Yes, I Do Believe in Sin.

I often hear this, “Your ideas about shame are helpful, but what about sin?” People assume that since I talk about God’s salvation from shame, that I don’t believe much about sin (which is a rather curious assumption IMO). So for the record: Yes, I do believe in sin. And this is how I define sin—sin is shame. Let me explain, as that may seem confusing. Sin is not giving God the praise he deserves. Sin smears God’s name (i.e., blasphemy). Sin demeans God’s value. Sin belittles God. Sin states that God is not worthy of praise, loyalty, and obedience. Sin dishonors God. Sin fails to rightly glorify God. Or, sin brings shame upon God.

John Piper, in his explanation of Isa 48:9-11 says this: “What is the nature of sin?—The profaning of God’s name. In other words, they have not lived as though God’s value were supremely important to God, and to themselves. They belittle and diminish God.” (at 8:00).

To clarify, sin does not change God’s infinite glory or value, for that can never change. Rather, sin is the failure to rightly acknowledge and display (or honor) that glory. Moreover, sin leaves the sinner is a state of shame (i.e., isolation and rejection) before God. And most sin involves shaming other people, not valuing them as God intended. Sin shames God, shames oneself, and typically shames others. This is, more or less, what I mean by the phrase “sin is shame.” But perhaps the best way to understand the problem of sin is to understand God’s solution of a crucified Messiah.

Sin is not simply breaking a rule or law, but breaking relationship. When an Israel failed to keep Torah they broke covenant with Yahweh; they shamed him before the nations. The guilt of law-breaking dishonors God; that is why law-breaking is sin. In Romans 2:23, the main problem is dishonoring God. Law-breaking (or more precisely, “covenant breaking”) was a primary way Israel dishonored God. Some of the most frequently used images for sinful Israel in the OT is that of a harlot and adulterer (i.e., shameful/shaming people), not criminal or convict (i.e., guilty people).

Of course sin and shame are not entirely synonymous, but there is significant overlap. A shame-less view of sin, in my eyes, is hardly a biblical view of sin. Remember, sin is a biblical idea; so it’s not exclusively a guilt-innocence idea. Western theology has a rather guilt-based definition of sin—transgressing the law, breaking a rule, or missing the mark. Consequently, Christians struggle to imagine a definition apart from legal language.

So, this is why people (mistakenly) assume that I am not talking about sin when I’m talking about shame. The fact that we separate sin from shame as unrelated ideas speaks volumes about how Western culture has influenced Western theology. Keep in mind that Western theological constructs do not exhaust the biblical notions of shame and sin. The following graph represents the way people typically view sin and shame:

Sin and Shame relationship

  1. On the left, we see a common assumption; namely, our English word “sin” is synonymous with the biblical notion of “sin.” For example, Louw-Nida’s Greek Lexicon of the NT groups the word “sin, wrongdoing and guilt” into one semantic field.
  2. Then the right side depicts another common idea: the English idea of “shame” is unrelated to the biblical notion of “sin.” One reason for this is our English word “shame” is defined mostly psychologically, rather than socially or communally (or theologically).
  3. The question mark out in right field represents how most Christians give minimal thought given to a biblical view of “shame.” For example, when I ask people, “What the Bible says about honor and shame?” they usually say, “Honor your parents.” Ezekiel 16 makes for an interesting starting point towards a biblical theology of shame.

I hear well-meaning Christians, in their eagerness to advocate an honor-shame theology, say, “God saves us from sin and shame.” Notice the “and”—it separates the two ideas. While that comment is entirely true, it is a bit misleading since it implies sin and shame are two unrelated realities (per the above image). Imagine your mom told you, “I love all people, and you!” While that is nice, it seems to imply you are not a person.

So, what do you think? How would you visually diagram the relationship between sin and shame? I’m still trying to figure out how the pieces all fit together, so welcome constructive input.

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Posted in Culture, Shame, Sin, Theology
4 comments on “Yes, I Do Believe in Sin.
  1. Bart says:

    Hi Jayson, I understand your point.
    I would look back to the garden of Eden, where the result of eating the fruit was Shame and Guilt and Fear (the word sin is first mentioned in the next chapter, I believe). The law was given to expose sin (Rom. 7) and it does exactly that. It exposes out guilt, our shame (e.g. through the purification rituals for acts like child-birth that are no sin at al)l and it exposes God’s wrath on those who sin.
    Christ came to deliver us from the bondage of sin and satan. He did that by taking our shame away and giving us adoption into God’s family instead (belonging, honor). He also paid the price for our sins and clothes us with clothes of righteousness (Innocence, in the wording of a H/S worldview). And he took our fear away by defeating satan and by being the offer of propitiation. He replaced our fear with intimacy and the empowerment that comes through trust.
    All three (and many more aspects of salvation) are as important.

    For me I would chose the other person’s dominant worldview (either Guilt/Innocence, Honor/Shame or Power/Fear) as a way to explain salvation and touch their heart. The other parts of salvation wouldn’t be part of evangelism, but rather be part of discipling after somebody embraces Christ. And yes, even in discipling we need to be aware of our cultural blinders, but we should still attempt to raise someone with a complete view of salvation.

  2. Marlee says:

    The Christians I talk to in regards to Honor/Shame view honor as something that has to do with pride,self centeredness, and akin to borderline blasphemy. To think that we should seek honor from God is down right heresy. We should NEVER seek anything for ourselves even though time and time again throughout scripture rewards for righteous behavior is mentioned a lot. Even Jesus said “Great is your reward in heaven if you do these things” and many other such statements. He wants to honor us with rewards! Why does he do that? He could just say “Look, you need to love me and obey me just because I deserve it. But don’t expect anything in return.” But he doesn’t! He wants to give us the wonderful gift of honoring us because he loves us! And ultimately this brings glory and honor to himself. That’s the whole idea. To glorify God. Yet, most western Christians, as has been discussed, are very uncomfortable talking about this subject. I’m not sure why. I have been transformed by this topic and read my Bible with in a different light. I’m now seeing the complete gospel. Jesus died for our shameful sins and actually wants to share his glory with us, the church, Romans 8:17. What could be more wonderful and freeing than that?

    I am so glad though that this topic is finally coming to light. We all harbor shame of some sort and long to be uplifted to a place of respect and honor no matter our culture. Praise the Lord he is still working!

  3. Brian says:

    You asked how someone else would visually diagram the relationship between sin and shame. Can’t really draw a picture in the comment section, but I’ll try to describe how I’d represent it. I’d draw a circle in the middle representing sin. Then I would have three circles that partially intersect that one circle. One circle would be labeled “shame,” one would be labeled “guilt,” and one would be labeled “fear.” I would say that sin results in shame, guilt and fear (in varying degrees), as represented by the three circles which all intersect the sin circle. But I wouldn’t equate sin with shame because I think that limits the nature of sin too much.

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