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Why Good People Do Bad Things

The Curse And Cure Of Shame

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 8, 2000

Selected highlights from this sermon

Shame was not part of the original creation. It was only after Adam and Eve took that bite that shame fell upon mankind. And now it’s such a painful emotion, people will do anything to avoid it.

While some shame is objective (you’re guilty in the eyes of God) and you must set things right, there is also subjective shame that’s imposed on you for something you didn’t do or couldn’t control.

If shame isn’t dealt with, it can lead to paranoia, excessive perfectionism, or it can leave a person as nothing but a doormat for others.

But God has a cure for shame. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus “endured the cross, scorning its shame…” or put another way, “try to destroy Me if you can!”

You know, even if you can’t define the word shame, all of us have felt it because all of us have done things of which we are ashamed. Shame is that feeling that we have radically disappointed ourselves, radically disappointed our friends, and radically disappointed God. As a matter of fact, shame is a very painful emotion, as we are going to discover. It is so painful that people will do anything to avoid it, but shame was not a part of the original creation.

If you have your Bibles turn to Genesis 2. We shall be looking at chapter 2 and also briefly at chapter 3 where it says that after God created Adam and Eve (verse 25 of chapter 2) the man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame.

I want you to imagine what that would be like. Imagine being psychologically available and transparent
(psychologically vulnerable) and having nothing in your life of which you are ashamed, not a single thought that you know will elicit disappointment if someone else knows about it. Men, think for a moment of having a mind that is so pure that your mother and your sister and your wife can know every single thought you think, and approve of it and there’s no possibility of disapproval.

You women, think of what it would be like to have aspirations that are so holy and so consistent that your friends and your husband and everyone – the whole wide world – can know what it is that you are thinking, know what it is that you aspiring to, and yet there is nothing of which you need to be ashamed, no possibility of resentment, of bitterness, of grudges that are nursed. Wow! What a life that must me.

Adam and Eve were naively and gloriously free and transparent. They knew no shame, but sin changed all that, of course. We find out that after they sinned the eyes of both of them were opened (This is verse 7 of Genesis 3.) and they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. They were hiding their shame.

You know, when sin entered the world what happened is the serpent said that you will be like God, and there is a part of us that is Godlike. There was some truth in what he said, though he really misled them and much of what he said was totally false, of course. But now what’s going to happen as a result of the fault is “I will be my little god over my little sphere of influence, my universe; you will be your god over your fiefdom, your little sphere of influence, and we as gods now are always going to be colliding.”

Narcissism was born here. You know that it is said in Greek legend that Narcissus was a man who was good looking. He was so handsome and the girls were falling in love with him, but he paid no attention to them because he was in love with himself. He saw his reflection in a pool of water and he so fell in love with it that the gods condemned him to self-love forever and he died looking at himself, totally self-absorbed. That’s narcissism, and it exists in all of us, but those who particularly have a narcissistic personality are now going to interpret all reality in relation to themselves.

Let me give you a little dialog with a narcissist. You say, “You know, Mrs. Jones down the street is the one who baked that cake. It was so good.” “Well, don’t you like the cakes I bake? What’s wrong with the ones that I bake? Why is it that you are talking about her cake and you never talk about mine?”

You may say, “I need to work late tonight.” “Oh I know, you never want to be with me, do you? You’re always finding an excuse to be out of the home.” Or you may say, “You know, So-and-so had a great tragedy and we should really show them kindness. I am just so grieved by what they are going through.” “Well nobody ever cares about me when I am going through a difficult time.”

I could go on and on, couldn’t I? Here’s another example. Somebody does something evil and you express the fact that you are really sorry that this happened. “Well, that’s something that I wouldn’t do. I do many things but I would never do that.” All of reality is poured through the self.

Now let’s understand this. I am king of my little world. You are king of your little world, okay? And our worlds are constantly colliding, and now left to my natural desires, if you show me up and are better at something than I am, I will resent you. If I see that you are a threat to who I am I will destroy you. I will blame you. I will tell lies about you. If you have something that I want and I can’t seem to have it, I will think of a way to steal it from you. At all costs I am going to protect my little kingdom, and you are going to protect your little kingdom and the problem is our kingdoms are always intersecting. They are always bumping into one another. And wars and disputes and lies are created all to protect my territory.

