I grew up under the influence of the Asian-American honor shame mentality which runs deep in the fabric of our cultural values. The simple solution to avoid feeling shame is to prevent it from happening in the first place, by being as honoring and as honorable as possible.
As a result, I found myself perpetually running after honor and perpetually trying to escape shame. No wonder I was so exhausted.
Chasing and escaping at the same time is not the picture of rest or freedom. You've been there too? Perhaps then you know what happens when your honor escapes you and shame catches up with you, you find that your efforts in self-preservation are in vain. The fact is no matter how savvy we think we're being in our attempts to outrun shame, eventually we will weary from the sprint. We'll exhaust ourselves in the chase.
There was a man who had two sons. You remember where the story is going, right? Turn in your Bibles with me to Luke chapter 15, starting in verse 11:
"And he said, 'there was a man who had two sons and the younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me." And he, the father, divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country. And there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in the country and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, "How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread but I perish here with hunger? I will arise and go to my father and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'"
It's not difficult to see ourselves in this story Jesus told, known as the parable of the prodigal son. In our self-centered, sinful state we act entitled, believing that we know best how to run our lives, chafing under circumstances that don't go our way. Like the prodigal son, we can take every provision God gives us for granted, thinking we deserve better. "Give me what's mine," the son says, isn't that true of us too?
We make for horrible little gods of our own lives. We think we know best and then find ourselves in desperation's grip. What am I supposed to do now? Awareness of sin leads us to guilt and shame. What a foolish thing I did. What an absolute fool I am. Do you see the subtle shift here between our having done a foolish thing and now being considered the thing that's the fool? We believe that somewhere in shame's sequence, our identity has actually changed.
In his estimation, the son was no longer a son, he was a higher servant now at best. His true identity would need to be covered, he'd squandered his station as son. Back in the Garden of Eden, where we left off in our earlier Genesis account, we see the same cycle in play. Adam and Eve demand to gain access to the one tree God had forbidden them to eat of. One poor decision begets another as the couple eat fruit from that forbidden tree. The weight of their rebellion settles in and for the first time they realized their nakedness, they feel shame. And so they hide, no longer can they enjoy pure and unadulterated communion as God's companions. They could no longer exist in fellowship with God as they were meant to.
The cycle is brutal, isn't it? No wonder shame sidelines so many of us, keeping us limping along as we hide from God. We simply can't fathom even in our wildest imaginations that the identity we were meant to have can be recovered through God's amazing gift of grace and forgiveness that makes it possible. There's more to the story of course. Verses 20 through 24 say this:
"And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Bring quickly the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet, and bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, for this my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found," and they began to celebrate.
Did you catch the paradox there? Our shame compels us to run from God. God's mercy compels him to run toward us. Do you see it? Awareness of sin leads to guilt and shame, but guess what? The Bible tells us in Romans 2:4 that God's kindness leads us to repentance. God running toward us it's an unlikely image, don't you think? In the ancient middle Eastern culture, it would have been all but unthinkable for a father, such as the one in Jesus' parable to run, which is of course precisely the point. If you've ever tried to run while wearing a floor length dress, then you've experienced what the father faced, namely, in order to pick up his pace, he also would have needed to pick up his garment, which would mean bearing the lower part of his legs, which was a definite no no back then. But there's more to this father's actions than that.
In those days, whenever a Jewish son lost his inheritance to the Gentiles, considered the lesser race, upon the son's inevitable return, the men of the city would rush to the city gate and smash a pot to the ground signifying the son's broken relationship with the community he'd abandoned. Those shards represented his current standing. In other words, he was no longer welcome. The fact that this father ran toward his son as his son was approaching the city limits tells us that he loved that kid so much that he was going to preempt the broken pot ritual. He was going to reach the city gate before the other men in the city could so that he could restore his boy to fellowship before that boy could be cast out.
Our shame compels us to run from God. God's mercy compels him to run toward us. With every step that father took, he demonstrated to all looking on that he, the father, would bear the shame meant for his child. He would take on the rejection. He would feel the searing humiliation. The father would secure his child's place by his side on account of his mercy, not his child's worthiness. God doesn't cancel us, but comforts us in our shame. God does not shame us, but Christ bears our shame. God does not stand far off in judgment but pursues us with his welcome.