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“The Problem of Shame”

1 John 3:16-24, 1 John 4:16-18
Bob DeGray
October 4, 2015

Key Sentence

When our hearts condemn us God’s truth and God’s love cast out fear.


I. The problem of shame (1 John 3:19-20)
II. Practice the imitation of Christ (1 John 3:16-18)
III. Believe in the name of Christ (1 John 3:21-24)
IV. His perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:16-18)


Do you struggle with guilt or shame? When I was younger I would have said there were many places in my soul where I struggled with guilt. Lust, anger, laziness and other specific sins, often repeated, led me to feelings of pervasive guilt over what I had done. But a few years ago I noticed that when people a generation or so younger than I talked about these things they didn’t call them guilt. The word they used for these pervasive negative feelings was shame. So I began to wonder “what’s the difference between guilt and shame?”

It’s not surprising that others have also thought about this. I found one good article on a website called ‘beyond intractability’ that described guilt as “a feeling of personal responsibility for offenses, for actions we regret.” Shame is different. The most powerful distinction I’ve found is simply that ‘we feel guilty for what we do, we feel shame for what we are." For many people shame is a much stronger and more profound emotion than guilt. "Shame is when we feel disappointed about something inside of us, our basic nature."

I want to explore this a little bit more deeply because it forms the background of both this week’s message and the text we’ll look at two weeks from now. This basically secular website gets it, saying “Guilt, because it emphasizes what someone did wrong, tends to elicit more constructive responses, particularly responses which seek to mend the damage done. Guilt is tied to beliefs about what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. When we violate one of these moral guidelines, it causes us to feel guilty over our actions and seek to fix what we have done. As a result, guilt is an important tool in maintaining standards of right and wrong in individuals and society as a whole.”

Shame, on the other hand, emphasizes what is wrong with ourselves. It has a much more inward focus, and as such, leads the one who experiences it to feel poorly about themselves, rather than simply the actions they have taken. The result is often an inward-turning behavior: avoiding others, hiding your face, removing yourself from social situations. Shame can lead to defensive, aggressive, and retaliatory behaviors, many of which serve little or no constructive role.” He then gives a list of common shame-driven behaviors:

(1) Attacking or striking out at other people. In an attempt to feel better about their shame, people will oftentimes strike out at others in the hopes that they will be lifted up by bringing others down. While this behavior may produce short-term relief from shame, in the long term shame is only strengthened, on both sides, and nothing is done to get at the root of the problem.

(2) Seeking power and perfection. Others attempt to overcome shame by preventing a possibility of future shame. One way they do this is by aiming for perfection, a process that inevitably fails and causes more problems. Another way people cope is seeking power, which makes them feel more valuable and safe.

(3) Diverting blame. By blaming our faults or problems on others, we can avoid guilt and shame. However, like the previous responses, doing this fails to get at the core problems. (4) Being overly nice or self-sacrificing. People sometimes compensate for feelings of shame or unworthiness by attempting to be exceptionally nice to others. By pleasing everyone else, we hope to prove our worth. But we never believe it. (5) Withdrawal. By withdrawing from the real world, we can numb ourselves to the feelings of guilt and shame so that we are no longer upset by these sorts of things. I often think that the obsession some young men have with video games is evidence of this coping mechanism. And finally, (6) Self harm. I’m such an awful person that hurting myself makes me feel better. I’m only getting what I deserve.

Another more Biblically centered web site said “Shame is a silent, but deadly disease that pollutes the lifeblood of many people’s faith.” That article lists ways shame affects lives. “Shame, puts you in a bondage of self-perception. Although you want to believe all of the wonderful things that the Bible says about you, you can't. Shame handcuffs you to your past. You want to hope for better things in the future, but you can’t seem to overcome your past. Shame won’t let you receive love. You can’t receive authentic compliments and you tend to destroy otherwise healthy relationships. Shame steals joy. ‘Where is this abundant life the Bible promises?’ you find yourself asking. Shame makes you settle for less than God intends. He wants to lead you into wonderful relationships and abundant blessings, but you make poor decisions and live in regret.” And finally he says, “Shame thrusts you into destructive tendencies. Substances, damaging relationships, self-mutilation, eating disorders and the like tend to follow those overwhelmed with shame.”

So does any of this resonate with you? I’ve talked to a lot of people over the past years, I’ve talked to some of you in recent weeks, and I’ve looked into my own heart and I find these descriptions of shame and its result to be deeply real. I’ve had people in all kinds of trouble tell me they mostly struggle with shame. “I’m a horrible person,” they’ll say. I’ve heard that over and over. Furthermore I think this shame is, on some levels, tightly linked to fear, either as cause or as effect. So it’s worth our time to ask what Scripture says about shame. This week we’ll look briefly at a text in 1st John and in two weeks we’ll go back into the Old Testament and look at a passage from Isaiah 54.

