In a recent article entitled, Shame Storm, a writer chronicles how true and false accusations of wrong doing combined with the internet and social media have mixed together to create storms of shame: One person commented on a situation, “I think nobody has quite figured out what should happen in cases like his, where you have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion, and how far that should go, how long that should last.” The author continues: “No one has yet figured out what rules should govern the new frontiers of public shaming that the Internet has opened… Shame is now both global and permanent, to a degree unprecedented in human history. No more moving to the next town to escape your bad name. However far you go and however long you wait, your disgrace is only ever a Google search away.”
We live in a world that has become shameful– literally, we have done shameful things, we feel shame, we are afraid of being exposed, and we are frequently driven by avoidance of shame. But the Bible speaks to this situation, and the gospel is good news and good courage for this.
Shame first enters the world in the Garden of Eden in the sin of our first parents: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons… And [Adam] said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:7, 10). Shame is the feeling or fact of exposure – the visceral, frequently physical sense of disgrace, defilement, dishonor, humiliation, or embarrassment. If guilt is the objective fact of wrong doing, shame is the subjective feeling and the public exposure of that fact. When Aaron led Israel to worship the golden calf, they did so naked to their great shame (Ex. 32:25). Shame is something that covers people like a garment or covers their face (Job 8:22, Ps. 35:26, 44:15, 69:7, 83:16). It’s a spoiled reputation, a despised status, blot, filth, a mark of folly that is seemingly impossible to remove. Think of Joseph not wanting to put Mary to open shame, supposing she had sinned to become pregnant with Jesus (Mt. 1:19). Shame is the private and public humiliation of being wrong, the removal of respect and glory (1 Cor. 11:6). And yet our texts say that we are to look unto Jesus, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:2). He endured such contradictions against Himself, that we are to remain resolute and confident (Heb. 12:3). We are to establish our hearts with grace, going to Jesus outside the gate, bearing His reproach (Heb. 13:9, 12-13).
The Grace of Shame
In the first instance, if we are to rightly despise the shame, we must welcome a certain sort of shame. How does Paul say that we are to establish our hearts with grace? Not by diverse and strange doctrines and not by eating meat (Heb. 13:9). What does he mean? He means that you cannot establish your hearts by doing respectable religious things – he’s talking specifically about priests and Jews trying to trick grace out of the sacrificial altar in Jerusalem after Jesus has come. Of course, at one time that altar did point to Jesus, our sacrifice for sin, but those sacrifices could never actually take away sin, and now that Jesus has come, turning back to the Old Covenant was worse than useless.
But the temptation here varies through the ages: it’s the temptation to respectability, various and strange and new doctrines and fads. The Jews had a nice building, formal sacrificial liturgies, and an inner circle inside the camp, inside the gate. The carcasses of the sacrificial animals were burned outside the camp (Heb. 13:11), and so that is where they also crucified Jesus, outside the gate (Heb. 13:12). And that is where God’s grace is found, outside the gate, where Jesus was nailed to a tree, hung up naked for all to see, mocked and jeered, until our sins were paid for, until God’s justice was completely finished. In the beginning, God killed animals and covered Adam and Eve’s shame, and in the fullness of time, God laid the wrath of His justice on His own Son and covered all of our shame forever. It is the grace of shame to cause us to know our sin, to know our nakedness, to drive us to the cross of Jesus, despising the shame of owning our sin.
I remember years ago when I was teaching, I called a parent to report something about their student. In the course of the conversation, I was not completely truthful, and when I hung up the phone, I knew immediately that I had lied and needed to put it right. I called back a second time, and proceeded to apologize for a good half of my lie. Upon hanging up a second time, I was thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed as I proceeded to call the parent for a third to finally tell the entire truth – and I’ve never done that again! Shame drives us to deal with our sin, but shame also teaches us to hate sin, to stay far away from sin. This is the graceof shame.
True and False Shame
But in a fallen world, rebellious sinners who refuse to repent of their sin must do something with their shame, and so they embrace it. They call evil good and good evil, and they glory in their shame (Is. 5:20, Phil. 3:19). They rejoice in their shame; they are shameless and proud of their shame. “Who leave the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness; who rejoice to do evil, and delight in the frowardness of the wicked” (Prov. 2:13-14). They are “raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame, wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 1:13). “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you” (1 Pet. 4:3-4).
The logical end game of refusing the message of true shame for sin is a complete reversal or inversion of glory and shame, calling good evil and evil good, to the point that you are evil for not joining in with them in their evil, for not rejoicing with them in evil. And the goal is to make you ashamed. The goal is to make you feel bad about confronting their sin, for not endorsing it. And so this is also what it means to “bear His reproach” outside the camp (Heb. 13:13). They falsely accused Jesus. They said He was a blasphemer and rabble-rouser and traitor. They condemned Him, crucified Him, speaking evil of Him. They sought to shame Him, and therefore they will seek to shame all who would follow Him (Jn. 15:18-19, 1 Jn. 3:13). This is what Peter and John faced when they were beaten and rebuked: “they departed from the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ” (Acts 5:41-42).
The first application is the straightforward invitation to have your shame covered by Jesus. And you must be entirely covered. When Jesus came to wash the feet of Peter, Peter was apparently embarrassed, ashamed to have the Lord wash his feet, but Jesus said to him: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me” (Jn. 13:8). And Peter immediately got the point and asked for the full bath. The same is true for our shame. Unless Jesus covers you, you have no part with Him. Jesus has white robes for everyone who comes to Him, but you must come (Rev. 3:18). This invitation is for all sinners and all sin, but it is particularly for the sins and filth that you think cannot be covered: the shame of sexual sin, the shame of abortion, the shame of divorce, the shame of wayward children, the shame of being fired from your job. He even covers the shame of things that are not necessarily our fault — not being married, not having children, not accomplishing the great things you said/thought you would. Take it to Jesus, He’s waiting outside the camp.
The second application is that whatever Jesus has covered with His blood and righteousness is utterly blameless, and you must not give a wit for the accusations of the Devil or the shame-weaponizing of the world (Col. 2:14-15, Heb. 2:14-15). When Peter and John rejoiced to suffer shame for the name of Jesus, they did not cease to preach and teach Jesus Christ. So too, when you are privileged to suffer shame for the name of Jesus, do not cease to walk with Jesus. Do not slow down. Do not hesitate. If you have been forgiven, then learn to teach transgressors the ways of God, so that sinners will be converted (Ps. 51:13). “And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed. And ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God, and none else: and my people shall never be ashamed” (Joel 2:26-27).
Do not grow weary, lay aside every weight, and fix your eyes on Jesus, who despised the shame for you.