The Illogic of Gospel Shame

Fear of embarrassment can keep us from doing good, wonderful, even beneficial things.  The threat of an executioner’s axe isn’t needed.  All it takes is someone’s disapproving look. 

It Strikes the Best of Us

“Please daddy, dance with me!”
She twirls around in an awkward circle, eight years old and already a princess in blue jeans.
“Come on,” she coaxes.  “Before the song’s over.”
Daddy watches from the pickup.  His hand finds the door latch, then hesitates.
“Aw, sweetheart, this is a public place.  I don’t really know how to dance.  Besides, somebody might see.”
Hurt flickers across her face.  The music is fading.  In ten more seconds, the moment will be gone.

Shame strikes again.
But Father-daughter dances aren’t the only things to suffer from it.

If you’ve had the honor of growing up in a Christian home, odds are good that you heard bits and pieces of the gospel on Sunday, in youth meetings, and from your parents.  It’s also possible you became overly familiar with the message.

Like the shift from daylight to twilight, your sense of admiration toward it dimmed until it became another article of furniture in evangelical life.  Before you know it, the gospel doesn’t seem to belong in the same space as Lady Gaga, Instagram, cell phones, and Pokémon-Go.  It fits better next to pot luck dinners and church bazaars.  In a nice warm closet.

Then it happens.  When at last the opportunity comes to tell your best friend or a couple of guys on the track team that you believe in Jesus, a stifling sense of embarrassment latches onto you.

Come on, be real. Nobody wants to hear that stuff.  May as well invite them to a Tupperware party.  Or give them a life insurance presentation.  The more the voice in your head lobbies against the gospel, the more convinced you are that it is better to skulk in the shelter of anonymity.  Don’t let yourself get labeled a member of the God Squad.

Shame has done its dirty work yet again.

Plenty of Reasons for Shame

The Apostle Paul was determined not to be a casualty.  “I am not ashamed of the gospel!” he declared (Romans 1:16).

But it wasn’t as if he hadn’t had the chance to feel it.

He found that in the preaching of the gospel, “Jews demand signs” (1 Cor. 1:22).  They wanted miraculous proofs, powerful evidence to convince them.  “But we preach Christ crucified,” Paul said.  He gave them the opposite of what they wanted. Listeners who were thirsty for religious bravado would find this message the epitome of weakness, and pathetic.  A crucified savior was one who could not even save Himself, and therefore was no Savior at all. Yet Paul called for them to believe.

Not only so, “Greeks seek wisdom,” he wrote.  Highly cultured folks wanted beautiful teaching, aesthetic, and logical, Socratic in form.  But the gospel with its emphasis on a man nailed to a tree would seem simple, anticlimactic, and pointless.  It could certainly not compete with the philosophic symmetry of Plato.  Still, Paul laid the message in front of them.

During his visit to Athens, “he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18).  The Greeks living in that ancient seat of worldly wisdom were less than impressed with him. They called him a “babbler.” As Paul laid out the gospel, they said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—a comment that tells us they weren’t smitten with the supremacy of Christ.  When Paul was finished, some of them mocked him (v. 32).

Surrounding the apostle then, were ample opportunities for shame.   And though he was sometimes laughed at, often hated, and frequently misunderstood, Paul refused that shame.

  Excellent Reasons for Confidence

The apostle insisted that his strange message, “is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe” (Rom. 1:16).

Nor was this mere religious dogma.  He himself had been an anti-Christian terrorist of sorts, whose religious convictions had driven him to murder, and whose covetous sinful nature could scarcely be controlled.  Yet he wrote in 2 Timothy chapter 1,

15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

Struck down on the road to Damascus that day, Paul saw himself as the quintessential evil, overcome by the saving power of the gospel.  And if it was so with him, then every other human in comparison would be an easy victory for the Son of God.

He took his life message on the road, and as he expected, saw the sin of other people in all its forms uprooted and plowed under—sexual perversions, idolatry, black magic, violence, greed.  In the wake of these events, Paul wrote the Colossians, exulting in the message and describing it as

“the word of the truth, the gospel,which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you” (Col. 1:5-6).

