Imprisoned but Not Silenced

One of great ironies of Christian history occurred in the latter part of  seventeenth-century England, in the little town of Bedford. Despite more than a century of attempts at reforming both church and state, the struggle for religious freedom had been long and hard in coming. A poor tinker (mender of pots and pans and such) named John Bunyan had recently begun to preach the gospel with uncommon effect. In increasing numbers the people began to give him a hearing, and it was evident to all that his preaching was greatly blessed of God.

            But Bunyan was not part of the established church, and he was not properly licensed to preach. This didn’t matter to him, because it was under the orders of the Lord Christ that he preached the gospel. But it did matter to the authorities, and they demanded that he stop. Under orders by a higher authority, of course, he would not stop. He continued preaching with great effect. And for his crime of preaching the gospel without proper authorization, and in order specifically to keep him from preaching, Bunyan was locked up in the Bedford jail.

            The irony of the story is that as a direct result of their shutting him up in prison his voice has been heard by more people than most any preacher in history. Not only did he preach often even while in prison to a very “captive” audience, but languishing there he turned to writing and produced many popular works of Christian literature. And among his many titles, begun it seems during his later imprisonment, is the renowned Pilgrim’s Progress, the most widely published book in all history, second only to the Bible itself.

            We are told that Pilgrim’s Progress has been translated into more than two hundred languages, and it has passed through countless English editions, with millions of copies worldwide. It was a runaway best seller in his own day, it has been continuously in print ever since, and never before or since has a book ever been published that can rival it — the Bible only excepted. It has been a staple in Christian homes for three and a half centuries, and even in secular studies of literature it has been studied and hailed as the greatest allegory ever written. This from a man shut in prison in order to keep him from being heard.

            I love this story, and preparing recently to teach again on Bunyan and his immortal classic I have been impressed once more with the wonders of divine providence. Bunyan was imprisoned more than twelve years, all told, in attempt to shut him up. And yet he still speaks. Indeed, not only does he still speak, few men in history have been heard more!

            Of course, not all Christian suffering results in such obvious triumph. God’s providence is mysterious, and he has often allowed his children to suffer with little evident consequence. We trust him in either case. But it is encouraging indeed to be reminded how easy it is for God to give success to the gospel and accomplish the advance of his kingdom. Let the world do as it will, no one will ever stay his hand or frustrate his purpose (Dan. 4:34-35). He works all things according to the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11) — so infallibly, in fact, that even the wrath of man shall praise him (Ps. 76:10).

            Such a God we can surely trust.

The Difference between Shame and Guilt is the Same as between Remorse and Repentance

How do you tell when someone is truly repentant for sin? It’s not always easy. Remorse often looks like repentance, with its sorrow, tears, and apologies. Yet Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 that remorse and repentance are two different responses, each with its own result. Remorse without repentance brings merely hastily patched up relationships and wounds that remain uncleansed of infection. In other words, remorse does nothing to alleviate the real cause of conviction—guilt.

A feeling of guilt is a gift from God to show us our sin and to show us how to have it atoned for. Guilt should produce genuine repentance, characterized by the seven responses listed in verse 11. Genuine repentance deals completely and radically with the guilt of sin, and comes away forgiven and cleansed.

Many people, however, have a difficult time distinguishing shame from guilt. Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is specific and objective. It is both a status before God, in which the sinner is reckoned condemned in God’s sight, and a sensation of having broken the law of God. Shame is an essential aspect of guilt, but guilt is much more than shame. Godly shame (or “sorrow” as Paul calls it in verse 10) is a feeling of dread over our actions that should lead us to a sense of guilt about why we feel shame.

In contrast to the specificity and objectivity of godly guilt, shame is general, vague, and entirely a feeling. Shame that does not result in a clear sense of guilt experiences no relief, for it finds no path to repentance, which is the only way to forgiveness and relief. Shame often leaves us feeling depressed, uneasy, and frustrated.

In his book, Wired for Intimacy, William Struthers describes the dynamic of shame:

Shame can be internal disappointment with ourselves or can be placed on us by a wider community. It is an attempt to cover up a sense of unworthiness or agonizing vulnerability. It involves exposure and judgment, with resulting feelings of insufficiency, defectiveness, inadequacy or unworthiness. At the core of shame is the belief that the individual is not worthy of love. In some cultural contexts shame is used to motivate others to change their behavior. This shame comes from the outside, imposed on us by our culture, community or family. But it can also come from within, imposed on us after a sense of guilt has been warped into a denial of our worth, value and identity in Christ.

