Shame on You! (2 Timothy)

You’ve probably noticed that things have changed a lot in this country over the past couple hundred years.  One of the things that has changed is how we punish people when they commit a crime.  My guess is that it’s probably been quite a while since you’ve seen someone punished in stocks or pillories like these. 

            But that used to be a very common form of punishment in America.  If someone committed a crime, they would be put in the stocks right out in public where everyone passing by could see them.  The hope was that the shame of being publicly humiliated would keep people from doing something wrong.

            But all of this began to change in the 18th century, when public leaders began to reevaluate the importance of human dignity.  Benjamin Rush wrote in 1787, that shaming “is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death.”

            Which seems to me to be a bit of an overstatement, but from that point on, things began to change.  Beginning in 1804, public stocks were abolished by law.   And so, today, we put the emphasis on punishing a criminal, but not shaming him.

            But I’m fascinated by different cultures around the world, and I am especially intrigued by what is referred to as a shame culture.  For example, most African and Asian countries have a shame culture.  Most Middle Eastern countries have a shame culture.  Which means that most of the people we read about in the Bible lived in a shame culture.

            Shame cultures are based on the concepts of pride and honor, and what is most important for a person in that culture is for people for think well of them.  So, in a shame culture, people are constantly asking the question, “What will people think about me if I do this?”

            And, in a shame culture, your identity is defined by the group you belong to.  Whenever two people meet, one of the first things they talk about is figuring out which family, which clan, or which village the other person is from. 

            And since honor is a shared commodity, what one person does brings honor (or shame) on the entire community.  Children are taught from a very early age how to bring honor to the family, and people are expected to be loyal to whatever group they belong to, even if they have to make great sacrifice to do so.

            And, in a shame culture, the biggest punishment people can imagine is being ostracized by the group they are a part of.  I think that’s why disfellowship was so effective in the early church.  For a person in a shame culture to be ostracized by the group they were a part of was absolutely crushing and it forced them to reconsider their actions.  But, in today’s society, we live in such an individualistic culture that being disfellowshipped hardly makes an impact at all.

            So, here’s the difference between a guilt culture like ours and a shame culture.  In a guilt culture, you believe you are good or bad based on what you believe is right or wrong.  In a shame culture, you believe you are good or bad based on what your community says about you, by whether it honors you or excludes you.            

            Several years ago, Andy Crouch wrote an article in Christianity Today in which he argued that things are changing in this country.  Social media has created a new sort of shame culture.  The world of Facebook, Instagram and all the rest is a world of constant display and observation.  And the desire for people to be embraced and praised by the community is extremely intense.  And so, people will often decide what they’re going to do or what they’re going to say based not on what’s right or wrong, but on whether they will be liked or rejected by others.

            And the result is that everybody feels a sense of anxiety in a moral system that is based on inclusion and exclusion.  There are no permanent standards, just the shifting judgment of the crowd.  Everybody feels compelled to go along.  And if you don’t?   Well, we live in a world where shaming people on the internet has become a frequent occurrence.

            But that has caused some people to swing to the other extreme and say that it’s always wrong to shame someone for something that they do.  And counselors will often tell their patients who are ashamed to get over it and not feel ashamed anymore.   To these people, you should pretty much never be ashamed, because shame is always bad.

            And that kind of thinking has found its way into the church.  There are some Christians who say that it is never appropriate to feel the emotion of shame.  One Christian blog put it this way, “Shame has been around for a long time. We’re familiar with it. But that doesn’t make it good. Shame is never good for any reason. Shame is bad.”

            But it’s hard to reconcile that with verses like Jeremiah 6:15, where the Lord said, “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?  No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.  Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown.” (Jeremiah 6:15).  God says here that he considers a lack of shame to be a bad thing

            Or 2 Thessalonians 3, where the apostle Paul wrote, If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14).  Shame must not be a bad thing because Paul specifically instructed the church to make someone feel ashamed.

            So, does that mean that shame is a good thing?  Before I answer that question, let me define a couple of words for you – guilt and shame.  There are some who would say, “Guilt means I did a bad thing.  Shame means I’m a bad person.”  Which may sound nice, but it’s not correct.

