Shame, Blame, and What Should Have Been

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Photo by Luma Pimentel on Unsplash

Early Days

My parents married when I was already on the way. This was supposed to be information we never figured out, I guess. Both had come out of unsuccessful first marriages. Dad had four kids; mom had two. Both had full custody. You could have called us the Brady Bunch, but that would not have been an appropriate comparison for how we made it work, which, apparently, wasn’t that well.

I thought we did. I was the youngest of seven—what did I know except that our happy world centered on me, the baby? I had no idea until later it wasn’t so happy for the others.

I was the product of the marriage that should have been, I think. The only child of the one that worked. Neither ever spoke of their first marriages. I suspect my parents wanted to forget, to forge ahead into the family that “should have been” had their “mistakes” never happened. But that’s impossible when the evidence of those relationships surrounded us daily in the form of six siblings whom I considered absolute sisters and brothers but time has proved not so much.

That focus on what should or could have been cost us all dearly.

This Sounds Familiar

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Photo by Foto Pettine on Unsplash

This is where we are in the Bible story. Rebekah and Isaac married and had two children who struggled, literally: Jacob and Essau. Their issues were nothing compared to the drama of Jacob’s not-so-blended family hot mess.

if you’re not familiar with the story, read it here.

TL;DR: Jacob wanted to marry Rachel. Through some extreme (fairly deserved) trickery, he got Leah instead. He eventually got both, and after ten sons he finally had a son by Rachel—Joseph. Instead of making everything all better, though, this turn of events made it all worse.

Joseph represented to Jacob all that should have been. He was the son who should have been first. The son from the marriage that should have been the only marriage. Joseph should have had the firstborn fatherly blessing if life had played fair with Jacob (a pot calling the kettle black scenario if ever there was one).

So foolishly, Jacob makes happen what his dreams and regrets believe should have happened. Even though the evidence of his other relationships in the form of ten children surrounded him. Joseph, as the youngest before Ben came along, probably looked at his ten big brothers and thought they hung the moon and stars. He probably considered them his best friends, adored and wanted to be just like them.

I know how this story goes.

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Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

Share the Love

His sibs were not on board with all that. Jacob so absorbed himself in his alternate universe where all the should’ve would’ve could’ve’s in his head had finally come true, that he neglected to consider how it might affect the other ten real people. He played them like extras in the chorus and expected somehow that they would love the star of the show as much as he did.

The fact that they sold Joseph into slavery instead must have come as something of a shock to dad much later when that little tidbit came to light.

It’s a big mistake to live in dreams rather than reality.

It’s the breeding place for resentment, blame, and shame. Three solid curses that come straight out of the Fall.

Shame.

You know those brothers first convinced themselves that had they been better sons, Dad would have loved them more. They didn’t understand the dynamics of his life before them anymore than I did my parents. Assuming they were to blame for his lack of attention makes sense. Most kids do that. The deep shame they must have felt for being “inadequate” sons fueled the smoldering fire of anger at little brother more than anything else, I’m sure.

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We see it as a story of jealousy. I believe shame came first.

Do We Do This?

For a long time, I’ve condemned myself for not being further along in my career. Why aren’t I where I want to be/should be? Why didn’t I work harder? Why didn’t I put in more time/effort/networking etc to be living a different professional life?

I’ve finally looked those lies straight on and realized the terrible attacks they are.

There are a number of reasons for where my career is, and lack of a will to work is not one of them. It’s easy to look at all the should have beens and blame yourself for them. Rarely do we look at all the other factors we had no choice in. Focusing on the fantasy world of where I should be shames me into not being what I could be now.

The brothers focused on what they should have been to be loved, but the lie was in the one who didn’t love, not in the ones waiting for it. They were never deficient. They had no choice. The fantasy world lie shamed them and kept both brothers and father from being the parent and siblings they could have been in the now.

If I had chosen a different career . . .

If I had gotten better grades . . .

If the pandemic hadn’t hit when it did . . .

All of these are birthed in the same lie.

I should be at a place in life that I’m not. Shame on me.

Blame and Resentment.

So the brothers shift their anger at themselves to another target. Little Bro. Little Joe. It’s all his fault. He’s daddy’s favorite. He’s full of himself. The truth they’re not admitting that makes them so resentful though is this—He’s got what they want. All of daddy’s love.

It’s not Joseph’s fault, and they know it. He makes a good scapegoat though, and blame and resentment don’t care about collateral damage. They only want someone to hurt the way they’re hurting.

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Photo by Jaime Spaniol on Unsplash

Yes, We Do This

As a teen and young adult, I was very good at resentment. I disliked everyone who had what I wanted, and I wanted a whole list of things, primarily acceptance. Acceptance looks like so many things that we don’t think we have, from good hair to a good job.

I’m still good at it if I let it happen.

If I had married someone else . . .

If my parents had done a better job . . .

If my boss saw how valuable I am . . .

All of these are birthed in the same lie.

I should be at a place in life that I’m not. Shame on them.

Good Shame Versus bad Shame

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t fight for good, valuable things that should be. Never stop making God’s good kingdom a reality on earth as it is in heaven! It also isn’t to say, “Hey, if you had lousy circumstances just accept it and move on.” God’s people are called to right wrongs and bring justice forward. Especially in this time, do not confuse unhelpful blame and shame with helpful calling out of societal shame and brokenness. Living in a communal world of “what ought to be” is a very good thing.

