Big Idea: Our strategies for dealing with shame don’t work, so God has provided a solution for shame.
“Shame. Boatloads of shame. Day after day. More of the same. Blame. Please lift it off. Please take it off. Please make it stop.”
Those words are not just the lyrics to a famous Avett Brothers’ song. It’s part of our everyday experience. We all know what it’s like to feel shame, the feeling that we don’t measure up; that there’s something wrong and deficient in us that needs to be hidden.
We’ve all experienced it:
- When you show up underdressed for a party
- When you’re checking out and your debit card gets declined
- At a deeper level, when you’ve been the victim of abuse or mistreatment, or when the worst about us becomes known.
What exactly are we talking about?
The dictionary definition of shame goes something like this: Shame is the painful emotion caused by a consciousness of guilt or shortcoming or impropriety. It’s the condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.
Author and pastor Sammy Rhodes says:
Maybe the best way to describe shame is to think of it as the residue of sin, both our own, and that of others against us. One author describes shame as “the subjective experience of our objective guilt.” Both the guilt of what we’ve done (and left undone), as well as the guilt of what others have done (or left undone) to us. In this way, shame is like an onion. There are so many layers that when you begin to cut it open, it’s hard to tell where some begin and others end.
Shame is what Peter felt when he made eye contact with Jesus just after denying that he even knew him. It’s what David felt as he realized his own blindness before Nathan. It’s what Isaiah felt in the temple when he felt overwhelmingly unclean. We’re no strangers to it either.
Let me just give you one example.
Most of us know the name R.A. Dickey. Dickey is one of the best knuckleball pitchers to play in the past twenty years, and winner of the Cy Young award. He currently plays for the Atlanta Braves, but he played for the Jays for three seasons ending last year.
In 2012, the year that he won the Cy Young award, he opened up about being sexually abused when he was younger. For years he’d carried the weight of his abuse alone. One day he couldn’t take it anymore. He swam out into the ocean to drown himself. Amazingly, a boat came along and rescued him, and Dickey began to open up about his abuse.
Here’s what he said:
It had been locked away for 23 years and had wreaked havoc on my life and the relationships I had in my life, not only with my friends, who really weren’t even my friends. I didn’t trust anybody…my wife didn’t know the darkest things about me. I had kind of conned her into marrying me almost. It’s a tough admission. I loved her dearly so I projected who I wanted to be, but I would never let her inside, because I always feared if someone knew the real me, they would run the other way.
That’s a painfully raw but honest look at what shame is like, and what it does to us.
- Shame is a result of sin — either ours, or someone else’s.
- Shame isolates us. It makes us think that if others new the truth about us, that they couldn’t possibly love us. It keeps us from being known and loved.
- Shame damages us. Ultimately it can kill us.
I should add that shame is something that all of us experience. Not everyone has been through what Dickey went through, although many have. But all of us are familiar with shame to varying degrees. Shame is part of the human experience.
And starting today, we’re going to take a short look at what the Bible says about shame. And I want to begin today by looking at the beginning of shame.
I want to point out three things today, beginning with this:
Shame Was Not Part of the Original Creation
In Genesis 2 we read one of the most profound verses on shame in the entire Bible. Genesis 2:25 describes Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and says, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
This verse is about physical nudity, but it’s about a lot more. There were no barriers at all between Adam and Eve. No shame. No hiding.
What’s really interesting is that this is the climax of the creation account before everything falls apart. The author is describing how good everything is. Finally, earth has been created. Finally, the animals have been named and Adam has begun the task of ruling over creation. Finally, Adam has received a spouse and is living in relationship with someone who is his counterpart. She is the one thing that was missing from paradise. At the end of Genesis 2, all is well in the world.
What’s interesting is that the author could have finished with any description at the end of this chapter. As someone puts it:
He could have said the man and woman were naked and really happy (who wouldn’t be?), or they were naked and strong or confident, or they were naked and without fear or anger or sadness or disappointment or regret. And to be certain, all of these may have been true. With so many to choose from, why the emphasis on shame? It would seem that it is no accident. (The Soul of Shame)
There’s something really powerful here. We were made for a world in which there is no shame.
Think about this. You were made for a world without shame. You were meant to live as someone with nothing to hide, with no need to ever feel embarrassed or inadequate. We can’t even imagine this now. We were truly made to be unashamed.
But think about it some more. We weren’t just made to be unashamed at a horizontal level. We were also made to be unashamed in our relationship with God as well. The feeling that we have of not measuring up before God is something that is new. It’s not how God created the world. It’s not the way God wants it to be.
I had an experience that gave me a taste of this. I was once explaining a very personal problem to someone. He gave me his full attention. At one point, though, I felt very embarrassed. I felt so vulnerable and exposed. I said, “You must think less of me because of what I’m telling you.” He looked surprised and said, “Quite the opposite. Ironically, the more I get to know someone and their struggles, the more respect I have for them.”
I hope you’ve experienced this. I hope you know the safety of being fully known and loved with nothing to hide. This was meant to be our ordinary experience. Sadly, it’s not anymore.
What happened? In the very next chapter we find out. Adam and Eve rebel against God and sin. God gave them free reign to eat whatever they wanted from any tree in the garden except for one. Why did God do this? Because that one tree was there to test. It was to see if Adam and Eve would trust God alone as the source of their fulfillment, or whether they would take matters into their own hands and try to pursue happiness and joy apart from him.
Sadly, they failed the test. Instead of trusting God, they declared independence from God and tried to find happiness on their own. The consequences were disastrous: death, relational breakdown, expulsion from God’s presence, thorns and thistles in our work, and the contamination of all that’s good in the world. We live with these consequences every single day. But the first consequence that’s mentioned is shame. Genesis 3:7-11 say:
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
For the first time in their lives, Adam and Eve knew something was wrong. They knew that they were naked and exposed. They felt for the first time the awful feeling that’s been part of our everyday reality since then. They felt the impulse to hide.
Why do you and I feel shame? We feel it because it’s now part of the human condition. But we need to understand that it was never meant to be this way. We were made for a world without shame.
There’s a second observation I want to make from this passage:
We Use Strategies to Deal With Our Shame
You probably noticed what Adam and Eve did when they realized they were naked. Genesis 3:7 says that they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. They ran for cover. We’ve been hiding ever since.
Their tactic was interesting. The loincloths made out of fig leaves seems like a crazy approach to take. It really doesn’t provide much cover. They still felt shame, because they continued to hide from God, as if they could. It’s silly. But we’ve been doing it ever since. We don’t use fig leaves, but we use all kinds of other tactics to cover ourselves and hide.
I came across something that actress Anne Heche said. Heche is a victim of sexual abuse from the time she was a toddler until the age of 12, so she’s had to deal with shame not only from her own choices, but by the horrible sins committed against her by others. She talks about shame like this: “I did a lot of things in my life to get away from what had happened to me. I drank, I smoked, I did drugs, I had sex…. I did anything I could to get the shame out of my life.”
Do you hear that? All of those things — drinking, smoking, drugs, sex, are modern forms of fig leaves. We use these to hide ourselves and as ways of dealing with our shame.
Think about this. If you’re going online to meet someone significant, what do you do? You put the best picture possible online. You present yourself as well as you possibly can. That’s a form of covering up.
What about the way we dress? We usually dress to flatter ourselves. It’s normal. We want to appear taller or thinner than we would if we were wearing other clothes.
Or what about when someone comes over to our place? One of the reasons I like to have people over is because it forces us to clean up our house. We always spend the last half hour or so straightening things up. If you’ve ever been to our place and it looks messy to you, you should have seen it before!
But it’s not just our personal appearances or our condos. It’s what we do in life. We look to our education, careers, and accomplishments to cover our shame. We think that if we accomplish enough in our lives that we’ll no longer have to hide. We try to build, manage, and repair our reputations online.
There’s something profound here. It gives us a lot of insight into why we do things.
“All sin, all idolatry, all coping strategies in which I indulge are ways for me to satiate my hunger for relationship, my longing to be known and loved, my desire to be desired” (The Soul of Shame).
But none of these work. We will never be able to hide our shame no matter how much we try to cover ourselves. It simply won’t work.
But there’s good news:
God Has Graciously Provided a Solution to Our Shame
There’s very good news in Genesis 3. God doesn’t give up on them. He doesn’t allow them to hide. He did two things for them that he continues to do for us today. Both are solutions for our shame.
First, God pursues.
He goes looking for them. He calls out, “Where are you?” Think about it. He’s God. Why does he ask where they are? He knew. He asks them this because he’s a God who pursues us even when we’re ashamed. He simply refuses to give up on us.
You may be running away from God. You may be hiding from him because you’re too ashamed. The good news is that God isn’t running from you. God pursues people like us, even when we’re ashamed, even when we know that something’s desperately wrong.
John Stott was one of the greatest pastors in Great Britain. He passed away in 2011. It’s hard to overestimate his influence. But it wasn’t always this way. Stott used to run away from God. He came across a poem called The Hound of Heaven in which the poet described running from God. “I fled him, down the nights and down the days. I hid from him, and under running laughter. I sped … from those strong feet that followed, followed after me.”
John Stott agreed:
My faith is due to Jesus Christ himself, who pursued me relentlessly even when I was running away from him in order to go my own way. And if it were not for the gracious pursuit of the hound of heaven I would today be on the scrap-heap of wasted and discarded lives.
That’s what God does. He doesn’t let us run away. He pursues us even when we’re ashamed.
Second, God clothes.
But that’s not all that God did. In verse 21 we read, “And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”
At first glance that looks like a throwaway detail. What does it matter? Why is that important?
But look a little deeper and you’ll see two things.
First: our strategies to deal with shame just don’t work. Try all the fig leaves you want, and you’ll still experience shame. God knew that their fig leaves wouldn’t do the trick. God knew that we needed more. Our efforts to hide our shame by hiding ourselves, or by covering ourselves with accomplishments or approval, simply don’t work in the long run. We can’t cover ourselves.
Second: God provides a way to deal with our shame. He created garments of skin for them. God says to them, in effect:
Get out from behind that tree. The only way you’ll get over your fear, the only way you will get over the trauma that’s happened to your soul, the only way you will be happy again is if you are naked and unashamed. Come out from behind that tree. Open yourself to me. Admit what you’ve done. Come to me, and I will clothe you. I will cover your sin. (Tim Keller)
Later on, Isaiah 61:10 says:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…
Jesus was stripped naked and shamed on the cross so that our shame could be covered, and that we could be clothed in garments of salvation. God’s provided a way to deal with our shame.