THE NATURE AND REMEDY OF SINFUL SHAME.
Psalm119:6.—“Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.”
To be able to look up to God with humble confidence, and to obey his commands with freedom and fidelity before the world, is, at once, the comfort and the glory of a Christian. This, however, is an attainment not to be made without a vigorous conflict—“For the flesh lusteth against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” The pleadings of corrupt nature, conspiring with the temptations of the world, and the suggestions of the great enemy of souls, seduce the Christian to the omission or violation of duty; and thus deprive him of the light of the divine countenance, and of firmness and activity in the divine life. The inspired Psalmist seems to have contemplated this evil, and to have intended to prescribe its remedy, when he exclaimed, in the words of the text—“Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments.”—In discoursing on the words, therefore, I will, in reliance on divine assistance, endeavour
- To explain the nature and operations of the sinful shame which the inspired writer appears so desirous to avoid.
- Show how a regard to all God’s commandments will destroy the existence of such shame, or prevent its embarrassments.
After this, a few practical reflections will conclude the address.
I. First, then, I am to endeavour to explain the nature and operations of that shame, which the sacred writer appears so desirous to avoid.
Shame has been defined—“the passion which is felt when reputation is supposed to be lost.” This is no doubt the popular import of the term; and yet it is not, as we shall presently see, the only sense in which it is used by the sacred writers. I would remark, however, that con sidering it merely as a principle of the mind, which renders us sensible to the ill opinion of our fellow men, it is no inconsiderable guard on our virtue. It is, indeed, true, that this, in common with every other useful principle of our nature, may, by being turned into a wrong channel, produce injury instead of benefit. It too often happens, in fact, that good men, from being unduly influenced by a regard to the opinion of the worldly or profane, are brought to be ashamed of their duty; and this is a part of the very evil against which the text is directed. Still, however, it must be admitted, that a sense of shame is, in itself, extremely useful, and when suitably regulated and rightly directed, is a restraint against vice and an incentive to virtue. A destitution of this principle is ever considered as marking the extreme of human depravity—We usually join together the epithets shameless and abandoned. The extirpation or extinction of the sentiment of shame, therefore, is by no means to be attempted. Our endeavours are only to be directed against suffering it to be perverted, and against laying ourselves open to those wounds which it may justly inflict. Now, with this view, we are looking for the origin and source of these evils; and I think we shall find them, by turning our attention from the creature to the Creator—from man to God.
In the sacred writings, the word we consider is frequently used to denote those painful feelings of the mind, which are produced by a conviction of our offences against the Majesty of Heaven; especially when those offences partake peculiarly of the nature, or are seen re markably in the light of baseness, unreasonableness, and ingratitude. Thus, when the Jews, who had been mercifully restored from the Babylonish captivity, violated the command of the Most High, by improper connexions with the idolatrous nations, Ezra thus addresses Jehovah—“Oh my God! I blush and am ashamed to lift up my face to thee my God, for our iniquities are increased over our heads, and our trespass is gone up unto the heavens”—Here shame is used to denote little else than the operations of conscience; or the oppression of soul which is produced by the sense of being guilty and vile in the sight of a holy God: And you will carefully observe, that the effect of this is, the destruction of all freedom and confidence in addressing the Father of mercies, and almost of the hope of pardon and acceptance with him. This, my brethren, is undoubtedly the origin of the evil which the text contemplates. It takes its rise from this point, and its baneful influence is extended through a long train of unhappy consequences. We may trace them thus—
All practical religion has its very foundation in a realizing belief of an all-seeing God, who, while he is perfectly acquainted with all the secrets of the soul, and with every action of life, is also of purer eyes than to behold any iniquity, but with detestation and abhorrence. But the mind, we say, in which this belief and apprehension exists, is conscious of dealing treacherously with the Most High; conscious that its affections are shamefully divided between him and inferior objects; conscious of not seeking his favour in secret with that holy earnestness which its value demands; conscious that its penitence for sin is miserably imperfect; conscious that hidden lusts and corruptions, not only rise and plead for indulgence, but actually obtain it; conscious that certain duties have been most criminally neglected and certain sins allowed; conscious of presumptuous sinning against light and know ledge; conscious of repeated violations of the most solemn resolutions and engagements; conscious, in a word, not merely of remaining pollution, but of inexcusable neglect, unfaithfulness and insincerity, in duty to God and devotion to his service. How, I ask, can he whose mind informs him of all this, look up, with any confidence, to that infinite Being who, he realizes, is perfectly acquainted with all this baseness? He cannot do it:—shame and confusion drive him away from the divine throne. He fears to draw near to God; or if he at tempts it, the service is hasty and superficial. The mind is afraid of its own reflections, and seeks temporary and imperfect ease by overlooking or endeavouring to forget its state. Still, a secret uneasiness continually preys upon it, nor will ever cease to corrode it, while it remains thus unsettled and divided.
