Being Good, success, Shame and God’s Presence

Recently I have had a conversation with a person who thinks that God must hate them. ‘No! You say! God doesn’t hate any one.’ Well that’s easy for you to say! Because there is, deep in our selves, a logic that we get from our parents, and then project onto God. The logic is ‘Be a good girl (or boy) or Mummy won’t love you any more.’

This logic is a necessary part of the socialness of humanity. We need to be in some ways ‘good’ (fitting in, controlling our behaviour) in order to be able to live together at all. So we expect that ‘being good’ will bring rewards. Most of the time it does. We learn to build into our sense of who we are that we are ‘good’.

There are some people who can never seem to find the way to be ‘blessed’ by society, so they can not identify with being ‘good’ so they end up identifying with being ‘bad’. That ‘bad’ group gives them a blessing by doing ‘bad’ things and so we get juvenile delinquents. Mostly, having a girlfriend who is pregnant and a grandmother who ‘likes them’ helps most delinquents to ‘grow out’ of being bad.  But not all.

So the logic of life is an ‘If…then’ clause. ‘If I am good I will be successful.’ This is proof that God loves me.

Some churches use this logic as their main ‘gospel.’ They say ‘God wants to bless you. If you are rich, this is a sign that you have been blessed. This is the sign that you are ‘good.’ ‘

The other psychological state that goes with this logic is that of ‘shame’. Shame comes when being ‘not good’ is made public or exposed. When I am shamed, I say ‘I am not fit for polite company. I will absent myself.   I will go away by myself so that I will not be exposed any further.’

So there is the logic. If I am ‘good’ then ‘good’ things will happen to me. If ‘bad’ things happen to me I must be ‘bad’, so I need to go away.

I experience this most when it comes to my prayer life. Sometimes when I am feeling ‘ashamed’ because ‘I am bad’ I hide away from God. Instead of getting up to say my prayers singing Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved and free’, I actually stay in bed saying ‘I hide away from my Lord, because I am ashamed.’

And they tell us that the story of Adam and Eve is not true! Ha! I hear the sound of the Lord walking in the Chapel and God says ‘Paul, where are you? And I say ‘I am hiding!’  Sometimes I stay away too because I am angry at God. Instead of hiding, I punish God by removing myself from God’s presence. I say ‘Well, God, the logic is not working is it? I am doing my best. I am ‘being good’ and what do I get? Trouble and strife! This is not fair God! And its your fault! Well suffer! I am not coming into your presence!’

I have often wondered why I place such an emphasis on keeping the lamps burning in the Church. Now it comes to me. These lamps are lamps of ‘presence’. They speak, twenty-four hours a day, ‘God is always here when bidden or unbidden. There is no time or place when, no matter how you feel or what you do God will not be ‘present’. These lamps are a sacrament of that other sacrament, the Eucharist, because both speak of the ‘presence’ of God. I may come closer or further away, but these lamps are the ‘rock’ of God’s gentle enquiring presence asking ‘Where are you? What are you up to. Speak to me.’ Jesus called the disciples in Mark’s gospel ‘…to be with (present to) him’.

But it is worth asking ‘What kind of ‘presence’ is God’s presence? Is it the same as that of our parents who expect us to be ‘good’. Is it the kind of presence that expects us to be ‘naked and ashamed’ such that we have to sew the fig leaves of pride together to protect ourselves and ‘go away’?

Last Sunday I had lunch with some friends of Robyn’s from Geneva. We were talking about the job and my career in the Church. I said ‘Well I have never been any where really successful. Most of the places I have been to have been struggling. The Church has not rewarded me much.’ Do you see the logic at work. I was expressing my dissonance. I was really saying ‘I have tried to be ‘good’ but ‘mother’ church has not ‘blessed me’.

But the person who was visiting offered another kind of ‘presence’. She said ‘Well, that sounds like the kind of person you are. You need the ‘hard jobs’. You might be bored if you were ‘successful.’ How about that! Here was a ‘presence’ that challenged the ‘success’ logic.

This is what the ‘presence’ of God is like, I think, when I really get down to it. It is hard for me to live out all the time, because my history has been one of really loving God, but at the same time, being called a ‘problem child.’ This lives just below the surface.

But I can’t stop thinking about Mary at Christmastime. She is being ‘good’ and saying ‘Yes’ to God. But look what happens to her!! She is found to be in a very shameful situation. She is not ‘blessed’ but in danger of being stoned because she is pregnant and not married. Joseph, because of this shame, wants to ‘send her away’ privately. But God’s ‘presence’ does not want to ‘shame’ her. Instead, God says ‘Joseph, do not be afraid of what is happening to Mary. It may look shameful, but in this I am at work! ‘
Jesus is subject to the shame and indignity of Crucifixion for his passion for God, and Mary is again present. She is one of the few people who have not run away from the shame. I am reminded of the hymn ‘O Love that will not let me go!’ This is God’s presence. God will not let me go, even when I want to go! And the other verse runs ‘O cross that liftest up my head, I do not ask to fly from thee.’ God’s presence is so loving that it ‘lifts up our head’ at the moment when we are ‘naked and ashamed’. Again, it is no wonder that Jesus is called ‘The second Adam’ and Mary ‘the second Eve.’ Wherever I may be in relation to God, the lamps of God’s loving, ‘head-lifting-up’ presence are always lit! Oh that I could live in that presence!

This week I have been going into the Church and singing ‘We love the place O God, wherin thine honour dwells the joy of thine abode all earthly joy excells.’ It is a schmalzy kind of hymn, but expresses what it means to enter into the ‘presence’ of God.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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