In a men’s Bible study last night, I could see it in their faces. It was unmistakable. It was in their burrowed, distant gaze into nothingness as they told their stories of past sins, broken marriages, dismantled families, and sullen emptiness. It was shame.
Shame is a word and experience felt and expressed more commonly by women. As any husband or person with a pulse will tell you, women are frankly better at sharing how they feel. They are often more emotionally intelligent. Maybe this is the case because it is more socially acceptable for women to talk about their weaknesses. Men spend more time flaunting or faking their strengths.
But in a unique break from the societal norm of male machoism, a group of guys in a dimly lit room shared basic details of their pasts, which led me to see both the pity and profit of shame.
One of the most deplorable and degrading human emotions and experiences is that of shame. Few things lead to deep despair like shame. Shame produces scars that can scarcely be covered. The shame of even one past sin can affect a person’s future decisions, relationships, and life trajectory. Shame affects the way we interact with one another, and it affects the way we relate and interact with God. And in most cases, these effects are negative, oftentimes leading a person down a dark path of hopeless despair. However, there is a kind of shame that is both redeeming and sanctifying. There is a kind of shame that may bring us to gospel heights otherwise unknown.
Our sin has the stench of death, but our spiritual noses only smell this after our senses have been reoriented. When this happens, a healthy feeling of shame results from the stench of sin wafting over our newly created hearts. Paul says, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death” (Rom. 6:20-21).
It is right and good to look back on your life before Christ and feel the sharp pain that we once lived in a way that made a mockery of God. There is a way to feel shame that is not only right, but also sanctifying. The spiritual eyes of the Christian cannot look back on his or her former life and not feel shame, even after Christ has fully born our shame on the cross.
There are a few characteristics of the right kind of shame.
1. The right kind of shame is the product of spiritual freedom.
We who have been set free from the penalty and power of sin are able to look on our sin in bashful disgust because we have been justified through the imputed righteousness of Christ. Because Jesus has fully absorbed our shame, we can feel shame for personal sin in a way that leads us to walk in the freedom we have been granted by the blood of the cross.
2. The right kind of shame produces righteousness.
What was the fruit of the sins of your former life–those things for which you should feel ashamed? The fruit of sin is always condemnation and death. Looking back on past sins from 5 years and 5 minutes ago and feeling shame creates and cultivates a sense of disgust toward sin and delight toward righteousness. Shame is a motivator for killing sin in your life.
Looking back with no degree of fondness whatsoever on your sin is an important step in the direction of greater spiritual maturity. Christians who are growing in love for God are simultaneously growing in hatred of sin. The more you love God, the more you hate sin, and vice versa.
3. The right kind of shame produces repentance
Paul said to the Thessalonians, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). John Piper has said, “Shame is a proper and redemptive step in conversion and in a believer’s repentance from a season of spiritual coldness and sin.”This means shame is not something we should run from or avoid. Even though we may experience spiritual neck pains, turning back to look at past sin is a great motivator for present repentance.
If you’ve ever played baseball in February, you know the feeling of bitter cold. For some reason cold wind on a baseball field feels like an Arctic front. I remember our coach passing out “hot hands,” little bags of providential warmth, to keep in our back pockets in case our hands started to grow cold and hard. A third baseman isn’t worth much if he can’t feel his hand. Shame is like a “hot hand” to warm our souls from the bitter cold created by spiritual neglect. Cold hearts are of no use to the Christian or the church. And whenever our hearts harden to sin, shame is an excellent tool to break through the bitter cold.
4. The right kind of shame has the glory of God as its chief end.
The wrong kind of shame believes past sins are greater than future grace. However, the right kind of shame cringes at attitudes and actions that dishonor God. There are simply things about our lives outside of Christ and current behaviors consistent with our lives outside of Christ for which we should be ashamed. The purpose of God-centered shame is never despair or guilt, but instead the praise of the God who bears our shame and uses our shame for our joy. Sin is a kill-joy, but God-centered shame kills sin and creates joy in those who know God in Christ.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to help minister to men who wore their shame on their sleeves last night. Only when men are open to discuss their past sins and weaknesses can we ever begin to move toward healing and restoration. Don’t be ashamed to be ashamed of your past sins. Your rosy red cheeks will be used by God to mold you into the image of his Son.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (Westbow Press, 2016). He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their sons, Jude and Jack. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.