A Healthy Sense of Shame

A few years ago, some polls were taken in order to determine people’s least favorite words. I’m not sure how such a thing can be measured, but when the results came in, it was discovered that moist is the least favorite word in the U.S., Australia, and Canada.

I would suggest that there is a word which English speaking people dislike even more than the word moist. It’s the word sin. By and large, the word sin has fallen out of our vocabulary, even among churches. We talk about mistakes, failings, and weaknesses, but the word sin is a word used less often.

Yet, without an understanding of sin it is difficult to provide an accurate account of the world. The word sin tells us that we have missed the mark, we have disobeyed commands, and that the world around us is in bad shape because of it.

Perhaps our society does not like the word sin because sin is accompanied with shame. We see this in the very beginning of the Bible. After Adam and Eve sin in the Garden of Eden, they scheme the great cover-up. First, they cover themselves with leaves (Genesis 3:7). Then, they try to hide themselves from God (Genesis 3:8). At the root of all of this is shame. Their shame results in finger pointing. Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent.

Another approach is found in Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is traditionally attributed to Kind David after he is convicted of his sin with Bathsheba. Initially, David tried to cover his sin. But in Psalm 51, David expresses shame over his sin. At this point in his journey, David does not try to hide from God. Instead, he seeks to bring his sin before God so that he might be cleansed. In Psalm 51:3-4a, David the poet writes,

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight.

Of course, God has known David’s sin all along. Nothing is a new revelation to God. Therefore, the significance does not lie in information but rather in transformation. David does not say, “God, you need to be aware of what I’ve done.” God already knows. Instead, David’s prayer is that he might be changed in his standing before God. He wants to be washed, cleansed, purged, created, renewed, restored, upheld, and delivered (Psalm 51:2, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14).

David uses the word sin. Accompanying the word sin is a sense of shame. David has a sense of shame which prompts him to pursue a better spiritual condition. He wants to be spiritually healthy before God and it is his healthy sense of shame which drives him to that point.

Surrounded by a society of positive thinking and self-help manifestos, we probably don’t spend enough time contemplating our sin and feeling a sense of shame as a result. But, rather ironically, the contemplation of sin leads us not to despair but to the great realization that God loves us and cares for us more deeply than we can ever imagine. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Until we’re willing to experience the depths of shame, we’ll never know the depths of God’s love for us.