I am in class, carefully taking notes. Suddenly I notice that I have forgotten to get dressed—I’m completely naked. I hope no one notices.
Now to figure out how to get out of class without anyone seeing me. I try walking nonchalantly. No one notices. Whew! That was a close call. The naked dream has struck again. Unscientific research has shown that almost everyone everywhere experiences the phenomenon. And there’s something spiritually and theologically significant about it.
Which is worse: guilt or shame? Our sins bring us legal condemnation: “For in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17).1 Sin also brings shame: “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10).
In my own day-to-day living I find shame to be more painful than guilt. Guilt will keep us out of heaven. But shame can generate in us an embarrassment that freezes us from ever talking with anyone, of ever seeking or finding help from any source, including Jesus.
In Eden’s tragedy Adam seems more concerned about appearance than moral reality. Note his response to God: “I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10). Even though the guilt of his sin has placed him under a death decree (Gen. 2:16, 17), Adam seems more worried about something else. To judge by his words, the shame of nakedness, the superficiality of appearances, is uppermost in his mind.
According to Paul, we may be guilty without knowing it. Having a clear conscience does not guarantee innocence: “For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted” (1 Cor. 4:4).
Rationalizing the shame of our nakedness has brought us topless dances and nudist beaches.
On the other hand, we may experience shame without deserving it, without performing any act of transgression. As the psalmist once lamented: “My face is covered with shame at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me. . . . All this came upon us, though . . . we had not been false to your covenant” (Ps. 44:15-17, NIV).2 Job, celebrated for his integrity, nevertheless spoke of being “full of shame” in the time of his affliction (Job 10:15, NIV).
Shame is so built into human DNA that there seems no limit to our power to feel it, even when our circumstances involve no actual connection with sins committed or sinful attitudes. Elements of the superficial play powerfully in the realm of shame: I may feel that I look either too fat or too thin, too tall or too short; too straight or too stooped; that I move too slowly or even, perhaps, too fast, or at least, that I eat too fast. I may have lost my job, my cash, or my keys.
Dress, a contrived layer over my skin, may be the most awkward and painful of all, echoing Adam: a zipper down; shoes that don’t match my dress; shoes that don’t match each other—as was once the case with a friend of mine who arrived at school to teach.
For whatever historical reason, my colleague’s discipline is heavily gender-biased, and generations of coeds have learned to admire her for her choice of footwear. Imagine her chagrin when their exclamation on her shoes one day was not of admiration, but of embarrassed astonishment! My friend looked down where they were pointing to discover that she was wearing shoes that did not match!
Besides fighting currents of cultural and moral shame, we carry around personal loads from our past, comprised of the shame of sin or stupidity that God and others have long forgiven: rudeness, disobedience, or something else equally out of place.
Or it may involve some social catastrophe that will not cease to torment you though everyone else loves to recall it just for hilarity’s sake—like the embarrassment of a ridiculous date in high school or college; or an incredible mess-up at your first summer job. Isaiah’s address to this pain is most precious: “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth” (Isa. 54:4).
While Adam’s response to God from some hiding place in the garden suggests his preoccupation with shame, God is totally focused on delivering us from the guilt of sin. He knows what is primary and what is secondary. He does not ignore our shame problem, but knows full well that simply psyching and flattering away our bad feelings doesn’t lead to restoration and proper covering.
The book of Revelation shows Laodicea, God’s last-day church, in the middle of an apocalyptic naked dream. The passage seems to support the idea that the shame of nakedness is a major burden and that the church needs to wake up and get out of its crisis as soon as possible. Jesus’ concern about delivering His people from their embarrassing situation is central to His counsel to the church in Laodicea: clothing and reasons for having it dominate the single verse of positive advice from Jesus for Laodiceans: “I advise you to buy from Me . . . white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed” (Rev. 3:18).
The white raiment shows up lateras the Lamb’s wedding feast approaches. Universal excitement rings out as a multitude thunders forth the cry, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns” (Rev. 19:6). Then attention turns to the Lamb’s bride: she is dressed and ready for the party, “given the finest of pure white linen to wear” (verse 8, NLT).3 Nakedness out; pretty clothes in!
But these clothes are no superficial pretense. They represent total transformation from self-centered, self-displaying modes of life and attire, to the selfless, other-oriented service God’s people give the world as they are inspired, directed, and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus. They wear new clothes that are their own (verse 8) because they have accepted by faith the inheritance of righteousness (Heb. 11:7), a heritage they receive from the Lord of their salvation, who took Adam’s nakedness and mine to the cross that we might be clothed in the garments of His righteousness.
He has enveloped His bride in the robe of His own righteousness (see Isa. 61:10) so His glory and perfection will shine in her through endless ages of celebration. Want to party forever? Get dressed.
Mack Tennyson directs the SunPlus project, a program for strengthening financial processes across the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He and his wife, Sharon, assistant to the marketing director of Adventist Review Ministries, are proud parents of five daughters.