Disowning Disgrace

Disgrace. We often reserve the word to describe the painful public shaming that so often follows epic leadership fails. But disgrace can also haunt us privately in the shadow of our regrets. As leaders, disgrace often conceals itself behind seemingly benign rehashes of If onlyWhat was I thinking…Why didn’t I…I could haveI should have. Whether publicly conferred or privately imagined, disgrace is abusive.

A few weeks ago, we honored Jesus’ birth. Not long from now, we will honor His resurrection. Both Christmas and Easter celebrate God’s grace. And here, between the cradle and the cross, I have been thinking about how prominently dis-grace was featured in the narrative of the birth of grace.

Before grace was incarnate via Jesus in a stable,
two women chose to disown disgrace in their lives.

Disowning disgrace is embedded in the very roots of the Christmas story. (Perhaps it is in the making of all of our stories.) It was certainly in the telling of Mary and Elizabeth’s stories.

Gabriel’s final words to Mary were, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1.38)

When the angel left, Mary packed her bags and journeyed more than ninety miles from Nazareth to Ein Kerem, the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist.

Please picture this: a young girl leaves home in a hurry, travels a week cross-country (alone?) to spend three months with an elderly cousin, and returns home visibly pregnant. If Joseph, her betrothed, initially presumed her unfaithfulness (Mt 1:19), odds are the townspeople did as well.

If so, her departure may have cleared his name
but it would not have cleared her reputation.
Mary returned to disgrace.

Though Mary made the risky journey to be in the company of those who believed in miracles, Mary may also have learned a thing or two about disowning disgrace from Elizabeth. Elizabeth had lived with disgrace for decades. She was a barren woman in an age that viewed barrenness as a curse.

My womb is also barren.
Life has never grown there.
Adoption was my miracle.

And though I am grateful to live in a culture that no longer views infertility as a spiritual condition or even an exclusively female condition, I still feel pain for Elizabeth. How cruel to interpret a woman’s status with God via the state of her womb.

The fact that Elizabeth lived with disgrace saddens me. But the fact that she owned the disgrace grieves me. While pregnant, Elizabeth said, “[The Lord has] taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25). She called the disgrace hers, which means that somehow, somewhere, for some reason, Elizabeth had decided to own it.

Almost two thousand years later, we know that it was unnecessary and even unreasonable for Elizabeth to own such disgrace. Statistically, there is close to a 50% chance that the problem lay with Zechariah. And even if the infertility was related to Elizabeth’s biology, it was not her fault, for fault implies choice, and clearly she did not choose to be barren.

But unearned disgrace is not sourced in reason: it is sourced in perception.
Disgrace is a public or private form of shaming.
It is the removal of, not the mere absence of, grace.

Elizabeth felt culturally disgraced by her personal barrenness. She could not distance herself from—refuse to take unearned responsibility for—the public dissing of grace in her life. Evidently, disgrace bows neither to reason nor statistics. But there is one action and one substance to which it must bow: the acceptance of God’s favor.  

What cancelled Elizabeth’s unearned disgrace was her personalization of God’s unearned favor: “The Lord has done this for me. In these days He has shown His favor” (Luke 1:25). This certainty that God worked in her, for her, and caused His favor to rest upon her, was the antidote to Elizabeth’s disgrace.  

I wonder how often we, like Elizabeth, own unearned disgrace?

- Do we doubt our calling when misunderstanding maligns our service?
- Do we feel shame when something reminds us of our forgiven past?
- Do we feel responsible when someone assumes too much of the story and, consequently, thinks too little of us?
- Do we wince when our learning as leaders occurs in public, wishing we could somehow begin the way we hope to end?

Here, at the very roots of the Christmas story, two women disowned disgrace. Neither public nor private shaming had power over Elizabeth’s soul any longer. God had taken disgrace away by the higher power of His favor. And regardless of the cultural shaming that may have threatened Mary’s joy, she held tightly to the words of an angel who twice called her “highly favored” (Luke 1.28, 30) and the words of a mentor who twice called her “blessed” (Luke 1:42, 45).