Follow, now, this victim of shame before God, into his intercourse among men. Suppose that he has never openly professed a religious character. Then you see him most piteously embarrassed, confounded and distressed. Wicked companions solicit and endeavour to lead him into vice. His conscience is too much awake to permit him to comply with pleasure, and yet he is sensible of too much insincerity to allow him to refuse with firmness. He half refuses and half complies; and thus becomes the scorn of the licentious, without obtaining the countenance of the pious. Those who are strictly religious regard his friendship as uncertain; those who are openly profane consider his con duct as dastardly; and thus the hesitating wretch is covered with shame before the world, as well as before his Maker.
Or suppose—and, alas! that it is not a mere supposition—that the unhappy state of mind we have described, belongs to one who publicly professes to be a follower of Christ. How painfully must he feel the inconsistency of his profession, with the inward temper of his heart? How misgiving and wavering must be his mind? How unfurnished is he, while destitute of inward support, for all those conflicts with the world, and all those reproaches from it, with which he will be sure to meet? With what face can he reprove others, while secretly he condemns himself? When called to speak for God, how will his mind misgive him, and his face crimson with blushes, while his heart in forms him, that he is espousing a cause in which his own sincerity is doubtful? How will it often seal his lips in silence, when he ought to speak? When censured and condemned by the profligate, how will he be wounded by the recollection that the sentence is partly merited? When his good works, themselves, are evil spoken of, how will he be dismayed by seeing the just chastisement of heaven for the improper disposition with which he performed them? When charged with the black crime of hypocrisy, how will he be confounded to think that, in the sight of God, the charge is bottomed on truth? When called to suffer for conscience sake, or to hazard his life in the discharge of duty, how will he be appalled and shrink back with fear, while conscience tells him that he is a backslider from God, if not a settled enemy to him? When only called to the open avowal of his Christian character, in the solemn acts of religious worship, how will inward upbraidings fill him with trembling and embarrassment, and mar the performance, by a diffidence equally distressing and dishonourable?—Nay, will not these causes drive him altogether from attempting many duties, and go near to turn him wholly from his Christian course? Yes, my brethren, these are the consequences of the shame of which I have spoken, as they take place in the discharge of religious obligations in the sight of men. The summary of its history, therefore, is—that it originates in a sense of guilt, arising from the consciousness of being unfaithful to God; which first destroys or prevents a filial intercourse with him, and confidence of his favour; and then, as a necessary consequence, abashes and confounds its subject, when in the eye of the world, he assumes a character, or attempts a practice, which is contrary to the feelings of his heart. This is the evil contemplated in the text—an evil of unspeakable magnitude, in the estimation of all who have not wholly lost their regard both to their duty and their comfort, in the Christian life. Listen, then, to the remedy prescribed—while I attempt to show -
II. How a regard to all God’s commandments will destroy the existence, or prevent the embarrassments, of this sinful shame.
In entering on this part of the subject, it may be of some importance to endeavour to obtain clear and distinct ideas of what was in tended to be conveyed by the expression—“having a respect unto all God’s commandments.” Does it intend a perfect obedience to all the divine laws, or a sinless observance of them? Certainly not—For the inspired penman evidently fixed his views on an attainment, which he not only proposed to labour after, but which he actually hoped to make, in the present life;—and we have the unequivocal testimony of revelation “that there is not a just man on earth, who doth good and sinneth not,” and that “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Neither can it be intended, that any man will ever yield such an obedience to the divine requisitions as shall, of itself, be the just ground of his confidence before God; or so place him on the , footing of merit, as that he may claim the approbation and favour of heaven, as a matter of right. The impossibility of this is, indeed, implied in the last remark; for nothing less than an unsinning respect to the commands of God, through the whole of our existence, could entitle us to this claim. The finished work of the Redeemer,—his atoning sacrifice, his complete and perfect righteousness, and his prevalent intercession, constitute the only meritorious cause of par don and acceptance with God, for any of the apostate race of Adam —It is only in Christ Jesus that God is “reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them;” because “he hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” The first freedom, which any soul that has been suitably convinced of sin obtains, to look up to a holy God with a measure of filial confidence, is wholly derived from seeing the ample provision which is made in the plan of salvation, for extending pardon and eternal life to the sinner, in consistency with the divine honour; and from a disposition to embrace this plan with thankfulness, and to trust it in faith. It is, therefore, so far from being true that the expression warrants any reliance on our own merits, that it necessarily implies the opposite doctrine: “As it is written, behold I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offence, and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed”—Not to be ashamed, is here predicated, and it is certainly true, only of those who believe in Christ. It is, moreover, written, “This is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ,” and therefore we cannot have respect unto all the commandments of God, while a compliance with this is wanting.