What I am saying is this. Living in a personal world of should’ve would’ve could’ve’s destroys the life we have right now. It ruins relationships. It paralyzes us in the present. It blinds us to opportunities in our abundant present life.

It does no favors for the future, either.

Lies of a fantasy world we could be in but aren’t help no one in living the life we are in. If only’s only convince us a better option would be easier than working to hold on to the one we have. Let Jacob be a warning echo. Fighting for and appreciating the good in what is brings far more joy than imagining, pretending, or resenting what isn’t.

Where Are Your Accusers?

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Rerunning some of my favorites this August:

 

I grew up on cop and courtroom shows. I loved the drama of catching the bad guy or seeing a lawyer convince the jury, in commanding tones of injured justice, that the defendant was innocent. I planned to become a lawyer up until my last two years of college.

Having worked in a law office and served on a jury, I’m now aware that television doesn’t portray a courtroom exactly . . . accurately. There’s a lot less drama and a lot more drudgery. We don’t show justice quite as it happens. (But if you want to see a humorous video of all our favorite dramatizations, click here.)

This is nothing new. Courtroom scenes have always been played in different ways, sometimes in ways far from just.

Today’s story — and the question God asks—isn’t just a story about one person, or one trial. And it is so relevant to today’s world.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. (John 8.1-6)

 

So here’s the setting. A crowd. Jesus teaching. And what happens? This group of men interrupt the teaching (rude) to deposit a woman, most likely with little clothing, in the middle of the crowd. It’s wrong on so many levels.

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Most Embarrassing Moment

Have you ever been embarrassed in front of a group? I remember one particular 10th grade spelling bee. At some point, I looked across the room at my crush. And he was looking at me. I looked back. I flirted a little. I smiled, made eyes, and was generally overjoyed that he was looking right at me.

Until I realized that everyone was looking right at me. Because it was my turn. And the entire classroom had seen my awkward tenth-grade attempts at flirting.

I have no idea if I spelled the word correctly.

This woman is completely vulnerable, at risk, and humiliated. They’ve made sure of it.

The wording says they “put” her in front of the crowds. Like she is a stray fork or a plate of bad cafeteria food they can toss wherever they like. She is, in fact, their tool for entrapping Jesus. Little more.

She has no agency at all in this matter.

In a trial that should have been private and should, by law, have involved the guilty man as well, the men decide to make her shame public instead, because she fits their agenda.

Does this all sound vaguely familiar?

It’s the way women have always been treated. And Jesus isn’t having it.

Keeping the Law?

For men so intent on keeping the law, they break several.

1 —They could and should have brought her privately if they wanted a court judgement. They brought her in public, to shame her and challenge Jesus.  They wanted a dramatic lynching, and they wanted him holding the noose. It’s not about justice, and it’s not about her. She’s collateral damage.

2—They could and should have brought both guilty parties. Except a man would have demanded his rights. He would not have been as vulnerable. She had no rights. She was an easy target. People who want power choose easy, vulnerable, targets with no ability to make their own case.

3—They could and should have brought the required two witnesses forward immediately. Except, well, for two people to actually witness adultery? They had to see it at the same time and place and have the same story. In other words, they had to have set her up. No one accidentally witnesses adultery, certainly not two people. Yet these witnesses don’t materialize.

4—They could and should have tried to stop the sinner out of compassion. That was the law. Obviously, no one did. They watched and waited.

That’s just a start at the injustice of it all.

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Grace or Law?

It was a test of grace or law. Would Jesus lean too far toward grace—let her go— and break the law? Or would he lean too far toward law —agree to stone her—and invalidate all he’d taught?

Either way, the leaders are back in power. That’s the point.

They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. (John 8.7-9)

They kept demanding an answer. They are impatient, wanting condemnation on their terms, their timeline.

Jesus Replies

Jesus gives his answer. Fine. Toss a stone. Throw it. Hard.

But only according to the law that you so carefully keep—the two witnesses have to go first. The crowd would know that was the law. The accusers would, too.

He demands that her accusers be the first to begin taking a life. If your testimony is absolutely truthful, he hints, this should not be hard. If you haven’t misrepresented anything, exaggerated, told one white lie—you’re good. Go ahead. Throw a rock.

And no one does.

Jesus is keeping law for them, but enacting mercy for her all at once.

Never cross Jesus when death is on the line.

Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  (John 8.10-11)

Didn’t even one of them condemn you?

The truth here, in Jesus’ beautiful question?

No one has power to call you guilty except the Lord of grace and truth.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. (Romans 8.1-2)

Sometimes we are this woman.

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In this life, People will shame you, hurt you when you’re vulnerable, treat you like an object to use, humiliate you, judge and condemn you. I know they have.

But they don’t have the power to make that call. Don’t let them have that power.

Has no one condemned you? No, Lord.

In calling Jesus Lord, she is transferring power. She is admitting him as her master. And she is transformed. Her accusers no longer have power over her. They can’t bring her shame, judgment, or hurt. Only he can. But he doesn’t.

Look into face of your Lord. Hear his words. “Neither do I condemn you.” Let them cover you with grace and truth.

Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. (Romans 8.33-34)

No one has power to call you guilty except the Lord of grace and truth.

There is more to this story. We’ll get into it next week. For today, though, remember, shame has no place in God’s kingdom. The answer to Jesus question is—no one. No one can condemn us. Only Him. And he doesn’t. Let it transform you in all those deep places of fear, humiliation, and shame.

She is free at the end of the story, in more ways than one. He offers the same thing to all of us.