When Shame Keeps You Away

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Pastor, Pepperell, Massachusetts

Some of us are unsure of God’s full acceptance. We suspect he’s disappointed with our best efforts. We live with low-grade guilt, feeling like we’ve never really pleased him — that he’d always like to see us doing a bit better.

Perhaps we’re equally uncertain about full acceptance from God’s people. A secret sin or silent struggle convinces us that if others knew, they’d despise us. In sin or weakness, we’ve pulled away from church, finding it ever more difficult to return. We’re isolated by fear and feelings of inadequacy.

For all those living on the margins, longing to draw nearer to God and his people but uncertain how, there’s sweet grace to savor in a story of Jesus’s encounter with a man on the margins.

The Weight of Shame

When Luke tells the story, he begins with a terrible problem: “While [Jesus] was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy” (Luke 5:12). He was “full” of a dreaded disease. According to Leviticus 13:45, lepers were to tear their clothes, let their hair hang loose, and cover their upper lip or mustache. These were typically the actions of mourners at funerals.

Lepers were instructed to act like funeral mourners because they were mourning their own condition, which was a kind of living death. Ritually unclean, they were required to stay outside the camp, cut off from the community and from God’s holy presence in the tabernacle.

Our modern individualistic ideals may romanticize living in splendid isolation. Not so in ancient Israel. Life to the full was lived in the community of God’s people gathered around God’s presence in the tabernacle. Being cut off from that was like a living death. The leprous man who came to Jesus couldn’t have physical contact with others, because doing so would make them unclean. Can you imagine the shame he felt?

Honest and Desperate

And the leper doesn’t deny his problem. His manner of approaching Jesus communicates great humility and desperate need. Luke tells us, “When he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean’” (Luke 5:12).

Getting down in the dirt before another person is humbling. From the dirt, you can’t coerce, threaten, or bribe. You can only ask and plead. That’s what this leper does. Falling on his face, he begs Jesus, calling him “Lord” as a sign of respect and submission, acknowledging that Jesus can cleanse him if he chooses. The leper doesn’t try to cleanse himself. He simply comes as he is. That’s a big risk. Jesus might ignore him or laugh at him. Jesus might give him ten things to do before he can be cleansed.

This may be the hardest step for some of us: simply coming to Jesus and to his people, admitting our need without pretense. We may fear being ignored, rejected, or scorned. If that’s how you feel, it’s crucial to see a final scene in this story.

I Am Willing

Luke writes, “And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean’” (Luke 5:13). Each detail of that sentence is significant; let’s savor them one at a time.

This leper respected the physical distance he was required to keep from others. But Jesus crossed that distance — he “stretched out his hand,” moving toward the untouchable man. And Jesus doesn’t just let his hand hover a few, safe inches away. He touches him. What must the weight of his hand have felt like as it came to rest on this untouchable man? We know Jesus isn’t supposedto touch the man; touching an unclean person renders you unclean. We also know he doesn’t need to; he sometimes healed with a word. So, if he’s not supposed to, and he doesn’t need to, why does he?

Human touch is powerful. The fortunate people who were the recipients of Abraham Lincoln’s famously enthusiastic, two-handed handshakes never forgot them. They wrote about the handshakes years later. Modern studies have found that skin-to-skin contact with babies facilitates brain development and releases good hormones, while lowering stress hormones. The New York Times reports, “Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not.” And who doesn’t remember the first time they held hands with the person who would eventually become their spouse?

By touching the leper, Jesus welcomes him back into contact and community in a way he’ll never forget. Jesus also speaks to the man. He says, “I am willing.” He wants to cleanse him. He says, “Be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. When Jesus touches the man, Jesus doesn’t become unclean. Instead, the man becomes clean. The massive obstacle separating him from worshiping God in the temple and enjoying the presence of human community is suddenly removed.

He Wants to Heal You

If you feel unlovable, unsure about Jesus and how he’ll respond to you, please hear this: Jesus welcomes you. Better yet, Jesus will cleanse and heal you. He’ll not leave you the same as when you came to him. Whatever is keeping you from a closer relationship with God or Christian community, come to Jesus and let him deal with it.

If it’s sin, past or present, Jesus will forgive it as you confess it. A few chapters later in his Gospel, Luke records Jesus’s parable about a tax collector who (like the leper) got down in the dirt, begging God to forgive him. And God did (Luke 18:9–14). He’ll do it for you, too. He wants to cleanse you. He wants to forgive you. He gazes at you not with an expression of disdain but delight, like the father of the wayward son in another famous parable, who runs to embrace his son as he trudges home after squandering a fortune (Luke 15:11–32). This is the best possible news for people carrying the awful weight of shame.

(@stephenwitmer1) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He helps to lead Small Town Summits, which partners with The Gospel Coalition New England to serve rural churches and pastors. He and his wife, Emma, have three children.