In 1st John we’re going to look at Chapter 3, verses 16-24 and then at 1 John 4:16-18, and what we’ll see is that when our hearts condemn us God’s truth and God’s love cast out fear. The word shame is not actually used in this text, but a synonym phrase is used when John says our hearts condemn us. Let’s look first at that pivotal moment in our text, 1 John 3:19-20 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.

John says there are ways to know that we are ‘of the truth’ or ‘in the truth.’ When we do it reassures our heart in before God. We’ve said before that one of the keys to ‘do not fear’ is ‘do not fear for I am with you.’ We can know the truth and we can know that we’ve accepted the truth and we can know that we are accepted because of the truth and these things reassure our hearts, set our hearts at peace, calm our hearts in his presence. John Stott, who wrote a great commentary on 1st John, says that in the Greek the ‘in his presence’ is emphatic; it’s emphasized. Our hearts can only find rest in his presence.

Then John says ‘whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts.’ Shame is, I believe, wrapped up in the fact that at times our hearts condemn us. Not all the time – there are times when we do rest in the presence of God, in his truth and love. But often our enemy speaks the language of shame and our hearts say ‘I’m a horrible person; I’m worthless; no one likes me; I’m not doing anyone any good.” And on and on. Have you heard that voice? At times it whispers. At times it shouts. But when you hear that voice, John says, remember, God is greater than our hearts. Who are you going to believe? The voice of a horrible person? Or the voice of a loving and true God?

To combat the voice of shame and the voice of fear, we need to listen to the voice of truth and the voice of love. Casting Crowns has a song, “The Voice of Truth,” that says I’d really like to step out of the boat, onto the water with Jesus, but . . . . “the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me. Reminding me of all the times I've tried before and failed. The waves they keep on telling me time and time again. ‘Boy, you'll never win! You'll never win!’ But the voice of truth tells me a different story the voice of truth says, "Do not be afraid!" The voice of truth says, "This is for My glory" Out of all the voices calling out to me I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

Let’s back up a second to look at the preceding thought, 1 John 3:16-18. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

1st John was written to give believers assurance about their faith and to warn against a group calling themselves Christian who were over-spiritualizing and under-practicalizing the faith. They were almost certainly the forerunners of a heresy called Gnosticism which did great damage to the church. In response John says ‘don’t over-spiritualize Jesus.’ He was real, he came in the flesh, he died for our sins and rose again. But he also says, don’t fool yourselves that our lives now are so unimportant that faith doesn’t need to change anything. It does. So look to Jesus, see his sacrifice and live out your faith by imitating it in the practical opportunities of daily life.

John says “By this we know love, that Jesus Christ lay down his life for us.” You talk about an antidote for shame. Shame says you’re a horrible person. And Scripture doesn’t say ‘oh, you’re not a horrible person.’ What Scripture says over and over is that you are a loved person, you are a treasured person you are a rescued person, despite what you’ve done. We know that God loves us because of what he did for us, in Jesus. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. He paid the price of our sin with his own sacrifice so that we could be forgiven, made new and given a share of his resurrection victory, his eternal life. We can know this. This is truth. Shame flees the truth of God’s love.

But, John says, don’t accept this truth or embrace this love without recognizing that it can and will make a difference to your daily life. If he laid down his life for us, we can lay down our lives for others. John has just used the example of Cain, who hated his brother and killed him. Now he uses the example of Jesus, who loved his brothers so much that he allowed himself to be killed for them. But if you are a follower of Cain’s hatred and not Jesus’ love, the truth is not in you. Truth and love will show up in practice. You will begin to see your brother or sister in need and do something. You will love not just in words, as the enemies of the faith were doing, as so many do today, but in deeds as so many have done through all the centuries of the church, the truth lived out.

So it’s at this point that John addresses the issue of the condemning heart, the shaming heart. Why? Because he knows that the enemy is going to take this simple truth, that the love of God for us leads us to love others, and he is going to twist it to our shame. “You don’t do that very well,” he’ll say. You must not be a real Christian.” “You’re such a horrible person you don’t love others despite what Jesus did for you.” These lies find welcome lodging in our souls and they poison us and paralyze us in shame. Which is why John says ‘don’t buy that.’ You may not love perfectly, but you do love. And you are loved. You know love. You’ve received it in Jesus and you’ve felt it for others. Don’t listen to the echo of the enemy in your soul. Don’t buy what shame is selling. Know the truth of Jesus and the love of Jesus that drowns out shame’s lies.

