“Did anything happen last night?” my mother asked the next morning.
“No.” I lied. How could I tell her that what I had actually done was watch gay porn for the first time?
Many terrible things began that day, and I still have to deal with the lusts of the flesh which I warped in a sodomitic direction over the next decade. However, in retrospect, I would pinpoint that lie as being the worst thing I did at that time. Allow me to explain.
Had I felt no shame over the next decade, I would have sunk deeply into my sin, embraced an identity in the “pride” movement (what a terrible, revealing name!), and never had the pleasure of being married to my precious wife or having a child—not to mention I would not be able to gladly “go into the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1)
For this reason, I thank God for giving me shame!
However, shame, like any gift God gives to man, can be squandered. In this post I would like to pinpoint two ways in which shame’s usefulness can be thwarted. To start, we should note first that shame is directional. It must be felt directly in relation to others (otherwise it would be something else, like guilt). Second, shame’s ability to change our actions is directly based on how we perceive our shame.
I felt shame when confronted that morning, so what should I have done? Even a young child could answer this question correctly. I should have confessed my sin both to my mother and God and put it away. Instead, I compounded my sin by lying, and then covered it, hoping it would go away. (Spoiler alert: it did not—at least, not by hiding it.)
What went wrong? First, my shame was pointed in the wrong direction. I felt shame before my mother. This is reasonable as a secondary direction, but the problem was that I felt shame only before her and not before God. In fact, I felt so little shame before God that I was willing to heap up more sin by lying, in order to keep my greater fear at bay.
But what does David say? “Against you, you only, have I sinned.” (Psalm 51:4) Our sin is always, first and foremost, against God. David manifestly sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but he knew that his sin was primarily directed against God. Had my shame been pointed in the right direction, I would not have used the ridiculous fig leaf of a lie to keep my mother in the dark. What would have been the point? I may have been able to fool her, but I could never have fooled Him. My lie, therefore, was a simple declaration that I did not fear God.
And since my shame was misdirected, it led me to compensate for my sin foolishly. Shame should drive us to think God’s thoughts after Him. He hates sexual perversion and calls it an “abomination” (Lev. 18:12). My shame should have forced me to see my sin for what it was, driving me to Christ, a broken yet healing Christian. Instead, it drove me to cover my sin, rather than deal with it honestly before God.
I am not saying I intended to keep on sinning when I lied. I really was a Christian and really was horrified by what I had done, but since I was still more afraid of man than God, I refused to repent God’s way. “He who covers his sin does not prosper.” (Prov. 28:13) For myself, learning how to daily mortify my lusts has been a long and repetitive process in learning to fear God more than man. If I had only learned that lesson more quickly, I would have been spared much self-imposed anguish.
The question, then, is how could I know when I was fearing God more than man? It was simple—when I sought help from the Christian shepherds God sent to care for my soul: my father, my Christian college group leader, my church counselor, my pastor. When I was able to swallow my pride, and say to a spiritual authority figure, “I have a problem with looking at gay porn. Help me.”—that was when I knew that I was more afraid of my sin against God, than of maintaining my pride before men.
Which lets me give a simple admonition. What sin are you covering? Do you regularly look at porn? Do you explode in fits of rage against your wife and children? Do you nurse bitterness in your heart against your husband?
Have you sought help from the shepherds God has placed in your life? Importantly, going to your peers who struggle with the same sins doesn’t count. You know in your heart they don’t have the answers you need, and you’re only turning to them since discussing mutual sin keeps your pride intact.
Let’s keep it simple. If you haven’t sought help from the shepherds God has placed in your life to care for you, it is because you fear their disapproval more than God’s. You would rather take your chances “fighting” sin on your own, than ruin your pristine, “Christian” image. Understand: your shame is pointing in the wrong direction. In fact, this also ruins the thing you are trying to protect—your relationship with your human shepherds. We are told to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). If you falsely claim to be “fine,” your stoic front is not only a crime against God but also against man.
Of course, this may seem very discouraging and scary, but today is a new day. Yesterday you sinned. But God’s command is always “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me” (Hebrews 3:7-8). It is never too late to stop “keeping up appearances.”
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis records a conversation between a glorious spirit and a pitiful ghost that almost perfectly parallels our discussion here. To become “more real” and enter into the joy of heaven, the ghost needed to consent to be seen in her ghostly state—a prospect she found appallingly shameful. So, like we in our fleshly state, she felt her shame before others, while not giving heed to her relationship with God. The crux of her salvation (and ours) is to realize that the shame of rejecting the offer of God’s grace, is far greater than the paltry shame of being seen. As the glorious spirit talking to her winsomely explains:
“An hour hence and you will not care. A day hence and you will laugh at it. Don’t you remember on earth—there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will accept it—if you will drink the cup to the bottom—you will find it very nourishing: but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.”2
Shame can scald if we fail to understand it in relation to our heavenly Father, but when it is pointed in the right direction, it is a bracing cordial for our souls.