Recovering Shame?

A primary presupposition to Christianity is the understanding that you are a bad person. That I am a bad person. So bad, in fact, that we are each fully deserving of divine punishment through hellfire.
That presupposition has been accepted largely throughout Christian history, even by substantial percentages of the unregenerate. C S Lewis writes, “When the apostles preached they could assume even in their Pagan hearers a real consciousness of deserving the divine anger. The pagan mysteries existed to allay this consciousness, and the Epicurean Philosophy claimed to deliver men from the fear of eternal punishment. It was against this background that the gospel appeared as good news. It brought news of possible healing to men who knew that they were mortally ill.”

Even the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s occurred during a time when people were fixated on the reality of death, and the morbid certainty of an eternal punishment that awaited them. Instead of fascination with celebrities or new world discoveries, woodcuts from that time period featured frequent images of devils and the eminent cosmic judgment. For this reason, the masses were despairing for hope of salvation--whether through the indulgences of the Roman church or through the protestant tenant: sola fide (Faith Alone).

But if you take away the perception of man’s evil nature, and begin to question man’s worthiness of judgment—Christianity begins to seem pointless, boring, and perhaps even a little offensive. Without hell, there is no need for salvation. Without an illness there is no need for a cure. In fact, that you would even suggest that I am a "bad person" is both close-minded and rude!

Such is the modern sentiment.

We see ourselves no longer as worthy objects of the wrath of God, but rather, decent people who would rather live and let live. Trying to do the best we can; simply minding our own business. Why can’t God return the favor?

The question is: How did it come to this? Why is there such a prominent denial of our depravity in the times in which we live? C. S. Lewis offers two principal causes to help out:

1. Elevation of Kindness as the chief virtue. “Lopsided ethical developments are not uncommon and other ages have had their pet virtues and curious insensibilities.” The lopsided virtue of our age, he continues, is kindness. “The real trouble is that ‘kindness’ is a quality fatally easy to attribute to ourselves on quite inadequate grounds. Everyone feels benevolent if nothing seems to annoy him at the moment. Thus a man easily comes to console himself for all other vices by a conviction  that his ‘heart is in the right place’ and ‘he would never hurt a fly,’ though in fact he has never made the slightest sacrifice for a fellow creature. We think we are kind when we are happy: it is not so easy, on the same grounds, to imagine oneself temperate, chaste, or humble.”

2. Minimization of Shame. Lewis proceeds by saying that “psycho-analysis” has left an impression that shame is a “dangerous and mischievous thing…we are told to ‘get things out in the open,’ not for the sake of humiliation, but on the ground that these ‘things’ are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them…(and) in trying to extirpate shame we have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit, madly exulting in the work as the Trojans exulted when they broke their walls and pulled the Horse into Troy.”

According to Lewis, with the inflation of the virtue of kindness (at the expense of the others) and the extraction of an essential sense of shame, we now live our lives blind to much of our fallenness. And as I have briefly described above, without this awareness--without the presupposition of our "badness"-- Christ is no longer deemed necessary.

How are we to right the ship? How can we get an accurate, unclouded picture of who we are? Lewis offers a solution. To recover that sense of shame in our worst moments:

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt—moments all too rare in our lives—all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this—this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them…To keep ever before us the insight derived from such a moment as I have been describing, to learn to detect the same real inexcusable corruption under more and more of its complex disguises, is therefore indispensable to a real understanding of the Christian faith.

We can all recall moments in our own life like the hypothetical Lewis described above. And instead of burying the detestable clarity provided us through moments of shame, may we learn to recall them. Because it is then that we recognize a little more just how terribly we need a Savior, and how sweet his salvation is.


Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 1Cor 12:8-10
Lewis, C. S, The Problem of Pain: How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems. Macmillan Publishing House. New York, New York, New York. 1962. Print. (56-58)


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