I detain you with this statement, my brethren, because it is to be regarded, not merely in the light of a negative, or as intended to guard against a misapprehension" of the truth, but because it contains the essence of the truth itself. It is an undoubted fact, as I am sure every exercised Christian will testify, that when he has wandered from God, and is sunk down into despondence under a sense of his backsliding and unworthiness, the first and only relief that he obtains is, from a heart melting, and a heart attracting view of the infinite fulness of his Redeemer, and the freeness of the riches of his grace. It is this view that encourages him to return; it is this that brings him back with true brokenness of heart; it is this that enables him to cherish hope though most undeserving; and it is this that sweetly constrains him to devote himself more unreservedly to God than ever he had done before, from a strong sense of gratitude and obligation. In having such respect, therefore, unto all God’s commandments as will deliver us from the influence of shame, a lively exercise of faith in Christ, lies at the bottom of all. It is also the constraining influence of the love of Christ, which is the source of that new obedience, which reaches the extent of the requisition—It produces what has sometimes been called a gracious sincerity, in the heart of the believer. It awakens in him a strong desire to be delivered from the dominion of all sin; so that he will not knowingly and allowedly indulge in any transgression; he will desire that every lust and corruption may be mortified, and subdued; and will pant after greater conformity to God. He will be so far from desiring to rest short of any thing which Christ requires of his people, that he will press forward, and ardently long after the highest attainment, and lament that higher attainments are not made. He will, in short, seek his supreme happiness in communion with God, in the diligent use of all the appropriate means of holy intercourse with him. Thus the author of the text, in the 8th verse of the psalm where it is found, says—“Let my heart be sound in thy statutes, that I be not ashamed.” It is this soundness of heart—this gracious sincerity in the sight of God—this impartial regard or respect to every command of the Most High, without taking one and leaving another—this careful employment of all the means and methods of avoiding transgression that answers completely the condition of the assertion on which I dis course. And let us now see how strictly the assertion will be verified, in those who comply with the condition.
I remark then, in the first place, that a compliance with this condition removes, naturally and radically, the cause of all the guilty shame, and embarrassment of which I have spoken, by producing a consistent character. Shame is the natural consequence and proper punishment of guilt. The only methods of getting rid of the pain which it occasions are, to extinguish the principle, or to avoid the causes of its excitement. The former of these methods is actually and frequently pursued by the abandoned. By plunging into the excesses of vice, and familiarizing themselves with all its pollutions, they extinguish shame and conscience together—On the middle character, contemplated in the former part of this discourse, that character in which there is still a sensibility to the demands of duty, and where, notwithstanding, those demands are disregarded or left unsatisfied, it is here that the principle of shame inflicts, as we have seen, all its chastisements. But where the demands of duty are satisfied, there the cause of shame itself is taken away; and though the utmost sensibility be retained, it creates no uneasiness, because it meets with no violation. This is the case of those who have that respect unto all God’s commandments, which we have just considered. Through the peace speaking blood of Jesus, they have received the full remission of all their sins. By maintaining a close and humble walk with God, they preserve an habitual persuasion of this comfortable truth; or rather they experience a daily and habitual renewal of its effects. In the exercise of the spirit of adoption, they draw near with a holy confidence, and cry “Abba, Father”— They have a blessed assurance, that God will realize to them all the benefits of the covenant of grace; and esteeming “his favour as life, and his loving kindness as better than life,” they rejoice in him “with a joy which is exceeding great and full of glory.” In one word, they verify in their own experience the declaration of the Apostle, where he says—“Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God: and whatsoever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight”—And thus when that which we have seen to be the very fountain of shame, namely, a want of confidence in God, is dried up in the heart of a Christian, it can send forth none of its bitter streams to poison his pleasure, or to wither his strength, in the public discharge of his duty. “His heart is fixed, trusting in God.” His heart is in all that he says, and in all that he does; and therefore he becomes—as we are told the righteous shall