Is there something in your past you feel ashamed about? You’re not alone. Someone once told me that one of the downsides of growing older is having more to regret because a person has had more opportunities to mess up.
All of us can think of things we did but now regret: the words we would like to take back or the ones we wish we had spoken instead; the behavior that would make people wince if they only knew we did that; and the good deeds we didn’t do because we were too busy focusing on our own selfish desires.
Why do we act in ways we know are wrong and are bound to hurt us, as well as others, eventually? One reason is that we desperately want our lives to have meaning. We try to find that meaning however we can or escape from the seeming reality of our insignificance.
We may feel incredibly lonely and just want to feel loved—at least for a while, even if it involves compromising our values or letting down those closest to us. We may be hurting so badly that we will do almost anything to get rid of the pain, even if it means taking drugs that harm us or sequestering ourselves from a world that seems to bring us only pain. Because the fear of shame and need for approval are so strong within us, we may cheat on a test, lie about our credentials, or slander someone else in order to get ourselves ahead. We all want someone to acknowledge that we matter and have value—that our lives count for something important.
A barren woman gives birth.
In the book of Luke, we find shame in the very first chapter. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was barren and long past childbearing age (Luke 1:7). To be barren in Israel at that time was shameful. It was a sign of God’s disfavor and judgment. Yet, Zechariah and Elizabeth were upstanding Israelites who loved the Lord; it must have been hard for them to understand why God hadn’t given them children.
Just as Elizabeth’s womb had until then been unfruitful, so Israel had failed to produce the fruit of righteousness that God required of it (Isa. 5:7). Where once the nation had its own autonomous king, now it was forced to bear the indignities and oppression that came with being ruled by the pagan Roman Empire under the client king Herod I (Luke 1:5).
Then one day the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and announced that Elizabeth would give birth to a son named John who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah (Luke 1:13–17). God saw the shame of Elizabeth, and he saw the shame of Israel. He had a plan all along. Even though it seemed as if God had abandoned Zechariah’s family—and the entire nation—he was working his solution to take away their shame.
God's plans were bigger than Elizabeth's barrenness.
As was the case with Elizabeth, not everything that makes us feel ashamed is of our own doing. We cannot choose the families or socio-economic circumstances into which we are born. We cannot always change certain characteristics about ourselves that we would like to be different. We cannot always avoid being mistreated and harmed by others. Still, even under the best of circumstances, we can’t ever rid ourselves entirely of shame, because there is always something we will wind up doing that we shouldn’t. The Bible diagnoses this problem to be indwelling sin, and we all have it (Rom. 3:23).
God cared about something far greater than Elizabeth’s barrenness and Israel’s political oppression. He cared about the redemption of the world from sin, misery, death, and estrangement. God cared so much that he sent his Son to be born in the flesh to rescue the world (John 3:16). Only by keeping the law perfectly and being the once-for-all sacrifice for sin could Jesus redeem us from guilt, shame, judgment, and punishment. Jesus took our shame upon himself at the cross and bore it willingly out of his unfathomable love for mankind (Isa. 53:1–12; Rom. 15:3; Gal. 3:13).
In Christ, we have peace from our self-condemnation that accuses us daily—and more importantly, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). We can rest in all God has done in Christ to remove our shame and present us before himself in clean, white robes washed in the precious blood of the Lamb of God (Rev. 7:14: 22:14). In the sight of God we matter, have infinite value, and are beloved by him.
Because of what Jesus did on our behalf, we too can say with Elizabeth, "Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people." (Luke 1:25)
We can rejoice that Christ’s perfect righteousness is counted to us, and our sin is counted to him through faith alone, which is itself a gift from God by his grace alone (Eph. 2:8–9).
This is the gospel, and it is glorious.