“‘I really thought that I ought to oppose the name of Jesus the Nazarene in every way possible. And that’s exactly what I did in Jerusalem. I locked up many of God’s holy people in prison under the authority of the chief priests. When they were condemned to death, I voted against them. In one synagogue after another – indeed, in all the synagogues – I would often torture them, compelling them to slander God. My rage bordered on the hysterical as I pursued them, even to foreign cities.’”
Acts 26: 9-11 (Common English Bible)
Snoopy, of Peanuts comic strip fame, was sitting on his doghouse writing another novel. No Ernest Hemingway, he begins his novel as he begins all his novels, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Lucy comes along, looks at Snoopy’s draft and begins to berate him. “How silly you are,” she says, “for such a beginning. Everyone knows that every great novel begins with, ‘Once upon a time.’” In the next frame, Snoopy starts again. “Once upon a time it was a dark and stormy night.” Perhaps you feel that way some days. In your heart it is a dark and stormy time. For many people, the inner storm is the result of guilt, guilt for failures that have hurt those we love. Lucy fails to understand that no turn of phrase can settle the storm.
It seems to me that most people today live with some guilt. For some, the burden of guilt diminishes their posture, shoulders pushed down and eyes that are heavy. Guilt is felt for what has been done and for what has been left undone. In one church that I served a man confessed that he cheated on his wife during a business trip. He asked that I tell her for him, “She will take it better from you. She respects you.” Naturally, that comment was code that he no longer carried any self-respect. He was ashamed of himself, knew that his wife deserved better. He continued that there remained nothing his wife could do to make him feel worse. The shame would remain on his back forever, he told me.
This story from Acts is the third account of Paul’s conversion to the Christian faith. As in the previous two times the story is told, Paul details his persecution of the church. Paul holds nothing back. Paul does not gloss over the details. Paul locked up many of God’s holy people. When they were condemned to death, Paul voted against them. In synagogue after synagogue, Paul tortured Christians for their belief in Jesus and compelled them to slander God. When Christians ran to foreign cities to flee Paul’s persecution, Paul pursued them, Paul’s behavior often becoming hysterical. What is striking to the reader is that Paul confesses his evil but never demonstrates any sense of shame. Not one word of dark remorse is spoken.
What is Paul’s secret to a life without shame? Well, according to the Bible, true guilt follows the judgment, not of others, but of God. It is our refusal to live in dependency upon God. That refusal results in behavior that harms our relationship with others. Shame is the felt condemnation of the brokenness that follows. Yet, pay attention to the moment Jesus confronts Paul with Paul’s sin – Jesus does not beat Paul down with shame. Jesus tells Paul to stand on his feet. It is only then that Paul can return to God. Jesus does not use Paul’s guilt to disgrace him but to change him. It is then that Paul learns that there is no condemnation for those in Christ. Without condemnation, without God’s judgment, there is no shame.