Grace Conquers Shame
Does God care when we make a mess of our lives—or when someone else does that to us? Does God care when we feel humiliated?
One definition of humiliation points out that “humiliation involves an event that demonstrates unequal power in a relationship where you are in the inferior position and unjustly diminished.” Other definitions of humiliation speak of manipulating a person, treating him or her as an object, subjecting a person to ridicule, scorn, or contempt, putting a person in a degrading position, demeaning a person, or subjecting a person to public shame.
Our English word humiliation actually derives from the word humus, which is “the organic matter of the soil, as leaf mold and other decomposing materials.” To humiliate someone is to reduce that person to the ground.
Each of these perspectives on humiliation matches the experience of a woman whom we meet in John 8 who was “caught in the very act of committing adultery,” and who was made to stand before a crowd of people in the courtyard of the temple. Scribes and Pharisees—the powerful men of the day—dragged her out of bed and forced her to stand beneath their accusations, as the object of public shame. By all indications, she was manipulated into the position in which she was caught. She stands there, in a degrading position before this crowd, subject to their ridicule, scorn, and contempt. She is treated as an object—merely the bait used to try to trap Jesus. She is humiliated; she is reduced to dirt before the crowd of onlookers.
Where do we find Jesus while all of this is going on?
As the scene opens, Jesus is sitting at the temple, teaching the people. When they stand the woman before him, he drops even lower. John tells us that “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”
What Jesus wrote in the dirt was not important enough to John to mention it in his record of this event; therefore it is of no importance to us.
What is important to John—and should be important to us—is where Jesus puts himself while this woman is being humiliated. John tells us twice (in verses 6 and 8) that Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.”
While this woman is being humiliated—reduced to the ground—that’s where we find Jesus. He shares with her where she is.
In the preface to his gospel, John tells us (in John 1:18), “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Fathers heart, who has made him known.”
What does this event in the temple that day reveal to us about God?
Jesus shows us a God who comes down to meet us in our humiliation. That is, in fact, what the incarnation is all about: Rather than remaining in heaven, looking down on us, God came into our sin-filled world in Jesus, as one of us. He came down to meet us in our humiliation.
That’s what Jesus’ death was all about. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
And that’s what Pentecost is all about. Pentecost is the celebration of God choosing to make his home in the mess of our own hearts.
God did not hold back the birth of Jesus until this world was good enough for his entry. Nor did God hold back Jesus’ death until the world was good enough to deserve his death for us. Nor does God hold back the Holy Spirit until we are good enough for God’s Spirit to enter our souls.
What Jesus began to reveal to us when he bent down and wrote in the dirt that day is that the God we love is a God who bends down to meet us even at our lowest points.
Faith Lessons from Philip and Andrew
Faith is continually giving us opportunities to learn and to grow.
Two of Jesus’ disciples—Philip and Andrew—discovered this one day.
While Jesus was teaching by the Sea of Galilee, a large crowd came to him. Seeing their need for physical sustenance, Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5) John adds to the text that Jesus “said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.”
From a Biblical perspective, testing is not for the sake of grading a person’s faith. Nor is it for the purpose of promoting or flunking a person. Testing, in a Biblical sense, has to do with refining or purifying or strengthening a person’s faith. Many preachers have made a big deal of Philip’s answer, (“Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little”) as though Philip’s lack of faith deserved a failing grade. But Jesus never makes such a comment, nor does he drop Philip from the group of apostles, replacing Philip with a more deserving individual. Jesus knows that for each of us, faith is a work in progress. Since God’s consistent goal is to keep strengthening our faith and to grow us in the likeness of Jesus, we can expect to encounter tests throughout our lives that can help us to grow stronger in faith and more like Christ.
Jay Akkerman points out, “For two years, scientists sequestered themselves in an artificial environment called Biosphere 2. Inside their self-sustaining community, the Biospherians created a number of mini-environments, including a desert, rain forest, even an ocean. Nearly every weather condition could be simulated except one, wind. Over time, the effects of their windless environment became apparent. A number of acacia trees bent over and even snapped. Without the stress of wind to strengthen the wood, the trunks grew weak and could not hold up their own weight.”
