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  • Rev. Sandra Larson

Theological Perspectives: Jesus and Our Shadow


September 30, 2018 Sermon

Jesus and Our Shadow - Theological Perspectives Part III

Matthew 7:1-5 and Romans 7:14-20

George Furniss & Sandra Larson

Sandy: George, when you were a hospital chaplain, you spoke with many patients who said they were spiritual but not religious. What was a major objection they had toward the Christian faith?

George: Sandy, it was the hypocrisy. People who are “holier than thou” on Sunday and then “dog eat dog” on Monday. Sandy St. Paul said that Christians have a continual battle within, “I want to do good but I do evil.” We are saved sinners! George Jesus was most critical of the Pharisees, those Jews who were supposed to be paragons of virtue, model Presbyterians of their day--because of their HYPOCRISY. He called them “whited sepulchers,” beautiful on the outside but full of rot inside. Sandy Presbyterian worship includes a confession of sin; and our traditional theology stresses that we must continually acknowledge our sinfulness. The Westminster Confession that’s been a part of our church heritage since 1647 emphasizes human nature’s total depravity without Christ. Is admitting our sinfulness an outmoded practice?

George: No, but I disagree with Paul who said that it is no longer I who do evil but it is sin within me. That sounds like saying “the Devil made me do it.” I think Jesus had a different understanding. He says there are dark or negative impulses IN us—what Jesus calls the “log” that we must understand and deal with. His parables surprisingly value attributes that we would call sinful, like the shrewd although corrupt manager. Jesus called for us to develop a mature acceptance of our “dark” side. I hear Jesus saying that our darker impulses are an integral part of us and therefore must be constructively dealt with, not rejected as alien evil influence. When we don’t accept our inner darkness as a normal part of our lives, we repress it and it finds expression in harmful ways.

Sandy : Psychiatrist Carl Jung understood that people generally deny our own inner darkness. He called it our “shadow.”

George: Yes. Carl Jung used the analogy of a shadow to describe the unconscious negative side of our personality, our repressed darkness. Jung devoted his life to studying the unconscious part of people’s psyches, which primarily reveals itself through dreams and projections. One of my favorite books about authentic Christianity is hospital chaplain William Miller’s Make Friends with Your Shadow. Miller uses Jung’s understanding of our shadow side to show how embracing our inner darkness is a key to us finding wholeness and peace of mind.

Sandy: I am convinced of that, too, despite not wanting to accept it in myself. And I believe that God accepts us as we are but God won’t leave us there. Our confession of sin in worship causes us to remember that God wants to change us. This is a GIFT since people are dealing with sadness, depression, compulsions and addictions. We need to confess our failure to follow God’s way. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have to admit to disregarding God’s vision for us. George Our Reformed theology puts emphasis on the joy we are supposed to feel over our salvation through Christ from sin. We want joyful worship. Especially in North America, our sin-oriented and salvation-focused worship avoids addressing depression, compulsions and addictions. One theologian calls the United States “the officially optimistic society.” We therefore struggle to maintain a positive attitude that does not take all of reality into account. We try to deny our inner darkness—our shadow side. We tend to deny emotions such as pain, anger, anxiety and fear because we do not want to acknowledge darkness in our own subconscious.

Sandy: Churches try to inspire joy, rather than reinforce discouragement by focusing on our vulnerabilities or faults. Yet many people at least sometimes feel swamped by personal challenges, world events, toxic relationships or seemingly meaningless lives. What does Presbyterian theology offer to people who feel anxious or hopeless?

