Back in 1974, Ray Stevens released a popular song titled “The Streak” about a guy running around town naked. At the time, as a 6-year-old kid, I thought it was just the funniest thing – and so apparently did millions of other people, putting it at # 8 for the whole year on the Billboard charts (weird…yeah, I know).
I guess the idea of people running around in the buff in public just made us all snicker.
Modesty is such a weird thing for us humans, especially in Western culture. With debates about public breastfeeding and yoga pants juxtaposed against Victoria’s Secret signs and popular TV programs that show a lot of skin, it is clear we don’t have any real consensus on exactly what is “too much.”
But it gets even weirder when I tell you this:
We’re all supposed to be naked.
It’s even scriptural.
Now don’t be jumping to conclusions here and think I’m advocating we all start trotting around in the literal footsteps of Ray Stevens’ song. I’m not.
But it’s right there in the Bible and is something that even the most prudish followers know but don’t care to admit.
Most of us, of course, are very familiar with the story of Adam and Eve and their temptation in the garden. Just prior to their eating the forbidden fruit, scripture tells us this:
“And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:25*).
Imagine that. That means they went traipsing around the garden with no concept they had parts that should even be considered “private.” Had humankind remained in that state, Ray Stevens’ song would have been a total flop because there would have been nothing silly about it.
But, of course, things changed. After they disobeyed God, the text says:
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Gen 3:7).
They were ashamed.
Shame. One of the most damaging aspects to any relationship. Things were never again the same as Adam blamed Eve and both of them hid from God.
Humankind was made to be in the image of God, but in that moment, they became ashamed of their God-designed bodies because they had failed to “image” God.
But it was more than just bodily nakedness. As “shame expert” Brene’ Brown so eloquently points out, at the root of shame is the fear of being vulnerable.
And, of course, symbolically we are never more vulnerable than when we stand naked before others, every part of us exposed for all to see.
Shame was never something we were supposed to feel. It was not even something God put upon us.
I’ve shared before that God has unconditional favor toward us – not toward every action but toward us as his children.
As God so bluntly asked, after finding Adam and Eve hiding and afraid, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Translation: “It wasn’t me who told you that you were naked or should be ashamed”).
In other words, we should still be naked.
But what’s unique is how God responded after that. He didn’t shout out in a southern accent, “ADAM AARON EDEN AND EVE ELIZABETH EDEN, GET YOUR CLOTHES BACK OFF!”
He didn’t shame them for their shame.
God knew that from this point on people would always struggle with shame (and, thus, the warning about eating from the tree in the first place). He knew simply ordering them to “Just stop feeling shame!” wasn’t going to be an effective tool.
Adam and Eve had already inadequately attempted to cover their own shame by making clothes out of leaves. It obviously wasn’t sufficient, as they still felt naked and hid among the trees. Instead “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen 3:22).
God’s desire to be in relationship with people and for them to be in relationship with each other was so strong that he was willing to do whatever it took to keep them from hiding. Thus, he met them where they were at and simply did it better.
This does not mean this is the ideal for us. The ideal for us would be to have never disobeyed God in the first place.
This does not mean we should continue to hide ourselves in shame. The ideal for us would be to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
God desires for us to know his unconditional favor and never feel the need to hide our nakedness to begin with. God desires for us to show the same unconditional favor toward others and, thus, allow each other the safety of not fearing “exposure.”
What this means is that our desire and need for clothing is a symptom of our condition and not the ultimate solution.
Again, I am not proposing we go out and break public decency laws or start Christian nudist camps. Furthermore, an argument can be made that clothing offers us a degree of protection from the elements now that we no longer live in the safety of the “garden.”
I’m simply advocating an awareness of the way things were meant to be.
After all, every one of us is really just naked underneath our clothing.
So what does this have to do with religion?
Flash-forward a little to Adam and Eve’s kids. As the story goes, Cain and Abel each brought offerings to God. God had special regard for Abel’s offering but not for Cain’s. Cain got jealous and ended up killing his brother. Wow, that escalated quickly.
But it does seem a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Why would God tell them to bring offerings to him and then pick favorites?
Here’s the deal, though: nowhere in scripture did God ever tell them to bring him offerings or sacrifices. You won’t find it. It’s not there.
What it does tell us is that Abel brought the “firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” – he brought the best of the best. For Cain, there’s no such indication other than that it was from the “fruit of the ground” he worked.
So why bring offerings or sacrifices if God didn’t ask for it? It’s not just Cain and Abel. Human beings since their early beginnings, in a majority of religions, have brought some type of sacrifices to their various deities. Some have been extreme such as child sacrifice. But why?
