By guest blogger, Robert Walter
In the early morning predawn of August 6, 1945, a Boeing B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay revved its engines at the end of the airfield. It would need every inch of runway to get aloft with its enormous payload, an atomic bomb code-named Little Boy.
After 6 hours of flight the bomb bay doors opened and Little Boy began its descent towards the target, Hiroshima. The detonation leveled 70% of the buildings in Hiroshima over an area of roughly five square miles. About 70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured that morning. Many continued to suffer the consequences of that blast for months and years to come.
The “Adam” Bomb
As destructive as the atomic blast was, it doesn’t compare to the devastation of another earlier event in human history. Only two lives, Adam’s and Eve’s, were affected that day, but the fallout from their disobedience in the Garden of Eden has affected every person in every generation since.
No one has escaped unscathed.
Pain has visited every woman in childbirth since that time. Work became toil. There was no mushroom cloud, but sin billowed up in an endless variety of self-centeredness, greed, depravity, and violence.
We don’t have to strain to see the impact of sin in our lives, yet some of the fallout from Adam and Eve’s disobedience remains largely unnoticed and unaddressed in Western Christianity. I’m referring to shame.
The Hiddenness of Shame
Before their sinful disobedience, the Bible records that “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Shame was foreign to Adam and Eve in the Garden before the Fall.
Unfortunately, shame remains a foreign concept to many Western pastors and teachers in the church today. This is not a personal criticism. It is a reflection of a blind spot we have inherited from generations of Western theologians before us.
In his wonderful new book, The Global Gospel, Werner Mischke notes that since the Bible grew out of a culture defined by the values of honor and shame, it is no surprise to find that the values of honor and shame feature prominently in the Bible. Yet that emphasis has largely remained hidden from the eyes of Westerners who are only conditioned to look for the pivotal values of guilt and forgiveness.
Werner Mischke illustrates this blind spot well by noting that the word shame is only listed in the index of two out of seven theological dictionaries published by Western scholars. This is a striking omission given that the word shame and its derivatives occurs 4–5 times as often in the New Testament compared to the word guilt and its derivatives.
The Epidemic of Shame
Shame may often be hidden from the eyes of Western theologians, but that doesn’t mean it is absent in the lives of Westerners. Not at all. Shame’s impact is broad and deep.
I first became aware of shame’s impact while working with survivors of sexual abuse during my years as a pastor. We are not surprised to learn that people who have been scarred by childhood sexual abuse suffer from shame – a gnawing sense that they don’t measure up and will never be worthy of love – but we may surprised to discover how wide this epidemic of shame has spread. Let’s look at some other examples of populations who are struggling with shame:
- The Unemployed
Richard Wilton was a successful real estate developer who dedicated his work to God’s glory. However, when the economy tanked in 2008 he took it on the chin. Properties that once secured loans worth millions now were worth only dimes on the dollar. Unable to refinance, the bank took the opportunity to repossess everything. Richard not only lost his collateral, but he also lost his house and his sense of identity with it. You may like to think we are not defined by our net worth, but it’s tough to shake the idea that you are a loser when you are 55 and no one will hire you.
- The Disabled
Tammy Thompson, a blind woman, shares how she’s struggled with her disability: “I’ve spent many years on a mission to cancel out my disability by frantically stacking up achievements, hoping that someday I would find that final, magic accomplishment which would absolve me of the sin of being disabled. … I guess I thought that if I were successful enough, I’d escape from the ‘less than’ feeling that quivers in my guts.”
- The Depressed
Teaching and preaching on the wonders of God’s love actually makes Jean Sorrento feel worse. “What’s wrong with me?!” she asks, “I should feel better.” She has confessed every sin she can think of but still can’t shake her shame or the depression that comes with it. Eventually she concludes she is spiritually dead and without hope.
Just as guilt affects every one of Adam and Eve’s descendants, so does shame. No one is immune. So far I’ve identified as many as 40 populations like the three above who are prone to struggling with shame: the divorced, the obese, the adopted, and the addicted are just a few of these. At some point shame touches us all.
Prescriptions for shame tend to follow the pattern of prescriptions for guilt. However, failure to see the shame problem as a unique problem prevents us from seeing the unique solution.
Matt was born out of wedlock to parents who were not ready to marry or take on the responsibility of raising a child. In the heat of an argument his father tells Matt, “You ruined my life.” Matt learns beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a bastard and a burden. This identity mars his outlook throughout his life. How does the repentance and forgiveness formula fit? While Matt can confess many sins of commission and omission, how does he confess the sin of being born out of wedlock?
If we don’t have anything but forgiveness to offer, we offer a deficient Gospel. But the Gospel itself is not deficient. Jesus took both our guilt and shame on the cross.
Two Arms of the Cross
The author of Hebrews writes this about Jesus, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (12:2)
In an honor and shame culture, the cross – designed to maximize both pain and shame – was the worst punishment. Yet Jesus willingly and joyfully took on our shame in order that we might share in his honor at the right hand of the Father.
So often we reduce the Gospel to a work of forgiveness only. When we do, we are guilty of preaching a one-armed cross. God’s forgiveness is clearly the only solution for our problem of guilt, but forgiveness has little to say to shame.
Fortunately, the cross has two arms. With one we are embraced by God’s forgiveness removing our guilt; with the other we are embraced by His love removing our shame.
For more on the healing of shame get the free eBook by Robert Walter, If I’ve Been Forgiven, Why Do I Still Feel Bad?
Robert Walter is the training director for Leader Source, an organization that works with Christian leaders around the world to help them rise up the next generation of healthy leaders.