Whatever Happened to Sin, Guilt, & Shame?

I’m hardly the first or only person to comment on how we seem to have lost a sense of shame. There’s rarely, at least among the political leadership, the news media, and the entertainment segments of our society, any embarrassment over actions that used to bring public disgrace. The opposite now seems to be happening: outrageous, disgusting behavior is either ignored or rewarded.

Yet how can one feel shame if one has no sense of guilt over that behavior? Why has guilt gone the way of shame? Let’s trace it back to the loss of belief in sin and one’s accountability before God for one’s thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We used to be a society that had a set standard of right and wrong based on Biblical morality. While that’s not completely gone, we are now experimenting with what a society might be like if it jettisons Biblical morality entirely. We are seeing the wreckage all around.

One of the more obvious symptoms of a deceived heart is the outward acceptance of—no, make that the active push for—homosexuality. What was once considered deviant behavior is now encouraged. When anyone comes out of some kind of supposed closet, society applauds the “courage” it takes to make that public declaration of deviance. We are in the process of redefining right and wrong. Wrong is now intolerance of previously degenerate behavior. It’s the Christians who continue to hold to the former standard of morality who are now perceived as the real threat to societal harmony.

The most blatant example, of course, is same-sex marriage, an oxymoron of the highest caliber. The sad tale of Brendan Eich, who is now the former CEO of Mozilla simply because he made a contribution to the California effort back in 2008 to maintain the traditional concept of marriage as between one man and one woman, is the latest warning to those of us who are not going to bow before the new gods of immorality.

Mozilla

We used to be concerned about genuine threats to the safety of the nation, such as when underground communists were stealing nuclear secrets and placing their devotees in key positions within the government. That’s passé.

Traditional Marriage

Culture can change without the government’s aid. However, when the government is in on it as well, it provides a greater impetus for that change. The current administration has led the way. It began with the refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and gradually morphed into outright promotion of same-sex marriage, linking it to the civil rights movement. We have an administration that picks and chooses which laws it will support. That puts us on the cusp of utter lawlessness:

The Law

Whether it’s the push for same-sex marriage, the attempt to force businesses to provide abortion services, or the desire to silence political opponents through the agency of the IRS, we are at a precarious place. The rule of law is on the verge of extinction because we have destroyed the Biblical concepts of sin, guilt, and shame. Only by restoring those will we restore what we have lost as a people.

Defining Sin & Salvation

Usually on Sundays, I excerpt something from Charles Finney, who, I believe, was one of the clearest thinkers in church history when it comes to grasping the need for conviction of sin and repentance as conditions for salvation. In the spirit of Finney, I’d like to offer some thoughts today that I hope may clarify where I’m coming from in my understanding of sin, repentance, and the essence of salvation. I’ll do my best to make these comments succinct.

Some readers of this blog may have a misunderstanding of my concept of sin. Because I talk often abut the obvious sins that are threatening our society as a whole—abortion and homosexuality probably being the most prominent—they may think those particular problems are my ultimate focus and my definition of sin. No, they are merely manifestations of the real problem. They are sinful actions, but they stem from something deeper.

What is sin, exactly? My reading of Scripture informs me that sin is rebellion against the altogether reasonable and righteous commands of God. I don’t believe God lays out laws for our misery, but rather for our well-being. He knows far better than we do what virtue consists of and why it is best for us. When we depart from His path, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. That’s why He warns us to examine ourselves.

Motive of the HeartAll sin begins in the heart, which can be defined as the will and motive for our actions. There are only two ultimate intentions in life: to act for the glory of God or for our own selfish gain. Even if we never descend into outward actions that are considered notorious, we are sinners nevertheless for our inward choice to do what we want to do, contrary to the will of God.

Murder [both outside the womb and within], sexual immorality [both hetero- and homo-], and every other type of sinful behavior is committed first in the mind, then transferred to the heart, and finally manifested in action. But even if someone does not follow through on the outward action, the sin still has been committed—God judges the heart.

Outwardly, a person may be “good” in the artificial sense in which most people judge goodness. A person may be “nice” in temperament, give time and money to “worthy” causes, and even be quite adept at God-talk. Yet that same person may have never faced up to his inner rebellion, never come to the point of genuine repentance for sin, and never seriously considered humbling himself at the cross of Christ to receive forgiveness. There are a lot of people who have a wish to follow God, but that wish never translates into action. That leads to an attempt to prove oneself worthy of heaven by concentrating on external good deeds.

PhariseesBut the Lord will always look at the heart first. That’s why Jesus made some rather harsh statements about the Pharisees of His time. I like the wording of Matthew 23 in the Message version:

 You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.

The thrust of Jesus’ argument is that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, but what’s on the inside. No matter how good one may look, if the heart does not belong wholly to God, it’s all a sham. We will be nothing more than frauds and hypocrites.

Sin, therefore, is in the heart, and that’s where it must be dealt with. When it is acknowledged and sincerely repented of, one can then receive the forgiveness offered through Christ. And when the heart is cleansed, sin is avoided in the future and the desire is to be everything God wants us to be. Righteousness doesn’t become a burden, but a blessing.

The apostle John put it this way in his first letter:

Do we love God? Do we keep His commands? The proof that we love God comes when we keep His commandments, and they are not at all troublesome.

It’s not hard to do what God requires when we have come to love Him and live in gratitude for His love for us. That’s genuine salvation.

Salvation

Our Actions Reveal Who We Really Are

I always try to have a theme each day, and when I use cartoons, I want to ensure they all connect somehow with that theme. Except maybe today. If you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to throw a few random cartoons at you—ones that I have collected and can’t find a way to unite them thematically—and just let you enjoy them. Maybe some kind of theme may emerge in the end.

