The New Fig Leaf

Published on February 22, 2010 by CT in Blog, Theology


Picture yourself naked.  In public.  What do you feel?  Exposed?  Self-conscious?  Ashamed?

Adam and Eve knew what it was like to feel this way.  They also knew what it was like to feel something else entirely.  Or perhaps what they also knew shouldn’t be described as a feeling at all.  Perhaps they simply had a lack of awareness of the fact that something was wrong with them, because nothing was wrong with them at first.

They lived in the garden and walked among the trees and made their home there, all while being naked.  Moses tells us:  “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25).  But then something changed.  They were tempted, they sinned, they knew they were naked, and they hid.  All of a sudden, the freedom they had in relationship with God and one another was consumed by an overwhelming awareness of self.  And what they knew about themselves caused them to hide.

We’ve been hiding in the same way ever since.  Every human sins and therefore knows what it’s like to feel guilty or ashamed.  And every human hides these darker parts of themselves from other people.  Sometimes it seems that we, as Christians, can become especially adept at hiding, perhaps because we think we know what a “good Christian” looks like and talks like, and it’s not too hard to put a good face on a downtrodden spirit.

Our pastor, Pastor Mike, has been teaching a series called “What Do You Think God Thinks About You?” and he has been discussing our feelings of guilt and shame and how the gospel provides healing for us in these ways.  Pastor Mike has taught us to make a distinction between shame and guilt, and he describes shame as the feeling of not measuring up to society’s standards or expectations for us.  He makes a compelling argument for this, but as I thought about the difference between guilt and shame, I wondered if I could take his point one step further.

Perhaps we feel guilt because of what we’ve done and shame because of who we are.  Or to put it another way, we experience feelings of guilt because of the sins we’ve committed, and we feel ashamed because of the sinners we are.

If this is the case, then the gospel does provide the answer to both of our problems, but it does so in slightly different ways.  Our guilt creates a need for righteousness, which no amount of effort on our part can produce.  Here the power of the gospel brings us freedom from guilt in that Christ has become righteousness for us (2 Cor 5:21).  Our shame, however, creates a need for a new identity, which no amount of effort on our part can produce either.  Here the power of the gospel brings us freedom from shame in that we are new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).

So living within the power of the gospel means trusting in Jesus as our righteousness to deliver us from guilt, and it means embracing our identity in Christ as a new creation to deliver us from shame.  In this way, the gospel has become the new fig leaf for us, not to cover up as it once did for Adam and Eve, but to cover over once for all for those of us who trust in Him and find our hope in Him.

So when we feel guilt, let us turn to Jesus as our righteousness, and when we feel shame, let us turn to Jesus as our identity.  As we do, our sense of exposure and self-consciousness and shame will slowly be replaced by a growing awareness that we stand, naked and exposed, before a Holy God, who declares us righteous and beloved, so that we never need feel ashamed again.

  • Aristarchus

    I have heard that people in eastern cultures experience more shame than guilt and people in western cultures feel more guilt than shame. I can't remember where I heard that. Maybe Ravi Zach. It may be related to observers saying that westerners are more individualistic and easterners more community oriented. Because we are more individualistic we make more mistakes and are responsible to ourselves causing us to experience guilt while easterners fall short of their community's expectations causing them to experience shame.
    Now that I think about it, I believe this came up during a discussion of how the gospel connects to different believers around the world.
    Good thoughts here. One more thing – fig leaves don't cover. Just look at 'em. It's kinda silly to think they would. The fig covering failed so bad God killed an animal to clothe them. Later on it's Jesus' blood that clothes us. Maybe instead of the gospel being the new fig leaves (failed covering), it is what it is, and that is Christ's blood (sufficient covering).

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Ari, you're right. The analogy only holds for so long; Christ's covering is infinitely greater, and to call it a fig leaf, even the New Fig Leaf, doesn't quite capture it. But it was still an interesting title =)

      Interesting thoughts on the differences between Western and Eastern cultures in how they related to shame. Thanks for sharing.

  • Laura_Droege

    Great thoughts, Chris. I couldn't help but wonder how our relationships with other people would change if we all turned to Jesus for our identity and our righteousness. If we stop hiding behind the Mr./Ms. Good Christian facade, then we would be open about our failures/weaknesses/need for Jesus, and that spirit of honesty would show the unchurched that Christians aren't all hypocrites. People are attracted to the genuine and truthful, particularly in this day and age of cyncism and false advertising, and might become attracted to Jesus because of our honesty about our need for him.
    My recent post Book Review: Beautiful Things Happen When a Woman Trusts God, by Sheila Walsh

  • Elizabeth Colclough

    Great article, Christ. Going back to the fig leaf discussion, if I may…I think it's important to note that the fig leaves were insufficient not because they didn't cover Adam and Eve completely (though that may be true), but because for their sins to truly be covered, it required blood–the death of an innocent. This immediately foreshadows the coming of Christ. God KILLED an innocent animal and literally covered their shame/guilt with its blood. Without the shedding of blood, there would be no forgiveness for sins. Adam and Eve made the same mistake every follower of every other religion of the world besides Christianity continues to make–Adam and Eve thought they could DO something to "fix" their problem, to make them right and acceptable to God. The covering up with fig leaves was nothing more than works, plain and simple. It shows us, right in the beginning of the Bible, that nothing we can ever do on our own will ever be sufficient to fix our sin problem. That's why Jesus had to die. That's why God sent His beloved Son. It was the only way. I agree, Aristarchus, Christ's blood is our ONLY sufficient covering. Thanks and praise to God for providing for us, for creating us and loving us even while knowing what it would cost Him. What a great love our Father has for us.

    • Chris_Tomlinson

      Very well said. Both you and Aristarchus have articulated the gospel (and it's foreshadowing) quite well and tested out the limits of the analogy =). Perhaps this was an example of my getting a little too loose w/ words; thanks for highlighting, with clarity, the power of the gospel in the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice for us!