Good Shame, Bad Shame, and Ugly Shame
Shame is a popular word today. Sometimes preachers like to substitute the word “sin” for “shame,” as if the antithesis to a whole and fulfilled life is a life free of shame. In this respect, such pastors do not sharply contrast with the rest of our world. If our culture is anything, it is on a mission to rid ourselves of shame. Of course, if you think the antithesis to a whole and fulfilled life is shame, this will shape how you go about seeking wholeness and fulfillment (and not at all in a good way). If shame is the primary problem, shamelessness is the solution. This is why our world is intent on ridding ourselves of all absolute standards of morality. The sexual revolution is nothing if not a grand attempt to whistle in the dark and wish our consciousness away. If shame often comes from the transgression of sin, there is nothing to do but rule sit out as a category. There are no taboos anymore. If someone else’s sexual sin causes you to have a reaction of disgust, we are told, that says more about you than it does them. There is no accident to the fact that the phrase “you do you” is often coupled with the phrase “no shame.” We vehemently hate the shame that accompanies knowledge of moral transgression, so we erase the idea of moral transgression. There is no nature nor command behind sexuality—it is what I want it to be.Christians should steer clear of this kind of wholesale antipathy for shame. Click To Tweet
Christians should steer clear of this kind of wholesale antipathy for shame. Shame is not our sworn enemy. Sometimes shame is useful. Some sins should cause us to have reactions of disgust! The Scriptures often appeal to shame at various points. Much of the time, shame is an indication of a conscience that still functions properly. It is often the rightful corresponding emotion to shameful acts.
Having said that, undue shame is a horrible thing. Shame that persists wrongly is not good. This would include, for example, shame for a sin that was committed against you. Victims often feel shame for sins that their oppressors should feel shame for. In such situations, shame is doubly perverted; where it should be absent in the psyche of the victim, it is overactive, and where it should be present with a vengeance in the psyche of the oppressor, it is altogether absent.I can tell you most assuredly that the cure is not a look inward—you keep looking inward and you will only find more reasons for more shame. Click To Tweet
Another kind of undue shame is that kind that hangs onto sins that have been truly confessed, repented of, and forgiven by Christ. This kind of shame, while it may feel pious, is actually dishonoring to Christ. It cheapens his blood and essentially says that Christ’s atonement is not sufficient—it needs to be supplemented with wallowing shame. So, the opposite of shame is not shamelessness; the opposite of shame is a humble gratitude for forgiveness. Now, it’s easy for me to say that in the abstract—“let go of the shame for the sins that Christ has atoned for and cleansed you of”—but practically, this is easier said than done.
I’ve recently read Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, for the very first time, and was reminded of the power of shame in a scene with the King of Denmark, Claudius. Now, I won’t give away too much, of the story but I will say that Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, and he was made King after conspiring against and murdering Hamlet’s father—the rightful King of Denmark. In one scene, Claudius is struck with the shame of his guilt and says this:
O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?
Claudius could not bring himself to pray because of the shame of guilt. He had committed the “primal eldest curse,” the same sin as Cain—the murder of a brother. And he asks, “What if this cursed hand Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood?” In other words, “What if there is more of my brother’s blood on my hand than there is my own flesh and bone?” In that case, is it even likely that heaven has enough rain to wash the guilt away? Have you ever felt paralyzed by the guilt of your sin like this? Have you ever been paralyzed by shame? What’s the cure?” Well I can tell you most assuredly that the cure is not a look inward—you keep looking inward and you will only find more reasons for more shame.
Worthy in Christ
The cure for this kind of paralyzing shame is not to search for how precious you are, it is to behold how precious Christ is, and what an unfathomable grace he has shown to bring about your reconciliation. If you are in Christ Jesus, you should remember that our Triune God did not wait for you to even realize your sin before acting on your behalf. Click To TweetThe cure for this kind of shame is to be reminded that Christ was not compelled to lay his life down for you by your beauty—you had none. It is not our intrinsic worth that is seen in the gospel—as if God simply could not be happy until we were restored to him in salvation. No, friends, it works the other way around. It’s not that Christ was compelled to pay such a price because we were so worthy, but rather, we are now made worthy because of the infinite price he paid to purchase us.
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:9-11).
If you are in Christ Jesus, you should remember that our Triune God did not wait for you to even realize your sin before acting on your behalf. You were at your lowest—your ugliest, and most shameful—when Christ came for you. He did not save you on your best day, but on your worst. God did not stand afar off, aloof, with his arms crossed, waiting for you to work up the courage to come and ask for forgiveness. As if to say, “You got a lot of nerve showing up here…” No, Christ came to you at your lowest and he positively transformed you from an enemy to a friend. The Father’s overflowing, gushing love for you he displayed when he sent his Son to win your reconciliation with his life, and purchase your reconciliation with his death—all while you were breathing out venom and hatred and rebellion towards him. That is news good enough to put undue shame to shame.