People are prone to gift giving. It’s part of our nature, and there are two main reasons for giving gifts: one is to simply show love or favor (e.g. when you give a friend or relative a gift, just to let them know you are thinking of them); the second is to bribe or appease (e.g. when you are in the doghouse with your wife and you give her flowers to make things better – not that I’ve ever done that, ahem). The former is simply “imaging” the love relationship of God. The latter goes back to shame.
People have never gotten over their shame and have been trying to appease their god or gods ever since.
But how did ancient people give gifts to a god who existed in the invisible spirit world or “in the air?” They brought whatever they possessed (usually livestock or crops) and burned it so that it would be consumed into the air.
By giving from the best of the best of his possessions, Abel demonstrated the first type of giving – wanting to show favor to God. Although God never asked for it, he was pleased with it because of Abel’s attitude.
Cain, on the other hand, tried to get away with the bare minimum necessary to “appease” God. By his jealousy, he demonstrated that he was doing it just to get something out of it. He failed to understand that God already unconditionally favored him and continued to live in the shame his parents felt. Therefore, God was displeased – not with him but with his heart.
This was the beginning of religion.
It was the beginning of humankind’s continual acts of sacrifice in order to regain God’s favor that it never actually lost.
And it was the continuation of people’s attempts to clothe themselves in self-righteousness and to cover up the vulnerabilities that they felt.
Sadly, it is often the very attempts to cover up shame that often results in even more shame.
Thus, religion was never originally called for by God and, in this particular case, literally resulted in death.
As God declared, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6).
But if God did not desire religion or sacrifice, then why are there so many examples in the Bible of him giving explicit directions for offerings and sacraments?
Because, like with clothing, he simply met people where they were at and made it better.
He knew their propensity for religion and redirected it in a better way.
An investigation of all the scriptures will show that while other surrounding cultures made sacrifices to a chaotic world of multiple gods, the Jewish god known as the I Am always directed people to focus on the only true God.
While other religions offered human sacrifice, the I Am redirected them toward animal and crop sacrifice.
While others sacrificed in order to appease their angry gods or get something from them (rain, prosperity, etc), the I Am led his people to “sin” and “guilt” offerings so that they would be released from the burden of shame.
While others focused on worshipping idols, the I Am’s ordinances always reminded them that he could not be contained.
While other cultures often engaged in self-destructive lusts of the flesh (including the employment of temple prostitutes), the I Am directed his people to a life of purity, health and holiness.
But when even that never fully overcame humankind’s “religious” spirit…when leaders such as the Pharisees seemed to just pile religion upon religion, adding rules of appeasement that God never gave…the I Am offered up one final sacrifice – the sacrifice to end all sacrifices and to abolish religion.
He offered up…himself.
There the most powerful force in the universe hung in human form…naked and vulnerable on a cross for all to see…
…the firstborn, the best of the best who had never done anything wrong, given as a “sin offering” so that anyone who looked to him would know his unconditional favor and never have to feel the burden of shame again.
It was the ultimate gift of favor given our way – offered so that our relationship with God and each other could be restored to the way things were supposed to be.
There was never supposed to be religion.
There was never supposed to be sacrifices or offerings.
There was never supposed to be different churches, beliefs, or denominations.
There was never supposed to be “Christians” versus “non-Christians” or “saved” and “unsaved.”
There was never supposed to be sermons, specific worship hours, or “Wednesday night” services.
There was never supposed to be evangelism crusades or times when you’d come to the altar.
There was never supposed to be Bible Studies, or even a Bible to better get to know him.
There was never supposed to be miraculous healings or weird “Holy Spirit moments” versus average normal days.
There was never supposed to be sacred versus secular or discussions about “separation of church and state.”
There was only supposed to be us in loving relationship with God and with each other. That’s it.
As Jesus himself said, ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37-40)
Now, just as I’m not advocating we all run around naked, I’m also not advocating we stop reading our Bibles, having worship times or meeting in churches.
As the author of Hebrews says, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another…” (Heb 10:25a, NLT).
Nor am I stating that people called into ministry don’t play a valuable role.
But it is a reminder that our need for religion is a symptom and not the ultimate solution.
Meeting in churches and practicing sacraments can be good as long as we do not use them to cover ourselves in self-righteousness and hide. They should never be the end game but rather a means toward the greater goal – relationship.
And part of that relationship means casting aside all shame and allowing ourselves the freedom to be vulnerable before God and with each other.
After all, every one of us is really just naked underneath our religion.
*All scripture references are ESV unless otherwise noted.