Helen Keller adds, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
Through Philip, we learn that tests come along in our lives not to grade us or to weed us out, but to give us opportunities to grow in faith and in the likeness of Christ.
John goes on to report, “One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’” (John 6:8-9)
Andrew comes up with an idea. It may not be much of an idea, but he presents it to Jesus anyway. The word John uses to describe the fish is opsaria, a diminutive word, signifying that the fish were very small, like tiny sardines. The bread is identified as barley, seen as an inferior bread, considered the bread of the poor. It seems hardly worth mentioning them to Jesus, but Andrew does mention them. With those small fish and barley bread, Jesus fed 5,000 people.
What we learn from Andrew is that when anything is given to Jesus—no matter how inadequate it might be—Jesus can do something great with it.
To put this in perspective, consider the following:
A basketball in my hands is worth $65. A basketball in Lebron James’ hands is worth $20 million a year. It depends whose hands it’s in.
A baseball in my hands is worth $7. A baseball in Clayton Kershaw’s hands is worth $30 million a year. It depends whose hands it’s in.
A football in my hands is worth $50. A football in Tom Brady’s hands is worth $15 million a year. It depends whose hands it’s in.
A rod in my hands might keep away a wild animal. A rod in Moses’ hands parted the sea. It depends whose hands it’s in.
A sling shot in my hands is a kid’s toy. A sling shot in David’s hands slew Goliath. It depends whose hands it’s in.
Two fish and five loaves of bread in my hands is a couple of fish sandwiches. Two fish and five loaves of bread in Jesus’ hands fed thousands of hungry people. It depends whose hands it’s in.
Nails in my hands might produce a birdhouse. Nails in the hands of Jesus produced salvation for the entire world. It depends whose hands it’s in.
We never know what God might do when we give the little bit we have to him.
Faith involves a willingness to change
I have had a life-long problem of getting a particular idea stuck in my head then missing out on new opportunities because my attention is funneled only toward the idea that is stuck in my head.
When I was 10 years old, I stood on a stage beneath a net holding over 100 balloons. A man was talking to us, explaining that one of the balloons contained a slip of paper which announced “WINNER.” The boy or girl who found that balloon would win a Dick Tracy-like wrist radio!
But before he began speaking, I had already set within my mind the assumption that the winner of the wrist radio that I longed for would be the one who gathered the most balloons. I did not listen to his instructions because my idea was firmly stuck in my head. When the net was pulled away, and the balloons began to fall, I began grabbing as many balloons as I could. The problem is, when you try filling your arms with lots of balloons, the inevitable happens: some balloons slip away as you stuff new balloons into your full arms. Quite by accident, one of the balloons I grabbed happened to hold the winning slip of paper. Either because time had expired or because the one running the contest was a friend of my father’s, the man put his hand on the winning balloon and said to me very nicely, “May I see this balloon?”
He was coming to my rescue, giving me the opportunity to win the prize, but I didn’t see it that way. I thought he was stealing part of my precious and precarious collection. So I told him to leave my balloons alone.
Fortunately for me, he was not put off by my rudeness. Despite my silly protest, he popped the balloon, revealing the winning slip of paper, and gave me the wrist radio I had longed for.
One day Jesus met a man who had a similar problem of having his own idea stuck in his head. The inability to get beyond the idea stuck in his head nearly cost that man far more than a silly wrist radio.
This man had been disabled for thirty-eight years. Much of that time he had spent by a certain pool of water in the northeastern section of Jerusalem. The pool was commonly known as Beth-zatha, “House of the Olive,” but many people called it Bethesda, “House of Mercy,” since stories had been told of healings that took place within those waters. The belief was that the waters were stirred at times by an angel and that the first person into the water after the angel had stirred them would be healed. As a result, the porticos beside the pool were not a place of peaceful relaxation but a place of tense and anxious waiting. The people there were not happy campers but weary watchers. Jesus said to this particular man, “Do you want to be made well?”
