A few weeks back, I wrote about how Peter objected to having his feet washed by Jesus (John 13). Certainly one of the reasons Peter balks is the same reason most of us object to Jesus’ touch —shame. We don’t want someone else — least of all God — to “touch” our guilt. But as Jesus tells Peter, we must accept his “touch”— it is the only way we can have a part with him. We have to let him serve us, we have to let him wash us, because only he has the power to forgive sins, to heal wounds, to restore meaning and purpose, to make us clean.
Though we all experience shame, as counselors we are often called upon to help people who have experienced shame at a deeper level either due to sins committed against them or even by them. How we go about helping in these situations is important. Given how shame can cause people to shy away from going to Christ for healing, they may instead look to us to provide the comfort they seek. We need to guard against becoming a human substitute for divine love. It is disastrous to fashion messiahs out of others, even well-meaning counselors. However, in our concern to avoid this problem we can easily make matters worse when we stand back from involvement and use theological reasoning to “point” them to Christ, hoping it will be enough. It won’t.
So, what is really needed here? To help the shamed see and experience the grace of Christ and be changed by it, we must embody it ourselves, we must express Jesus’ love for them. Let’s look to his example for us.
On the night of Jesus’ arrest, during the last supper, he removes his outer garments, wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and washes the feet of each disciple, drying them with the towel But the real punch line of the passage follows as Jesus explains:
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:13-17).
“…you will be blessed if you do them.”
What does this mean for us as counselors? Here are a few implications.
First, we have a role to play in removing the shame of others, and it is not simply to point the shamed to Jesus, but to serve in the way he serves. He didn’t just tell the disciples about washing the feet of others, it wasn’t a sermon illustration – he did it himself. There is no substitute for that. We have to be willing to don the humility and posture of a servant, wrap a towel around our waists and kneel before the shamed, touching their feet, not with a scowl of resentment, not with upturned noses, but in love, touching and washing those who desperately need to know the love of Christ in the first person. Jesus gives us a kind warning here, pointing us to the danger of those who would consider themselves faithful students all too willing to talk about their teacher but unwilling to do what he has done.
Second, we should be careful not to rush the shamed through their stories. Jesus took the time to wash all the disciples’ feet. He didn’t rush. Our response isn’t simply a prelude to the work of Christ, but a critical part of it. Clearly our love and concern isn’t a substitute for the love of Christ, but as those united to him and one another, it is certainly a critical expression of it. Our loving response is concrete, immediate evidence of Christ’s compassion and care. When we rush people through their stories it can communicate that we are ashamed of what we are hearing, that we can’t bear having their feet in our face.
Finally, because we are offering Christ’s love and not simply our own, we should try to make this connection as naturally and clearly as possible. For example, as we express personal sorrow and compassion for the suffering of the shamed, we also offer the comfort of remembering with them that Jesus, too, has experienced the agonies of shame and suffering and the psalms ultimately give voice to his very own cries of “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Ps. 13:2). Or, for example, as we express genuine indignation and anger over the betrayals and abuses committed by those in power, we can remind the shamed that God, too, is angered by abusive shepherds, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ezek. 34:10a). Of course, there needs to be an artfulness to this or it will feel like we are switching gears when we move from our personal response to reflect on Jesus’ response. But the more we personally interact with Christ’s love as we find it in scripture, the more naturally and spontaneously we can share it with others.
How do point the shamed to Christ? We do it by following his lead — by humbly loving and serving the shamed — (dirty) feet first.