            According to the dictionary, guilt is the fact of having done something wrong.  And that’s how we use that word in a courtroom.  A person is considered to be “guilty” or “not guilty.”  It has nothing to do with anyone’s feelings; it’s simply a matter of determining whether or not you did something wrong.  If you committed the offense, you’re guilty; if you didn’t do it, you’re innocent.

            Shame, on the other hand is “the painful emotion caused by an awareness of guilt.”  In other words, guilt is the fact, but shame is the feeling.   Someone may say “I feel so much guilt over this,” but what they really mean is, “I feel so much shame over this.”  Guilt is the fact, shame is the feeling

            Now, once we understand those definitions, it should be obvious that shame is sometimes an appropriate emotion.  You can’t say that “shame is never a good thing.”  In fact, when a person has done something wrong, it is very appropriate for them to feel ashamed.

            Genesis 2:25 tells us that Adam and Eve were in the garden of Eden, they were naked but they weren’t ashamed.  They weren’t ashamed because they hadn’t done anything wrong.  But, after they both ate the fruit, everything changed.  At that point, they were both guilty (because they did something wrong), and they felt ashamed because they knew that they had done something wrong.  So, because they were ashamed, they tried to hide from God.

            Once we understand the difference between guilt and shame, we notice a couple of things.  First of all, it is possible to be guilty but not feel any shame.  There are people in this world who do things that are wrong but they don’t feel bad about it.  Their conscience doesn’t bother them one bit.  There is no shame.  That’s the kind of person God was talking about in Jeremiah 6:15.

            On the other hand, it is also possible for a person to feel shame without actually being guilty of having done anything wrong.  

            But shame itself is not a bad thing.  In fact, there’s a section in 2 Corinthians where Paul says that something he wrote in an earlier letter made the Corinthians feel bad.  Using today’s Facebook terminology, we would say that Paul shamed them.  But instead of apologizing for making them feel ashamed, Paul said that he rejoiced because “your grief led to repentance.”  Their shame was a good thing because it led them to do what was right.

            Well, if shame is a good thing, then why do so many people act like it’s a bad thing?  I think there are at least a couple of reasons for that.

            First of all, there are a lot of people who do wrong things who don’t want to feel bad about it.  Shame is a painful feeling, so they try their best to not feel it at all.  And, of course, if you believe that nothing is shameful and that no one should feel ashamed ever… well, that’s very helpful when you are trying to whisk away those pesky feelings.

            The second reason is because there is such a thing as “inappropriate shame.”  In other words, some people feel shame over sins that have been forgiven (and the shame is no longer necessary).  Or people may feel ashamed about sins that they didn’t commit.

            But just because there are some situations where the feeling of shame is not appropriate, that doesn’t mean that shame is never good for any reason, and that no one should feel ashamed!  Shame can be a good thing.

            What does all of this have to do with 2 Timothy?  Four times in this letter, Paul makes reference to being ashamed.

            “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.”  (2 Timothy 1:8)

            “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.” (2 Timothy 1:12)

            “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains.” (2 Timothy 1:16)

            “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

            So, this morning, I want to take a closer look at this topic of shame, when it is appropriate and when it’s not.  But first, let’s take a look at this overview of Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

            Watch VIDEO (2 Timothy)

            A few moments ago, I gave you a definition of shame.  I said that shame is “the painful emotion caused by an awareness of guilt.”  The definition in Webster, though, is actually a little bit longer than that.  According to Webster, shame is “the painful emotion caused by a consciousness of guilt or shortcoming or impropriety.”  Let me illustrate each of those three reasons that people may feel shame.

            First of all, a person may feel shame because of guilt.  Suppose you lie on your tax returns.   Maybe for a couple years you don’t feel a sense of shame because you’ve put it out of your mind, and you weren’t caught.  But then you’re called to account by the IRS and it becomes public knowledge that you lied and you stole.  Your guilt is known to everyone.  And because of your guilt, you feel a sense of shame.