It is critically important to recognize the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is the feeling that we get when we do something that our conscience tells us is wrong. This conscience, our internal moral compass, serves as protection for both ourselves and for those around us. When our actions or thoughts have led us to a violation or injury of another person, guilt can be a good emotion. It is a guide that can make us aware of when we have injured others. Healthy responses to guilt are confession, repentance, forgiveness and restoration.

This is exactly what Paul was praising the Corinthian church for in 7:8-11. When confronted with their sin, these believers allowed the shame they felt to be interpreted by their objective guilt before God, and not merely by feelings of self-pity or self-loathing. Their guilt drove them to confession and repentance, and as a result they experienced forgiveness and restoration.

But what do we do when we can’t tell the difference between guilt and shame?

Sometimes there is a gray area between guilt and shame. A person can know he is “guilty” but have no emotional response to the guilt. Oftentimes this is a person with a seared conscience. These individuals, at the extremes, can become sociopaths. But everyone has the capacity to know that they did something wrong yet find ways to excuse it, minimize it or even enjoy it.

The problem with shame is that it is based on more than just what we do. While guilt is primarily based on our actions, shame is based more on our belief about ourselves. The severity of our sense of guilt can sometimes lead us to a place where we feel a sense of shame. As we identify with those whom we have injured, we move from a healthy sense of guilt into a warped understanding of forgiveness, grace and mercy.

William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (IVP, 2009), 55-6.

When a feeling of guilt that is based on an objective violation of our conscience and the law of God is not followed by biblical confession (agreeing with God about the nature of our sin) and repentance (taking responsibility for our sin and forsaking it by seeking the forgiveness of all offended), a worldly shame ensues. This shame results in everything but biblical repentance—blame-shifting, anger, self-pity, self-justification, and often, further sin, concealment and evasion of responsibility.

All this means one thing: when confronted with our sin by the Spirit’s conviction, our shame and guilt must translate into biblical confession and repentance if we hope to experience forgiveness and restoration. If it does not, we will find ourselves in an inescapable maze of our own self-condemnation from which there is no relief.

Country Club Christianity

I have never been part of a country club, but I have visited a few with friends who were members. And the experience has always been a good one. Country clubs exist because people are social beings. We like to mix with other people, make friends, and we like to share common interests — whether golfing or other amusement or perhaps a particular social agenda. Of course for some, it seems, belonging to a particular country club is a matter of pride — there may be a certain prestige associated with the membership. But still, the country club can serve a good purpose.  Friendships, amusements, activities, entertainment, social agendas — these are good things.

Even so, the country club is limited. Its purpose is not to address issues of eternal significance. It is not designed to help its members come to know God, find the forgiveness of sins, prepare for the final judgment, or provide instruction how to live faithfully before their Creator. These matters are simply not in its purview. It exists for other, more secular and temporal purposes.

There are ways in which the church and the country club are similar. Christians too are social beings, and we love to mix with other people, make friends, and share common interests. And this is one of the great values of the church. But of course a church which goes no further has missed the mark entirely. The church does not exist to address mere secular or temporal issues. The church exists in order to give a voice for God. Our whole reason for being is caught up in knowing, hearing, loving, serving, and speaking for God.  This is what the church is all about.

You’ve probably heard the criticism leveled at some churches — “They’re just a country club church.” Perhaps you have said it about some churches yourself. Such “country club churches” indeed exist, and it is surely one of the worst indictments they could ever receive. And the symptoms of country club Christianity are obvious. A country club church exists for social and secular and temporal reasons. It has a religious flavor, to be sure. But its focus seems to be on other things. Evangelism, seeking to win the lost to Christ, is not high on its agenda. Prayer is something we do before the meal or the preacher does for us on Sunday morning.  “Worship” is more entertaining than humbling.  One church service a week is more than enough, and that (the Sunday “worship service”) must not go too long — this, after all, is just one slice of our very crowded life. The preaching must not be too long, nor must it be too personal — if the preacher dares to invade our space and meddle, he’s overstepped his bounds. He must never make us feel uncomfortable — his purpose is to make us feel good.  And if anyone says “Amen!” (1Cor.14:16) during the sermon, he is probably a fanatic and will certainly get some funny looks from others in the congregation.

Country club Christianity. It’s not about God, really. It’s about relationships, entertainments, activities — a religious kind of secularism. A religion that is used perhaps to salve a conscience but a religion which makes no demands on life. A religion which is really very convenient and which exists precisely because it is convenient. But it is not a religion for discipleship. It is not a religion which calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and passionately pursue Christ.

Country club Christianity, in other words, is not Christianity at all.


%d bloggers like this: