Shame and Honour and Guilt and Innocence

This is the last post in a series of three on related topics. See first post for thoughts on the media and the 2020 election. This post is a continuation of the second one.


“Evil and evildoers need to be exposed and judged,” I asserted boldly last post. After I posted the words, a little voice whispered in the back of my mind, “But aren’t we all evildoers? In that case, shouldn’t we all fall under judgement?”

I don’t want to be judged. But yet, I acknowledge that I, too, am an evildoer.

The label might not sit well with you. The terms “evil” and “evildoer” are so harsh we’re unwilling to own them for ourselves. We might be more amenable to the terms “wrong” and “wrongdoing.” But if we couch the question in the premise that there are only the two sides—right and wrong, good and evil—and that the “wrong” and the “evil” are on the same dark team, we’ll have a better understanding of the true situation, I believe.

I was listening to a podcast this afternoon on cultural differences. Some bright lads somewhere have decided that eastern cultures fit more of a shame/honour model while western cultures think more along the lines of a guilt/innocence mindset. It occurred to me that the latter focuses more on the cause while the former is more about the effect. It struck me that eastern and western cultures may have a slightly different emphasis, but right and wrong and good and evil are universal concepts.

The fashion among thoroughgoing and consistent naturalistic materialists is to deny the objective reality of moral standards, but this gets tricky when faced with real-life examples of stark evil. How does one defend the position that there’s nothing really evil about murder? It’s not very beneficial for the welfare of civilization at large, and we need to lock murderers up for our own protection, but there’s nothing really and truly wrong about what serial killers do? That’s a hard sell. Some may pay lipservice to the philosophy, but I’ve been convinced that no one really believes it, even if some people tell themselves they do. It’s my contention that we all understand that there is a real right and a real wrong.

If some deny the reality of the cause, everyone seems to have some experience of the effect—with the possible exception of sociopaths. But they are the exception that prove the rule. Those who don’t feel shame are deficient, not extra-enlightened. As to the rest of us, we all know there are things we’ve done that we wouldn’t broadcast to the general public, that we’d be embarrassed for anyone else to know about.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Genesis 3 tells us about the first innocence turned into the first guilt followed immediately by honour degenerating into shame. And anthropologists (or whoever those bright lads are) have noticed that the broadest defining features of entire cultures—all cultures—are either the first part of Genesis 3 or the second part. Cultures are shaped around these universal concepts of good and evil and their immediate results.

And if we all experience the shame, that means we’ve all shared in the cause: the guilt.

I talked last post about the general human condition of “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” It’s a phrase from Romans 1. Romans 1 tells us that the one and only truly upright (and all-knowing) judge doesn’t judge us on what we don’t know. He judges us by what we know already. Romans 2-3 leaves all humanity without excuse by pointing out that we all know about right and wrong. In some way, God’s law is written on every heart. And we all know we’re guilty by the fact that we all know we’re ashamed. We may suppress the logical conclusion as to who wrote the law on our hearts, but we all know we’ve broken that law. None of us can live up to even his own standards of right and wrong.

Now to the question, “What’s the solution?” How do we deal with our guilt and the resulting shame?

Again, the common solution in various forms that we’ve come up with seems to cross cultures. We try to make up for the evil by adding more good to the mix. It’s the idea that a person will be okay as long as the good outweighs the bad. If justice is the balancing of a scale, a person is a good person just as long as the scale sinks down slightly lower on the good side.

The idea that evil can be atoned for by the countermeasure of good is a fallacy, however. Again, real-life examples quickly dispel the idea once it’s really examined.

I remember the occasion when this realization was brought home to me. I was volunteering with a mission that did its best to prevent the tragedy of child abuse from occurring within its doors. As part of that prevention, we were required to take training on the subject. I learned about a failure at one time on the part of this mission to detect abuse that went on for years. I watched an interview with the perpetrator, a missionary who was a “dorm father” in a boarding school in a poor country. The man admitted his wrongdoing and expressed contrition but then claimed God’s forgiveness.

I can’t remember what set me riding the train of thought (I think I may have been arguing online with someone on the topic, actually), but I remember seeing so clearly through the missionary’s example how short the theory falls that the good we do makes up for our evil.

The missionary had sacrificed his comfort and ease to live in the boarding school in the poor country. He’d given up a lot. On the one hand, he was doing a good work, volunteering with these kids, trying to give them a better life. In a way. And in another way, he was giving them a much worse life. He was also doing a very bad work. Even if he helped many more kids than he abused, no one cares. No one with an ounce of decency could possibly care about his sacrifices or the good work he’d done. The bad, by its very nature, outweighed the good, never mind the proportions. No amount of good deeds can pay for the bad ones. We don’t acquit a doctor because he only murdered one person, after all, but helped heal countless others. That’s not how justice works.

Justice requires payment. The only thing that balances the scales the blindfolded lady is holding is a payment. Good deeds are the wrong currency for that payment.