Well, what happened as a result of this sin that Adam and Eve committed? Let’s look at the text and realize that now that they were king of their own little mountain, number one, they hid. I read it a moment ago. They sewed fig leaves and they hid amongst the trees of the garden, the very trees that were to provide a window into God’s character. A window through which they could see the God of nature becomes now a wall that is going to protect them from themselves and from God.

Now all hiding is not wrong. It was good that they sewed fig leaves to hide themselves. As a matter of fact, later on in this chapter we find that God Himself made garments for them (verse 21), garments of skin to clothe themselves, prefiguring salvation actually. God did that because there is no going back to Paradise. Total exposure now becomes impossible.

One day on a plane I read a review of a book someone wrote about the fact that he is the most honest man in the world and he’s into total complete honesty. So if he meets you he’s just plain honest. He might say to you, “You know, I’ve never met you before but I just want you to know that your breath is a little off.” Or he’ll meet you and he’ll say, “You know, I just don’t think that the combination that you are wearing today really suits you very well and you should have chosen something else,” because he’s going to be really honest.

He also joined a nudist colony because the whole idea is that if he can be physically exposed he can be psychologically exposed because he is going to be totally transparent. The Bible would say that that is very wrong-headed. Do you know why? There is no way to go back to Paradise. You can’t go back to the Garden of Eden. It is good that there are some things that are not exposed.
Quite frankly I am glad that you don’t know all the thoughts that I have, and I’m very glad that I don’t know all the thoughts that you have. And love covers a multitude of sins. And so not everything should be exposed, but there is much that people hide that should be exposed. The Bible says, “He who covers his sin will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them finds mercy.” And we’ll be touching on that a little later on in another message.

Secondly, not only did they hide, but also now they are preoccupied with appearance. From now on the kind of fig leaves that you are wearing is going to be very, very important because you want to both hide yourself from others and you want to expose a part of yourself to others. And people are going to be obsessed with the way in which they appear in the sight of others.

And you are going to have young women who are very thin, starving themselves to death, because of shame. They fear that they are fat, when in point of fact they aren’t, and they are going to be obsessed with the way in which they look, particularly in cultures that seem to have little else to do than to be preoccupied with the worship of the body. So now your appearance is going to become important, the curves that you have, the muscles that you have or don’t have, the way you come across, the cosmetic industry. Everything is going to be on top alert now that people are going to be preoccupied by the way in which they live in the presence of others.

Thirdly, the blame game begins. We already have noticed this in other contexts, that when God says, “Adam, wo bist du?” (And that just happened to slip out, by the way, because I think that God did speak German in the Garden of Eden.) or when God says, “Adam, where are you?” you’ll notice he says, “I was afraid and I was naked and I hid.”

“And who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree whereof I commanded you that you should not eat?” And he said, “The woman whom you put here, whom you gave me, she took of the tree, and then I ate.” Eve also admits to eating but she blames it on the serpent.

From now on, what you are going to have is the defense mechanism that operates within the human psyche, that is going to say, “I’m not responsible; you are responsible.” And there are some people, as we shall learn this morning, who are psychologically incapable of taking responsibility for their mistakes, their misdemeanors and their sins. And they will, through ingenious ways, if necessary, destroy all the people around them to protect themselves from all possibility of exposure. That’s going to happen. Albert Camus said, in his book, The Fall, “Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.”

Marital difficulties are going to escalate. Notice that the man blames the woman, and Eve is not amused. The Bible doesn’t tell us everything but I can’t believe that there was no argument that night. “What do you mean? You are saying that I am the one who gave it to you. You were standing right there, for heaven’s sake.” “Well, yeah, but you’re the one who did it, you know.” And on and on it goes and pretty soon they have to sign up with Pastor Milco for a marriage counseling class. (laughter)

And then in addition to that they had two kids and one of them murders the other, and that’s why next week’s sermon is entitled The Roots of Rage, and we’re going to begin with Cain and try to understand why this anger, why this violence. Why are there some men who batter their wives? Why is there anger that is so out of control? And we’re going to, with God’s help, go to the very root of the matter of what causes that.

Well, there’s no returning to Paradise. Now I want you to know that today there are many books being written on the topic of shame, and many of them are written from a humanistic viewpoint. Here is the way in which the secularists view shame. They say, “Shame is a result of culture,” so you have shame cultures, and there are shame cultures, but it’s a feeling that you simply must unlearn. And the way in which you take care of shame is not because you have objective shame in the sight of God. No! They would say that all of shame is subjective. That is to say that it is imposed upon us by society, and the way that we get rid of it is to simply reconstruct the reality around us and have a different view of reality so that we are exonerated, and that is the answer to shame.

You know, the Bible has a lot to say about shame. I’ve got more to say about shame than I am going to be able to preach in this message. I discovered that there are more than one hundred references to shame. There are twelve Hebrew words just for shame. There are a number of different Greek words for shame.

Let me tell you that first of all, the Bible is very objective. It is guilt in the sight of God. In fact, in the book of Jeremiah and elsewhere, God berates the people because he says, “You feel no shame.”

Years ago a book was written entitled Whatever Happened to Sin? We could write another one entitled Whatever Happened to Shame? People today think that the way back to Eden is to expose all the things that they have done, all of the immorality, all of the impurity, and to have this river of impurity simply flowing down through this country, and somehow that is going to cleanse them and make them better. It’s a delusion of the worst kind.

Let me say that shame is good. Shame is the beginning of grace. It’s because Adam and Eve knew that they were ashamed that they sewed themselves fig leaves and God came along and said, “I’m going to give you animal skins, prefiguring the coming of a redeemer who will die as a sacrifice.” So shame in itself scripturally often is presented as objective before God.

But there’s another kind of shame and I want to talk about it briefly, and that is the subjective shame. It’s shame not because of things that you have done, but because of the home in which you were raised, or experiences that you have had where you have been shamed, and so you are dealing with that subjective kind of shame. That is not shame before God, but you feel it just as intensely, and if not uncovered and dealt with, it can ruin you just as certainly.

Let me give you a few characteristics of a shame-based home. First of all, it’s one in which there is excessive control – beatings, anger, sometimes-random beatings, and that creates the anger, as we’ll see next time. When a child is brought up in a home like this, he tends to grow up with a lot of internal shame. There’s sexual abuse. I remember how Dorie VanStone, who was sexually abused in the orphanage, said as she walked into school she felt as if she was as transparent as glass, and everyone could see through her, and the only thing that she thought was, “Shame, shame, shame.”

There are some homes in which children grow up where any sexual curiosity is shamed, oftentimes under the misuse of Scripture, because children grow up and of course they are curious about these things because we are all born either male or female, and there has to be a healthy guidance and instruction given most assuredly. But in a shame based home all that is shoved under the rug, and if it is brought out it is only to be shamed.

Let me give you another characteristic. It’s a home in which there is belittling and a lot of ridicule. The child who is constantly criticized and constantly ridiculed will be shamed through to the core - parentheses.

Another characteristic is where, in a shame based home, all blame has to be enthusiastically assessed. So instead of the normal experiences of life where children do childish things, the children are always blamed.

“Who put that comb on the stove? Tell me, what kind of a house do you think we are running around here? Let’s get this straight. Are you going to be responsible or aren’t you? I told you….” And on and on it goes. The child growing up in that context is going to struggle with an awful lot of shame.

A home in which there are addictions, and a home in which there is unhealthy bonding oftentimes brings shame. Do you remember in the first message I preached in this series that was entitled Lost in a House of Mirrors that I said that the responsibility of a parent is to mirror back to the child who that child is and to give him or her a good sense of identity? In a shame-based home what you have is an unhealthy bonding where the children end up existing to meet the narcissistic needs of the parents, and as a result of that, the children no longer receive a mirror as to who they are, but they actually end up mirroring the parent. And that’s why shame is so difficult to overcome.

