Therapy, Sin, and Shame

For most of world history, until quite recently, most of the world thought about the most basic questions in life categories of right and wrong or in legal categories. God was thought to be what he is thus we humans need to adjust to him. The world was thought to be what it is and it is up to us to adjust to it. When it comes to gravity it does not matter how one feels. Gravity is what it is. We either adapt to the laws of gravity or we suffer the consequences. In the Judeo-Christian understanding of the world, God simply is. Scripture simply begins with God: “In the beginning God…” (Gen 1:1). We humans are creatures. We are born and we die but God has no beginning and no end. He does not change. We humans change. We learn. We age. We sin. By grace alone, through faith alone in Christ we are saved from the consequences of sin and we sanctified into the image of Christ. Those are all changes. God simply is utterly holy. He is omniscient. He is not learning new things. He does not move about. He fill all things with himself (but all things are not God). The world is what it is and the way it is because God made it so. For a very long time that is more or less how people saw the world.

A Brief History Of The Revolution

Beginning in the Modern period, however, there was a revolution and a lot of clever people turned that understanding of the world on its head. They declared that we are gods and that God, as we knew him, was nothing but a projection of our fears and hopes onto the unknown. We are at the tail end of that revolution, which, like most revolutions, has turned on itself. At the beginning of the revolution, there was consensus that there is such a thing as objective reality (even if there was disagreement about how we know what it is). By the end of the revolution, many had concluded that reality is whatever we say it is. This is the logical consequence of regarding humans as gods. If we are gods, we are a funny lot of gods since I have been in the room when they were born and I have been in the room when they died. Who is projecting what here?

The late revolutionaries tell us that the main thing that matters is not what is objectivelytrue, i.e., what is true outside of us but only what is subjectively true really matters, i.e., what is true “for me.” This is why one sees people talking about “my truth” (as if there are multiple competing truths). This is why a small percentage of humans now believe that their biological sex does not determine their gender. To our shame (more on this below) the rest of us apparently go along with this insanity (see The Emperor’s New Clothes).

This is a very short account of how we all came to talk, like Oprah Winfrey, in therapeutic categories. What matters now, we are told, is not what is really true and certainly not what is eternal but how we feel about things and especially about ourselves. The corollary to the therapeutic revolution is the self-esteem revolution. To have a high estimate of ourselves seems to be the highest good of the therapeutic revolution. If we find that we do not then we go to therapy to find out who did what to us so that we can assign blame and relive ourselves of our guilt and the accompanying shame.

To be sure, this is a fallen world. Humans are sinful and, as a consequence, they do sinful things to other people. These acts have real consequences. Among the casualties of sin are human feelings. Emotional hurt is real but it is not ultimate. Hurts do take time to heal but those hurts do not define reality.

Shame True And False

One of the hurts, one of the consequences of sin is shame. Sometimes that shame is not deserved. Children and adults who are molested have no reason to feel ashamed. They have been unjustly attacked by criminals who should be harshly punished and rendered harmless to society. Those who attach shame to victims who are relatively just, do so because they have a skewed doctrine of sin and doctrine of humanity (theological anthropology). Some Christian traditions regard sex as inherently evil and thus even though a victim is completely innocent, he (or she) is, in these traditions, made to feel guilty simply for being assaulted sexually.

When we sin, however, shame is a natural consequence. In some ways the therapeutic revolution is a war against the immutable law of God and against the very idea of sin. Karl Menninger first asked What Ever Became of Sin? in 1973, about the time the therapeutic revolution really took hold in the West. Here we are more than 40 years later and the concept of sin seems even farther removed.

Shame is a message from our conscience, that built in witness to the divinely established moral law. We may medicate ourselves (with pills, booze, cocaine, meth, weed etc) but we are only temporarily delaying the message from our conscience that we know is coming. Because we are made in the image of God we know by nature, by our conscience, that we are all transgressors. We know when we make idols in place of God. We know when we transgress sexually. We know when we steal and lie. Our conscience convicts us eventually. That is why Judas hanged himself. He took the money but the money could not quiet his conscience. He thought that the end of a rope would do it. He was wrong.

The True Answer To the Conscience

Without righteousness Judas shall have to live with his judgment for the rest of eternity. The true answer to shame and guilt is righteousness. As sinners you and I, however, are never righteous. Try as we may, we cannot do it. We are too corrupted. Our minds, wills, and affections are too warped. Further, we start at a deficit. Each time we sin—and we do sin—we add to our debt. It just gets worse and worse and our condemnation just piles up.

If only there were a source of righteousness! There is. His name is Jesus. He accomplished real, true righteousness with God. His righteousness is yours when you trust him. By God’s gracious gift of new life you recognize yourself for what you are by nature: a rebellious image-bearer. When you trust him God credits to you all that Jesus did as if you yourself did it. You cannot earn it. You cannot buy it. You cannot manipulate God to get it. If you are thinking in such categories it means that you really do not see your need and your hopelessness. When you do, Jesus will be there—but do not delay. He is returning and when he does, the time for trusting and turning will be gone and there you shall be with your sins, your conscience, and worst of all an all-holy God who cannot abide sin.

If God has given you new life. If you have trusted Jesus, then he is at work in you right now by his Holy Spirit. He is changing you. Your feelings will change. Your sense of shame will change. Paul says that if you are in Christ you are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Over time you will come to see yourself this way.

In this life we will always have some shame. That is part of living in a fallen world. Christians do not have to be dominated by it—our feelings are not the ultimate measure of truth—because our Father accepts us for the sake of Christ by his free favor alone. That’s the other factor here: grace. Shame is a reality but so is grace (favor) earned for us by Jesus. When we sin, we confess it. We accept his forgiveness and, by his grace and Spirit, we seek to put to death that sin and live for Christ.

Therapy, as we often speak of it is short for psychotherapy or healing of the soul. The modern revolutionaries have proposed a lot of substitutes for true soul therapy but Jesus is the only one who loved sinners so much that he was willing to die for them, who was raised for their justification. Jesus did all that. Maybe we should pay attention to him rather than to Freud or Oprah?


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