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Leffler: The Father’s love for us is what defines us

Last year I made my first trip to the Holy Land. By the end of this transformative pilgrimage, I was surprised that my favorite place was a little spot next to the Sea of Galilee commemorating “The Primacy of Peter.”

At first, I couldn’t think of what happened in this spot, but eventually it dawned on me. This was where the resurrected Jesus found Peter, made him breakfast, and asked him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” The three heartfelt responses of Peter, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you,” atoned for the three times that Peter denied even knowing Jesus just days before. With a heart so full of love for Jesus in this little moment after breakfast, what could have caused such a weak and sinful moment for Peter on the night before Jesus died? 

Of the many thoughts and feelings running through Peter’s soul that night, I can imagine that the feeling of shame, and its associated thoughts, got the best of him. He was ashamed to admit that he was a disciple of the arrested man, ashamed to call the convicted criminal his friend, ashamed to say that he had even heard of Jesus. The enemy had used shame to grip Peter’s heart in such an intense and emotional moment.

In “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Christian psychologist and shame researcher Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame only gets it half right. It’s true we are flawed, and that reality is sometimes painful in itself. But it is an absolute lie that my flaws make me unworthy of love and belonging. 

Shame is the Enemy’s playground. When we go about our day believing that we are unworthy of love, unworthy of belonging, a total failure, never going to be good enough (or fill in the blank before “enough”), the Enemy pulls us so far away from our true identity that we’ll do something as silly as denying Jesus, or worse. 

This is much different from guilt. Guilt says, “I did bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.” Shame attacks us at the core, at our identity. Each time we recite the Penitential Act at the beginning of Mass, each time we go to confession, we acknowledge our guilt, that we have done wrong. But we must resist shame’s lie that our sin is our identity. Our sin is not our identity. 

So what is my identity? St. John Paul II said at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” Our sin doesn’t get to define us. What defines us is that we have been made in the very image and likeness of God. We have been purchased at a price. We have been chosen and redeemed by Jesus. We have been made beloved daughters and sons of the Father. This is what we claim as our deepest identity!

Throughout this Lent, the Lord will convict us, in his love and mercy, of our sins. But the Lord will also labor to deliver us from shame, from any false identities that drag us down. Even after we’ve sinned, the Lord comes to our little Galilee to find us again, calling you and me by name, inviting us to come closer to him asking, “Do you love me?” Freed from sin and shame, let us respond with loving trust, “Yes Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Father Taylor Leffler is associate pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha.

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