The Gospel for Shame
We cannot miss the opportunity to talk about the gospel for shame in this particular era. The glory of Christ is that forgiveness of sin is through him alone. Jesus is the Lord God. We come to the Father through his death for sin as our substitute. Then, for the rest of time, we consider the endless meaning and application of this gospel, for which forgiveness of sins is a kind of shorthand. Among the realities that are bundled into forgiveness is that the gospel is for our sin and shame.
Shame identifies that we are unacceptable. Dirty and disgraced. Sent away. Distanced from people and God’s promises. We notice that life can feel more like death. We become unacceptable because of our own sin; we also become unacceptable because of our association with things connected with death such as weakness, disease, and the sins of others. No matter how sin-death gets its hands on us, it brings shame, and shame must receive the appropriate remedy.
In the Old Testament sacrifices were made (1) for sins committed and (2) for skin diseases, contact with a dead body, menstrual bleeding, being in a family that has been polluted by the behavior of a member, and many other reasons that were not one’s fault yet caused shame. This second category is not an occasion for confession (though we need no occasion for confession) but it is an occasion for cleansing and coming near, and this is found through blood.
The woman with persistent bleeding is from this second category (Luke 8:43-48). She understood that only Jesus could cleanse her from her shame so she quietly yet confidently approached him. Her faith—her connection—to Jesus was symbolized by human touch, which indicated that she was now brought close into his holiness and was no longer identified as one-who-bled. Jesus could have said, your sins are forgiven but here he said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
With the paralytic man, Jesus did say, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). In other words, forgiveness of sins is the assurance that the man has been forcibly taken from death and all its associates. His new connection to Jesus was expressed as physical wholeness and health. The man was not lame because of his particular sins, just as the man born blind was not blind because of his particular sins. But forgiveness of sins was shorthand for a wholesale redemption and cleansing that came from an association through faith with the Life Giver himself.
Today, we are still shamed by diseases that make us appear different from other people, but the palpable shame that exists in every church is more often a result of sexual victimization, demeaning anger, notable failures that are not from obvious sins, and both intentional and unintentional rejection. As a pastor, you could simply ask, Who feels unlovable? Pastoral ministry aims to describe shame as a way to draw disgraced people into Christ.
When we are sinned against, we don’t confess sinful acts done against us, but death has come close and leaves us connected to the vile actions of others. We need disconnection from sin’s power, cleansing and connection to the right person. Failures make the list not because they are associated with death, but they leave us feeling rejected—outsiders who are distant from both the community and God’s promises. We experience this when we perform poorly in a public task, are impoverished, or are denied a certain job. All these need to hear Jesus’ invitation to come near by faith and touch him. In this, the sinned against are washed and set apart for God, and the rejected are associated with the one who has an impeccable reputation, lifts our heads up, and makes us fruitful as we abide in him.
God’s words to the shamed are varied and attractive. “Come,” “receive a new name,” “come near,” “look, touch,” “believe – believe that the blood of God’s lamb extends to your guilt and shame in a way that you are forever associated with his purity and a beneficiary of his love.” Jesus also says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
In this proclamation, Jesus releases us from all things that once polluted. He separates us from them and brings us close. Sin and death are distanced; we are brought near. He did this by taking our guilt and shame on himself—as though we ourselves were the ones who quietly touched his garment—and dismissing it to judgment and death at the cross. There, sin, both our own and the sins of others against us, lost its power to corrupt. His blood disconnected us from death and gave us his life and holiness. Now we are close, so close that we can say that we are in him and he in us. Since this cleansing was once-and-for-all there is absolutely nothing that can keep us from the nearness and love of God.
These realities are sometimes difficult to understand. Because of that, Jesus is happy to speak of his love to those who have been ensnared by sin and death, and he is happy to speak of it again and again.
At this time in United States history there has been more openness about oppression, abuse, and demeaning words than ever before. It is only a beginning. We hope that the discussion persists and extends from victimization of women to racial matters and more, but it is a beginning. Shame has come out into the open. What the world can offer is a community that acknowledges how it has been treated shamefully, and this is a gift. A community by itself, however, does not have the power to diminish the contaminating power of sinful mistreatment. This is an opportunity for pastors to proclaim good news that is specifically for the humiliated, rejected and discarded.