become—“bold as a lion.” Is it incumbent on him to reprove the vicious and profane? he can do it without embarrassment, for he only speaks against that which his soul abhors. Is an occasion offered to speak for God? his mouth speaketh from the abundance of his heart, and therefore he speaks freely, pertinently, and composedly; and he is ever ready to speak, when a fit opportunity occurs. Is he branded as a hypocrite? he is sensible that his all-seeing Judge knows the charge to be groundless, and therefore it disturbs him not he pities and forgives his accuser. Is he called to avow his Christian character? he does it freely and cheerfully, for it is the character in which he most of all glories. Is he subjected to reproach for the cause of Christ? he even glories that “he is counted worthy to suffer shame for his name,” remembering that “if any man suffer as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but to glorify God in this behalf.” Or if he is called to give up life itself, in an adherence to his duty, he can do it cheer fully, even though it were amidst the scoffs of a deriding world; for he knows that the honour which cometh from God, and of which he is sure, is infinitely greater than that which cometh from man only.
Brethren, the history of the church is a continual confirmation of these truths. Supported by the principles I have explained, three unprotected young men could face an assembled nation, could face a burning fiery furnace, could face the mightiest monarch on earth, and say—“Be it known unto thee, O king! that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” Supported by these principles, two ignorant and unlearned fishermen, dragged from prison, and from chains before the Jewish Sanhedrin, could say—“Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, doth this man stand here before you whole.” Supported by these principles, a host of martyrs, in later ages, have courted a scaffold, or been consumed at the stake. And, without recurring to such striking instances, it is the support of these principles which enables every Christian, who leads a life of real nearness to God, to adorn the doctrine of his Saviour in all things—The blessed assurance which he habitually maintains that his God is his friend, makes him fearless of the world—It raises him far above its influence, and puts, without his seeking it, a dignity into his conduct and his very presence, which nothing else can confer.
2. By having respect to all God’s commandments, we acquire the advantage which arises from a decided character, and are thus delivered from many temptations to those sinful compliances which are the cause of shame. The person who cherishes the inward sentiments, and maintains the outward deportment which has been explained, will unavoidably assume, in the eye of the world, an appearance and character which will distinguish him as one who is not governed by its maxims, and who does not follow its fashions. It will no longer be doubtful to whom he belongs—Those who are conformed to this world, will see and feel that he is guided by other principles than those which influence them, and pursues a totally different system of living and of happiness, from that which they have adopted. Hence they will not so licit an intimacy with him; for intimacies exist only between parties of a similar taste. When thrown together by the calls of business, or in the intercourse of life, (for this character by no means requires austerity or abstractedness,) it will not be expected that the decided friend of piety will relish or take part in questionable liberties. His presence will even prove a restraint on others; or to say the least, his character will be a protection to himself, from solicitations to unlawful practices. That character will also be both a guard on himself against doing or saying any thing that might wound his conscience, and will afford him an advantage in speaking or acting against every thing improper. The desire of appearing consistent, will be a natural call on him to defend what he professes to esteem, and the expectation that he will act this part, will enable him to do it with freedom and with advantage. And thus will temptations to those sinful compliances which are the cause of shame, be greatly diminished, and the principles of religion be guarded, even by the care of reputation.
This decided character for piety, will moreover, render its possessor extremely dear to all who are Christians indeed; and from this cause he will gain an immense advantage. The influence of social inter course, on all our opinions and practice, is ever great; and it is not less in regard to religion, than in reference to any other subject. Christians inform each other by their conversation, encourage and animate each other by their exhortations, assist each other by a comparison of their exercises, embolden each other by a recital of their hopes, and help and strengthen each other by their prayers. He who is joined to this happy society, is continually imbibing more of the spirit which distinguishes and animates it, and is therefore less in danger of acting unworthily of his Christian character, and of wounding his own peace.
3. A respect unto all God’s commandments, will deliver us from the influence of sinful shame, inasmuch as it will exceedingly lower the world, and every created object, in our estimation and regard. This idea has been a little anticipated, but it is of so much importance, that it deserves to be brought distinctly into view. When men are conscious of guilt, it has been admitted that they ought to blush and be con founded—But whence proceeds that fear of man which bringeth a snare? why are men timid and abashed in the discharge of duty? in doing that which their consciences dictate and approve? In some individuals, this, no doubt, must be in part resolved into constitutional make, or natural infirmity. But after every just allowance, much will still remain to be attributed to the high estimation in which we hold the opinions of our fellow men, even when they come in competition with duty and conscience. If it were with us, as it was with the apostle, “a small thing to be judged of man’s judgment,” we should be wholly delivered from this inconvenience, as far as it arises from principle; and should go far to get the victory over it, even as a natural infirmity. Now, a life of nearness to God, will assuredly give us this estimation of all human opinions, so far as they militate with our Christian obligations. The fear of man whose breath is in his nostrils, will be absorbed in the fear of him “who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” The mind which takes clear and frequent views of an infinite God, and a boundless eternity; which places them often be fore it, brings them into ideal presence, and dwells as it were sur rounded by them; such a mind will look down on the world with a holy indifference. Its censure or its applause, its smiles or its frowns, will be regarded as matters of small estimation:
“His hand the good man fastens on the skies,
Then bids earth turn, nor feels the idle whirl.”
He feels that his heart and his treasure are in heaven; his thoughts, his hopes, his desires, are principally there. Not setting a high estimation on earthly possessions or human applause, he is not much agitated with anxiety when he contemplates them, nor when they are denied him. This appears to have been eminently the temper of the Psalmist, when he said—“Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none on earth that I desire beside thee.” This was the temper of the great apostle of the Gentiles, when he said—“I am crucified to the world and the world to me—Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung that I may win Christ.” This, in fine, is the temper which every one will, in a good degree, possess, whose conversation is in heaven; and possessing this, he will, as a natural consequence, rise above a sinful and ensnaring fear of man, and be able, with comfort and composure, to support and adorn his Christian profession.
Thus, it appears that a respect to all God’s commandments, by giving us a consistent character-producing confidence in God; by rendering that character decided, in the view of the world; and by lessening our estimation for the things of time and the opinions of men; will deliver us from shame and embarrassment in the discharge of every duty.
In how strong a light, my brethren, does this subject place the folly of those, who are balancing in their minds between the demands of religion and the allurements of the world; and endeavouring to reconcile a regard to both? We see that, in fact, they obtain satisfaction from neither—they are the most unhappy persons upon earth. If I speak to any of this description; to any who are doubting and hesitating about coming forward to an open avowal of a Christian character; to any who are half inclined to this, but are held back by a fear of the world; I would entreat them to lay aside their hostility to their own happiness, by a resolute discharge of duty. Believe it, your efforts to reconcile the service of God and the friendship of the world, will be forever vain, and you will be forever tormented while you attempt it. If you will be for God, you must be for him wholly and unreservedly; without seeking to accommodate his service to the opinions and feelings of unsanctified men. Your interest, no less than your duty, en joins this—“Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you, and will be a father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.”
In a still stronger light does this subject place both the folly and impiety of professing Christians, who are stealing away to the forbidden pleasures of sin; as if religion were not able to afford them happiness. Be it known that the very reason why it does not afford you happiness, if I speak to such, is because you are not devoted to it; because you mingle it so much with the world, that you debase its nature; because you only retain enough of it to wound your consciences, and to cover you with shame and confusion, but have not enough to enable you to take hold of its divine supports, and to taste its heavenly consolations. Cease then to pierce yourselves through with many sorrows—Return unto the Lord, and cleave unto him with all your heart, and with all your soul, and you shall find that it is not a vain thing to serve him.
On the whole, let us all be exhorted to endeavour to walk more with God—We cannot wander from his presence, without unspeakable in jury to ourselves. In his presence only is the light of life—While we remain here, we bring down a portion of heaven to earth. Let us, therefore, set it as our mark to obey all God’s commandments, without choice or exception. Let us pray unceasingly for the aids of his Holy Spirit, that we may be enabled to do so; and let us guard against every thing that might have a tendency to interrupt our intercourse with our Father in heaven. Amen.
From: Practical Sermons, Extracted From “The Christian Advocate”