As a perfectionist, I struggle with separating my actions from my personal value. Most perfectionists either under-perform or over-perform. The under-performers contemplate a task, feel overwhelmed by their inability to do it perfectly and choose not to attempt it at all. Over-performers do too many tasks, often thoroughly and then project their high-achieving personal expectations onto others all the while feeling resentment and exhaustion because they have to "do everything themselves." Both of these life approaches seriously suck. I get to say that because I'm talking about myself. (I'm the latter, by the way, and waffle between judging and feeling jealous of the former).
I bring this issue up in the midst of my series on personal values because I think it touches on the core of my next value. I'm calling it dignity. For me, part of my reasoning for removing myself from the church environment, at least for now, has been about an inappropriate connection I've felt in church between self and actions. When we condemn people, rather than choices, I think we've made a critical error. We've chosen not to give dignity to the human being in question.
I firmly believe that human beings were made in the image of God, that we are intended for good, that we are capable of great things, and that ultimately, we are good. Are we also capable of self-destructive patterns that can harm others? Of course. But is that who we really are, in our heart of hearts? Is that where we are happiest, most fulfilled, free and full of love, joy and peace? No. *
Because of this belief, I reject any cultural pattern that uses shame as a way to control behavior. This very much includes the evangelical church. Children are not "bad girls/boys" when they make bad choices. They are precious people who are doing something wrong/unhealthy/harmful/bad, however you want to frame that. But they are not bad when they make bad choices, have a bad moment, feel big emotions, or make the "lesser" choice. They need guidance, tools, encouragement and dignity to make better choices. They don't need shame.
I cannot overstate how important the difference is between these two approaches. When we make someone feel bad about WHO THEY ARE based on WHAT THEY DO, we're often perpetuating the exact reasons why people make bad choices in the first place - because they feel like shit. (I'm also really working on not framing everything as "good" or "bad" in the first place, but that's another conversation. I'm using good/bad framework to make a greater point here).
Using this lens, I see the people around me, my children and myself very differently. I'm working to no longer pressure myself to behave in order to make others approve of me, that their approval somehow makes me something that I'm not without it. It's revolutionized the way I approach my faith. I'm beginning to learn what grace really is! And guess what? It's AWESOME. I'm replacing the idea that I'm terrible and He's so great with I'm great and He thinks so too. He's my source and He's my friend. While I tend to be hard on myself, He's soft towards me. In my personal experience (which I understand is wildly subjective), He is always sweeter, kinder, gentler and more patient that I am with myself. After all this time, I'm still blown away by Him.
It's taken me awhile to identify shame and its destructive nature in me. If you're not entirely sure what I'm talking about, check out Brene Brown's extensive work on the subject. She has done amazing research and her descriptions of what shame feels like and how to combat it have been really helpful to me. When you shut yourself down because your feelings are "stupid/dramatic/dumb/overreacting", that's shame. When you decide not to communicate what you're thinking and feeling because "they probably won't listen to me anyway/it's not important/it'll just make them mad", that's shame. When you don't want to do something but you do it anyway because you feel like you should, that's often motivated by shame. When you don't communicate what you need because "it's too much/not worth it/silly", that's shame.
We have GOT to give ourselves dignity or we'll never be able to extend it to others. We don't give ourselves dignity so we can dole it out (also an important distinction). We give ourselves dignity because God put it in us when He made us. Humans are inherently valuable regardless of belief, age, sex, race, sexual orientation, nationality, socioeconomic status and political party. We are worthy of respect and dignity BY NATURE. We need to acknowledge that within ourselves and within the people all around us, especially people we don't love or agree with. It's so insanely easy to assume ill motive of others who come from a different perspective. But they deserve dignity and their views are valid, even if you disagree.
The lack of giving others dignity (I also see this as giving people the benefit of the doubt) is so clearly seen in how conservative Christians treat Barack Obama. Yes, apparently I'm going there. He's a person, guys. He's not the anti-christ, terrorist, Muslim that you say he is. He's a person. You may disagree with him politically. That's fine. We're lucky to live in a country where that is perfectly acceptable. Use your voting power and your influence to make change. In your disagreement, don't forget to acknowledge that he is a human being and therefore, has inherent dignity that needs to be treated with respect. (My husband next to me would like to add that this disparaging treatment, of course, happened to George W. Bush as well. Unfortunately, hatred runs on both sides of this partisan river. This is one of the many reasons I try to stay out of political arguments - says the woman who probably just started one).
When we focus on sin elimination in the church (always working on some sin area in our lives) we completely miss the point of grace. God is not in the business of behavior modification. Of course, we are not entirely separate from our actions. But neither are we the sum of them. The story of the adulterous woman comes to mind. The Jews bring before Jesus a woman they caught in the act of adultery and ask if she is to be stoned (according to Old Testament law). Not even going to start ranting here about where the eff the man is in this scenario, but seriously? WTF? Jesus gets down on her level, writes something on the ground (we don't know what) and asks the crowd to stone her if they haven't sinned themselves. They all walk away, he looks into her eyes and tells her she's safe ("I don't condemn you") and she can make different choices ("Go and sin no more), not because she's a bad person and needs to shape up, but because she is loved! She matters! He is giving her dignity.
This is a huge deal for a number of reasons. He had every authority to lay into her. Man, he would have been fully qualified to condemn her. The object of this gift of dignity is a woman. Seriously, in this culture, especially an "impure" woman was of very little value. He spoke to her. He got on her level. He defended her publicly. He did not condemn her. He also empowered her to do good. If he can give her dignity, how can we not give it to her and to ourselves as well?
Who are the "adulterous women" in our modern culture? Certainly, women are still struggling to be given dignity. Definitely anyone in a racial minority. There is certainly a lot of angst among the various religious groups in our country right now. Homosexual and transgender individuals most definitely. Poor people, yup. How can we give dignity to them? How can we stop seeing them as "them" and begin to see them as "us"? Because let's face it, folks: every human has inherent dignity given to them by God. Don't take it away. Be in the business of giving it back.
* As a side note, I will say that I believe there is a point in a person's life where they can cultivate their evil leanings, leading to a very active, purposefully destructive lifestyle. While I believe this goes against our intended nature, it is clearly evident in those who take great pleasure in hurting others. I'm more speaking to us normal folks, not the sadists in the world.