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The Gospel for shame cultures: a paradigm shift

Bruce Thomas formerly worked in Indonesia. This article was first published in EMQ, July 1994.


I have discovered that one of the most difficult aspects of evangelizing Muslims is getting them to appreciate their need for a savior. I have found the Islamic doctrine of God and Man to be such that Muslims tend to be unaware of their sinfulness and inability to save themselves.1 As a result, convincing a Muslim to embrace Jesus as the blood sacrifice for his sins usually requires considerable time and pre-evangelistic effort.

In observing one particular culture, I have noticed a curious thing. While my Muslim friends and neighbors do not worry much about "little sins” like lying and cheating, their daily lives and religious rituals seem to revolve around something which I would consider to be even less significant, namely their ceremonial purity. The intensity of this insecurity has caused me to consider that defilement might be a basic human problem as serious to some as sin is to others.

One day our helper told us that when she was a little girl she had a friend who used to feel her mother’s hair in the morning to see if it was damp. Her friend did this so that she could tell if her mother, who was divorced, had been messing around. According to Islam, you are unclean after you have had sex and must take a complete bath, to include washing your hair, in order to be clean again. When asked why her friend’s mother would bother to take the bath if she was already committing adultery, our helper responded that no one would dare think of not taking the ritual bath after having had sex. Such a person would be a curse and the ground they walked on would be cursed. In other words, a prolonged state of ritual uncleanness following sexual intercourse was more unthinkable than adultery!


Suddenly a lot of things made sense. It had always puzzled me why Muslims make such a big thing out of not eating pork, not getting licked by dogs, and keeping the fast, when sins like lying, cheating, and stealing are treated so superficially. Few Christians seem to comprehend, for instance, the seriousness of eating pork. Dwell for a moment on the revulsion you feel when you think about a stone age tribe eating human flesh, and you will begin to understand something of the degree of disgust most Muslims have for the idea of eating pork. It is probably not a sin issue but an issue of ceremonial cleanness. Thus, because eating pork is the worst possible state of defilement and more attention is given to ceremonial purity than moral purity, the pork eater (George Bush) is worse off than a murderer (Saddam Hussein).

In the light of this new perspective, I began to consider that perhaps the greatest need felt by these Muslim people is not for assurance of salvation from sin but for deliverance from the tyranny of being in a near constant state of defilement. Every element of their daily lives is ordered by this insecurity; the direction to face when falling asleep, the Arabic words uttered when beginning a task, speech, or greeting, and even the way to blow your nose or wipe your bottom. Defilements come in various levels and for each level there is an appropriately matched cleansing. Burping and passing gas is one level of defilement. Touching your private parts is another. Touching semen, urine, feces, or menstrual flow is getting pretty serious; serious enough that a woman’s prayers will not be heard during her period. I wonder if there is a more relevant way to present the gospel under these circumstances. Perhaps we could communicate more effectively with a gospel message addressing man’s defilement as well as, or as part of, his depravity.

An Application

Before furlough, a year ago, a friend asked me quite sincerely why we Christians insist that Jesus is God and that He was crucified. My answer moved him visibly. Instead of beginning by saying all have sinned and that the wages of sin is death, I waxed eloquent on what he knew better than me, that all flesh is defiled. He nodded knowingly as I affirmed that from the day we are born we continually carry inside us the very substances from which we need to be cleansed. He squirmed as I illustrated the futility of ceremonial rituals for such internal cleansing, and concluded that human flesh cannot cleanse itself for either God or heaven any better than darkness can make itself light. He was still and attentive when I climaxed by saying that just as a candle drives the darkness from a room by entering it, God drives defilement from human flesh by becoming it. In other words, the very thing that Muslims object to most in Christianity, syirik – the identification of God with his creation, is the solution to man’s most basic problem as perceived by these Muslims.

If I'd thought of it at the time I would have gone on to show how the nature of Jesus' miracles – healing blindness with His spit and leprosy with His touch – proves who He is. I didn’t forget to answer the second part of his question by pointing out that Jesus touched and destroyed the most serious consequence of our defilement, death. Finally, I concluded by saying that our only hope lay in appropriating the once and for all cleansing from defilement and victory over death that Jesus offers to those who repent and live in Him, and by saying that baptism was the symbol of this appropriation.


It took months and considerable reflection for me to realize the possible implications of what I had stumbled into. Do general and specific revelation teach something about the defilement of man? Is man’s defilement an integral part of his sinfulness? Is shame related to defilement the way guilt is related to sin? Does Christ’s death atone for man’s defilement as well as his sin? Is the apparent lack of attention to this area related to Christianity’s predominance in the West which is more guilt and performance oriented as opposed to the East which is more shame and being oriented? Have we missed some important concepts in our commentaries and in our English translations of the original languages? In cultures where defilement is a bigger issue than depravity, have our converts been discipled into a healthy maturity or are they still wrestling with unaddressed and misunderstood insecurities?

I believe the answer to the above questions may be “yes.” When Adam and Eve sinned, the first thing they felt was shame, not guilt. Before the fall “The man and his wife were both naked [arowm is the Hebrew word] and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25, NIV). After the fall, “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked [now the word is eyrom]; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:7, NIV). But with the coverings they were still naked?! “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Genesis 3:10, NIV). Interestingly and perhaps symbolically, it is God who suitably provides for Adam’s nakedness. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21, NIV).

The consequence of Adam’s sin was death. “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17, NIV). The concept of death includes spiritual separation from God, but I wonder if it includes something more. That the resultant awareness in chapter three is of nakedness and not separation and that the word for naked takes different forms before and after the fall may indicate a situation of defilement as well.

