This past weekend, I participated on the ministry team for a discipleship retreat run by Cleansing Stream Ministries (CSM). If this peaks anyone’s interest, then click here to learn more about this ministry. One of the things that I have seen in my own life is the absolute necessity to take the Lord at his word. Jesus said a myriad of times throughout his earthly ministry that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. He demonstrated this by his very presence, by his teaching, and by his works or demonstrations of his power and authority. When Jesus appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, ESV). These two forlorn disciples encountered Jesus, who rebuked them for being slow to believe in his word and in himself. The wonderful thing about the Lord is he meets these disciples in that place of despair, but he does not leave them in that condition. By opening their eyes to how all of Scripture points to him, Jesus builds their faith and emboldens them for a life of testifying about him and his word (Luke 24:30-32, ESV).
There is a journey depicted by these two disciples, which mirrors my own. Despite different circumstances, I have found myself at one time or another in despair or forlorn over my condition like those disciples on the road to Emmaus. I had high hopes for what the Lord said in his word about himself and new life in him; however, the reality told a much different story. The other possibility is that my perception of reality was off. At times, there is a mix of incorrectly interpreting my experiences and what the Lord says about them, which may spin me in a thousand different directions. This seems to be a systemic condition of mankind since the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. A lie entered into reality, which caused doubts about the truth and the one who is truth’s source. Shame and fear take hold of me like the first man and woman. I run around attempting to make things right, but nothing works…The indicator light to the gas tank flashes empty, but I still keep going. Does that make any sense?
The obvious answer to that previous question is a resounding no. Running on empty never makes sense, so what is the reason for doing it? On some level, I have perceived rightly that something is off or amiss about me. The problem seems to be my response to the recognition of something wrong. Rather than admitting it to God and trusted friends, I cover things up like Adam and Eve. I seek out people, places, and things in order to hide or conceal what I have seen that is unpleasant within me or about me. Instead of taking time to pause or stop, I keep going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny except my tank is empty. How long can I keep this up? I may even realize at times that I must stop, but I will not or cannot. There are numerous factors that come into play here such as false expressions of fear, guilt, and shame. May I submit to my readers and followers that those three bugaboos mask the root, which I believe to be pride or an unwillingness to admit that I have a problem.
I believe that there are right expressions of fear, guilt, and shame; however, most of the time those wind up twisted into the false ways so quickly that it is hard to ever conceive of fear, guilt, and shame serving a good purpose. The book of Proverbs says in multiple places that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. If fear was always a negative emotion, then there is no way to ever understand what the author of Proverbs maybe driving at with that statement. Guilt has a tendency to cut both ways like shame. There is an aspect of guilt, which is necessary for producing genuine confession and repentance over one’s actions. The apostle Paul speaks of a Godly sorrow that leads to repentance. This particular passage reveals how good guilt and good shame work together. Good guilt acknowledges that I have done something wrong, and good shame expresses genuine sorrow for the pain and separation that it has caused between God and me and others.
What I mean by this is that shame exists in two forms: the good kind and the harmful kind. From my personal experience, I found the latter to be all too common in my life and in the lives of men and women throughout the world. It is my personal belief that the presence of negative shame within all people regardless of race, age, tongue, tribe, you name it, gives tremendous support to the historical, objective fact of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. I do not know how else to explain the prevalence of such an universally transcendent emotion, which any person is able to understand in spite of language and cultural differences. Harmful shame blocks life from entering the person because he or she believes oneself to be inherently unworthy of it. Bad shame is an insidious emotional state, which fuels all addictive behaviors. If I believe that I am a bad person or unworthy of God’s life-giving touch and presence, then there is no reason to pursue life in Christ to better my condition.
Before I wrap this up, I want to expand upon the notion of shame having a good or beneficial aspect to it. This may already cause some to think that I am off base or confused. Allow me to walk us through some passages in both the Old and New Testaments. In the sixth chapter of Jeremiah and the fifteenth verse, the prophet proclaims God’s word of judgment upon Jerusalem because its people committed sinful acts without any shame over them being wrong in the Lord’s presence. This was such an important point for the Lord to convey to his people that he had Jeremiah repeat this word again in the eighth chapter and twelfth verse. Jumping over to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian Christians to avoid sinful acts and speaking about them because the latter is shameful (Ephesians 5:12, ESV). If participating in sin without shame is wrong from God’s eyes in the Old Testament, then the bar winds up being raised even higher in the New Testament with the prohibition against repeating the sinful acts taking place inside and outside the church.
Sin is sin. It defiles, it separates, and it leads to death apart from Christ. A right understanding of sin and its consequences only comes through the gracious saving work and presence of the Holy Spirit. He redeems the ability of his people to express fear, guilt, and shame in ways that honor the Lord, others and oneself. The redemptive aspect to shame enables God’s people to recognize the impact that their sin has had upon God, others, and themselves. When it comes to guilt, the good aspect of it enables the believer to acknowledge that a wrong has been committed and it needs to be made right. Lastly, fear of the Lord provides a necessary, internal check within God’s people that allows them to see sin’s consequences from their Lord’s perspective. It is not a laughing matter. Many sons and daughters of the King experienced his redemption from bad fear, guilt and shame for the first time at the CSM retreat this past weekend. For many, the journey into life has begun in earnest for the first time. Now, the truth of walking by faith and not by sight will be put to the test. O Lord, preserve them like the apple of your eye.