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Shameful vs. Private: What Words Mean (2.0)

This was originally posted back in September 2015, but I recently re-read it and discovered a few gaps in my argument that I hope I’ve now properly filled in.

Facebook is one of the worst things in the world. Really, all of social media is pretty terrible, amplifying our most antisocial behaviors to frightening levels. It’s a bastion of thoughtless, empty opining where you can find support for even the most asinine and unscrupulous ideas. To that end, I’m going to be discussing one of these opinions.

A Little Bit of Context

For starters, I will not be discussing the issue that prompted this post because that will reveal whose post I’m responding to, and I’m not attempting to attack anyone. Our focus here is to examine words and the ideas behind them, not people who prompted this essay.
To that end, I recently came across a Facebook post using the words “shaming” and “shameful” to discuss this unnamed issue, which dealt with some degree of nudity in the public space. I felt like I had an adequate response to the confusion that lie in the use of these words. Thus, we’ll be discussing the meaning and purpose of shame, the purpose and power of feeling shame, and the difference between something that is shameful and something that should be private.

In the Beginning, Shame

God placed the first man and the first woman in the Garden of Eden: both were naked and neither felt shame. The first point I’d like to make here is that nudity was not originally shameful; there is nothing intrinsically shameful or wrong about nudity. The difference, however, is that sin has now entered the world through the machinations of the devil and the rebelliousness of humanity. Nudity, now, is shameful not because there is shame in God’s creation but because of what evil thoughts, desires, or behaviors can result from it.

Some might say that if others are drawn to sin by their nudity, that is none of their concern. The Bible, however, takes a different stance. It says that offenses will come, that Christians will stumble, but that we should be vigilant that we do not cause the stumbling, that we do not initiate the offense. Now, I’m not about to go on some moralistic tirade, but I will make the point that we have a responsibility to care for and protect those who need care and protection. We generally consider this to mean children, the disabled, and the disenfranchised, but I would argue that those who need care and protection are those who are vulnerable in an area for which we can provide care and/or protection. Thus, if someone is vulnerable in the area of nudity, then it’s upon us to protect, so far as we can, from it, or rather, from the sin that can result from it. But as I’m sure that I’ll never convince some of this, let’s head back to Eden…

After Adam and Eve sinned, they felt shame, ostensibly because they were naked; however, it goes deeper than that. Prior to their sin, they were “as God made them,” naked, sinless, and perfect in their reflection of the image and glory of God. After their sin, they remained naked, but it was no longer a nakedness full of God’s glory and free of the taint of sin. It was a nakedness that made them feel vulnerable and exposed even though they were physically no more vulnerable or exposed than they had been at any other point in their existence. What changed? Certainly not their physical state nor their fashion sense: the change was spiritual. Sin didn’t make their bodies shameful but did fill their spirits with shame.
Shame gets a bad reputation in our society today; we’re constantly on a quest to end “shaming” in all its various forms. Of course, I have no problem with that. Shame can often be paralyzing, even fatal. However, shame does serve a legitimate purpose, especially when you think of the fear of shame as motivator.

I recently had a very smart friend teach me something about motivations. To use his example—in light of the current public discourse about adultery—he loves his wife, and so he will not cheat on her. However, he was quick to admit there have been times that love—his primary motivator—wasn’t as strong as it should have been. During these times, secondary motivators like the fear of hurting his children and the potential for shame have helped to buttress the temporarily weakened primary motivator. Shame can and does serve a legitimate purpose in a fallen world: it feeds a healthy fear of messing up which can help to keep us on the straight and narrow.

And yet, shaming someone is inexcusable, and we’ll get to that in a minute.

But first let’s talk about another word, “private.”

Private: The Need for a Covering

After Adam and Eve fell and found that shame had replaced the glory of their nudity, they attempted to cover themselves with leaves. A decent cover, perhaps, but leaves don’t last. Once they’re removed from the plant that grew them, they immediately begin to deteriorate. It’s a covering that won’t last long. This is why, when God shows up, He provides them a new covering of animal skin, one that will last much longer, cover more, and provide a great protection for our most vulnerable (and valuable) parts.