John goes on to remind us that it is not our love for others that saves us. It is faith in God’s Son that saves. Love for other follows. Verses 21-24 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

Whenever our hearts condemn us shame and fear try to steal our confidence. But God is greater than our hearts and knows the truth. And if we listen to Him and not to the lies, then we have confidence and we are able to do what pleases him. We keep his commandments. How. By believing the truth. By believing the love. By putting our faith not in ourselves but in the Son, Jesus Christ.

But verse 22 kinda brings us up short. You’re saved and blessed by keeping his commandments, doing what pleases him? What, really? I thought salvation was by grace through faith? I’m not able to keep his commandments. Maybe shame has a point. I am useless. I can’t meet this standard. Then John, with a twinkle in his eye, says “Here’s the command: Believe. Have faith. Trust.” This is his command that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ.

This is, in fact, Jesus’ command. In John’s gospel Jesus urges belief, faith, trust over 50 times. This one Greek word, pistis, is the theme of his song, the theme of his teaching: “believe in me, put your faith in me.” “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” Jesus says that this belief is obedience, believing is keeping his word.

So John is merely echoing his teacher and Lord when he calls us to faith, to believe in the name, that is in the essential character and works, of the Son, Jesus Christ. To know the truth, in John’s vocabulary, is not just to have head knowledge about the truth, but to believe the truth and trust it. But this faith should change our lives. ‘Believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another.’ John is obviously, again, echoing Jesus: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Shame is addressed by truth and love. Believe the truth and receive His love. Believe the truth and live out his love. You won’t do it perfectly. Don’t shame yourself by believing that lie. But you can do it. Don’t let shame keep you from the love you were remade to give.

And notice, verse 24, that John again bring us back to the presence of God. “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” Those who believe God’s truth and know God’s love will have the presence of God, the presence of Jesus – us in him and him in us through the Holy Spirit.

That brings us all the way back to the question of fear. How are fear and shame related? One of the key ways is that they both fail to recognize the love and truth and presence of God. Here John used the term ‘our hearts condemn us,’ which is a great description of shame, of the enemy’s lies echoed by our fearful hearts. But only a few verses later John says much the same thing using the word fear. We’ll close and transition to communion from 1 John 4.

Verses 16 to 18: So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

Victory over shame and victory over fear depends on the same thing: that we know the truth and believe the love that God has for us. This love is so central to God’s character and behavior that John can, without hesitation make the bold assertion “God is love.” This isn’t all that God is – he is also holiness and justice and power and creativity. But his love is at the core of who he is and it is because of his love that he rescues and saves us fallen creatures, rebels, sinners. It makes a world of difference when we believe that he actually loves us and begin to rest our hearts in that love. We become aware of the presence of God, Him in us and us in him. This, John says is where our confidence comes from, the refutation of our hearts that condemn. We know that we are not going to face judgment because Jesus faced it for us, because he loved us.

In knowing this love, John says, we get to the other side of fear. There is no fear when we abide in this love because His perfect love casts out fear. The kind of fear John is talking about, has to do with punishment. This fear says ‘I’m going to get what I deserve.’ That’s the same thing shame says “I’m a horrible person, God could never love me.” But when you take hold, by faith, of God’s perfect love, there is no room left for this kind of lie. Because of Jesus I’m not going to get what I deserve. Because of Jesus I have perfect proof that God loves me. Because of Jesus I’m no longer a horrible person. Shame is grounded in a wrong perception of what I am. What I am is loved.

The first verse of our text today, 1st John 3:16, said “by this we know love, that he – Jesus - laid down his life for us” And many other verses in this little letter say the exact same thing. If you want to know the love of God look to the cross. If you want to know that you no longer fear judgement, look to the cross. If you want to know that your shame is a lie, look to the cross. When our hearts condemn us God’s truth and God’s love cast out fear.

I’d really like to transition to communion right there, but let me go back for a minute and pick up that list of list the ways shame affects our lives. Shame puts you in a bondage of self-perception. Aha. But God is greater than our hearts. His perception of what his love has done for us trumps self-perception. Now you can believe all the wonderful things the Bible says about you.

Shame handcuffs you to your past. God’s truth and God’s love give you confidence in your future because you have confidence in him. Shame won’t let you receive love. God’s truth and the awesome nature of his sacrifice breaks through that barrier, and his love is poured into our hearts. Shame drives you to destroy otherwise healthy relationships. But the love of Jesus, we’ve said, his sacrifice, drives you to love one another. Shame steals joy. God’s love and truth are the foundation of joy and the assurance of the abundant life the Bible promises. Shame makes you settle for less than God intends. His love leads you into the great adventure of a dependent life. Shame thrusts you into destructive tendencies. But perfect love rebukes those false pleasures and self-harming sins, because God loves you more than that. When our hearts condemn us God’s truth and God’s love cast out fear.