The first mention of shame in Scripture actually celebrates the absence of it: Adam and Eve were naked and felt no shame (Gen. 2:25). The final destination of Scripture is the New Jerusalem, where nothing shameful will ever enter (Rev. 21:27), a place where the redeemed from every nation will celebrate their eternal cleansing from shame by the blood of Christ. In between, however, a tragic and sordid history unfolds in which the descendants of Adam probe with ever-increasing boldness the depths of the shame to which our race can plunge. Here we will highlight three ways that our world displays corruption in the matter of shame, concluding by speaking a word of counsel to Christians on how we should respond to our shameless world.
Delighting in What Is Shameful
The central shame of the human race is idolatry, described in Romans 1:22–25. There, Paul says the human race “exchanged the glory of God for images” and “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” The human race has refused to worship the true God, instead shamefully conceiving of gods and goddesses, crafting images as the focus of worship, and delighting in them. This is the greatest shame of all—to worship and serve created things rather than the glorious Creator. Thus, the delight in all non-Christian religions, or in materialistic atheism, is shameful.
From this central exchange, all the lesser shames flow. Romans 1 reveals that God gave the human race over to a depraved mind (Rom. 1:28), and part of this depravity is to delight in what God calls shameful. In Isaiah 3:9, the prophet condemns the people of Jerusalem: “They proclaim their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them!” Notice that Isaiah is shocked that they make no effort to hide their sin, but actually proclaim it boldly as Sodom did. It is a very bad thing to sin in secret, thinking that not even God can see you (Isa. 29:15). But to make no effort to hide it, as if the sinner is actually proud of the wicked things he is doing, shows a greater depth of wickedness. Even worse, the sinner extends his depraved delight to others: “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32).
The world delights in bold sinners who flout God’s Word and expect no punishment whatsoever. Our culture celebrates the skillful cold-blooded assassin, bold thief, self-righteous vigilante, foul-mouthed recording artist, creative rebel, blasphemous stand-up comedian, naked actress, fornicating “glamour couple,” self-worshiping athlete, occultic mystic, and the like. Perhaps the clearest example in our day has been the movement of homosexuality from something almost universally seen as shameful to something that ought to be delighted in. The gay rights movement is seeking not merely tolerance of what God calls sinful, but society-wide celebration.
Suppressing True Shame
Romans 1:18 reveals that people “suppress the truth” by their unrighteousness. This powerful image pictures sinners as holding back the truth that forcefully presses itself onto their hearts. God’s holiness and our shamefulness are pressing truths. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened to their shame and they immediately hid from each other. But far more significantly, they hid from God in terror because of their feeling of shame. The construction of fig leaves and the hiding behind trees from the presence of God represent their efforts to suppress their shame by self-salvation.
In the same way, sinners today often feel a profound sense of shame for actual sins committed, and the Bible reveals that they should. The oft-repeated statement “You should be ashamed of yourself!” is actually true in most cases concerning our sinfulness. But instead of running to the living God for salvation, sinners try a variety of stratagems to alleviate the burn of shame. Centrally, they attack the shame itself. Proverbs 30:20 says, “This is the way of an adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wrong.'” Many run to psychiatrists and other counselors who are skillful at persuading them that their actions were “perfectly normal.” Beyond this, people try to cover their feelings of shame by doing good works or by numbing their minds with drugs, alcohol, or earthly pleasures.
Seeking to Shame the Righteous
Conversely, our world also heaps abuse on those who stand up for righteousness in our corrupt age. Isaiah 5:20 captures the defective moral compass of our age: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness!” So our culture delights in what is shameful and is ashamed of what God finds delightful. I recently saw a T-shirt that proclaimed, “Homosexuality isn’t shameful; homophobia is.” The new term homophobia (c. 1969) implies that biblical conviction on that sin is itself a form of mental illness. When University of Missouri football player Michael Sam declared himself to be gay, his fellow students gave him a standing ovation at a basketball game. Anyone who refused to stand and cheer certainly would have been made to feel ashamed.
No one in history has experienced a more unjust shaming than Jesus. The only perfect man who ever lived had nothing to be ashamed of, but His perfect righteousness aroused a deep-seated hatred by His enemies. “He was despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3), and they poured shame on Him. His public arrest, trial, condemnation, being stripped and flogged, being spat upon and mocked, being paraded through the streets of Jerusalem until He was outside the gates, and being crucified in broad view of the passing crowd—all of these things were designed for maximum shaming. Yet Jesus considered this public shame to be of no consequence compared to the surpassing glory He was bringing His Father by this atoning work, and the eternal joy He was bringing His sheep by dying for them: “Jesus … who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). The words “despising the shame” make it plain that the world heaped abuse on Him, but in weighing it against the joy He was purchasing, He thought it a small price to pay.
Now if the Head of the household was so shamefully abused, we also should expect the same. The world aggressively seeks to shame Christians who live openly for God, who preach the gospel of Christ as the only way of salvation, who boldly stand up for the poor and needy, who oppose unjust laws. Paul felt the powerful shaming mechanism of the world when he went from place to place preaching the gospel of Christ and was arrested and beaten in many of them. But he asserted openly, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Peter said the world will be bitterly surprised when we don’t join in the same flood of debauchery in which they are living, and they will malign (shame) us (1 Peter 4:4).
How the Church Should Respond
Christians should display humility in the matter of shame and set an example to the world. We should own that our sin is a shameful thing, and that feelings of shame are reasonable responses to the conviction of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:21). In our evangelism, it is essential to proclaim the law of God to bring about that conviction and the corresponding feelings of shame in our hearers. But we should also display and proclaim the joy of full forgiveness that the cross of Jesus Christ lavishes on anyone who believes in Him alone. As Romans 10:11 says, “Everyone who believes in him [Christ] will not be put to shame.”
We should also expect the unconverted world to delight in ever-increasing shamefulness, “going from bad to worse” (2 Tim. 3:13). We should not be surprised if the world hates us and seeks to shame us (1 John 3:13). But like Christ, we should endure the suffering, despising (thinking very little of) the shame (Heb. 12:2). Like Paul, we should boldly preach the gospel and not be ashamed of it (Rom. 1:16). We should resist any temptation to be ashamed of Christ and of His words in this adulterous and sinful generation (Mark 8:38), lest He be ashamed of us when He returns in glory. And we should be willing to stand under the cross of Christ, outside the gate and bear the reproach He bore (Heb. 13:12–13). In this way alone, we will be used by God to rescue sinners from eternal shame.