I distinctly remember when I first heard the word ‘gay’ at school. I didn’t know what the word meant, but that didn’t stop me from not wanting that word to be true of me. The secrecy surrounding my sexuality when growing up, and the feeling that I couldn’t share this with anyone, only added to feelings of shame. My experiences are certainly not unique.
Too many Christians – especially those who experience same-sex attraction – feel like guilt and shame are on the precipice of destroying their relationship with God. Perhaps this is because of gnawing guilt over sinful patterns of behaviour, or maybe it’s because of a sense that we’re failing to be true to who we really are – followers of Jesus.
Of course, shame and sexuality have been historic bedfellows. It’s perhaps understandable, then, that a potential remedy to shame – pride – is embraced by the LGBT+ rights movement.
We’re to live out a story which is so much better than any other on offer.
For the Christian, called to be counter-cultural, it’s no surprise that the remedy to shame is not the one that the world provides. Instead, we’re to live out a story which is so much better than any other on offer.
By following the Christian story of Creation, Fall, Salvation, and New Creation, we can draw out three-points that help us find victory in a battle with guilt and shame.
1. Remember – the source of shame
The book of Genesis helps us remember the source of shame. We are told the story of our loving creator God, who, unlike in surrounding Ancient Near Eastern creation stories, imbues humanity with intrinsic value. We were made to mirror God’s goodness, exercise dominion, and steward and serve his Creation.
Humankind was not created to experience shame (Genesis 2:25). Instead, shame and guilt stem from sin and rebellion. Shame belongs to a post-Fall theological category. Tragically, it was following the Fall that humanity sought to hide from the God who walked with them.
Why do we need to be reminded of this?
Well, so often, I find that well-known Christian truths can be the easiest to forget. The ongoing nature of a struggle with shame can lead us to think these feelings are natural. But when we remember the source of this emotion, we remind ourselves that it is not a part of God’s good design. Far from being natural, shame, and similar feelings, are incursions into God’s Creation.
In response, our loving God enacted his plan of salvation.
2. Embrace – the solution to shame
We move from the source to the solution, Jesus Christ.
Christ died the most shameful death known to humanity. But by that death, Jesus offers complete forgiveness. Despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2), Jesus endured the cross on our behalf. As a result, ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1).
As forgiven people, by his blood and through his Spirit, our consciences are cleansed (Hebrews 9:14). The stains that were once engrained have been washed away. In this position of having been forgiven and cleansed, – or washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Corinthians 6:11) – shame has no grounding for an accusation against God’s people.
In this position of having been forgiven and cleansed, shame has no grounding for an accusation against God’s people.
This is all because the one who was not guilty stood condemned on behalf of those who realise they deserve to be condemned.
When struggling with an ongoing sense of shame, my previous vicar urged me to keep returning to Scripture that speaks of God’s grace. I was encouraged to put verses on my fridge and phone, essentially anywhere that I would often see them. There was nothing revolutionary about his suggestion but putting his advice into practice was a helpful discipline.
There was no instant change, but gradually my thinking was being conformed to the truth. The truth is that my sin was more serious than I realised, so grave that Christ died in my place. But by continually returning to the cross, my thinking was also conformed to the truth that God is more gracious than I could ever hope him to be. My faith that God is totally committed to freeing his people also grew.
Maybe you’re at a stage in your faith journey when you need reminding that there is a truth that stands above your feelings. Why not put the advice above into practice yourself and make a verse like 1 John 1:9 your phone’s screensaver? Dare to trust that our God is who he reveals himself to be in Christ – more loving, and more gracious than we can imagine.
Jesus’ followers are called to embrace the solution to our shame. We eat and drink it through communion. We’re to be reminded of it often. Yes, to struggle with guilt and shame is a terrible burden. However, maybe there is good that God can work from this struggle too – perhaps, for example, it can be used to grow our dependence on God’s solution to our shame; a reliance that makes us ‘not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…’ (Romans 1:16).
3. Long – for the abolition of shame
The death of Christ frees us from sin and shame. What Jesus has already accomplished in us is to be lived out through the empowering of God’s Spirit. The Christian life is about becoming who we are. Objectively, we have been buried with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:3–4). Therefore, we should consider ourselves dead to sin (Romans 6:11).
We follow the pattern that Christ gave. As former Archbishop Ramsey put it, we ‘die to live’. 1 This scriptural pattern doesn’t only mean dying to sin but also dying to everything associated with our old selves, including guilt and shame.
It’s all too easy to fall into a false form of repentance that reinforces negative emotions. Repentance – a turning away from and dying to old behaviours – is stirred by the category of ‘godly sorrow’ (2 Corinthians 7:10). We can reason that this kind of sorrow does not lead to ongoing feelings of shame but to salvation. In contrast, negative feelings stem from the altogether different category of ‘worldly grief’ (v10).
Godly sorrow will be an ongoing feature of our lives because as fallen creatures, we will continue to struggle with sin and its impact. Of course, the Holy Spirit will bring freedom here and now. But our freedom is never what it will one day be. Until then, the Spirit stirs a longing for the death of death and shame’s abolition.
Christ died that we might live life to the full. I take that to mean a life which is not crippled by guilt and shame.
Shame stops us being who we’re called to be. It’s destructive, and it limits our flourishing. So, in answer to our question, I encourage you to remember the source of shame. Our God is good. He does not desire that we struggle with these negative feelings. Embrace the gospel of God. Christ died that we might live life to the full. I take that to mean a life which is not crippled by guilt and shame. And long for the abolition of our shame. There will come a day when we stand in a New Heaven and Earth, a new Eden that is free from shame.
How wonderful to be enfolded into Christ’s story – the greatest story ever told.
- Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today (SPCK, 2009), p.33.