            Or. secondly, we might feel shame because of shortcoming.  For example, suppose in the upcoming Summer Olympics, you come from a little country where you are quite good in the 3,000-meter race.  But then you compete in front of thousands of people in Tokyo, and the competition is so tough that by the time the last lap comes up, you are a whole lap behind everyone else, and you have to keep running all by yourself while everyone watches. There’s no guilt here. You haven’t done anything wrong.  But there is a lot of humiliation and shame, because of your shortcoming.

            Or, thirdly, we might feel shame because of impropriety.  Suppose you’re invited to a party and you find out when you get there that you dressed all wrong.  You have jeans and a T-shirt on and everyone else is wearing a suit and tie.  Again, there’s no guilt here.  It’s just a social blunder, an impropriety that makes you feel foolish and embarrassed.

            So, what this definition of shame tells us is that there is some shame that is justified and some shame that isn’t.  There are some situations where shame is exactly what we should feel.  And there are some situations where we shouldn’t feel ashamed.  Most people would say that someone who’s a liar and a thief ought to be ashamed.  And most people would probably say that the long-distance runner who gave it his best effort shouldn’t feel ashamed.  Disappointed maybe, but not ashamed.

            The Bible also makes it clear that there is a shame which we ought to have and there is a shame that we shouldn’t have.  This morning, I’m going to refer to one kind of shame as “inappropriate shame” and the other kind as “appropriate shame.”

            Inappropriate shame (the kind we shouldn’t have) is the kind of shame we feel when there’s no good reason to feel it, because the thing we feel ashamed of is not dishonoring to God.

            On the other hand, appropriate shame (the kind we ought to have) is the shame we feel when there is good reason to feel it, because we’re ashamed for doing something that was dishonoring to God.  And we ought to feel shame when we have done something that brings dishonor on God by our attitudes or actions.      

            Now, it’s important that you understand that God is in this distinction between inappropriate and appropriate shame. Whether we have done something that honors God or dishonors God makes all the difference.  And if we want to battle shame at its very root, then we need to see how our shame relates to God.

            And we do need to battle shame at its very root.  Because whether our shame is inappropriate or appropriate, that shame can absolutely cripple us if we don’t know how to deal with it properly.

            So, let’s begin by taking a look at a couple of these passages in 2 Timothy.

            “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.”  (2 Timothy 1:8)

            “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains.” (2 Timothy 1:16)

            Paul says to Timothy if you feel ashamed because you’ve been talking with people about Jesus, that’s an inappropriate shame.  You haven’t dishonored Christ.  In fact, quite the opposite.  You’ve honored him. 

            And if you feel ashamed because a friend of yours is in trouble (in this case: prison) for Jesus’s sake, then your shame is inappropriate.  God is honored by the courage of his servants to go to prison for his name. We shouldn’t be ashamed to associate with something that honors God in this way.

            “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.” (2 Timothy 1:12)

            Paul, “I’m not ashamed for speaking up for Christ, and I’m not ashamed because I’m in prison because of it.  And the reason that I’m not ashamed is because my goal in life is to live in a way that brings honor to Jesus Christ, and I believe that I’ve done that. 

            Notice a few other passages.

            Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38).   Don’t be ashamed of Jesus.

            Paul said in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

            I Peter 4:16, “If one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God.”  As we talked about in our Bible class Wednesday night, we’ve all had those moments when we’ve been afraid to speak up for Christ because we were afraid of what people might think about us or what they might say, but we should never be ashamed to give honor to God.

            So often in life, what makes us feel shame is worrying about what other people might think about us, worrying about what other people might say, worrying about whether or not we fit in.  But, in the Bible, the criterion for what is appropriate shame and what is inappropriate shame is not how foolish you may appear to people around you, but whether, in fact, you are bringing honor and glory to God.

            This is so important for us to grasp, because so much of what makes us feel shame is not that we have brought dishonor on God by our actions, but that we have failed to live in a way that other people will admire us.  So much of our shame is not God-centered, but self-centered.  And until we get a good handle on this, we will never be able to battle the problem of shame at its root.