Today, as our memories of Christmas soften and our anticipation of Easter strengthens, may we too disown disgrace.  As a community of leaders, let us follow the examples of Elizabeth and Mary by personalizing God’s love, and the favor Jesus secured for us via His journey from the cradle to the cross and beyond!   

Alicia Britt Chole

Dr. Alicia Britt Chole is a speaker, author, and the founding director of Leadershipii, a soul-care non-profit. Her most recent book, 40 Days of Decrease, is about thinning heart-clutter to increase our view of Jesus. Connect with Alicia on Twitter @aliciachole or her website.

Join the discussion

Inga W. March 25, 2016 at 8:49pm

Alicia, Thank you so much for you thoughts. What you wrote in your last post applies to those of us suffering from chronical diseases too.

Alicia Britt Chole March 1, 2016 at 6:40am

Irene: Well said. In one of my recent books I speak of how clumsy we, as the Church, are with unfulfilled dreams. I remember all the dear souls who tried to "fix" my barrenness (with everything from aloe vera to raspberry tea and faith pep talks) and all the well-meaning but skeptical souls who wondered if I had "chosen" barrenness. God help us to not assume we understand the "why" behind people's stories. With what we still feel, I can't imagine the pain of living in a day when barrenness was viewed as an external symptom with some internal disobedience. We still have a long way to go but I'm grateful for how far we've come.

Jennifer and Barbara: thank you both for your encouragement!

Alicia Britt Chole March 1, 2016 at 6:39am

Jodi: Thank you for your heart-felt processing of the article!

Alicia Britt Chole March 1, 2016 at 6:39am

Kathyn: Great question! Thank you for asking it. I think you're referring to this paragraph?

"And though I am grateful to live in a culture that no longer views infertility as a spiritual condition or even an exclusively female condition, I still feel pain for Elizabeth. How cruel to interpret a woman’s status with God via the state of her womb."

If not, please feel free to ask again! If so here's my response: Our culture no longer en masse views barrenness as a spiritual condition. In other words, when a barren woman visits a fertility specialist, she is not asked about her relationship with God. :-) But Elizabeth's culture was quite different. Through the decades, Elizabeth no doubt worked very diligently to keep her ache uninfected in a culture that assumed there was "more to the story...otherwise God would open her womb." The Scriptures describe Elizabeth as "righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly." (Luke 1:6) All life is spiritual, but barrenness was not a spiritual consequence for any lack in Elizabeth's life. Thank you for reading and taking the time to ask!

Melanie February 24, 2016 at 3:18pm

Loved this article - had never thought of God Grace from the perspective of disgrace before... Thanks heaps...

Barbara February 24, 2016 at 7:57am

Such an amazing article--thank you!

Jennifer February 22, 2016 at 5:46am

This is just so meditative and i will feed on it for a while thanks for writing. Amen and Selah-.

Irene February 21, 2016 at 8:51pm

Thank you for posting this uniquely written blog. The question still remains, Is barrenness no longer something that 21st century society deems as shameful? I am a barren woman. Although I have had tremendous support from my church family and friends, there is always an underlying current in the way people "look" at you when you say you were unable to have a child. Many people even go way beyond this, to push into your private world for a view of why you are "different." Although, the shame is not publicly known or spoken about in our current age. There is still an underlying "attitude" of separation that occurs for women such as myself. With this said, there is great healing that only our Lord Jesus Christ provides in this. I truly feel and know first hand that this issue still remains an unchecked and possibly "silent" issue of our time.

Jodi February 21, 2016 at 9:39am

This struck a deep cord within me that i hadn't realised was there. My internal disgrace is still mich more active than I was conscious of. This coincided perfectly with the Scriptures in my devotional this morning and I recognised again how much more easy I find it to forgive others than myself. Thanks for your words today.

Kathryn February 21, 2016 at 2:32am

Would you kindly explain your comment that barrenness is not a spiritual condition, in consideration of biblical literature that states the Lord opened/closed the wombs of Leah, Rachel, and Hannah.