In fact, we all tacitly acknowledge that the right and proper payment for evil is pain and suffering. There’s a reason we feel outrage when prisons are a little too nice. The goal of prison is not just to neutralize the threat but also to repay the pain and suffering caused by the evil with the pain and suffering of the evildoer.

You may have burned with anger when I mentioned a minute or two ago that the missionary-child-abuser claimed God’s forgiveness. Although I know better, I couldn’t help doing a little burning of my own at that point in the interview. Evil causes pain and suffering. Inevitably. Shame may be the first natural result felt by the evildoer, but the first natural result for the recipient of the evil is pain and suffering. So why should an evildoer get off scot-free, we demand. We instinctively understand that justice calls for the payment of pain and suffering.

We can probably agree that the missionary did evil and that no amount of counteractive good he did could erase that evil or its pain and suffering. Could he possibly have been right that God could forgive him? How? How could God forgive such heinous evil? And how could those of us who haven’t abused children ever forgive those who have? How could we even want to worship a God who could forgive?

But all of us are only too happy to distance ourselves from the pain and suffering our own offences have caused others and to downplay those effects. Are we the best judges of our own wrongdoing? If God can’t forgive the child abuser, then how could he forgive any of us? From the perspective of perfection, how could He forgive at all?

It all comes back to the concept of justice and the payment it requires.

Here’s the thing with forgiveness: It also requires a payment. Always. The difference between forgiveness and retribution is who does the paying.

With forgiveness, the recipient of the evil pays the price of the pain and suffering without seeking any of it in return from the evildoer. The recipient pays the price one way or the other, but with forgiveness, the debt is absorbed. Forgiveness says to the wrongdoer, “Your wrong has cost me. And I pay that price without seeking to get any of that payment back from you. I will bear that cost.” That is what forgiveness is.

This is why forgiveness is an individual matter. As a society, we demand retribution. And we should. It’s not up to the individual wronged to negate whatever right and just payment the laws of the land exact against the wrongdoer. But the personal cost of pain and suffering borne by the victim can be accepted without personally looking for a repayment. The cost must be borne. The analogy of a financial transaction falls short here. The payment of pain and suffering of the evildoer in reality does nothing to ease the burden of the recipient’s pain and suffering. The only means of easing that burden is forgiveness.

Here’s where God comes into it: our evil doesn’t produce pain and suffering only amongst ourselves. Our evil is God’s pain and suffering. If there is a God of love, can you imagine what our world looks like from His perspective? As steep as the price is that the children abused by the missionary must pay, how much greater is God’s pain? That’s one thing we often fail to consider when we accuse God of not stepping in soon enough. Whatever we bear through the evil that permeates our planet, how much more must He bear? But He’s no wimp.

And because we’re all in the same boat of needing forgiveness, if any of us are to get out of this mess of needing to pay for our own sin, God has to bear the cost of pain and suffering in order to forgive us.

He offered this payment for our forgiveness very graphically illustrated one moment in history by dying a criminal’s death in the worst form of torturous execution ever devised by our evil hearts.

He is just. And justice demands payment for wrongdoing. Either by the perpetrator or by the injured party. Evil must be judged and evildoers punished. On the cross, evil was judged. And all those evildoers who were willing to accept God’s payment could be changed into something else. Forgiveness was made available. The debt was paid. The guilty could be legally declared the innocent. The payment was made by the judge on their behalf and accepted by the judge on their behalf. But even more, they could someday be remade completely.

Genesis 3 follows its narrative of the first sin and its natural results with God taking an innocent animal’s life to clothe the shame of nakedness of the first sinners. It was foreshadowing.

On the cross, God the Son hung naked.

After He’d been beaten within an inch of His life, the soldiers put Jesus’ own clothes back on Him and led Him away to be crucified. Then they stripped Him, nailed Him to the cross, and gambled for His blood-drenched clothing. That day, the guilt was theirs, but the shame was Jesus’. He took their shame so they could walk away from the cross with His robes soaked in His own blood. What a potent picture of our forgiveness!

Throughout the Bible, there are pictures of God Himself clothing all those who accept His offer. He covers their shame in robes of His own righteousness, our sin-stains washed out in His blood. 2 Corinthians 5:21 shares the deep, deep, mysterious truth that He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

And that’s what can happen to us evildoers. We can be transformed into new creations, clothed in righteousness, our guilt and shame done away with.

It’s a process. The transformation will be complete only when this life is over. But I can tell you from personal experience as well as witnessing the onset of this transformation repeatedly that it’s real and it works. God’s forgiveness and transforming work is the only real solution to our sin problem, and it’s on offer to all who are willing to accept it.

All dreams of perfecting ourselves and creating our own utopias on earth are doomed to fail. If I haven’t said anything else all post that you can agree with, I hope you can admit the truth of that failure. All the millennia of human history attest to it. In that case, the other thing is worth a try, isn’t it? What have you got to lose?

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