This week I got the pleasure of singing with the choir on “You Will Be Found” from the soundtrack of Dear Evan Hansen. You can listen to it here:
Listen to the sermon audio here, or read (approximately) the manuscript below:
One of the most familiar verses in the entire Bible is in that passage we just heard: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” It’s the verse that shows up on shirts and mugs and gospel tract booklets. It gets waved around on signs at football games, and sometimes even written in Tim Tebow’s eye black. It has become a sort of identifying mark for Christians.
But I can’t help but wonder how much violence, heartbreak, rejection, and loss of faith could have been prevented if we kept on reading to the next verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” If we focused less on the part about “believe or perish!” and more on the part about how much God loved the whole world – the cosmos, the everything, every single one of us and every tiny part of creation – and if we paid close attention to the total lack of condemnation in the purpose of Christ, if we marked ourselves with John 3:17 instead of 3:16, well, what a drastically different identity we might have. We could wear on our faces a verse that told the world that every single one of them is worthy of love, and is in fact already so incredibly loved, by a God who came right into the world and into our human form to show us that there are no limitations to that love.
Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who studies human connection, and my message today is heavily indebted to her work, especially to her book Daring Greatly. In her 2010 TED talk on the power of vulnerability, she spoke about the conclusions of lengthy research she had done on people’s feelings of connection or disconnection, belonging and exclusion. The only difference she found between people who felt deeply loved and accepted, and people who did not, is that the people who felt loved and accepted believed they were worthy of love and acceptance.
Those who did not believe they were worthy of love and acceptance felt a deep sense of shame and fear about their own vulnerability. They believed that allowing others to see their weakness would make them less lovable, that they would become more the outsiders that they already perceived themselves to be.
Those who believed they were worthy of love and acceptance, however, saw vulnerability as a difficult but necessary part of life. The willingness to show sadness or anger or uncertainty, to ask for help, to say “I love you” first, to risk failure or rejection, to allow yourself to be truly seen, are all crucial to experiencing joy and love and belonging. Through the thousands upon thousands of stories she collected, it became clear to Brene Brown that people who solidly felt that they were loved by and strongly connected to others also knew that their frailties, faults, and needs were not obstacles to being loved; they were the very things that made them lovable.
She points out in this same TED talk that people tend to try to numb out what they think are negative emotions with unhealthy habits. As she puts it, “I don’t want to feel sadness so I’ll have a few beers and a banana nut muffin.” The problem with this is that you can’t just selectively numb out one emotion. When you shoot an anesthetic into your mouth for a dental procedure, it doesn’t just numb that one tooth; it numbs your the whole side of your mouth and leaves you drooling and dribbling. When you numb one emotion, you numb them all. So when you numb your feeling of shame or fear, you also numb your ability to feel joy.
I would extend that to what you hide from other people. When you try to hide one part of yourself that you’re ashamed for others to see – when you mask your fear or insecurity or doubt or weakness – you also put up a barrier that keeps others from fully seeing what brings you joy and hope. You keep people from loving you, not because they don’t want to love you, but because they aren’t able to truly see you. You may have heard the expression, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” It’s not the bad thing people know about you that destroys you, it’s the thing that you hide, that stays within and eats you up from the inside out and keeps you from having the kind of support you need to get through it.
I’m going to let you in on a secret (this is not a secret at all). I do not enjoy having weaknesses. It’s not just that I don’t want people to know about them, it’s that I just don’t want to acknowledge that I have limitations at all. If you take all these things about me – overfunctioning oldest child, type A, enneagram 8, perfectionist pastor – you can just roll them all up into a big ball of “Weakness? What weakness?” So I have by and large always believed I could and should be respected. But respect is different from love, and for many years it was hard for me to wrap my head around what it would mean to feel loved. I didn’t feel unloved, and I’ve always had good relationships with my family and lots of friends, but I realize now that I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I expected connection to be temporary and for people to walk away if I became too difficult. So kept myself socially and geographically mobile instead, because if I got too attached, if I got used to needing someone, if I let too much of myself be seen, I might find out that they didn’t actually love me after all.
So, that took some therapy. But it also took some people who were willing to be there as I took my first stumbling steps into vulnerability, who could gently shake their heads at me and tell me, “We don’t love you because you’re an awesome wall of strength who has no needs. We love you because you’re you – because you’re a wall of strength and a sobbing puddle, sometimes on the same day, and because you’re fiercely loyal and will always have my back but also because you’re too blunt and always kind of angry and can’t keep your feelings off your face, and because you’re smart and funny but also because you’re too intense and occasionally incapable of having conversations on a normal level and weirdly terrible at smalltalk for an extrovert, and you hate patriarchy but love the Bachelor. And all of that is you, and it’s all worthy of loved, and it is all loved.”
Gradually I learned that it was only by letting my true self be exposed that I would ever really be loved – not because people didn’t want to love me, but because it’s impossible to love what you do not know. Opening up the parts of yourself that you think are most unlovable, shining a light into the shadows and dark corners of your life and allowing others to see you fully, is paradoxically the very thing that frees you from the shame of your secrets and makes you lovable.
Further on in John 3, down in verse 19, it says that “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” The author of John is concerned with strongly contrasting categories, so he writes about darkness and light, evil and good, but I’m going to ease up here on the “evil” language, because I think it allows us to distance ourselves from it. Even our deepest secrets and shame aren’t necessarily about things we would consider to be “evil.” They’re mistakes we’ve made, or people we’ve hurt, or lies we’ve told, or truths we haven’t told. They’re fears we worry will make people think we’re silly, or things we think we should be able to do on our own but can’t.
John says that “people loved darkness.” We love to try to hide the things we think are shameful. We hide them from God. We hide them from people. We even try to hide them from ourselves. “But those who do what is true come to the light.” Note that it doesn’t say “those who do what is perfect come to the light,” or even “those who have always done good come to the light.” It says, “those who do what is true.” Doing what is true is coming to the light, allowing the truth to be exposed, allowing yourself to be seen in full.
That can be terrifying. What if other people don’t like what they see when we’re fully exposed? What if God doesn’t like what is there to see? Will we still be lovable when it’s all out there in the light?
But this is why all of this talk of darkness and light, condemnation and salvation, death and life are set in the context of John 3, verse 16 yes, but also verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The key here is that we are already worthy of love and acceptance, not because we’re perfect, but simply because God loves us. As much as we may try to cloak ourselves in shadow, the truth is that we are already bathed in light. We are already embraced by this all-encompassing love that exposes us for all that we are, and knowing us fully, cannot bear for us to be condemned – even condemned by our own shame. And that love invites us to let the light shine into all areas of our lives, to let ourselves be seen, so that we may truly love and truly be loved. So that we may know that we belong.