But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:9-11)
Most Americans think of guilt in psychological terms. It is the feeling of discomfort when we assume that we have done something wrong. But Biblically thinking, guilt has very little to do with our emotions. Guilt is a forensic term. It is not psychological but legal in nature, and typically this is the way the biblical writers use the term, especially the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. It has to do with God’s legal pronouncement on us with regard to our sin.
The idea we typically associate with “guilt” is not really guilt, but “shame”. Shame is an existential term, and is precisely the experience of Adam and Even when God first showed up in the garden after they had eaten the fruit. It was the feeling of discomfort they experienced knowing that they had disobeyed God.
There is a fascinating dynamic reflected in the Bible. If guilt is a legal term having to do with our standing before God as in a courtroom context, then what is its opposite? It is the word “justified”. Interestingly enough, the English words “justification” and “righteousness” are two translations of the same Greek word. They both have to do with God’s judgment with regard to our standing before him, i.e. are we guilty or are we innocent in God’s courtroom? Of course, we are all guilty of sin. Only God can change the verdict from guilty to acquitted based upon our faith in the righteousness of Christ.
But what about “shame”; what is its opposite? Dick Keyes, in his book, Beyond Identity, Finding Ourselves in the Character and Image of God, indicates that the opposite of “shame” is “glory”. I think he is right.
Just think, as men and women, we have been created in the image of God. Of all of God’s creation we are meant to reflect by our very being God’s glory. Yet sin has disrupted all that. While we are still, even in our sinful conditions, image bearers of God, the image has been greatly despoiled, as John Calvin put it. It is the contrast between what we were meant to be and what we are that generates in us that existential dissonance we call shame.
Now as sinners we have become quite adept at dealing with that dissonance. We repeat over and over to ourselves that we are OK, that we haven’t done anything seriously wrong, certainly anything that God should be offended at. Yes, we tell ourselves that God is someone other than who he claims to be in the Bible, or even that God is only a figment of our unenlightened imaginations. We suppress the truth, as Paul writes in Romans 1, and we harden our hearts. Nevertheless, there is still something within our consciences that still gives rise to the dissonance. (Could it be the image of God?)
But as Christians we have a new reality. God has declared us acquitted of our sin (“justified”) because of Christ. But what about our shame? This is where our comprehension of the cross is so important. God knows us, but he has declared us guiltless. From a legal standpoint we are free from the weight of guilt, but there is still that dissonance between who we are in Christ and the shame of our sinful behavior every time we sin. God allows that dissonance to remind us of the contrast between who we are in Christ and our behavior.
Paul writes in Romans 8, And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. A few verses earlier he wrote, For I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.
The time is coming when we will shed our sinful natures with these bodies and stand before God psychologically naked. And we will feel no shame!
by Pastor Tom Bridgman