George: The Jewish roots of Christian tradition, recognize the power of lament as an essential part of faith. Laments intentionally name and face up to problems. A lament is not the same as nostalgia. Nostalgia is non-productive whining and wishing to return to an imagination-embellished past. Nostalgia is discouraging because “good old days” were not really as good as our memories reinvent them to be. The past offers lessons to be learned; but wistful yearning for the way we think it used to be will not bring about the hoped for glory of our reminiscence. In contrast to nostalgia, lament is proactive. Lament is complaint that demands response, like the in the parable of the persistent widow who kept demanding a rightful settlement from the unjust judge. Lament names a grievance and asks for rectification. Laments require first acknowledging our need. However, our society denies our own individual or collective neediness; we cling to the notion that we are a “great nation.” The book of Lamentations is not even a part of the standard lectionary scriptures—probably because our culture denies our own neediness. Those who designed the calendar for scripture readings believed that congregations do not want to hear the full-throated cries of pain and anguish, such as those in the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations honestly faces the suffering of Jews in ruined Jerusalem after its destruction by the Babylonian army and cries out for hope. The Bible records numerous laments. Many Psalms are potent laments that call God to respond. Most of the most powerful Psalms of lament are not included in our worship cycle, either.

Sandy: What do you see as consequences of failing to incorporate lament as part of our life and Christian faith?

George: Jesus talked about lament in our scripture today with the analogy of the log in our own eye: we focus on the faults of other people and deny our own. Psychologists see denying the log in our eye as representing projection or transference of wrong as a defense-mechanism. Popular wisdom claims that best defense is an offence. The log in our own psyches, our own darkness that we refuse to admit, is projected onto others. Or at least the focus on problems is shifted to someone else. Shifting blame preserves a false sense of ourselves as virtuous. Focusing blame on others also creates a façade of not seeming needy. With the log and speck analogy, Jesus warns his listeners to stop denying our own faults or brokenness.

Sandy: This sublimated shadow side of individuals affects group behavior, too. Jung realized that politics, international affairs, and relationships between faith groups, reflect the hostility of collective psychological projections. Jung was extremely concerned about the repercussions caused by Christians transferring their own unconscious dark shadows onto Muslims or Jews and vice versa. False blaming by individuals or groups causes an unsettled conscience in the people who do the blaming. Blaming often leads to escalating conflict.

George: For sure. Acknowledging our own faults builds a bridge to repair relationships. Jung believed that inner transformation, or making friends with our shadows, as William Miller put it, is a key to individual peace of mind and crucial to achieving national harmony and international peace. The Grimm Brothers told an enlightening tale about a princess who dropped her crystal ball into a deep well and a frog who recovered it for her. But the frog wouldn’t give the crystal ball back until she allowed him to go with her to the castle. She consented, but continually objected to his accompanying her wherever she went. Finally it was revealed that the frog was her prince charming and the couple lived happily ever after. In Jungian terms, the frog represented sublimated negative feelings that the princess had to accept in herself before she could find true happiness.

Sandy: Making friends with our inner “frogs” would seem to lead to the wholeness that Jesus promised us through our life journey. Ribbit. Ribbit. If we have a serious medical condition but do not admit it to our health practitioner, the doctor is unlikely to be able to treat our malady. Similarly, if we do not own up to our negative shadow side, God cannot readily free and heal us.

George: Lament, like we find in Psalms and the Book of Lamentations, is important to our faith health. We NEED to acknowledge our brokenness in order to ask for God’s healing power. Lament faces our shadow side or brokenness and asks for help.

Sandy: A fairly common view of Jesus is that he was without sin--all light and no darkness. How did Dr. Jung relate that understanding of Jesus to our tendencies to deny our shadow side?

George: Jung felt that understanding Jesus as “sinless” is an incomplete answer to human spiritual needs. He believed that a better symbol is the crucifixion of Jesus with two thieves on crosses next to him. For Jung, the thieves represent our psychological darkness. Jesus befriended and promised new life to the men sentenced to capital punishment. What a powerful assurance to us! When we embrace our whole self--BOTH our positive and negative sides--We open up to the promise of true hope and spiritual wholeness. In other words, we make friends with our shadows.

Sandy: If Jesus can love us—even with our shadow sides, then we can stop denying our true selves and we can love our whole selves… And we can better love one another. Thank you, George, for this perspective on our Christian hope in the midst of confusion and challenges today.


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