Here’s one that’s centered on Groundhog Day, but it has a deeper message:

Embrace Bigotry

Let’s see now, what message is this sending? Our fear of being labeled as bigoted and narrow-minded? A prime example of the triumph of political correctness?

How about this one?

Offend Me

Hmmm, are we seeing a pattern here?

I have one more:

Criticize Behavior

Yes, we wouldn’t want anyone to feel bad. In the process, we say some rather silly things. Can we really separate the behavior from the person? Now, I certainly don’t endorse the approach being used in the previous cartoon, but doesn’t it say a lot about how we try to pretend something that is awful isn’t really awful at all? Don’t our actions reveal who we really are?

In Christian circles, we sometimes say we are to hate the sin but love the sinner. I understand the sentiment behind that statement, and I do want to reach out to people who are caught up in their sins. After all, isn’t that what Jesus did? Yet, at the same time, I don’t think we should paper over the truth—if you are actively sinning, you deserve criticism, not just for your behavior, but for the person you are. Only when we face up to the truth will we come to grips with what we need to do to be a different person. We are to lay down the sin, turn from it in genuine repentance, and turn to the One who loves us even when we are acting like His enemy.

I didn’t know that was where I was going to end up when I started this blog today, but it’s a message that can’t be repeated too often.

Finney: The Agony & the Ecstasy

I’ve often remarked how I wish I didn’t have to come across as someone who’s always pointing out the sins and errors in the world, especially that part of the world connected with government. It can get old, and it’s easy to tire of being the Jeremiah. Yet, as I was reading some of Charles Finney’s Revival Lectures, I came across something quite pertinent to my situation, and it gave me a measure of encouragement:

Prayer-FerventIf you have the Spirit of God, you must expect to feel great distress in view of the condition of the Church and of the world. Some spiritual epicures ask for the Spirit because they think He will make them so perfectly happy.

Some people think that spiritual Christians are always free from sorrow. There never was a greater mistake. Read your Bibles, and see how the prophets and apostles were always groaning and distressed, in view of the state of the Church and of the world.

The apostle Paul says he was “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” . . . You will know what it is to sympathize with the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized with the baptism that He was baptized with. . . . The more you have of His spirit, the more clearly will you see the state of sinners, and the more deeply you will be distressed about them.

The other side of the proverbial coin is the joy of the Lord, but it always coexists with a profound anguish over the devastating effects of sin all around us. We need to be familiar with both the agony and the ecstasy of seeing things through God’s eyes.

Finney: Allow God to Search Our Hearts

Revival LecturesWe’re very good at wanting other people to know about their sins, but not quite as enthusiastic about hearing of our own. Charles Finney nails it in his Revival Lectures:

Perhaps you have resisted the Spirit of God. Perhaps you are in the habit of resisting the Spirit. You resist conviction. In preaching, when something has been said that reached your case, your heart has risen up against it.

Many are willing to hear plain and searching preaching, so long as they can apply it all to other people; a misanthropic spirit makes them take a satisfaction in hearing others searched and rebuked; but if the truth touches them, they directly cry out that the preaching is “personal” and “abusive.”

We all need to allow God to lay open the intent of our hearts. We should welcome the “searching.” Anything that pulls us away from sin and toward righteousness is a blessing, even if we don’t always recognize it as such.

We need to keep in mind the plea of the psalmist David:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.

Lewis: Hell’s Operating Principles

Screwtape LettersFor many, their first encounter with C. S. Lewis’s marvelous works is The Screwtape Letters. This witty little book, which consists of letters from a superior devil, Screwtape, to a junior devil, Wormwood, continues to be a bestseller. Why? I think it’s because it captures so well the essence of the sinful heart as it displays not only Screwtape’s advice on how to lead a person into hell, but also the manner in which the inhabitants of hell treat one another—the fact that it is a place where all the deviousness and self-centeredness of sin is in full play.

Lewis explains in his introduction the nature of the hellish operation:

[Hell is] an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organisation.

Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

In other words, hell is merely the logical extension of the evil one sees in men every day, except infinitely worse.

If you haven’t yet read The Screwtape Letters, you should. And if you happen to see yourself in any of Lewis’s depictions, you can thank God you’re still on this side of eternity, and that there’s still time walk away from the deceptions of sin and enter into His righteousness.

Lewis: The Self-Centeredness of Hell

C. S. Lewis 4Modern man doesn’t like to talk much about hell, unless it’s in some fanciful movie creation where one doesn’t have to worry about its reality. The reason we avoid thinking about the possibility of hell can be traced back to our similar reluctance to consider seriously our sinfulness. And what bothers us the most, I believe, about the idea of sin is that we know the root of it is our self-centeredness. We like being self-focused; we feel justified in rationalizing our selfishness. So hell, sin, and selfishness are a package. C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, deals with this package:

Though our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgment consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His “word,” judges men.

We are therefore at liberty—since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing—to think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is. The characteristic of lost souls is “their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.”

HellWhatever we are in this life—our character, reactions, etc.—won’t be magically changed in the next. If we are unreconstructed sinners, devoted to our selfish ambitions, that trait will only be magnified once we are forever separated from any hope of the Divine. Lewis, in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, tells us how he perceives it:

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.

Perhaps hell is only a constantly burning fire, but Lewis’s description captures what will accompany that eternal fire. There will be no repentance, no tears of remorse, but only a deeper degree of the selfishness that never was dealt with in this life. That, in itself, would truly be a hell.