The progression in Genesis three is also interesting. Adam and Eve hid after they sinned because they were afraid, and were afraid because they felt naked. Interestingly, shame over nakedness, which preceded feelings of fear, alienation, and separation, appears stronger than shame over the sin of disobedience.

No wonder the Old Testament is full of images showing man’s defilement as integral to his depravity. As a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and feet whenever they entered the tent of meeting or approached the altar, otherwise they would die (Exodus 30:17-21). Blemished or defective animals were not permitted to be used for sacrifices. Items used for worship had to be anointed or consecrated. Unclean animals could not be eaten, and even circumcision probably had some connection to ceremonial cleanness as the illustration in Colossians 2:11-13 indicates by relating the foreskin with the “sinful nature.” Finally, Jesus himself, when He challenged the Pharisees in their use and understanding of cleansing and dietary laws, affirmed that man is unclean (Mark 7:20-23).

The concept of original defilement makes total depravity more sensible. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10) and “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), because we are defiled. Sin is not inherited but stems from our being. We are unclean and everything we touch or do, even with good intent, becomes contaminated. The Muslim who understands that the ground is cursed wherever he steps if he has not bathed after having had sex is showing an understanding of how bondage to unrighteousness stems from defilement. It is this defilement that may form the basis for shame, insecurity, and a felt need for the gospel in shame cultures.

A New Paradigm

Niels Mulder 2 says, “Shame is the feeling of anxiety about one’s presentation, about being criticized or laughed at, for short, a feeling of embarrassment and fear for the eyes, ears, and opinions of others.” Gailyn Van Rheenen 3 quotes Jacob A. Loewen saying, “While shame is ‘the response to disapproval of one’s own peers,’ guilt is the ’self-condemnation resulting from the violation of internalized convictions of right and wrong.’” To all that has been written on guilt and shame I would like to add that guilt is a feeling and/or a condition occurring when one has broken or not kept a divine or human law, while shame is a feeling and/or a condition stemming from a shortcoming in one’s state of being either before God or peers.

This definition creates for shame the same real and imagined distinctions that exist for guilt. Just as there is legal guilt whether it is felt or not, and there can be felt guilt whether there is an infraction or not, so there is a tangible condition of shame whether it is felt or not, and there is a felt condition of shame whether it has an objective basis or not.

Both Paul (Romans 9:33) and Peter quote Isaiah on the subject. “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never4 be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6, NIV). If shame is limited to a subjective feeling in the face of one’s peers without any objective condition, then how could this promise be true? What about all the saints and prophets who got ridiculed? If, on the other hand, “shame” in this verse refers to an objective condition, then the one who trusts in the cornerstone laid in Zion (Jesus) has the objective basis for feeling shame permanently removed, whether he gets ridiculed or not.

We talk about how sacrifice for forgiveness of sins is no longer necessary because Christ has provided the ultimate sacrifice, but what is our excuse for setting aside the levitical dietary and cleansing laws? When Jesus “declared all foods ‘clean’” (Mark 7:18-23) he was not setting these laws aside but challenging added traditions by pointing out that the issue of cleanness was in man’s basic condition and not in the food. Could it be that the purpose of these laws was to draw attention to man’s defiled condition in the same way that the sacrifices drew attention to his sinful condition? Could it be that these laws are no longer adhered to because Jesus' work on the cross once and for all removes our defilement like the way it removes our sin? “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-14, NIV)!


I have never heard a presentation of the gospel which addresses man’s defilement and shame as well as his guilt and sin. I wonder what kind of gospel we have been taking to the Muslim world when we neglect the issue of man’s “nakedness?” Jesus not only bore our sins; he bore our shame. As the “author and perfecter of our faith” He “endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). What did it mean for “Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV)? Did he become depraved, or defiled? Could he have conquered our defilement by assuming it? Christ was not only “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities;” he “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4-5). The atonement is not just the simple matter of someone taking our punishment, a concept which Muslims find extremely distasteful. There seems to have been an assumption of our defiled state resulting in the destruction of our contamination which was the foundation of our depravity. If this is so, there would be no need for an assumption of our depravity, so that some theological constructs involving imputed sin and imputed righteousness may have to be reevaluated.

Has there been something missing in our understanding and preaching of the gospel so that we fail to reach the Muslim at his point of deepest insecurity? Does the Muslim’s preoccupation with endless cycles of ritualistic cleansing point to another human problem as basic as sin? Do we need an approach to evangelism, discipleship, and contextualization which will meet people at this other point of need? Could such an approach revolutionize outreach and church planting in some of the most resistant parts of the world? Someday, I hope we have answers to these questions.


  1. Samuel P. Schlorff, ed., Discipleship in Islamic Society, North Africa Mission, Ecole Radio Biblique, Marseille, France, 1981, p. 24.
  2. Niels Mulder, Individual and Society in Java: a Cultural Analysis, Gadjah Mada University Press: Yogyakarta, Indonesia. 1989. p. 26.
  3. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991. p. 282.
  4. “never” translated from ou me, “the most decisive way of negativing something in the future” (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1957, p. 519). Other future indicative uses include: Mt. 16:22; 26:35; Jn. 4:14; 6:35; 10:5; and Heb. 10:17. “shame” translated from kataischuno, “as in the OT, of the shame and disappointment that come to one whose faith or hope is shown to be vain” (Ibid. p. 411).
© Bruce Thomas. Used by permission

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