The terms shame and guilt are often used synonymously, but they refer to slightly different experiences. While both may result from acting in an inappropriate manner, shame is directed inward, while guilt is directed outward. Shame makes a person feel terrible about themselves, even questioning their sense of worth and value, whereas guilt makes a person feel terrible about what they did. Both involve a negative evaluation, but the difference is in the focus. The focus in shame is on oneself, whereas the focus in guilt is on the wrong action.
If you have ever felt as though you wanted to dig a hole and disappear into it after you said or did something inappropriate, what you were likely feeling in that moment is shame. On the other hand, if you felt sorry for how your actions affected others, that’s guilt. To the same situation, you may react with either response. One response inclines you to destructive behaviors in an attempt to escape the negative feelings about yourself. The other response inclines you to corrective behaviors to rectify the situation for the sake of others.
In a sinless world, neither shame nor guilt exist, because no one behaves inappropriately. And it is God’s desire to return us to a state devoid of guilt and shame. Until such a time, though, we will inevitably experience these two powerful emotions. How are we to navigate them, particularly with respect to our sexuality?
Maybe you’ve had the nightmare yourself, or perhaps you’ve heard of someone having it. The details differ, but the punchline is that you find yourself standing stark naked in a public place. And that is typically as far as the nightmare goes. Well, the first people to live this nightmare were Adam and Eve.
After they had eaten the fruit that God had forbidden, Genesis 3:7 asserts, “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” This is in contrast with Genesis 2:25’s assertion that “they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” They did not accidentally forget to put on clothes as they left the house; rather, in an immediate consequence of disobeying God’s commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they had this new experience called shame. They gained knowledge all right, but it was clearly a type of knowledge that God never intended for humanity to experience—that of shame.
This psychological phenomenon of shame concerning their aberrant behavior had a physical manifestation in the first humans’ desire to hide their bodies. Apparently, perfect conformity with the law of God provided them a covering without which they now found themselves exposed and vulnerable. In addition, their sin altered their environment, degrading it from the ideal habitat that God had created for perfect homeostasis, further increasing their need to protect their bodies.
Nakedness is now fraught with undertones of shame and vulnerability. The thought of being fully exposed, not just in a physical sense but socially, emotionally, and spiritually, is such a terrifying concept that many of us go to great lengths to avoid it. We fortify ourselves behind screens and usernames to avoid being seen.
The connotations extend to the conversation surrounding sexuality. Even when pop culture showcases explicit sexual material, it is an effort to remove the shame surrounding the topic. As we shall discover throughout this study, these efforts are misguided at best, and actually destructive in reality. It was never God’s intention for our nakedness to cause shame, and it is His ultimate purpose to remove the shame of nakedness from His people.
In this technological age, when personal information is traded without its owner’s consent, an individual’s right to privacy has become an increasingly common topic of conversation. One useful definition of privacy is from Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who called it the “right to be let alone.” It is a respect for individual autonomy, encompassing everything from the right to protect your physical boundaries to the right to control the use of your identity. In legal jargon, one’s right to privacy must be weighed against the state’s compelling interest. In other words, you should be left alone unless you are disrupting society.
Sexuality is one area that most would consider to belong to the private sphere. A common adage is that what an individual or two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom is no one’s business but their own. From that perspective, discussions about what sexual behaviors are acceptable would be intrusive.
Related to the concept of privacy is that of secrecy. Whereas privacy is viewed as a right, secrecy carries the negative connotations of shame—often, when a secret comes to light, it is to the shame of the parties concerned.
Clearly, privacy and secrecy are not the same thing. But it is clear how they may be conflated since both involve controlling access. In the conversation about sexuality, the difference between the two becomes tantamount. And this difference revolves mainly around intent.
To decipher the difference, one must ask: Is the access being withheld pertinent to the relationship or not? For instance (and this would be very rare situation), one may not need to disclose their hermaphroditism to the shopping clerk at the supermarket, but to withhold that information from their affianced would be unconscionable. If the information is not pertinent to the relationship, then it is a matter of privacy. But if the information is pertinent, then it is a matter of secrecy.
To figure out whether you’re being private or secretive, ask yourself, if you were in the other person’s shoes, would you have a vested interest in the information? When a married individual does not share with a friend outside of their marriage the nature of their sexual relations, it is likely a matter of privacy. On the other hand, when a married person does not share with their spouse some sexual relations that they have engaged in, it is a matter of secrecy. And secrecy is fraught with shame. This may be why sexuality as a whole may be viewed as shameful—because it is a private affair. The question is, where does privacy end and secrecy begin in relation to sexuality?
