Sun, Jul 05, 2020

Struggling with shame

Duration:12 mins 26 secs

Well, it’s happened!

On Monday, we picked up Aedan––

our not-so-little, twelve-week old Irish Wolfhound puppy.

He already weighs twenty-three kilograms!

By nature, he’s gentle and slightly timid…

and he’s lovely and sweet––

most of the time.

Currently, he’s about seventy percent toilet trained…

and mostly he’s sleeping by himself okay.

His appetite is a little off at the moment––

but that’s understandable… 

given everything that he’s been through this week.

But there’s one thing that’s going to need a bit of work—

travelling in the car.

He doesn’t like it.

At all!

He howls and cries.

When we picked him up from the breeder’s place––

the other side of Meadows––

he howled and cried for about the first fifteen minutes.

When we took him to the vet on Thursday, he howled and cried most of the way.

But, in a sense, can you blame him?

In his short life…

he’s only been in a car to go to the vet for his first vaccination…

then, a few weeks later, for his vasectomy…

resulting in a bucket on his head;

then when he was separated from the only home that he had known…

from the only humans whom he had known…

and from his sister, with whom he was very close;

and then when he went to the vet, again, for another vaccination.

So, it wasn’t surprising…

on Friday…

when Natasha put him in the car to take him for a little explore at a local park…

he howled and cried all the way there…

and all the way back.

It didn’t matter that nothing unpleasant happened.

It didn’t matter that he enjoyed himself at the park.

His prior experience shaped what he saw…

and what he expected…

and how he interpreted it.


We do that too, don’t we?


When I taught in a theological college, I saw it all the time with students.

I would regularly point out to them…

how they were reading the Biblical text through the lens of their experience…

rather than… 

if you like… 

reading their experience through the lens of the text.

Too often, we impose our experience…

our issues…

our beliefs…

and our culture…

onto the Bible.

Too often we see what we want to see.

And that also applies to towering figures from the church’s past––

people like, for example, Martin Luther…

and, particularly, in relation to this morning’s reading from Romans.

When he read this text, it spoke to him.

As a man who was probably prone to depression;

who had an ambitious and somewhat domineering father––

who had made his son study law…

and strongly disapproved when he dropped out and became a monk––

Martin Luther was plagued for much of his early life with issues of unresolved guilt.

When he came to this text, he saw himself.

Here, he heard Paul wrestling with his own doubts and guilt…

and repudiating the Hebrew religion that could not offer him assurance of forgiveness or salvation.

In so doing, Luther read his own experience into the text;

he imposed his own issues and needs.

And that reading has shaped how most of us have read this text ever since.

And, in so doing––

like Luther––

we have read it completely wrongly.


First of all, this text is not autobiographical.

Paul is not describing his own experience.

To read it as such is inconsistent with what he says elsewhere about his life before Christ.

And, a few verses earlier, he mentions a time when he was living ‘without’ or ‘apart from’ the Hebrew Law.

No Israelite would ever say that!

Rather, what we have here is Paul speaking ‘in character’.

As I have mentioned already, in Romans he engages in a dialogue with an imagined opponent––

and almost all of our reading this morning is spoken from the perspective of this character.

Indeed, long before Luther misunderstood this text…

the Early Church Fathers––

such as the theologian, Origen, in the early third century––

recognised that this was, technically, a “speech-in-character”.

Even more than that, Origen recognised that much of the language––

including “Wretched man that I am”––

borrows from a particular literary genre known as the “tragic soliloquy”.

In it, the author would describe a moral struggle––

over a desire for some external ‘good’––

which would be attributed to…

or blame upon…

a god or a demon.

And the character that Paul constructs, here, presents sin as a demon possessing him…

causing him to do what he doesn’t want to do.


Second, this struggle is not with unresolved guilt––

as Luther wrongly supposed.

After all, the ancient world was a collectivist culture, not an individualist one. 

Guilt was not a prominent psychological motivator. Rather, shame was. 

And shame was a sense of pain that a person felt…

about how their actions would be judged by others…

especially by the members of their family…

or their dominant group. 

The character who Paul constructs here is a non-Israelite––

a Greek or a Roman––

who had been attracted to the Hebrew religion…

and who came to it as a means of moral mastery;

which is what educated Greeks and Romans sought from the various schools of philosophy.

He’s attracted to the Hebrew religion…

but he doesn’t really feel like he fits in.

He’s torn between what he believes that the Law expects of him––

morally speaking––

and what is expected of him by his family, community, and society.

Even more than that…

he’s struggling to live up to what he believes that the people of God––

the people of Israel––

expect of him.

He doesn’t really feel like he belongs.

He feels judged by the people of God…

because he doesn’t––

as he sees it––

measure up.

This speech to that effect–– 

which Paul places on this character’s lips––

concludes with the plaintive plea, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”.

Who will free him from this struggle to please the people of God––

and, by implication, a struggle to please God––

a struggle, in a sense, that was one of his own creation?

Having deftly crafted this speech-in-character…

Paul interjects in his own voice––

ever so briefly––

to offer a small but ambiguous corrective: 

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

The dialogue between Paul and this character will continue for quite a bit yet––

Paul won’t deliver the final punch-line until the end of chapter nine––

but, for now, it’s like he’s saying…

“I’m not going to respond in detail;

I want you to wrestle some more with your thoughts.

I’m going to try to steer you towards a broader, better way of seeing things.

But, the answer…

in a sense…

is the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ”.

And, as he will make clear, it’s a grace…

a mercy…

an acceptance…

that God intends to show to all humankind––

regardless of whether they’re Hebrew or Gentile…

and regardless of whether they get it right or not. 


Paul may not have been dealing with Luther’s issues––

or ours.

And yet…

it’s worth remembering that…

over and above all of our guilt, fears, doubts, and struggles…

there lies God’s gracious acceptance.

And, in the end, maybe that’s all we really need.

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