Responding to the Shame after a Relapse into Sin

September 2, 2016

Jeff Forrey

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Jeff Forrey

Jim’s wife of eight years, Rachael, was shocked to discover he’d been regularly viewing Internet porn for about two months. In all their years together, he had seemed like an upright Christian man with strong morals. After Jim had started meeting with their pastor, Paul, he’d stopped viewing Internet porn. So, Rachael and Pastor Paul were surprised and dismayed all over again when they learned Jim had gone to an adult bookstore to purchase pornographic material in print, instead!

Suppose, however, that Jim reports incredible shame over his behavior at this point. Suppose Jim’s experience epitomizes the definition of shame suggested by Ed Welch: Shame is “the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did … You feel exposed and humiliated.”1 What kind of hope is there for someone like Jim?

Shame Can Facilitate or Frustrate Sinners’ Progress

Although relapses into sinful behavior can provoke a sense of shame in people, depending on the mind-set of a person, the impact of the shame can be very different. Notice from the definition above that shame results from a global self-evaluation by a person. Shame is not a limited assessment of specific behaviors; it is a holistic assessment about one’s overall personhood. The totality of its scope makes it difficult to bear—and to change. However, central to dealing with shame is identifying the standard that was used as the basis for evaluation.

Shame Might Facilitate Spiritual Growth

Although shame is not pleasant to experience, it can be a prod for spiritual growth. In the Bible, shame can be a sign of a properly functioning conscience. If the conscience is not functioning properly, people can ignore and violate God’s law with little or no remorse. In these cases, feelings of guilt and shame are dulled or diminished. Jeremiah describes this condition with graphic clarity:

10 prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
11 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace.
12 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush. (Jer. 8:10b–12a, emphasis added)

In Jeremiah’s situation, what made the priests’ and prophets’ conduct detestable was its deviation from God’s will. They had convinced themselves that their false message of peace was true and acceptable! The priests’ and prophets’ retrained consciences did not register the shame they should have experienced that could have curtailed their false teaching.

Jim’s conscience is registering his sin, and so it would appear that his shame is appropriate. Pastor Paul could capitalize on this and guide Jim further in his spiritual development to move beyond this sin.

Shame Might Frustrate Sinners’ Growth

There is another possible direction Jim’s shame might go, however. Suppose Jim returns to his pastor’s office two months after their counseling had helped him regain sexual purity and their conversation runs like this:

“Hi Jim! It’s good to see you. What can I do for you today?”

“Paul, I’m struggling again.”

“Jim, have you gotten back into porn?”

“No, not really. I mean, I do sometimes remember those images, but I haven’t gone looking for new ones. But, I just can’t believe how much I’ve hurt Rachael.”

“Has she brought this up in a recent conversation?”

“No, she hasn’t. But what kind of man must I be to have done this to her? I wasn’t raised to think any of this is acceptable. Five—ten—years ago, I never imagined I’d do this sort of thing.”

In this scenario, Jim feels defiled or stained by his past sin all over again. If left unchecked, this shame will frustrate his spiritual growth. Assuming Pastor Paul had walked him through what the Bible teaches regarding God’s readiness to forgive our sins because of Jesus’ death on the cross, what else can be said to help Jim? Here is a tactic Jim’s pastor might use with him.

Defiling Shame Is Cleansed by the Blood of Jesus

Pastor Paul might help Jim see there is a subtle pride at work. Jim always had considered himself above this type of sin. Now that he knows he is not, his image of himself is shattered. This has produced a nagging sense of uncertainty for him. But Jim must learn to rest in Christ’s sufficient sacrifice for his cleansing.2 No one can ask for anything more, because God says nothing more is needed. “For by one sacrifice he [Jesus] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14; see also Heb. 9:14).

A good illustration of this sufficient cleansing power is found in the Apostle Paul’s experience. Like Jim, Paul—as Saul, the Pharisee—thought of himself in positive terms, which he rehearses in Philippians 3:5–6: “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” He expands on his zeal for persecuting the church in Galatians 1:13: “I persecuted the church of God [whom he thought he was serving!] and tried to destroy it.” Then, his encounter with the risen Christ forced him to see how wrong and self-deceived he was.

Later in his life he recounted again what he had been like as a non-Christian, yet in even more unflattering terms: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (1 Tim. 1:13). Recognizing this, Paul was overwhelmed with how God blessed him through Jesus (see v. 14). Here is the bottom line for Jim: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.3 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (vv. 15–16 ESV, emphasis added).

Jim can be reminded that if the Apostle Paul could be cleansed and be used by God as he was, then Jim has no reason to view himself any differently. In fact, Jim should find himself echoing the exuberant praise of the Apostle: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (v. 17). His Lord deserves nothing less, because Jim deserved nothing more.4

BCC Staff: An earlier version of this article appeared on (August 24, 2016).

  1. Edward T. Welch, Shame Interrupted (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2012), Kindle edition, chap. 1.
  2. Our redemption can be described by different terms because of its varied effects on us. If Pastor Paul emphasized the element of “forgiveness” (a legal term) in the past, then Jim might benefit from thinking about another element, “cleansing,” which is especially pertinent for dealing with shame, which is readily described as “feeling dirty or defiled.”
  3. Foremost, or the KJV’s chief of sinners, most effectively conveys the idea that Paul saw himself as especially deserving of God’s wrath, not because his sins were any worse than others, but because he led the charge in trying to undo what God was doing through Christ. He was the “foremost” because he was “at the front of the line,” so to speak.
  4. Pastor Paul also could point Jim to the woman at the well in John 4. Or he might point Jim to the one time prostitute, Rahab, mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. These women’s experiences should reinforce for Jim: “Where sin increased”—even sexual sin, even Jim’s sexual sin—“God’s grace increased all the more” (Rom. 5:20).