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How the Gospel Heals Shame


by Benjamin Morrison

How the Gospel Heals Shame

Shame is an experience common to every person on the planet.  Charles Darwin, in classic materialist fashion, defined shame primarily in terms of its physical expression: casting the eyes downward, lowering the head, blushing and a slack posture.  No matter what culture a person is from, these are universally accepted signs of this universally experienced condition.  To clarify what we’re talking about, it's helpful to differentiate between shame and guilt.  The difference has been stated very well in the following way: “guilt is a sense that my actions are wrong.  Shame is a sense that I am wrong.”  It’s interesting that even when a person denies guilt over certain actions, the sense of shame is much harder to escape.  A person might completely deny the existence of “moral standards”, and yet they may still go through life with a sense that “I’m not right”.  

Where does shame come from?

The theme of shame runs throughout the whole Bible.  We see it from the very beginning.  In the garden of Eden, God created Adam and Eve.  Gen. 2:25 says that they were both “naked and unashamed”.  But in chapter 3 they fall into sin, disobey God and, all of a sudden, there is a change.  The very first result we read of after they eat the forbidden fruit is that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. ” 

The very first result from sin mentioned in the Bible is shame.  It was the direct result of sin.  It wasn’t just that they thought their action was wrong.  They thought that they were wrong and had to hide themselves, so they sewed coverings.  When God calls to Adam, Adam says, “I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”  They didn’t just wipe their mouths from the juice of the forbidden fruit to hide their action.  They tried to hide themselves.  This is shame, not just guilt.  Shame is the fear that "someone will see me as I really am and reject me because I am disgusting".  They realized that now, in a real sense, they themselves were not right.  And their immediate reaction was to create a covering, a way to hide their own shame.  Think about it: was there anything sinful in the fact that they were naked?  Just Adam and Eve were there, a man and his wife.  No!  The problem was not their nakedness.  But their shame caused them to try and hide themselves.  The act of covering oneself as an expression of shame is well known to all of us, even when that shame has nothing to do with a directly physical cause.

The picture of nakedness as an illustration of shame continues throughout Scripture.   This is essentially something we associate with nakedness anyway.  Almost everyone has had the nightmare where you show up to school and you forgot to put on clothes and you're standing there in your underwear or naked and everyone is laughing and you’re just dying of shame.  Even if you haven't had that dream, the concept is so ubiquitous that you're sure to have seen it in a movie or two.  But along with this picture of nakedness as shame in Scripture, clothing one’s nakedness is a picture of the covering of shame. 

Trying to heal our own shame

Now, in the sense that we’re fallen, sinful people, shame is appropriate. *  We should have a sense that we aren’t as we should be, because we aren’t as we should be!  We were not created to exist in a condition of sin and alienation from God!  But at the same time, it’s impossible to constantly live in shame.  It will lead us to despair and depression.  In fact, in some cases, the horrifying, conscious realization of shame is so strong that it can push a person to suicide.  And so we attempt to “heal” our shame in one of 2 ways:

1) We sew fig leaves for ourselves.  That is, we attempt to hide our shame under that which we’ve made with our own hands.  Even if we refuse to admit guilt over a specific action, if we try to justify it or even if a person denies the existence of moral standards, we still go about life trying to cover our shame through our works and accomplishments.  We attempt to cover who we are with what we do.  That might be with accomplishments in business or wealth, perhaps in popularity or relationships or sex, or even in religious accomplishment and devotion.  We feel that we are wrong on some level and attempt to cover that with the work of our hands.  Only it doesn’t work.  

Think about the story in Eden.  If the fig leaves had really covered their shame, why did Adam and Eve hide in the bushes after they had made themselves a covering?  It becomes obvious that, although they attempted to deal with their own shame through their accomplishments, it didn’t work.  If it did they would’ve been standing in the middle of the garden in confidence.  See, whichever accomplishments we try to heal our shame with, they will never work.  We will only make matters worse.  There are 2 (at least) major down sides to making your underwear out of fig leaves.  First, it's a very temporary solution.  The fig leaves would quickly wither and Adam and Eve would constantly have to be renewing the fig leaves.  Secondly, if you’ve ever felt a fig leaf, you know that they feel like sandpaper.  There's a mental picture for you: sandpaper undies.  Do you think that was comfortable?  No.  They weren’t made for a covering! 

