I just read a story on Facebook about a pastor who committed suicide after being outed on the Ashley Madison adultery website. Dr. John Gibson, 56, was a communications professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, a husband and the father of two. While the story says he mentioned other issues in his suicide note and that he had a history of addictions, the Ashley Madison leak seemingly was what pushed him over the edge.
As I read the story what struck me was how much shame this man must have felt before God, his family, and his community, but more than that, the shame he felt overruled what he had to know about God’s love for him and God’s grace toward him. That’s what I want to talk about today.
I think all of us have been in a place either privately or publicly where our sin life has made us feel shameful. There’s a very delicate line here I’m going to try to walk so please bear with me as I make a distinction that is subtle but vitally important in our walk with Jesus.
When we fail and rebel against God – in other words, when we sin – we should feel bad! But shame is not what we should feel. We also should not feel guilty. What we should feel is remorse – so much so that we confess our wrong doing to God (and to others whom we’ve hurt if appropriate) and repent – turn away from – the sin in which we engaged.
So what’s the difference between shame, guilt and remorse? One word: Satan.
Satan wants you to feel shame; he wants you to feel guilt, because when you do you won’t turn to God. Instead, you will feel so dirty and unlovable that you will believe that God couldn’t possibly want to see your face and couldn’t possibly forgive your sin, and even if He did forgive your sin you can’t forgive your sin. When this happens, Satan successfully keeps you from relationship with God, which in turn keeps you from forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love. And that is exactly where Satan wants you – isolated from God and His love.
Of course I have no idea what was going through Dr. Gibson’s head when he took his own life, but I don’t think I’d be wrong to guess that Satan convinced him that what he did was unforgivable if not to God to himself and his family. Satan isolated Dr. Gibson and convinced him to end his own life is despair and shame.
Remorse, on the other hand, is from God. When we rebel against God, He wants us to feel bad – we didn’t do the right thing and we need to recognize that and submit ourselves to God! Further, we need to understand that the reason God is not giving us the punishment we deserve for our blatant disobedience is because Jesus already took our punishment! We’re supposed to feel bad about that, too! Jesus took a punishment meant for you because you can’t stop sinning! But here is where God is different from Satan.
God wants you to feel remorseful for acting against Him, but like a loving parent He also wants to redeem you, reconcile with you, and make you whole again! And how did He do it? First, Jesus took your punishment so you don’t have to worry about that. Second, God only requires that you come clean with Him – show that you know you blew it, that you know right from wrong and come to Him and confess. Lastly, ask God to help you not do it again and agree to do everything you can to turn away from that sin.
Romans 8:1 tells us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! The reason is simple: Jesus already paid for your sin – it’s over and done with. So now we can live without shame, without guilt, and in God’s love for us even if we still screw up and have remorse over doing so.
There’s another component to this however. We know that God will show us love, mercy, grace and forgiveness, but those around us may not. Here is my plea to all my Christian brothers and sisters: Give others the grace God’s given you. If someone around you screws up, forgive them and show them grace. Do not shame them, do not humiliate them, do not punish them, do not play the guilt game with them. Do your best to love them even if you hate their behavior.
I get there are boundaries in life and in scripture. But the boundaries we draw do not have to include shame, guilt, and punishment. I can love a brother or a sister and still have an appropriate boundary because they did something inappropriate. I don’t have to retaliate or seek revenge for their actions – no matter how heinous – but instead I can show them mercy and grace by not shaming them but still acknowledging the evil of their actions.
This is a very hard line to walk. Our natural instincts are to defend ourselves when we are hurt, especially emotionally. Dr. Gibson certainly hurt people around him by his actions and he hurt God by his rebellion. But he did not have to take his own life out of shame no matter what the earthly consequences of his action would be. Instead he could have surrounded himself with loving brothers and sisters in the faith who would help him reconcile with God even as he suffered the due consequences.
I think sometimes we forget how much God loves us. I think sometimes we forget that if God has forgiven us we can forgive ourselves. I think we sometimes forget that if God says we’re not condemned nobody else has the right to condemn us either…including ourselves.
I’m praying today for Dr. Gibson’s family who has been left behind. How much pain they must feel. But I’m also praying for everyone out there in the faith who is being attacked by Satan and is feeling shame in their lives. Certainly God hates our sin, but He loves us even more! Accept His grace and mercy, and love and forgiveness and you will never have to feel shame again.