Salvation Often Misinterpreted as Damnation

Why is the good news about virtue so often rejected? Many of us are out there fighting the good fight and spreading the good news about virtue to souls that need encouragement, and it seems like the message is falling on deaf ears or even worse, its thrown right back in our face. Why?

I contend that it’s because while we think we are sending a message of “salvation”, it is being received as a message of “damnation”. The exact opposite! This is how I think that happens.

People (young and old alike) all carry with them a shadow.

Salvation or DamnationBlasé Pascal (1623-1662), a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher, wrote the following on man’s hatred of the truth regarding our shadow character:

“Man would fain be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and sees that he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt. The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable, for he conceives a mortal hatred against the truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults. We are so embarrassed by the truth of our own shortcomings that it produces in us the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable. These unjust and criminal passions manifest themselves as pride, greed, vanity, lust, apathy, envy, wrath, anger, rage, and violence. We lash out with lying tongues, hurt innocent people, devise wicked plots, run to trouble, become deceitful witnesses, and sow discord where ever we go. “

A shadow not reckoned with usually creates guilt or shame. Guilt is, “I made a mistake.”, shame is, “ I am a mistake”.

Shame in today’s youth culture.

For those working with young people today, there are a couple demographic phenomena’s that we should also be aware of when it comes to “shame”:

  • Guilt and shame in Latino culture: Sin is closely connected with shame. Men and women are deeply concerned about what others will think if their misdeeds are discovered. But because shame is associated with the exposure of the action, something is only “wrong” when one’s actions become public. Morality therefore becomes eminently external and superficial. The terms “sin” and “sinful” are defined primarily by the public revelation of one’s “bad” actions. For this reason, people are more concerned about “losing face” than about the “bad action” itself and its consequences. Keeping up appearances is paramount. They cannot afford to indulge in a candid self-image. That would be ruinous to his self-esteem. It would implicate his social circle. So he must live in denial, he must bend the rules, he will do anything to keep up appearances.
  • In the hi-tech era: In the digital age, hiding our shadows from peers goes into overload. One of the consequences of the ubiquity of social media is the expanded opportunities for engaging with peers and the increased demand for constructing your identity. Young people today are on show in far more places, requiring far more choices. The world of social media requires managing an online personality as well as your face-to-face appearance. The demands of social media are relentless. Every minute of the day provides the opportunity (and need) for updating your status. Every status update carries with it the challenge of how you present yourself to the world. And with every ‘like’ or comment, you can track the rise (and fall) of your social standing.

The familiar challenges of adolescent development have combined with changing demographics, post -modern relativism, and the technology of the day, to create a “perfect storm” for shame and guilt among teenagers. Here is a world where ‘what my friends think of me’ is not only a matter of life and death, it is a constant pressing need.

Because we lack a common set of moral standards (moral relativism), today’s teenagers believe that even if they have done something wrong, but others believe they haven’t, there is little problem because there is no social shame involved. Yet if others believe they have done something wrong, even if they believe they have not done it, they are left to deal with the resulting shame. This is not healthy for one’s soul.

A healthier alternative is to assess our behavior against a common set of moral standards. Then, if we believe that we’ve done the wrong thing, then whether or not others share that belief, we are expected to correct the behavior accordingly. If others believe we’re guilty of something we don’t believe we’ve done, then it is appropriate we fight the accusation in order to defend our innocence. This is why we so desperately need to revitalize “virtue” in our culture and come to agreement on a set of moral standards, which we can all live with, regardless of faith, denomination, or theological orientation.

Defending against exposure of our shadows.

Unless you feel it is safe to lower your guard and admit your transgressions, you will be very defensive of your honor Most of us are so embarrassed of our shadow that we:

  • Act like hypocrites: The word “hypocrite” derives from the Greek word for acting or pretending. We act, we pretend, and nothing is more self-draining. It takes a lot of spiritual energy to keep that “mask” on all the time. Every time our public persona contradicts our shadow, we bleed. The spiritual hemorrhaging can be painful.
  • Throw stones: We are so embarrassed by our own faults, rather than deal with our own iniquities; we choose to re-direct our attention towards others. Because each of us is imperfect, finding fault in others is a classic pot-calling-the-kettle-black form of hypocrisy.
  • Create Diversions: We create and engage in “diversions” to take our mind off of our shadow, things that keep up busy, or numb, or both. Gambling, hunting, fishing, golf, exercise, video games, TV, drugs, alcohol, sex, to name of few popular diversions.
  • Engage in Self-destructive behavior: Self-destructive behavior is often a form of self-punishment in response to facing the ugliness of your shadow. We take to heart our own negative self-talk and or negative affirmations by others and punish ourselves in response.
  • Harden our hearts: A hardened heart not only poisons our spirit, it literally changes our ability to hear. Messages that are good for us, come across as bad. A message of salvation might come across to us as one of damnation. A message of salvation that is meant to encourage and heal us, simply reminds us of our guilt and shame and how hopeless our struggle has been to shine the light on our dark shadow. Rather than being helpful and making us feel good, the message of salvation makes us very uncomfortable and it even hurts. We take it personally, lash out, get angry, insolent, and vehemently reject the message that could save us.

What can we do to help others soften their hearts and reconcile their shadows to their souls?

  • Share your own brokenness with them. (I have problems just like you)
  • Show them empathy and tell them you forgive them.
  • Share the anonymous brokenness of a group. (We have problems just like you)
  • Listen to them, be quiet, let them tell you their story.
  • Tell them a heart wrenching story or parable that challenge their perceptions about redemption.
  • Let them know that you can help them reconcile their shadow and transform their existence to something better.
  • Be physically present for them. (you don’t have to say or do anything, just be there)
  • Demonstrate unconditional love to them (not transactional love)

Therein lies a valuable lesson for those of us engaged in bringing the good news of encouragement, virtue and salvation to others. We might be a lot further off to first start with actions designed to “soften their hearts” and create opportunities for redemption, rather than trying to prematurely “shove” the good fruits of virtue down their throats.