When a person attempts to cover their inherent sense of shame, their “I’m not right” with any accomplishment, first, it doesn’t last for long.  That temporary sense of relief from shame will soon disappear, like all fig leaves, and you’ll have to find another covering.  That’s why a person who uses, say, material goods to mask his shame has to keep getting more.  The old leaves fade.  That’s why a person who uses romantic relationships to mask their shame has to keep getting more, changing partners, etc.  Second, whatever you’ve made your “covering” from shame will begin to irritate you and you’ll hate it in the end, cause it wasn’t made to cover your shame!  That’s why people who try to use their families to cover their sense of shame end up leaving their families, or crush them under heavy demands and resentment.  That’s why people who use religious duty to cover shame often harbor a mild contempt for God and are very irritable.  Whatever you are trying to cover your shame with today, whatever you’re using to mask sense that you’re “not right”, be sure that it won’t last and you’ll hate it in the end.

2) The second approach is to pretend you aren't naked. To deal with shame, some try to simply deny the existence of shame, to boast in their wrongness.  But the fact of the matter is, even people who theoretically deny a sense of shame will still ultimately act out of it.  You might pretend you're not naked, but if you go outside in the winter, you're going realize it.  One interesting example in our culture here in Ukraine is «civil (common-law) marriage».  People will say that there's nothing shameful about living together and having sex outside of marriage.  And yet they'll most often call the person they're in fornication with «husband/wife».  Why do that?  If it's really not shameful, why are people attempting to cover it up under the name of marriage?  The truth is we can deny shame all we want, but it will still be there and we'll still act out of it.

True healing from shame

So here's the question:  how can shame be healed?  How can we get rid of that sense that “I am wrong”?  If we can't cover it over with our own accomplishments and we can't effectively pretend that shame doesn't exist, are we doomed to remain in that sense of shame forever?  No!

Now we look at the healing of shame.  Let’s return to the story of Eden.  Adam and Eve had sewn their fig leaves to cover their shame.  But then God came and called them.  When Adam confessed to hiding because of the shame of his nakedness, God asks, “who told you that you were naked”?  “Did you eat the fruit ?”.  Once God had clearly convicted them of sin, pronounced the result of sin in the curse, and as Adam and Eve were leaving the garden, God sacrificed a lamb to make them a covering for their shame.  But here's what we maybe don't think about: in order to accept God's covering for shame, His healing of their shame, they had to take off their fig leaves.  They had to stand naked before Him in the reality of their shame, not hiding it, not denying it, but confessing their shame. Only then was God free to cover their shame for them. 

The fact is that a person can never cover their own shame, no matter what achievements they try to use.  That’s because the healing of shame takes place as much in the undressing as it does in the covering.  The healing of shame is in having someone see you in all your shame and, knowing you as you are, then cover your shame.  The healing takes place when God says “I see you as you are, your shame, and I will accept you and cover your shame.”  It’s not just the covering, but that He gave the covering, knowing what we were like without it.

Well, that’s a beautiful story for Adam and Eve, but are we so lucky as to have God offer us the healing of our shame?  YES!  The other condition we need to notice in that story is that for Adam and Eve’s shame to be covered, the lamb had to lose its covering, have it’s skin ripped off.  It had to die.  Of course, some animal could not truly heal the deep shame of fallen sinners.  It was a promise that one day the Lamb of God, Jesus, would come to heal our shame.  His skin was flayed off with a roman whip.  He hung completely naked, bearing our shame, before the crowd that ridiculed Him.  He lost the covering of His honor and blessing and was rejected by the Father on the Cross.  That was the price of our shame.  But in doing so, He gives us His covering: the rich robes of His righteousness.

If we will take off our fig leaves before God, stand spiritually naked before him admitting that we are “not right”, open our shame to Him, not hide or deny it, then He will cover us with the very righteousness of Jesus, the Lamb of God.  He will see who we are and accept us and cover us anyway.  And in that we will find the true healing of our shame.  He will declare, “You are right”. 

This is what it means to be "righteous": right before God. This is why the Bible can boldly promise, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” (Rom. 10:11)  It is with this sacrifice of the Lamb of God in mind that Isaiah prophetically writes in chapter 61, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. ”  Here we also see the hint that we are not dressed in just any clothes, not even in His righteousness in a generic sense, but that the robes of salvation are a wedding dress.  In Revelation 19 at the return of Christ we see the Church, those who have received Christ, and it says, “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.”  Christ doesn’t merely heal our shame but clothes us as His bride in His righteousness.  Shame is the fear that someone will see me as I really am and reject me because I'm disgusting. The gospel is the assurance that God sees us as we are and accepts us anyway because He is beautiful.  The Gospel heals shame.

* There is an "illegitimate shame" which is the result not of our sin, but of others' sins against us, be that mockery or physical/sexual abuse, etc. This shame is not something that is our "fault", and yet we still need to see that it is in Christ that this kind of shame is also healed.

This post is an excerpt of the sermon from 1 Cor. 13:7a, "how love heals shame". The audio is available in Russian here.