So how do all of these podcasts on shame help us with reaching the world for Christ? It all seems so negative.
I had a friend who was a missionary to the Palestinians for years. He learned that the best way to get a dialogue going that didn’t offend or cause the person to click their tongue and walk away was to start with this sentence when asked if he was a Christian.
“The faith of my fathers is Christianity.”
It was so simple. It wasn’t judging, or aggressive. It was a statement of fact. The person could then respond, “The faith of my fathers is Islam.” Let the dialogue begin.
Indirectly, it is an acknowledgement that our faith narrative didn’t begin when we became convinced that Jesus made rational sense to us. My testimony began much earlier. Even before I was born, people were talking about me, considering what they were going to call me, neighborhood that I would live and grow up in. Even before I could speak, I was being shaped by subtle clues about the world I was born into. My story began with someone else. Curt Thompson writes,
“Other’s contribution to your narrative never stops. For even as we acquire language and mobility, growing in our independence and agency, with the dawning awareness of our capacity to direct our own thoughts and respond to our own feelings, we are always interacting with other people. And their versions of the world—our world in particular—continue to shape and influence the way we understand and tell our unfolding narrative. First our parents, then teachers, friends, coaches, spouses, children, employers, and even panhandlers on the street are writing in the margins of our autobiographies. We are tempted to believe we are solo artists, but we are more like featured soloists in a symphony. The question, of course, is what kind of music we will play together.” (Soul of Shame 87)
Our worldview in the West has been so defined by the Enlightenment, “I think, therefore I am.” Without getting lost in the philosophical weeds, we inherently believe that I am a singular independent agent with virtual total control over my life, existence, what I believe, how I see the world, my brain, my emotions, etc. If I so choose, I can change my appearance, my sex, my context, I can choose happiness in a heartbeat, choose to forgive, choose to believe, choose to let go of deep betrayals and wounds—sound familiar? But though there is some validity to my “free agency”, particularly in that I can make choices and that I am accountable for my choices, beyond that, I am not as free as I want to imagine, nowhere near.
I am a complex gumbo of the many affects in my life to-date, some having more consequence than others. I am not as independent of an agent as I would like to be. For instance, I cannot just choose happiness.
Faith of my fathers, right? Thompson tells the story of Robert, whose paternal grandfather had been a successful businessman who lost it all after being betrayed by someone he trusted. Robert’s father learned from the not-so subtle signals from his dad, that trust is not as permanent as you would like it to be. You just can’t really trust people. He worried about being able to provide for the family—instead of being angry or worried, he dealt with it by working harder, more hours, gathering money in savings—because you never know what might happen, who might betray you. Faith of the fathers. Robert picked it up as well. He struggles with workaholism, anxiety and depression. Never at peace, never able to rest.
What is the faith of the Fathers in Robert’s case? In the end, we will not be OK. Nobody says it aloud, or puts it on the family crest, or sews it on pillows, but it is always there. How will they ever really trust in God’s goodness and provision? They may adhere to creedal statements, but if you looked at their lives, listened to their prayers, they were on their own. Their safety and security at the end of the day is dependent upon their own wiles and efforts. Luck and chance. Robert prayer? “God help me be successful at work today”. What about the peace of God that surpasses understanding? A distant philosophy. Inherent fear of failing, of falling short in the end, of running out of money before you die reigns. Will a class on the peace of God help? Back to the Enlightenment. The faith of our fathers is largely subconscious, irrational and emotive. It thrives in the midbrain surrounded by such chemicals as dopamine and cortisol. Robert needs to access power from God through the Spirit in his inner being to even begin to grasp the HWLD of the love of Jesus for him, and this would include the stunning good news that Jesus has promised so much for Robert as he is, loves him equally, whether he is successful (whatever that means to Robert) or not, is so proud of him as he is—all because of what Jesus did 2000 years ago on Robert’s behalf. This is that mysterious, miraculous love that casts out fear.
So, what difference does this make to evangelism? The Gospel? It should be clear.
First, one size does not fit all. Is your simple gospel all about one aspect of the good news? If you walked outside today and got hit by a truck, do you know where you will go? Heaven or Hell. The old Evangelism Explosion question? Not bad, it’s just that the gospel is not one size fits all. It is my observation that most of the folk in the US today could care less about Heaven or Hell. Their brains shut down. They stop listening. That’s not good.
Second, the power of the Gospel is not limited to our frontal cortices. For decades, evangelism and apologetics has been very cognitive and rational. Let me convince you of the existence of God, Heaven, Jesus, sin, and the Cross. Once you see the complete picture, you will naturally choose to jump in. Again, not bad, but we are far more complicated people with deeper affective sometimes blinding issues of shame, guilt, relational attachment wounds and addictions that can be blinding. If I am afraid of trusting human beings, why would I ever want to trust a deity? It is not rational, but a very real fear. We need to do a deep dive into the power of the Gospel. It has great things to say about power over fear (1 Jn 4), the key to accessing love and honor for me as I am, not as I should be (Eph 3:14-21). The power that can begin to unravel my addictions and compulsive shame cycles. You know, real life stuff.
When we speak with people, it helps to recognize that they are not purely independent agents just waiting to be convinced of some higher truth which they can unhindered full-heartedly jump into. They are a complex entity made up of everything that has happened to them in their lives and even before that, they are made up of the faith of their fathers, a narrative that began before they were even born.
The Take heart and Gospel App discipleship programs were created with this in mind. Does you Gospel right now have something to say to that person whose subconscious life mantra is “in the end, we will not be OK?” It could. Check it out.