As I said before, nudity is not inherently shameful, though the glory and purity of the human form was lost to sin’s invasion. No, nudity is not shameful, but in a fallen world, it moved from being publicly acceptable to only acceptable in a private setting. There’s nothing wrong with “private,” and perhaps that’s the hang up some people have these days. They don’t see the value, the worth that’s conferred upon the body through privacy. Maybe I’m wrong, but the more I think about it the more I can hear people complaining that they don’t want privacy forced upon them. If their nudity leads someone else to sin, they would argue, that’s their fault for being so perverse. To be clear, I agree. Those who see the unveiled human form and take a perverse pleasure in this are wrong. However, since God gave humanity its coverings, we should be cautious before we through them aside. God endorsed privacy, and He had his reasons for doing so.

Private “parts” or actions are not inherently shameful. Some private acts are glorious, even lauded by the Bible. And though I feel like I’m being overly repetitive, I’ll say it again, the human form is not inherently shameful. The shame has been added in after the fact. It’s not that the form is perverse, but what can happened from a depraved mind viewing the form in the wrong context certainly is. Thus, the need for privacy. When describing the various purposes of clothing, I’m sure we’d include protection from the elements, regulation of temperature, etc. All valid uses of clothing in a fallen world, and yet, God didn’t wait till Adam and Eve had entered that broken world before He gave them coverings. Adam and Eve made coverings themselves before they ever experienced a physical need for clothing because they felt ashamed of their nudity, and God gave them a better covering soon after. Thus, the first and foremost reason for clothing is actually spiritual: we wear clothes to cover what is most sacred to our physical selves.

Let’s put it this way: when God gave Moses the plans for the Ark of Covenant, the gold-covered wooden box that would be used to contain the Ten Commandments, He planned for it to housed in the Holy of Holies, the inner-most sanctum of the Tabernacle. It would only be viewed by the High Priest, and even then, only once a year. Why? Because God had decided to allow His presence to rest there, upon the Ark. This made the Ark sacred, which is, to say, set apart for a special, divine purpose. In this case, the Ark was set apart to be the resting place of God’s presence. If the Ark had been publicly viewable, it would have eventually begun to be viewed as regular and common instead of a special and sacred. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a cliché for a reason: it’s true.

We cover what is private about our bodies as a means of honoring our form and respecting the eyes and hearts of those around us. We don’t wear clothing because we are ashamed of who we are or how God made us; we wear clothes to prevent shame from muddying the clean waters of human relationship. Clothes should be seen as a mark of honor, covering that which is most sacred. Even Paul, in writing metaphorically about the Church, discussed our use of clothing to cover our “private areas” as a way honoring them. We keep them covered, not to hide them but to reserve them, to keep them special and sacred, reserved for the one who has the right to view them.

What is shameful and what is private are not the same but neither are they mutually exclusive. Shameful actions are sins, and yet we must draw a fine point here: many shameful actions would have been legitimate actions had they be done in private. And this is the heart of the issue I saw expressed on Facebook. A perception had been established that a certain action was inherently shameful, meaning that it was, by its very nature, shameful. However—and this is why I’m writing all of this—the real issue wasn’t the action itself but the manner and place in which it took place: it was done in public instead of private.

Conclusion

There’s a certain amount of misplaced pride that has motivated some people to take what ought to be private and bring it into public view. This is partly the result of ignorant individuals who have shamed individuals and/or actions without recognizing the distinction between private and shameful. Too many people, who call themselves Christians, are “convinced” of the shamefulness of the human form. Again, this is a misunderstanding. Our spirits’ are fallen, and, yes, our bodies are cursed. However, the root of sin is not in nudity. Neither lust, nor fornication, nor any sexual immorality starts in the body: they start in our spirit and are then played out through the body.
The key element I want to convey is that there is glory in the human form, and that glory, that beauty is deserving of the honor of privacy. This is why God gave Adam and Eve better coverings. It was’t the first evidence we have of biblical prudishness. Instead, it’s God demonstrating the value and wonder of His creation, namely us. He valued Adam and Eve’s nudity in the newly fallen world, even though there was no one else around to lust after them, which is a good point to focus on before we close this lengthy post.
Adam and Eve were husband and wife, but sin tainted everything. Husband and wife can still allow sin to pollute their marriage, even though they were the only sexual game in town. (Well, only “human” sexual game in town. That’s gross, but, in a fallen world, there are no limitations.) That’s how subtle and dangerous sin is and how valuable and worth protecting the human is to God and should be to us.
Some acts are always shameful, but many private acts are not, so long as they respectfully remain private. Private and shameful are too different things.

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