Righteousness and Nakedness

It’s not common for a preacher to receive useful feedback on a sermon before Sunday. Here’s an exception. My dear mother, who continues to put up with my antics, texted these words to me upon hear the word “nakedness” in the title. “Brian!!! Naughty preacher! How are you going to talk about that? People might be wiggling in their seats.” If you’re wiggling already I hope to put you at ease, at least for a moment, because we’re not going to talk about nudity but about nakedness. They are closely related, and in the body they manifest themselves in the same way, but they are not the same thing. Let me try to explain by asking you a question: How are righteousness and nakedness related in your life? I know that sounds confusing, but here’s what I mean. Do you desire, even yearn for, someone who knows and loves the real you? You without the mask. You without the performance. You without any covering. Without makeup, pretension, awards, or status. You without hiding anything—personality quirks, bad habits, character flaws, past secrets, physical blemishes and deformities, besetting sins, lusts and addictions. Of course you do. Everyone does. It’s a human longing common to all of us. So why don’t you ever put your “nakedness” on display, as it were, fishing for someone out there who might come to know and love the real you? Could it be that your righteousness—that which you hope makes you not just likeable but lovable to others and to God—does not adequately cover your nakedness? When I look around, that’s the reason I see. We conclude that revealing our nakedness is simply too risky. And so we live in the lonely gap between the two (righteousness and nakedness), continuing to hide, yearning to be known and loved, but always putting up walls when someone, especially God, gets too close.

Why do we live in this gap between a pseudo-righteousness that never seems to suffice and our nakedness that drives us to erect all kinds of barriers shielding us from being truly known? The Bible’s answer is our guilt and shame. These are such delicate issues in our culture that we hardly ever mention them except reluctantly in private counseling. At least in the church we feel free to talk about the kind of guilt we share in common. Occasionally we even drum up the courage to confess a private sin in order to lose that guilty feeling. But our shame? Your shame? My shame? It’s like the proverbial elephant in the room—never acknowledged but ever present, because we hate to feel naked. It’s humiliating, terrifying, and soul-crushing! Are you beginning to feel the force of the problem? The weight of the elephant in the room? Again, how are righteousness and nakedness related in your life? Or as a cynic might put the question: “Is it even possible for humans to harmonize righteousness and nakedness?” The Bible’s answer is Yes, and we can find the first installment of the answer in the early chapters of the very first book of the Bible (Genesis 2:18-3:21). Nearly from the beginning, guilt and shame have been universal human problems. We feel the need to justify ourselves and to hide our sins because our hearts testify we are guilty and ashamed. But nothing we do removes the stain. Only God can give us the righteousness and covering we desperately need.

The Memory of Nakedness

We were known and loved (vv. 2:18-24)

By God. Creation was not complete, and God knew the man was lonely and incomplete. It was not good for the man to be alone. So God, in love for the son made in his image and likeness, made from his rib—his own flesh and blood, taken from his side—the gift that would delight him, complete him, and help him in every way. The woman, created by God, was the crown of creation that made it all very good. For God so loved the man, that he gave his only woman, that whosoever doubts that God knows what he’s doing, should let the thought perish and give thanks for the spice of life! Rejoice how God proves his knowledge of and love for you by giving you exactly what you need. This is the overarching point of Genesis 2: the greatest gift of all is humanity’s delightful and unbroken communion with God. But humanity must be complete (male and female) to properly enjoy the gift.

By another who corresponds to you. One who is like you, unlike you, and who is for you. The Bible pictures this relationship in a general sense as friendship, but in the most intimate sense as husband and wife. While their complementary sexual relationship for procreation is the focus of Genesis 1:26-27, their intimacy and companionship are the focus of Genesis 2. Righteous nakedness in marriage is the capstone gift in Genesis 2. In marriage we are known and loved.

By the way, this is why marriage is such a gift, even after the Fall of the human race. Without a covenant relationship binding a man and woman together with solemn and public vows to know and love each other until death part them, they will continue to hide in relationship with each other. Neither one will take off their mask and stop performing for the other, because they will be trapped in a consumer relationship. That’s why you don’t truly know the other person when you’re dating. You’re both putting your best face forward, which is just another way of saying you’re both hiding the shameful parts of your true self. Without the commitment of marriage that is designed to make room for emotional safety, neither the man nor the woman will trust the other with their shame. It’s simply too risky.

We were not ashamed (v. 2:25)

Naked and unashamed—how we long for these two states to be together again! The memory of those almost forgotten days from another era—expressed in untold ways by poets, artists, storytellers, and songwriters—tugs at our hearts. Today we fear nakedness, but there was once a time when it signified innocence, integrity, even righteousness. Believe it (cf. Song 1)! There was a time when nakedness was not associated with exploitation, vulnerability, or exposure. It was “very good” (Gen 1:31).

