Whatever happened to shame and to agonizing over sin?
Is a sense of shame always a bad thing for a Christian?
Many Bible teachers and counselors reply with a resounding “Yes!” “There’s no place for shame in a Christian’s life,” they insist. Thanks to forgiveness, and to our right standing with God owing to justification, we shouldn’t feel embarrassment, dishonor, or humiliation over sins covered by the blood of Jesus.
I, too, think that many believers fail to appropriate Jesus’ work on the cross. They live with false guilt, striving to add to Jesus’ sacrifice by bearing the emotional burden of their own sins. How preposterous: trying to add nails to the crucified body of Christ, as if what happened 2000 years ago wasn’t sufficient.
There is a biblical tension on the issue of “feeling ashamed” about our sin. On one hand, there’s overwhelming grace and the mind-blowing truth of Jesus’ imputed righteousness applied to us. There is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom. 8:1). We don’t face God’s wrath because His justice was satisfied (propitiated) on the cross through the death of our Substitute (1 John 2:1-2). On the other hand, there’s a clarion call in God’s Word for His people to grieve over their sin because of its effect on God and on other people.
Scripture takes the politically incorrect stance that His people should experience deep anguish, should blush, should feel embarrassed about sin against a holy God—even when God’s grace has reserved a place for them in heaven. Joel 2:12-13 is representative of other texts that command weeping and fasting and mourning over sin.
“‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping, and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abundant in lovingkindness, and relenting of evil.”
This Joel 2:12-13 text shows both the response God expects to sin (mourning, weeping, rending our hearts) and the lovingkindness of God: He is “gracious, compassionate, slow to anger.”
Repeatedly, Jeremiah lamented that God’s people no longer blushed or felt ashamed over their sin (Jer. 3:3; 6:15; 8:12). For instance, Jeremiah 6:15, referring to God’s chosen people, reads, “Were they ashamed because of the abomination they have done? They were not even ashamed at all. They did not even know how to blush.”
Please don’t give me the rationalization that these Old Testament texts aren’t applicable in today’s era of grace. Last time I checked, the Old Testament teems with God’s grace, too. Besides, we have to deal with James 4:9, apparently written to Jewish converts who took their behavior too flippantly in view of their new spiritual status in Christ: “Be miserable and weep and mourn; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom.” (When did you last hear a sermon on that verse?)
No, I shouldn’t continually mope around and feel miserable about sins Jesus has forgiven. Yet with all the emphasis today on our identity in Christ and the fantastic benefits of the cross, I wonder if we have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction and give the impression that sin in the life of a believer doesn’t matter much, since we already enjoy forgiveness.
Daily, I must live in humility with awareness of my predilection to fail the Lord. God’s grace prompts me to run to Him no matter how badly I’ve blown it, confident that He accepts me. But in the process, I should also feel some of the things we associate with shame and anguish, or else I wouldn’t be spurred to repentance.
Decades ago, in a column in Eternity magazine, the late Joe Bayly told the story of a preacher visiting the Scottish Hebrides Islands during a time when revival had been breaking out, back in the mid-20th century. Not only had many people come to faith in Christ, but many persons who already knew Jesus were repenting through tears for sins they had been taking too lightly.
A local host was leading the guest preacher to a place where he would speak. As they passed a hut, the missionary stopped when he heard extremely loud crying. The sound was agonizing and piercing, as if a beloved family member had just died. The guest speaker asked, “What’s the matter? Do we need to go help?”
“No,”the host replied. “That’s William….he’s just on his way back to God.”
Bayly went on the say that both individual believers and local churches have lost the necessity for repentance and for grieving over sin. He even cited a story from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who had preached at a large number of church-based revival services. Lloyd-Jones lamented that when he gave an altar call, fewer and fewer people who came forth did so with tears. They would be smiling, slapping others on the back who were going forward, congratulating each other for responding to the message, but few actually seemed sorry for their sin.
Bayly asked then (and I ask today): Why don’t Christians cry anymore over their sins?
Prayer: “Father, do not let us who go by Your name sin successfully. Allow us to feel the pain of Your Spirit’s conviction. May we feel ashamed, temporarily, because we have hurt You and taken casually the sin that nailed Jesus to the cross. Then, let us revel in the grace that woos us back into intimate fellowship with You. In the name of One who wept over sin, even though He was sinless, Amen.”