Shame and Secret Sin

by David Ahn

Over past several months, the news has brought a seemingly endless stream of embarrassing headlines and shameful accusations against otherwise respectable figures in society. Whether it’s a conservative US Senator being arrested for lewd acts in a public restroom, or an NBA referee being accused of having officiated games in a way to benefit his own gambling interests, it seems as if no occupation is any longer above reproach. Unfortunately, even a prominent Christian pastor in the past year has been exposed for leading a scandalous double-life. If you’re anything like me, the following string of questions immediately comes to mind: How could this happen? How could they harbor such heinous sins over the span of years, while actively carrying out their admirable every-day lives?

It’s easy to assume that these people are just inherently evil, or that they struggle with unique and extreme desires of the flesh, but we should not be so quick to distance ourselves from them. Their situations did not come about overnight. What most likely took place is that those areas of sin began as seemingly minor temptations, but were cultivated and expanded over many years of indulging while hiding their sin from the public eye. The Bible clearly states that we are all sinners, so we must take heed and really consider the danger of entertaining secret sin in our own lives, no matter how insignificant they might appear at the time.

To begin, we must examine what secret sin really is and the danger that it poses. Is there even such a thing as sin that is truly secret? The answer is a resounding no, at least according to our theology. We worship an omnipotent, omnipresent God who sees and knows everything. Interestingly enough, we know this fact in our heads but yet it doesn’t seem to take root in our hearts, which explains why temptation seems most appealing when our brothers and sisters are not around, or why our private thought lives are often the hardest to control. Sadly enough, this essentially reveals a fear of man over a fear of God, and the Bible firmly denounces such thinking: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, NASB). Secret sin is not inherently any worse than any other sin. God does not rely on human witnesses to sway His judgments. However, secret sin can be more dangerous because of the soil in which it takes root: the absence of a fear of God.

In his book, Battling Unbelief: Defeating Sin With Superior Pleasure, John Piper elaborates upon the disparity between the fear of God and the fear of man through a thoughtful discussion of shame. He introduces and defines two types of shame: misplaced shame and well-placed shame. The difference between the two is whose glory is at stake: do you feel shame when you look bad in front of others or fail to meet their expectations, or do you feel shame your actions have dishonored God? The only time that we are justified in feeling shame is when we have done or thought something that takes away from His glory.

King David had the right idea of shame. When he was confronted regarding his sins of sending Bathsheba’s husband out to die in battle so that he would be able to take her as his own wife, King David immediately responded by saying, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13) and also wrote Psalm 51: “Against You, You only, have I sinned \ And done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4, NASB). He was not remorseful because he was being punished with his son being stricken with disease, he was not ashamed because his secret sin had been discovered and might tarnish his legacy, but he was contrite because he realized that he had dishonored God.

A proper understanding of the difference between appropriate and misplaced shame is crucial for fighting secret sin because it addresses the underlying heart issue. Without this, the problem of our fear of man can remain uncorrected even after our sins have been exposed. In this case, we might just go about trying to repair our image by going through the motions of apologizing or even by correcting our behavior, but this is only an incomplete and temporary fix. In fact, it can even exacerbate the problem by causing us to build back up our pride and decrease our dependence on the grace of God, further feeding our fear of man. On the other hand, if we have a correct view of what well-placed shame looks like, we will humble ourselves and remember that our sole purpose is to bring glory to God in everything that we do, then all sin (public or private) becomes equally shameful because it dishonors Him, and we would respond by immediately confessing to God and taking comfort in the work of the Cross, and the joy of salvation would quickly overcome the feelings of doubt and guilt.

This is obviously not an easy shift of perspective that will take place over a day or two, but we can make an effort to persistently check our motivations and intentions for why we do what we do and why we feel shame when we do. Try out the following practical suggestions: The next time your cheeks flush red and your blood temperature rises, try to identify why you are feeling shame. When a brother or sister calls you out and rebukes you, identify why you are feeling shame. When the temptation to sin comes knocking, try to identify what shame it is that you fear the most. Is it misplaced or well-placed shame? Is it a fear of God or a fear of man?

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The Beacon is the monthly newsletter for Lighthouse Bible Church in San Diego, California. It covers a variety of subjects including LBC events, church history, current events from a Christan perspective, ministry profiles, and messages from our pastors and elders. To join the Beacon ministry, please contact Stephen Rodgers.

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