            The biblical criterion for inappropriate shame is God-centered. The biblical criterion says, don’t feel shame for something that honors God no matter how weak or foolish it makes you look in the eyes of unbelievers.

            But, as I said earlier, shame can be a good thing, and there are some passages that talk about appropriate shame.  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15).   Paul says if you don’t study God’s Word and you don’t live your live the way that God has told you to, then you will be ashamed, and you should be ashamed!

            “Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.” (I Corinthians 15:34)

            Paul says that these Christians in Corinth ought to feel ashamed. “I say this to your shame.” Their ignorance of God was leading to false doctrine (they didn’t believe in the resurrection) and that led to sin and immorality in the church.  It is right to feel shame for doing something that dishonors God.

            In I Corinthians 6, there were some Christians who were going to secular courts to settle disputes among themselves. Paul rebukes them.  “I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers?” (I Corinthians 6:5)

            Their shame was appropriate because their behavior was bringing dishonor to God as they fought with one another and went to the godless to settle their disputes.  And here’s the irony of this situation.  These people were trying their best to prove that they were right. They wanted to be vindicated. They wanted to be winners in court. They didn’t want to look weak and shameful.  So, in the very act of wanting to avoid shame as the world sees it, they fell into the very behavior that God considers shameful.

            The point we learn this is: when we are dishonoring God, we ought to feel shame, no matter how much people around us may express their approval.

            “And you, son of man, describe to the house of Israel the temple and its appearance and plan, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities.” (Ezekiel 43:10)

            God said that Israel ought to feel shame for its iniquities. Any time we sin, we ought to feel a sense of shame because sin is behavior that dishonors God.

            Sometimes I hear people say something like, “We need to tell people that they’re not a bad person.  They just did some bad things.”  But that’s not what Jesus said.  Jesus said that “from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts…”  And after that, Jesus listed several evil things (murder, pride, theft, greed and others) and after this list of sins he said, “all these evil things come from within and defile a person.

            In other words, sin comes from inside of us. Sin is not some weird outside thing that is foreign to us, and occasionally gets on us when we’re not looking.  No, sin comes from the inside of us.  It’s part of our very nature.

            Sinners are not good people who do bad things.  Sinners are bad people who do bad things because they’re bad people.  And we’re all sinners.  As Paul said in Romans 3, “There is none righteous, no not one.” (Romans 3:9).  We’re all bad people in need of God’s forgiving and transforming grace that is only available through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

            The truth is that we all sin.  And that means that we are all guilty. This guilt produces shame in our lives. And this shame is helpful for two reasons:

  1. If we’re not followers of Jesus, Christ our shame can motivate us to seek out a Savior. Shame can motivate us to repent of our sins and be baptized, to seek forgiveness from Jesus, our great Redeemer, who will remove our shame by removing our guilt.
  1. Even after we have placed our faith in Christ, there are still some appropriate situations for shame.  It’s true that we’re not condemned for our sins because Jesus paid the price for them… and yet there is still a bad feeling that we should have when we sin that motivates us to keep turning from it.  As Paul said to the Corinthians, godly grief produces repentance.

            But it’s worth noting that once those sins are forgiven, there is no longer any need for shame.  In I Corinthians 6, Paul said that some of the Corinthian Christians had formerly been sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, and swindlers.  But there was no longer any need for a feeling of shame because he said, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Corinthians 6:11).

            There are some Christians who wallow in shame for sins that Jesus has already forgiven – sins they have repented of and from which they have been released.   And to live in shame after sins have been forgiven is not a healthy thing to do.

            Listen to this quote from Adrian Rogers: “The Bible teaches that when Jesus took our sin, he took all the punishment that goes with that sin. A part of that punishment is shame.”  I think he was right.  Jesus not only dealt with our guilt at the cross; he also dealt with our shame. He was humiliated and shamed so that we don’t have to be.

            If we are willing to put our faith in Jesus and repent of our sins, and take the steps necessary to receive his forgiveness, there is no reason for us to carry around either the fact of guilt or the feeling of shame.

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