If you don’t think that shame is a difficult emotion, remember this. The Bible says that the suffering of hell is the suffering of shame. It says in Daniel that there is a resurrection unto life, and a resurrection unto damnation, and it says that some will be resurrected unto everlasting shame and contempt. I take it that a great part of the suffering of hell is the constant exposure of sin without any remedy, where everything is revealed and sin is seen for what it is, and all the shame.

And by the way, we can be shamed too at the judgment seat of Christ. “He who is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in glory.” This I find almost difficult to get my mind around to think that if I am ashamed of Christ, if I am a businessman and I do not tell any person that I belong to Jesus, because of shame, because it’s not popular to be a born again Christian, that Jesus will be ashamed of me, at least temporarily someday when I stand before Him.

Let me give you some of the consequences of unresolved shame, and then we’re going to get to the answer. I want you to know today that my heart is filled with so much hope and so much faith that God has given me, that as a result of this message many of you are going to experience a sense of release and freedom from the binding power of shame. And I believe that the Bible is going to help us to do that, but before we get to the cure could I take out a moment to simply tell you some of the consequences of unresolved shame? And this is true of objective shame, things for which we have actually done, as well as the subjective shame that has been imposed upon us because of our upbringing or because of experiences where people have misused us and so forth. Let me give you some of those consequences before we talk about the cure.

First of all, possible paranoia! People are paranoid. Why are people paranoid? The root cause is shame. You see, to a paranoid person everyone out there is out to get them. Everybody there is really there to destroy them, to reveal him or her for who they are, and they are absolutely terrified. They are fearful. Many of us, in order to protect our home, might put up an alarm system on the door or maybe even the windows are tied into the alarm system. The paranoid person sets all this stuff up already out on the lawn. Preferably he will build a wall with deep foundations and a high wall so that he can hide himself because those who are paranoid are, for the most part, absolutely incapable psychologically until they are delivered by God, of taking personal responsibility and admitting to their own sins and their own failures. They are terrified, and that’s why fear and shame are so closely connected. Adam said, “I was fearful and I hid myself.” They are terrified of the possibility of exposure, and therefore they develop incredible secrecy and a protective mechanism that is almost impossible to penetrate.

Let me give you a second possibility, and that is a wrong form of perfectionism. Now not all perfectionism is wrong. I had surgery some time ago, as some of you know, and I prayed, “Oh God, please make my doctor a perfectionist.” I wanted him to be a perfectionist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If there’s something worth doing, it’s worth doing right. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about a sense of judgmentalism, a sense of hypercriticism, often rooted in shame because the person has said, “I was brought up in a shame-based home and I am never going to be shamed again, and as a result of that I am going to build this protective system around me and everything is going to be done right, and everyone around me is going to be expected to jump through the same hoops that I jump through, and it better be done right,” because if not, what do they fear? They fear the shame of what others think.

One day I was speaking to a man whose wife was critical, and we’re not picking on the wives here, as you’ll see. Men make a great deal more trouble in most homes than women ever do, but he was talking about his wife being so critical. You know that old line that says, “If a man speaks in a forest and his wife isn’t there to hear it, is he still wrong?” (laughter) I said to him, “Was your wife brought up in a shame-based home?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Alcoholism, abuse, over-exaggerated discipline, a blaming home.” Most of those things were true. He never saw the connection. She so fears exposure that everything has to be done right, and this is connected with anger which we will talk about next time as well, and as a result of that, unresolved shame.

Some people, number three, become a doormat for others. They’ve experienced so much shame they believe that they have to be shamed. If somebody treats them well they either resent it or else they put the bar a little higher so that the person cannot jump over all of the bars that they will put up so that everybody is guaranteed to fail them.

You know, we don’t have time for the others. I have several others – eating disorders, and the whole bit that I mentioned earlier but we must hurry on.

What is God’s cure for shame? Do you remember in the book of Joshua, Israel had been in the desert for 40 years, and they came to Gilgal, and Gilgal means circle in Hebrew, and they even talk there about the circle, the stones that were put up in Gilgal. And it’s really symbolic of the fact that the shame, the reproach of Egypt and their failures, was to be washed away. I mean they had a whole history of failures, a history of shame – 40 years of wandering in the desert, and God said, “You can roll the shame of the past years away,” and I want you to pray during the next few moments, even as you listen, that God will use the words that I am going to share with you now as friend to friend to roll your shame away.

