One summer, when I was nine years old, my family was on vacation at the beach. One morning, during that vacation, stands out in my mind as a horrifying experience. My father had left early to play golf with friends when my mother, my siblings, and I heard a knock at the hotel door. I was still in the process of waking and in my disorientation I got out of bed to answer the door, thinking my father had returned. However, when I opened the door, to my embarrassment, it was the cleaning lady. Standing in the doorway, there I was, sporting nothing but my Spiderman undergarments. I can recall the shame washing over me as if I were standing under the steady flow of a waterfall. As quickly as those little feet would move, I made haste back to the bed diving under the sheets for some relief and cover.
The innocence of that moment hardly compares to the vulnerability we feel when our inner man is exposed. Surely, you are familiar with the feelings of those horrifying moments when something we would rather keep hidden creeps toward the light of day. Even the thought of our struggles being known by others stirs unrest in our souls. Our lives are tormented by the true person we know ourselves to be in comparison to the person we want everyone to think we are. We are tormented still when we try to cover that shameful difference with mere fig leaves. Further still, we know God sees our hypocrisy and that only compounds the shame. How do we ease the anguishing conscience?
Fear of Exposure
The laments of a heavy conscience are expressed in forms of anxiety and despair. Fears of being exposed to others as something different than we appear are like shackles that bind or guards that oppress. The fear of exposure compels us to seek covering. Often, that covering takes the form of conforming to social or cultural standards. While we may gain approval from that particular group of people, there is no true and lasting inner peace because that approval is misplaced. Feeling trapped and forced to put on a facade, we live with the constant pressure to display a false identity.
The only judge of men is God and the approval of men is of no advantage before him. This only ignites our anxiety and fear because of the perpetual demands of performance. Our evil thoughts and desires cannot be covered or tamed by deeds done in our own strength. As Paul, we must cease from striving to clothe ourselves with the approval of man (Gal 1:10). Man’s approval can never appropriately cover us before the Almighty.
Despair in Exposure
Once we realize that we are powerless to sustain acceptable performance, we often retract from others. Since the risk of exposure is no longer worth the reward of others’ approval, we now seek to distance ourselves because we are convinced it is easier to live in isolation, in our own misery, than to trouble others with our flaws. Turning inward, our thoughts are consumed with our weaknesses and inabilities. Forgetting, however, that we are not the seamstress to fashion clothing (i.e. behaviors or morals) acceptable to cover the crimson stains of sin and shame, we despair.
Christ the Tailor
Exposed by God
One reason we are deceived in believing our goodness can cover our inner shame is that we minimize our sin. As George Swinnock once noted, “We perceive the size of sin to be too small when we only measure it by the wrong it does to us, our families, and our neighbors.”1 Our comparison to others minimizes our sin and leads us to believe that if we simply act better than them, then we are clean in conscience and covered. While we may believe that the coverings of our own making succeed in convincing others that our conscience is light, anxiety looms upon our burdened conscience. We also know that “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.” (Heb 4:13) All the clothes we ever tried to fabricate (our goodness, kind words, our giving, etc.) are more transparent than sheer garments before the eyes of God. Our guilt and shame cannot be hidden from his sight. It was only when Isaiah saw God that he clearly saw himself as unclean and that atonement for his guilt must be from outside of himself. Job had a similar experience when he said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)
Christ Wore Our Clothes
To live after the fall is to be naked and ashamed (Gen 3). We recognize our need to be clothed, because our only covering is shame. So we work to clothe ourselves, to hide the shame of our exposure, and our good works amount to filthy rags and fig leaves (Isa 64:6, Gen 3:7). Physically, they cover the nakedness, but we are deceived if we believe they hide the shame. Truly these fig-leafed earthly garments rot and fade. A proper suit of clothes does not come from us, but from God to cover our inner torment.
“When God humbles Job, He does so by manifesting the vast difference between them. He says, ‘Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty’ (Job 40:10).”2 The chasm between man and God is evident by our attempts to gain God’s approval through our own righteousness. The resulting humility, in our failure to adequately array ourselves, however, is not intended to be a severing of relationship with God. Rather, the humility is an invitation to cease trusting our inner strength and ability. That invitation comes in the form of a new suit of clothes given to those who believe in the Lord Jesus. Not only did Christ’s righteousness provide for us garments to cover our guilt and shame before God, but he also bore in his body on the cross the shame due us. The garments for which soldiers gambled had clothed Jesus. Now, on the cross, he was utterly exposed, bearing the shame of our sin, bearing the cause of our inner torment. He became naked and ashamed so that we could become covered and favored.
Clothed in Christ
At times we confuse our obedience and deeds as necessary to gain God’s approval. Much of our inner turmoil, as believers, arises when we confuse the difference between these two great doctrines. The results of believing that our approval before God is dependent upon the clothing of our own deeds are devastating in our mind and heart. As Luther penned, “All our striving would be losing.” God has declared us righteous by the work of Christ. That declaration is not gained or lost by our performance.
We need no longer fear how we appear before God. He knows all that we have tried to hide. It is exposed before him and he sees through our fig-leaf apparel. He didn’t simply excuse our shame and guilt, rather the fabric of Christ’s life was a tapestry of righteousness woven, fitted, and sewn perfectly to clothe those who trust in the work of Christ.
Understanding the perfect, righteous, life of Christ is essential to living free from the burden to perform to gain God’s approval. The righteous deeds of Christ were his sewing together clothes that would adequately cover the true guilt and shame of our conscience. Foreshadowing Christ, God sacrificed an animal and tailored clothes that would cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21). No longer do we need to hide from the light, ashamed of our past or our current disobedience, but knowing we are given a proper suit of clothes in Christ that allows us to appear blameless before Almighty God. This frees us from the burden to cover ourselves or appease others with flashy clothes of our own making. One of your counselees may need to be reminded of the clothing Christ tailored for them.
- George Swinnock, The Blessed and Boundless God (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 111.
- Ibid., 63.
Dr. Dale Johnson is the Executive Director-Elect of The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) and also Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling and Chair of the Biblical Counseling Division at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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