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.