While he wrote these words, no doubt, faces swam through his heart—of little old ladies, of young boys, of milk maids and military men, of committed Jews and careless pagans.  All had felt the impact of Jesus.  The effect can be summed up in the words of one adversary who complained about the apostles:  “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (Acts  17:6).

Dark influences never stopped crowding Paul, pressing him to capitulate to shame, and then silence. But his response, even if with trembling knees, was, I will not be ashamed, because  I know what the gospel is and I’ve seen what it has done.    

I recall my first fledgling evangelistic forays on a college campus.  Almost instantly, I felt forces within and without squeezing me into a mold of anxiety.  Between classes, the high tide of commuting students would swell the walkways:

As if bursting restraints, they tumble out of campus department buildings, giggling, talking, laughing.  The lone figure who leads this throng wears skinny jeans and Converse hi-top sneakers.  His curly nest of hair bounces with each step.  He is tall, with fair complexion, and his vague playful look masks certain genius.  He has probably forgotten more about math (or anything else) than I’ll ever know.
The distance closes.
He has no predilection that I might stop him and try to share a 2,000 year old message with him.  He looks past me, as if intent on some errand of mischief, already tasting it in his mind’s eye.  Yet I plan to interrupt him with what he will think is an infomercial, an irrelevant,  joy-smothering presentation.
He is ten yards away—greeting distance.
Alarms of self-respect and self-esteem go on full vibrate.  I am in danger of humiliation, of embarrassment.   I am about to jar this young man with a strange request, possibly the most peculiar of his entire college experience.  I will try to engage him with something he thinks is anti-intellectual and to his liberal tastes, sexually repressive.  I toy with the possibly of letting him pass, but I have no better strategy or message for any of the youth behind him who are likewise carrying bundles of books.  It’s decision time for me. My heart thumps and my mouth goes dry.
I wonder in that fleeting microsecond why I do this to myself and aren’t there better ways to make myself feel uncomfortable.  The only answer I have is, The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. 
“Excuse me,” I say to him.  He pauses as if seeing me for the first time, even though I am almost dead in front of him.
“Do you have a few minutes to talk about the Bible?”
“Yes,” he says.
But due to his interest in the gospel, it turns into an hour, where, even though I talk too much, and often get in the way with distracting remarks and dead ends, the message saves him.

And to think it was almost aborted due to my fear of embarrassment.

When it comes to sharing the gospel, the war turns every bit as internal as external.  Shame, embarrassment, and awkwardness are all enemy artillery targeting the vulnerable areas of the would-be preacher’s emotion.  But there’s something we can do.  We can start by mentally rejecting what the other person might think about the gospel, and planting ourselves instead on what God thinks about it.  They say it is foolish.  God says it is power.  Forget the former.  Abide in the latter.

We also need to remember what the message has done for us on the personal level.  Should you be embarrassed about the marriage Christ restored?  The addiction that was broken?  The gloom that lifted?  The joy that came?  No.  That would be completely illogical. Rehearsal of your positive experiences should form a well established path in your mind, especially when the forces of political correctness or mockery rise up to tell you how to feel about the gospel.

Why the Gospel is Powerful

Paul’s ultimate boast in the gospel goes further than any immediate existential benefits.   Namely, “the righteousness of God is revealed in it” (Rom. 1:17).  The gospel is the power of God for salvation, not because of some muscular divine energy that creates or destroys, nor a brawn that shields.  Salvation is powerful precisely because it rests upon God’s righteousness.

In Romans, our problem is not that we don’t have the love of God, but we don’t have the righteousness of God.

Enter the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It first reveals to us the sterling, unassailable perfection of God’s personal righteousness.  Following this, it reveals God’s righteous way as never grading on a curve with biased, under-the-table, fudge factor forgiveness.  Rather than look the other way and accept our shoddy righteousness, He imputes His own righteousness to us through faith in the redemptive work of His Son.

The gospel gives.  We often conceive of it as a static entity believed and shared.  But like the sun, whose rays bathe us and activate in us the production of vitamin D, the gospel bathes us in the righteousness of God, activating salvation.

It’s actually hard to be ashamed of something like that.   Somewhat illogical, at least.


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