I can’t look you in the eyes.
My client said it to me. I could hear him crying, but he buried his face in his hands. He was drowning in shame from acting out, yet again.
And then he said something that stunned me. I know God hates me and can’t look at me.
He was a young seminary student. He’d been listening to some sermons from supposedly reliable guides. He’d told me what he had heard before – God can’t look at us in our sin. When he looks at us (and if we’re a Christian), he sees Jesus.
I asked him to look up at me. He couldn’t. I waited, and asked again after a bit. And finally he raised his head slowly, and looked. I suspect that in my eyes he saw love and felt safety. His eyes welled up more. At least you care, he says.
In some warped take on God’s love and human sin, he’s been told a lie. I heard it again recently by a popular preacher who barks with force at his congregation – Some of you need to know God hates you. He doesn’t just hate your sin. He hates you. I’ll spare you the guilt-and-shame-filled YouTube clip. And yet, thousands flock to it.
Like moths to a flame, many of us are simply irresistibly attracted to messages that either radically overstate our depravity or radically understate it. Preachers, if you want to make it, tell people what they want to hear. Two methods seem to work well.
1. Many want to hear they’re awful. Preach shame and guilt to them.
2. Many others want to hear they’re just fine. Don’t require anything of them.
Both are lies. Both minimize the extraordinary and challenging love of God in Jesus.
What I told this young seminary student is to get to know the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who looks the most repulsive in the eye and smiles. He loves and welcomes them, and then calls them to more. The extravagant Father in Luke 15 runs toward his prodigal son, bringing shame upon himself, in order to convey his extraordinary grace and love. You are my son. He gives him the ring, the robe, the feast. And then he expects him to live like a son.
Original goodness preceded the Fall. Before humankind fell, God smiled on them, bestowing dignity in his royal image. Listening to some of these preachers, you’d think God forgot what he created. But what Jesus sees in messed up human beings is what exists prior, that original dignity and glory. This originally good self is hidden now, but God promises to reveal it, to reveal you. As Frederick Buechner says, “The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all.” But because of Jesus, we’re washed, cleaned, restored.
God doesn’t hate you. He’s not repulsed by you.
When he looks at you, he’s not wincing.
And, He’s not looking at Jesus, instead, as if in some twisted form of divine logic God can never look upon his children again, but instead must gaze upon his Son as our righteousness.
No. You’re not disgusting. Don’t believe the twisted, repulsion theology that has more in common with Pharisaism than Jesus. God declares you not guilty. He adopts you. He loves you. Because of his relentless covenant faithfulness, you are loved, welcomed, enjoyed.
But don’t believe the opposite lie either…that God is just some positive-thinker in the sky. Don’t trivialize God’s love. Don’t use his forgiveness as an excuse to discard living a life of extraordinary love for others, compassion, sexual fidelity, humility, and more. God’s love is both welcoming and challenging. God smiles on you and invites you in, but he’ll not leave you unchanged. By his grace, you’ll be challenged radically, not by a Divine Guilt-and-Shame Manipulator, but by the Incarnate God who humiliated himself for you.
It’s because he knows you. He knows that original shimmering self that is you prior to the tragic cosmic Fall. The doctrine of original goodness desperately needs to be restored, not to let us off the hook, but to let us in to a life lived free from shame, freed for a cruciform life of self-sacrificial love.
As you celebrate the Incarnation in Christ’s birth, witness Christ’s smile. He didn’t come to remind you how bad you are, but how much you’re worth.