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There are many disillusioned disciples today. Church isn’t what we thought it was. As I’ve said elsewhere, instead of giving the world a beautiful picture of Christ’s bride and a glimpse of our telos in communion with him and one another, we see much ugliness and abuse of power. In multiple denominations. How did we get here? What is church supposed to be? What is our witness to the watching world?

I’m still thinking about this. What does healthy discipleship look like? What happens when love is in the church? Why do many seem so afraid of this? The other day I tweeted “theology without love is dead.” As many resonated with this simple statement, the qualifiers and corrections came rolling out.

Here’s the thing: Christianity is a confessional faith. But as necessary and beneficial as our creeds and confessions are, they can’t give you love. They were never meant to be alone like this. Theology without love is theology without God. And that’s not theology at all. We worship our God in spirit and in truth. We need both. Without love, there is no beauty, no significance, and no place for our longings to land. Theology without love is not only dead; it isn’t safe. And it is driven by shame. Theology without love is shameology.

What We Need

We need love. It’s basic. But we can’t be loved if we are not known. So we all have a desire to be truly known. But we can’t be known where we are not vulnerable. And that is scary. What we want is a kind of love that sees us, in our most vulnerable condition—soul-naked—and embraces us. But we struggle to believe this kind of thing is real. Being soul-naked leaves us vulnerable. We are often uncomfortable there. And we run from the gaze that we long for–before friends and family in bearing our souls, before spouses in intimacy, and before God. It can terrify us.

This is because of shame. Since the fall, as Curt Thompson says, “to be human is to be infected with this phenomenon we call shame.”[1] Shame speaks to who we are. You are not enough. You will not measure up. How can anyone possibly love you if they knew the real you? Our adversary leverages shame to keep us entrapped in sin.[2]

It’s so dark and ugly—how can we be involved in creating beauty? Some of the shame is from what others have done to us, and some of it is of our own doing. So many are carrying shame and trauma from abuse or neglect. Shame entraps us with messages about our value and diminishes our sense of self. If the people we love knew what was going on in our thoughts, or the things we have done or have been done to us—the very real sin that is such a violation of beauty, truth, and goodness—they would need to look away. We can’t bear the gaze that we long for because we do not see ourselves as worthy.

This is where we get stuck in patterns of depression, isolation, and sin. When we think of all the stain of what has either been done to us in abuse or neglect, or that we have done to ourselves and others in sin, we don’t see a way through. Shame sticks to us, in a sense. How can we talk about beauty, now? You can’t exercise shame off, it doesn’t work. Good works don’t melt the shame off. The masks we wear to try and cover it up may feel like they are working for a while. But the fear grows inside of us that we will be found out. We keep pointing to the masks we wear to distract from bearing the gaze into our realness. But as I said, our masks lose their adhesive. We can’t keep it up. We try to seek our longings in other ways. We have superficial relationships. And yet, that desire to be known just won’t go away.

So it seems like the very thing that we long for, we also run from. We long to be known, seen, gazed upon even[3], by God himself. And as we see ourselves as the bride of Christ, a line from Amy Peeler comes to mind: “we are beholders of the Beholder’s beholding of us.”[4] We long to see and feel that gaze, and hear, “You are absolutely beautiful my darling; there is no imperfection in you” (Song 4:7). It is an expression that recognizes himself in his bride, just like Adam, “This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). At last. We long to be looked upon and recognized this way now because our hearts are longing for this greater fulfillment in eternity.

Beauty Rises

We need beauty. We need love. And so we need each other. We need communion without shame. Thompson says, “Beauty welcomes us in the sense that it is invitational, vulnerable, and unhurried. It tells us we are wanted in its presence.” We are so conflicted though! How?! How does it want me? “Beauty leads us to worship by enabling us to live in the real world, the world of trauma and shame that is so pervasive, and then to see through it.”[5] We can see through the trauma and shame! But we have to recognize that it is there. Shame’s “elusiveness is a key element of its power.”[6] We need to see it and confess it.

Augustine, in expounding on Psalm 103:3, praises God’s “magnificent works,” saying, “you have clothed yourself in confession and seemliness.”[7] Confession and beauty go together for us. And yet, sometimes church is the last place we feel safe to be honest. Sometimes it’s the very place where the accuser works, where shame is cast onto Christ’s people. Theology without love is unsafe. But beauty rises. It always does.

Christ emptied himself by taking this on for us, “by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). Think about the gaze upon our Lord Jesus on the cross, not only by the onlookers, but by the Father himself. “Most assuredly did people see him stripped of beauty and majesty. Understandably, they shook their heads before his cross, taunting, ‘Is this all that the Son of God amounts to? If he is the Son of God, let him come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40).[8] This is what the people he came to serve said about him—those he loved, those he made himself vulnerable for, those he laid down his life for. But the gaze from the Father—how could he bear it while carrying our shame? This is why we are exhorted to fix our own eyes on Jesus, “For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). “He did not come down from the cross, but he rose from the tomb.”[9] There is nothing more beautiful than this.

Communion Without Shame

Church is where Christ’s people, his bride, can delighting in the Lord together. Church is where we can develop our desire together as he is preparing our souls for love. Church is where we can practice heaven, as Thompson calls it. It is where we find sacred siblings and advocates. It’s where we hear, speak, and read God’s word in community. It’s where we read the Bible with an eschatological imagination—being courted and transformed by God’s word. Church is to be a safe place to ask the hard questions about life, offering security in Christ as we express our doubts. It’s to be a place of protection from the harm of others. It is where we are to provoke one another to love and holiness as we gaze at Christ together. Church is where we are to have communion without shame. Repentance comes easy in loving cultures.

And so, we need churches that offer freedom in belonging. Richard Bauckham helps us understand that “the fullest freedom is not to be found in being as free from others as possible, but in the freedom we give to each other when we belong to each other in loving relationships.”[10] Belonging is freedom to give, to love. It’s “power to.” That’s why I will continue to be a singer of the Song of Songs. There we see voices that show us the picture of true, uninhibited freedom in belonging exclusively to Christ. This is our telos. And if we don’t have that yet in church, we can go to the “holy of holies” of Scripture for this communion while we keep showing up in his house, asking him to do his work of preparing our souls for love.

[1] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 21.

[2] Thompson, Soul of Shame, 22.

[3] See Dr. Curt Thompson, The Soul of Desire

[4] Amy Brown Hughes, “Beholding the Beholder,” in Trinity without Hierarchy: Reclaiming Nicene Orthodoxy in Evangelical Theology, ed. Michael Bird and Scott Harrower (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2019), 131.

[5] Curt Thompson, MD, The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 41.

[6] Thompson, Soul of Shame, 23.

[7] Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms: 99-120, trans. Maria Boulding, WSA 3/19 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2004), 108.

[8] Augustine, Psalms, 112, emphasis original.

[9] Augustine, Psalms, 112.

[10] 5. See Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom: Biblical and Contemporary Perspectives (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 18.