers of meaning here, no doubt. In simple form, I see this as a dual process.

One, we have a role in setting others free. We help remove their tombstone and undo the death wraps of false beliefs, pain, unworthiness and bitterness. We carry the privileged responsibility of speaking words of life and healing. We offer practical, hands-on assistance where appropriate.

Second, in our own Lazarus experience we’re to exercise personal responsibility. When Jesus calls us out of our grave, it is ours to respond.

It’s this second area that I’ve been working with lately. I’ve come to realize that I can stay in my tomb of shame, refusing to let the wrappings of failure to come off. Or, I can dare to experience resurrection, leave my tomb and step back into living, with all the joys and risks involved.

I’m realizing anew that once we taste the death of failure or pain, we can allow our tomb and grave-clothes to define us. Yet underneath is the person God created long before the death of failure, pain and shame got its hold on us.

That’s how He defines us.

That person is the real us.

He intends to set that person free.

When that person comes out of the tomb and is unbound, we discover we’re good enough.

Dare we latch on to Jesus’ promise that He is the resurrection and the life–right here, right now?

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