We can still catch a glimpse of what we had a long time ago. Have you noticed how a little child can run naked through a group of strangers? How is that? Because he is not aware of his nakedness, and therefore feels no shame. He is innocent—righteousness in regard to his nakedness—until his eyes are opened and he sees his nakedness. At that point the child begins to feel ashamed, and he can no longer appear naked without feeling humiliated. He instinctively knows it is somehow threatening to be naked around people with whom he does not share intimacy. In this way the story of Adam and Eve is a paradigm of every person’s experience of gaining the knowledge of good and evil. But it is not merely a parable, because the story is recorded history and our hearts “remember” it.

Meditate on your mysterious heart-memory of the innocence that humanity possessed in the beginning. Reflect on your vague personal memory of the relative innocence of your childhood, especially early childhood. Listen to and affirm your longing for nakedness—for being known and loved without the fear of shame. Some of you are wondering why should I do this—isn’t it a fruitless and painful exercise for someone who already feels shame? Here’s why: because when the Bible talks about being naked it confirms your need to be known, to be loved, and to not be humiliated by intimacy. You must do your best to remember the original righteousness of nakedness in order to stir your heart’s deep longing for it.  Only then will you be able to withstand the anguish of the next step—a sustained look at your personal experience of nakedness.

The Experience of Nakedness

We feel guilt and shame (vv. 3:1-7, 16-19)

Here is the Bible’s account of the first sin, sometimes called the Fall because of its devastating effects on humanity and the rest of creation. This first sin’s results were cosmic in scope, introducing the misery of guilt and shame to the human heart. Although guilt and shame cannot be separated, we can distinguish them.  Author and counselor Edward Welch puts it like this:

Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated. Or, to strengthen the language, you are disgraced because you acted less than human, you were treated as if you were less than human, or you were associated with something less than human, and there are witnesses. [Shame Interrupted, p. 2]

If guilt says “I deserve punishment” then shame says “I am worthless.” How do we experience nakedness? If you trace the steps that led to the first sin, you’ll see how we also bring guilt and shame on ourselves. When questioned, Eve began to doubt that God’s warning was true. Next she questioned God’s good motives—whether God actually loved her and desired her happiness. Then she entertained tempting thoughts, lusting after the “forbidden fruit’s” alluring physical, emotional, and spiritual properties. And then she acted, hoping the benefits would pay off and the risks wouldn’t touch her. Finally, she shared her hopes with Adam who was with her. He was not deceived, but willingly and knowingly followed her lead and example—switching allegiances from God’s side to ally with the serpent. There is much more to explore here, but for our purposes it is enough to recognize that sin brought an immediate knowledge of guilt and a gnawing feeling of shame. Genesis 3 teaches us when people are morally culpable for sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, they bring upon themselves guilt and shame.

Of course you may also be touched by guilt and shame through no fault of your own. But that doesn’t erase the stain you feel. I know modest women who struggle with feelings of worthlessness and dirtiness because once they were “body-shamed” for their clothing. They end up hating their bodies and themselves, even though God has created them to be known and loved for who they are. Most people know men and women who still experience shame because they were physically or emotionally abused as children. Maybe you are one of them. So you can feel shame from something that happened to you. You can also feel shame by association. I have a good friend, a Korean-American, who I’ve known almost all my life. A few years ago when the school shooting massacre happened at my alma mater Virginia Tech, my friend called me the next day apologizing for the sins of the shooter—a fellow Korean. My friend experienced shame by association and felt the need for covering, cleansing, and acceptance in order to restore the status of his ethnic people and our friendship. Of course I didn’t blame him or Koreans, but he was the one feeling shame, not me.  And to him it was real. Many of you are carrying the weight of shame for something that is not your fault. But just telling yourself the truth doesn’t remove the stain. Lord knows you’ve tried! So you continue to feel dirty, worthless, and exposed—emotionally, morally, and spiritually naked.

So we hide and blame (vv. 3:8-13)

Our makeshift coverings hide and alienate us from God, other people, and our true selves. Adam and Eve did exactly what everyone does with their guilt and shame. They hid themselves and blamed others. When their eyes were opened and they realized they were naked, the first thing they did was hide by making clothes and heading for the forest. Who were they hiding from? The fig leaves hid their nakedness from each other. The trees hid them from God—or so they hoped. When the LORD arrived in the garden he called out to them, inviting them to confess and come out of hiding. But instead of repenting, Adam and Eve shifted the blame. Eve blamed the serpent for deceiving her. Adam knew better, so he blamed the woman, and then he blamed God for giving the woman to him! You might chuckle at the account, but you and I do the same thing. Instead of choosing confession and repentance, we choose to hide from and blame each other. And then we hide from and blame God for the shame we feel. Don’t you see when you hide and blame to escape your guilt and shame, you’re choosing to live in the no-man’s-land gap between righteousness and nakedness? It’s the easiest place of escape, but it’s just a different hiding place where no one will know the real you and you won’t be loved for your true self. It’s not a safe place either because you’re essentially alone with your guilt and shame. Still feeling naked. The Bible portrays shocking images of the righteousness-nakedness gap in the fallen world (Isa 20; Lam 1; Ezek 16:8, 15, 37-39; Heb 4:13). We run for cover but never find it, all the while God calls us to come to him for covering, cleansing, and acceptance.

The Covering for Nakedness

We can be fully known and loved (vv. 3:14-15, 20)

Because of his love for you, God restores your dignity, delivers you from your enemies, and brings you to himself. From the very beginning, the Bible addresses all of these. They are all key aspects of the gospel. Look how the LORD shared the gospel for the first time with us. It’s in the form of a curse for Satan and his people and a blessing for Eve and her people. The serpent had brought shame on humanity, so its fate would be to slither on the belly and eat dust—signs of defeat and abject humiliation. Even though Eve had rebelled against God and allied with Satan, now God would bring her back to himself by guaranteeing perpetual conflict between Eve and her enemy Satan, and also between her children and Satan’s children. This war between the serpent’s “seed” and the woman’s “seed” will culminate in God delivering us from all his and our enemies through the true Seed (Mt 1:23; Gal 4:3-5; Rom 16:20; Heb 2:14; cf. WSC 26).

Jesus Christ (the Son of God born of the virgin Mary) and Satan (the serpent) would eventually go head to head in battle. Satan would crush Christ’s heel, but Jesus would crush Satan’s head. Why did God do this for his guilty and shameful children—you and me and all his church? Because he knows us and loves us, despite our guilt and shame. He won’t allow us to suffer forever the miseries of sin. He understands you desperately need to be known and loved for who you are. In sending his one and only Son, born in the likeness of human flesh, Jesus was made like you and me in every way so he might perfectly and without sin identify with us and save us (Heb 2:17-18). Because he is both divine and human, he fully knows and loves you.

We can be fully covered by God’s clothing (v. 3:21)

Yes, God accepts us and saves us. But on what basis? By covering us with robes of righteousness. God’s clothing covers the exposed and humiliated. It cleanses the unclean and stained. God’s clothing is infinitely better than a make-shift fig leaf skirt which can never adequately cover your nakedness. The clothes God provides cover and cleanse. Actually they cover because they cleanse. The garments of skin that God made for Adam and Eve are a reminder of the Fall and the gospel. Of the Fall: that humanity is separated from God—a separation marked by loss of innocence, original righteousness, and nakedness unashamed. Of the gospel: that God will provide the necessary covering for humanity’s sin, guilt, and shame. Someone will ask, “How do I know that?” Look at verse 21. When God killed animals for their clothes, he gave us the first glimpse that covering and cleansing can only come through the shedding of innocent blood. Those primitive garments anticipated the OT animal sacrifices for the covering and cleansing of sin, guilt, and shame (Lev 1, 3-7; 17:11; cf. Heb 9:22). And the OT sacrifices pointed forward to the NT when the blood of Christ accomplished final covering and cleansing to make the naked righteous once again in God’s sight (Rom 5:8-10).

Here’s the amazing thing. The righteousness that Christ provides us does not make us naked and unashamed again. The righteousness that Christ provides is better than the original, innocent, fallible righteousness of Adam and Eve. The righteousness of Christ is final, tested, and infallible. Instead of uncovering the guilty and shameful, it covers in robes washed in the cleansing blood of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. If you are covered in the righteousness of Christ, you are fully covered by God’s clothing (Ps 132:9; Isa 61:10; 2 Cor 5:1-5; Eph 6:13-14).

Being covered in God’s righteous clothing is such a wonderful aspect of the gospel. I believe in our time and place we are experiencing a profound societal shift—moving away from a dominant sin-and-guilt culture to make room for personal and communal shame. Once shaming was not employed as a weapon for exposing unrighteousness and nakedness. But now, it is en vogue to shame a person or a group for their beliefs, behaviors, or just for who they are. Together guilt and shame make you feel disgusting, exposed, and worthless. How can you escape? Not by covering yourself with your self-righteousness and blaming others. Only by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and his righteousness can you be covered, cleansed, and accepted. So whenever guilt and shame threaten to undo you, put on the righteous robes of Christ (Rom 13:12-14; Eph 4:24; 1 Thess 5:8-10; Rev 7:14; 22:14). How do you do that? If you have brought guilt and shame on yourself by your own sin, first confess and repent, and then claim the covering, cleansing, and acceptance that belong to you by your union with Christ through faith. If you feel naked and ashamed because of something done to you, or something associated with you, then remind yourself that Jesus has crushed the serpent’s head, and you are fully known, loved, accepted and covered by Christ. Guilt and shame no longer have a grip on the Christian. The first two verses hymn “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” say it well.

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness

My beauty are, my glorious dress;

’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,

With joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in Thy great day;

For who aught to my charge shall lay?

Fully absolved through these I am

From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

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