It should have been easy for the man to answer Jesus’ question, but he was unable to get past the idea that was stuck in his head. So he said to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
Fortunately for him, Jesus persisted. Jesus repeated his offer to heal the man. This time, though, he phrased it not as a gentle question but as a clear command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
I learn a couple of lessons from this passage:
1: Jesus’ gentle invitation to heal this man and Jesus’ strong command to the man to get up and walk are both given to this man out of the same concern. This holds true in our lives as well. The promises God makes to us and the commands he gives to us both flow out of God’s consistent care for us. If we appreciate his promises, we should also appreciate and heed his commands.
2: Faith has to do with a willingness to set aside what is stuck in our own head so that we can respond to God’s leading.
Robert Sutton writes, “A television program preceding the 1988 Winter Olympics featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing…. Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns. When that was mastered, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting, ‘Left!’ and ‘Right!’ As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skiers’ word. It was either complete trust or catastrophe. What a vivid picture of the Christian life! In this world, we are in reality blind about what course to take. We must rely solely on the Word of the only One who is truly sighted—God himself.”
Faith is learning to hear Christ’s voice and to respond afresh—again and again—to his leading.
A Quiet, Humble Sign
When they were playing baseball together on the world champion Oakland A’s, Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter said of Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson, “He’d give you the shirt off his back. Of course he’d call a press conference to announce it.”
If you want the world to know about your kind-heartedness and generosity, that’s what you do. And that’s what we might expect from God. If God wants the world to know how great and awesome and powerful He is, shouldn’t we expect massive publicity and some enormous showing off on the part of God?
We do read about some awesome signs in Revelation 13:13-14 that persuade many people to believe: “It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth….” But the one who performs those impressive and persuasive signs is the enemy of God!
When God actually came into our world in the person of Jesus, He handled things quite differently.
John 4:54 reports, “Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.” So let’s look at the sign recorded in John 4:46-53 to find out what kind of sign Jesus uses to show off who He is.
The sign begins with a “royal official” coming to Jesus, pleading with Him to heal his son who is at the point of death. This is probably someone attached to King Herod Antipas—most likely Herod’s steward Chuza (for we learn in Luke 8:3 that Chuza’s wife becomes a devoted follower of Jesus). What a great opportunity this is for Jesus to pull together all the “important” people in the land as well as a great multitude of others. Jesus can bring them all together. He can orchestrate some lightning from the sky or other special effects to wow people. Then He can heal the boy, and the whole country will see how powerful and awesome He is!
But that’s not what happens in these verses. Jesus begins by complaining about people not believing unless they see signs and wonders. Then He sends the official home with the simple promise that the boy will live. While the official is on his way, messengers report that the child has recovered. That means that nobody saw Jesus do anything dramatic.
If the goal here was to provide a flashy sign to reveal the grandeur and power of God, then Jesus failed miserably.
It seems, though, that Jesus’ intent was to reveal something different about God.
This miracle is less about impressive power than about quiet, humble love. The way in which this miracle takes place draws attention less to the power of God and more to the love of Christ.
What kind of sign from God does our world need today? Something that reveals the flashy power of God? Or something that reveals the love of God? Las Vegas and Hollywood provide plenty of flashy displays, but what our world needs is love. Indeed, John 13:34-35 suggests that the way the world will see Jesus is through the love we show to others.
The story is told of a disabled boy hurrying to catch a train one day. Carrying packages under his arms, he was struggling with his crutches. Suddenly, a man bumped into him, knocking his packages in all directions. The man paused only long enough to scold the boy for getting in his way. Another gentleman, seeing the youngster’s distress, quickly picked up the scattered packages and slipped a five dollar bill into the boy’s pocket, saying, “I’m sorry. I hope this makes up for your trouble.”
The boy, not accustomed to such kindness being shown to him, said, “Thanks, Mister.” Then he asked, “Are you Jesus?”
The man replied, “No, but I am one of His followers.”
Perhaps that’s the sign the world needs to see more of these days: More Christians displaying God’s love to others.