And I speak to those of you who have been divorced. God hates divorce. We do too, but it’s a reality, and some of you still to this day still have a stigma of shame. I speak to those of you who have had abortions. There’s a stigma of shame. I speak to those of you who have committed immorality, and to those who were brought up in shame-based homes. I speak to those of you today who have that shell around you, that absolute total terror that you might be exposed, and therefore you struggle with the things that we are talking about. My goal in the next ten minutes, under the inspiration and power of the Spirit and His word is to show you that you can be set free from shame.

There are two passages of Scripture that I will only quote to you. One is Hebrews 6:6. It says this. “If you come to Christ and then go back into Old Testament sacrifices, you are crucifying the Son of God; you are crucifying Him again and setting Him to an open shame.” The NIV translation says disgrace but really the word is shame. Now why is that? The crucifixion, my dear friend, was a terrible, terrible experience of shame. In fact, the cross was spoken of as the tree of shame. Paul says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs upon the tree.”

Does shame cause the destruction of the person’s reputation? Yes. “He was despised and he was rejected of men.” Does shame silence us? Yes. “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb so He opened not His mouth.” Does shame expose our obvious weaknesses? Yes. “He was derided. He saved others. Himself He cannot save.” Does shame lead to abandonment? Yes. “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Does shame diminish people? Yes, it diminishes people. “He was crucified naked as the gawkers walked by.”

How did Jesus handle the shame? How did he take it? There’s a second text in Hebrews. It says in chapter 12, “We look unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” The NIV says, “scorning it.”

What He was saying in effect was, “Bring it on. Let Me bear the shame of the world. Let Me take the load of sin. Let Me take the guilt. Here I am. Crucify Me. Shame! Try to destroy Me if you can,” and what Jesus said as a result of His death and of the subsequent resurrection is this. He says to you and to me, “Shame cannot permanently cripple. Shame cannot permanently destroy. Shame, like death, has the sting taken out of it. There is a remedy and you need not be crippled by it.”

I like to put it this way. I think Jesus shamed shame. He said, “Shame on you shame. I’ll bear the load and in the end you’ll have no authority over Me.”

What do we do with our shame? Number one, our shame must be covered. It must be covered. When David committed the twin sins of adultery first of all and then murder to cover it up, what a cover-up, and yet David is famous for his sin. The cover-up simply did not work. Finally when he came clean and he confessed his sin he said in Psalm 32, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven and whose sin is covered.”

When God sewed those skins together to clothe Adam and Eve, as I’ve already mentioned, it was a picture of the coming clothing of Jesus, his righteousness to cover the ugliness of our shame. It says in the book of Revelation that Jesus said, “Come and take my garments that the shame of your nakedness may not appear.” There is a covering for the shame, and that is the forgiveness of God. It is the grace of God.

The first is our shame must be covered. The second is our shame must be surrendered because here is what some of you are thinking. You are saying, “Yes, I am forgiven in the sight of God to be sure, but what about if my friends find out?” There are things that maybe you have done that if the truth were known and these things were exposed you would find so much shame. David struggled with that a terrible amount. You know, I was reading the Psalms this week. For example, in Psalm 25 twice he prays, “Oh God, let me not be ashamed.” Over and over again he says, “Remember not the sins of my youth. Let me not be ashamed.” And yet he was ashamed as the truth came out, but the reason that David said that he could handle it is this. He knew that his sin had now been covered by God and forgiven by God and taken away by God. Therefore, whatever human beings could do to him, no matter how he disappointed them, no matter how ill they would think of him, at the end of the day there was nothing that could be uncovered about his life that was not already known by God and forgiven by God. And therefore David said, “I can go on; I don’t have to stop.” Despite the shame, God walks with us through that shame.