The vulnerability that comes with nakedness is accompanied by the fear of rejection. If they really knew who I am deep down at the core, would they still accept me? If they knew that I do not always feel like I belong, would they still receive me? If they knew everything I’ve done, they certainly would not welcome me into their company. To stand before someone else, completely naked, with every flaw, every blemish exposed, and not only be accepted by them but admired and adored, is the height of intimacy. This is the yearning of every heart. This yearning only God can fill.
Only God can fill this yearning, because only He can know us fully. Seven times in Psalm 139 the verbal root yada’ (to know) is repeated (vv. 1, 2, 4, 6 [the verbal root of da’ath (knowledge) is yada’], 14, 23a, and 23b) as the psalmist both acknowledges God’s vast and intimate knowledge of him and desires to be known of God. The broad usage of the word yada’ in the Hebrew Bible includes an experiential knowledge that denotes a relationship rather than mere factual disclosure. The Lord is presented as acquiring this knowledge through close investigation rather than by abstract omniscience. However, His omni-attributes give Him supernatural access to our minds (vv. 2–4), our actions (vv. 7–10), and our physiological makeup (vv. 13–16). “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it” (v. 6).
Only God can fill our yearning because only His divine love could love the unlovable. The psalmist acknowledges that he has anxieties and wickedness, and yet he still desires the Lord to search him (vv. 23, 24). Further, in the context of God’s incredible knowledge of him, the psalmist realizes that no matter where he goes, “Even there [His] hand shall lead [him], And [His] right hand shall hold [him]” (v. 10). “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works” (v. 14, NKJV), he continues. “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; when I awake, I am still with You” (vv. 17, 18, NKVJ). Evidently what the Lord knows about us does not deter Him from pursuing a relationship with us.
Psalm 139 presents the comprehensiveness of God’s knowledge of us and His love for us in light of that knowledge.
Verses 1–6: The depth of His knowledge—it is thorough
Verses 7–12: The breadth of His knowledge—it is inescapable
Verses 13–18: The duration of His knowledge—it begins before our conception
It is the Christian’s privilege not only to receive the all-encompassing love of God but also to become a conduit of this love to others. Inasmuch as it is the most intimate of all human relationships, marriage affords the greatest opportunity to invest in coming to know another, and to love them as typified in the sexual act. In fact, the term yada’ is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the sexual act (cf. Gen. 4:1). Beyond the marital unit, though, we may also learn from Christ how to create a safe environment that fosters true fellowship, where each person feels ever increasingly known, loved, and accepted, even as they are transformed by their experience with Jesus and His people.
“We are never alone. We have a Companion whether we choose Him or not. Remember, young men and young women, that wherever you are, whatever you are doing, God is there. To your every word and action you have a witness—the holy, sin-hating God. Nothing that is said or done or thought can escape His infinite eye. Your words may not be heard by human ears, but they are heard by the Ruler of the universe. He reads the inward anger of the soul when the will is crossed. He hears the expression of profanity. In the deepest darkness and solitude, He is there. No one can deceive God; none can escape from their accountability to Him.” (Ellen G. White, That I May Know Him (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1964), 234.)
“The greatness of God is to us incomprehensible. ‘The Lord’s throne is in heaven’ (Psalm 11:4); yet by His Spirit He is everywhere present. He has an intimate knowledge of, and a personal interest in, all the works of His hand.” (Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1903), 132.)
“The mind of a man or woman does not come down in a moment from purity and holiness to depravity, corruption, and crime. It takes time to transform the human to the divine, or to degrade those formed in the image of God to the brutal or the satanic. By beholding we become changed. Though formed in the image of his Maker, man can so educate his mind that sin which he once loathed will become pleasant to him. As he ceases to watch and pray, he ceases to guard the citadel, the heart, and engages in sin and crime. The mind is debased, and it is impossible to elevate it from corruption while it is being educated to enslave the moral and intellectual powers and bring them in subjection to grosser passions. Constant war against the carnal mind must be maintained; and we must be aided by the refining influence of the grace of God, which will attract the mind upward and habituate it to meditate upon pure and holy things.
“There is no safety for any man, young or old, unless he feels the necessity of seeking God for counsel at every step. Those only who maintain close communion with God will learn to place His estimate upon men, to reverence the pure, the good, the humble, and the meek. The heart must be garrisoned as was that of Joseph. Then temptations to depart from integrity will be met with decision: ‘How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ The strongest temptation is no excuse for sin. No matter how severe the pressure brought to bear upon you, sin is your own act. The seat of the difficulty is the unrenewed heart.
“In view of the dangers of this time, shall not we, as God’s commandment-keeping people, put away from among us all sin, all iniquity, all perverseness? Shall not the women professing the truth keep strict guard over themselves, lest the least encouragement be given to unwarrantable familiarity? They may close many a door of temptation if they will observe at all times strict reserve and propriety of deportment.” (Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home, 330, 331)