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Moving from Darkness to Light

John 3:1-17 NRSV

It seems you can test for almost anything online. I recently came across a Shame Test enabling you to self-diagnose whether or not you struggle with shame. Here are some of the questions, and if you answer “Yes” or “Sometimes,” then evidently you have had an encounter with shame:

  • It is relatively easy for me to criticize members of my family, people at work or school, or myself.
  • I have a hard time believing that someone can fully love and accept me.
  • I get defensive when others criticize me.
  • I don’t accept compliments well.
  • When I’m lost, I find it difficult to ask for directions or help.
  • When things go wrong, I have a hard time accepting blame.
  • I find it hard to rest or relax without feeling guilty.
  • I feel things must be done my way.
  • I feel embarrassed or humiliated by certain things from my past.
  • I rarely reveal my feelings.

Basically, based on how we answer these questions, all of us struggle with shame. Before we continue, let’s define shame. Author and researcher Brene Brown says, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Brown goes on to say that shame is often the source of hurtful behavior and that it can make us dangerous. Most of us have faced shame and felt unworthy of love and belonging at some point in our lives.

Add to that, for Christians, shame can come when we don’t fully grasp how deeply loved and forgiven we are or that the most appropriate response to our inclusion in the relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to love and share our gifts with others. In other words, shame can come when we fail to embrace our true identity and we begin to compare ourselves to others or even to Christ. The irony is we can feel shame even when we feel blessed—because the enemy likes to see us in the darkness of shame rather than in the light of our true identity.

The issue of shame is not new. We can learn a lot about how we let go of the darkness of shame and move into the light of who we are in Jesus Christ by considering the example of Nicodemus in John 3.  Let’s take a look:

Read John 3:1-17 NRSV

What can we observe about the text?

On this Trinity Sunday, John 3 offers the chance for Jesus to talk about all three persons of the Trinity. Verses 5-8 talk about the Holy Spirit, verses 13-15 discuss Jesus as the Son and predict the cross, and verses 16-17 go back to the foundation of the Father’s great love for all humanity and the lengths he would go to break the bonds of shame so all might know their worth in God’s sight.

Now let’s focus on Nicodemus.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:1-2 NRSV)

The Gospel of John has a recurring theme of darkness vs. light. Notice that Nicodemus came to meet with Jesus at night. Though we can only speculate, we can assume that he was moving toward believing that Jesus was sent by God (i.e., from unbelief or darkness to belief/light). Notice his words: “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4 NRSV)

Jesus takes advantage of the dual meaning of the Greek word translated “from above” which can also be translated “again.” He lets Nicodemus’ confusion grow; he doesn’t resolve the tension or misunderstanding. Sometimes God lets us sit in our lack of understanding, knowing that as we continue to wrestle with truth, it will change us.

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8 NRSV)

Jesus explains the Holy Spirit. Specifically, he contrasts our fleshly, human response (which is often shame-based, and thus confining) with the Spirit’s freedom, moving “where it chooses.”

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:13-15 NRSV)

Jesus makes a reference to his crucifixion by talking about Moses “lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.” This goes back to Numbers 21:9, when the Israelites were traveling to the Promised Land and they were sinning by speaking against the Lord. Many were bitten by poisonous snakes. The way they were healed was to look upon a bronze snake statue put on a pole. Jesus compares the healing of the snake bites to the healing of our feelings of shame and separation from God. We look to Jesus for restoration and peace.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 NRSV)

Verse 16 is one of the best-loved verses, yet it isn’t complete without verse 17. Jesus came so that we could be included in the relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Verse 17 tells us that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn or shame the world, but to break the feelings of shame and separation that make us feel far off from God.

Though we all struggle with shame, as we grow in our understanding and belief in God’s great love for us, we can let go of feelings of unworthiness and embrace ourselves—imperfections and all—as beloved children of God.

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