Our shame must be covered. Our shame must be surrendered. And our shame must be replaced. I think of the story of Tamar in the Old Testament who was raped by her half brother, Amnon, and she put ashes on her head and she walked away in humiliation and shame. God says in Isaiah 61, “I will take the ashes of humiliation and the ashes of shame and I will give you instead the beauty of a garland.” He says, “I will take the oil of gladness and give it to you instead of mourning, and I will give you the garments of praise instead of fainting. I’m going to give you something to substitute for that awful shame, and it will be put away so that you can march on.” It must be covered. It must be surrendered. It must be replaced.

I conclude with a story. I have man who is a very good friend of mine. If you had asked me ten or fifteen years ago to name my three or four top friends in the world I think he would have been among them. It was the kind of friendship that when you meet you don’t have to try to re-establish things. You take up where you left off, and you can just relax and know that you are accepted. And he committed immorality, and then in order to deal with the shame he disappeared and actually went to another state and changed his name, trying to disappear off the face of the earth. About six months later his identity was finally found out, and shortly after that I was making a trip to that state and made it a point to contact him.

God used me as one of the first people to minister to this dear man who was living in such unbelievable shame that he seemed to be unable to face anyone he ever knew. I remember sitting at the table and he was talking and he said, “Just think of it this way.” He said, “Think of an onion. You peel away one layer and then you peel away another. The opinion of people meant so much to me. My board, my congregation, everybody meant so much, and now I not only had disappointed all of them in this way, but also trying to cover it up only increased my shame.” He said, “It was as if all the peelings of the onion were peeled away and there was absolutely nothing in the center. Nothing! I did not have one friend in the world. I was despised. I was spoken about. People said, ‘How could he do it? We thought more highly of him,’” And he said, “When I got up in the morning my first question was, ‘Do I have the strength to take one step and then take another and then a third step? Can I get through till the evening?’”

And then he began to understand God’s forgiveness and God’s grace, which he of course accepted, and slowly he asked himself these questions. “What do I do about my shame? Do I just live in isolation? Do I just say no to all of my friends for the rest of my life?” And he thought, “No, I’m not going to do that. God has forgiven all of my deceit and my sin. If it is covered I can surrender that shame to Him and I can go back and rebuild bridges.” And he did. He went to his parents which was very difficult. They were godly people. He went back to his friends because he said, “I will not permanently be crippled by shame.”

I remember driving down a street with him and he said, “I’m going to put in a favorite tape of mine,” and I said, “Go ahead; do it,” and it was Dave Boyer singing, “Calvary Covers It All,” and as that song began to come through the stereo system of his car he pulled off to the side of the road. He was weeping too much and we just sat there and cried together.

Calvary covers it all,
My sin with its guilt and stain.
(We could say my guilt and shame.)
My guilt and despair, Jesus took on Him there.
And Calvary covers it all.

Today this man is being used of the Lord. You say, “Well it’s not the same though.” Of course it’s not the same. It wasn’t the same for Adam and Eve. They couldn’t go back to Paradise. There’s no going back to the beginning. There are consequences here but it’s not the end of the road because remember that the purpose of the cross is to repair the irreparable. That’s why Jesus died. He died for things that could never ever quite be the same again.

I say to those of you today who are in prisons of fear and prisons of shame, prisons of insecurity, you are absorbed by what people think about you because of the possibility of being exposed, “Come to the Savior.” Your shame can be covered. It can be surrendered. It can be replaced with God’s blessing, for the purpose of the cross is to repair the irreparable.

Let’s pray.

Father, please deliver your people. Please, Father, send your blessed Holy Spirit into hearts that are locked, into hearts that are fearful, into hearts that refuse all possibility of responsibility for who they are and what they have done. We ask today, Father, that you will make us a people who don’t have to be perfect, who admit our sins and weaknesses because we’ve all done those things for which we are really, really ashamed. And we ask today that you might bring about deliverance for all who have heard.

And now before I close this prayer would you talk to God? Would you lay that shame at the feet of Jesus? You talk to Him because He has talked to you.

Father, don’t let people go until You have healed them. We pray, Father, that in these quick moments that You, oh God, by your blessed Spirit might bring deliverance. And if there is no deliverance yet, send these dear people home to seek You until they are free.

And if you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior the Bible says you can believe on Him and be saved. Your sin and shame can be covered. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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