Men and women, young and old, rich and poor—they all gathered at the square by the water gate. They wanted to hear the Book of the Law read. Ezra was more than willing and read from dawn to noon while everyone stood with rapt attention. Teachers helped translate and explain words grown unfamiliar after decades of neglect.
As they listened, some began to cry. They heard about the life God had offered His people and understood how badly they had failed to keep the terms of the covenant. They saw why they had been taken into captivity and had only recently returned to ruins and chaos and had struggled to rebuild the walls. And they felt deeply why, even now, they were vassals under a mighty empire.
Soon more were crying, then more. Guilt and shame filled hearts and overflowed in tears.
But Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites cut it short. “This is a holy day,” they insisted, “not a time for weeping! Go home and rejoice! Celebrate with good food and drink. Make sure everybody has plenty. This is not a sad day, but a holy day, a time for joy. The joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Neh. 8:9-11, author’s paraphrase.) The people were reluctant, but finally did as they were told.
Lessons from Nehemiah 8
As believers, God has called us to continual change and to seeking that change in others as well. In order to do that, we need to understand the role that guilt and shame play in the change dynamic. Nehemiah 8 provides much of that understanding.
First, it is possible to feel guilty for too long. While it’s doubtful that a person can feel “too sorry” where sin is involved, “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:10-11) is not necessarily long-lasting sorrow. It’s results are enduring, but the seeds needn’t be in the ground for long before they begin to grow into something more and better. On the described in Nehemiah 8, the people had much to be ashamed of. But having come to see what they needed to see, and to decide what they needed to decide, the guilt and shame no longer had any job to do. So the leaders told them to dismiss the shame and start rejoicing.
Second, Nehemiah 8 shows us that holding onto guilt for too long weakens us. As Nehemiah tried to cheer the people, he told them, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). The guilt and shame had been a gift from God to help them change course, but any more time under their influence would have made the people weaker, more apt to be passive. For the strength to move forward, they needed to experience an exchange: the joy of the Lord had to replace the guilt and shame of the Lord.
Third, holding on to guilt and shame can be unholy. Twice (8:10, 11), Nehemiah and those with him pointed out that the day was “holy to our Lord.” Because it was a holy day, they were to stop mourning. It’s easy to reason that if feeling bad about sin is good, feeling really, really bad for longer and longer must be much better. But this thinking rises from self-reliant pride. “I have to do something about my sin, pay in some way, conjure up some stronger commitment or some deeper aversion to disobedience.” Well, we do have to do something about our sin, but—having already repented—wallowing in more guilt and shame is not the right “something.”
In Nehemiah 8 holiness required that the guilt be dismissed and that the joy take its place. And there was nothing unholy at all about celebrating the corner they had turned.
Helping people change
Whether we preach, teach, counsel, or “edify one another” in less structured ways, we’re all called to help people change. The lessons of Nehemiah 8 have important implications for how we do that.
One implication is that we should not assume others’ failures are simply due to lack of basic motivation, lack of desire to do right. It’s all too easy to leap to that conclusion, and it shows up in how we communicate with those we hope to see change. If we believe our listeners lack desire to do right, our communication properly tries to awaken guilt and shame. We emphasize things like the “exceeding sinfulness of sin” (Rom. 7:13), the great price that was paid to redeem us from that life (1 Cor. 6:18-20, Titus 2:14), and the displeasure God feels when we are disobedient (2 Cor. 10:5-6, 2 Cor. 5:9-10).
But what if those we are concerned about are already genuinely repentant and have stumbled for other reasons? We should always be mindful of the sobering truths that help us take sin seriously (Titus 2:11-13), but we should also grant others the charity and respect we accord ourselves. When we do, pride and rebellion do not top our list of possible reasons for their failures, and we consider that they may have stumbled due to confusion, ignorance, or weakness. Though it’s often hard to tell the difference, wickedness is one thing, and weakness is another. The former calls for rebuke, the latter for something else.
Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all (1 Thess. 5:14, NKJV).
The role of encouragement
Another ministry implication of Nehemiah 8 is that we should not think guilt and shame are the only forms of motivation available. Even if we believe someone’s failure is mainly a motivational problem, it doesn’t follow that the only way to address that problem is to heap more guilt and shame on him. God has also given us the motivational tool of encouragement. Guilt and shame are for bringing the high-minded low (Isa. 2:17, 5:15); encouragement is for bringing incomplete forward. Guilt motivates from above, but encouragement motivates alongside, arm in arm, as we help a brother or sister limp along.
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:1-2).
Learning to ride
Helping people change is much like helping a child learn to ride a bike. Suppose the child makes repeated attempts to ride, but his efforts keep having the same sad result. He crashes over and over, bruising and scraping himself—and sometimes innocent bystanders. If we want the child to succeed, how should we respond?
One option is to say things like “Oh, come on! You’re not really trying!” or “When I was a kid learning to ride, I only fell once!” or “How are you going to feel if everybody else can ride but you can’t?” or “Why do you keep falling like that? What’s the matter with you?” These are all ways of employing guilt and shame to motivate change. Sometimes, they may even be the right response.
But what if the child is already trying hard, is embarrassed by his lack of success, and is feeling like giving up? He needs motivational help, but the encouraging kind. “You can do it, I know you can. Don’t give up!” or “Hey, people always fall when learning to ride. Just keep trying!” or “You were up a little longer that time. Good for you!” or even “You know, I heard about a kid who fell 49,226 times before he got the hang of it. You’re doing way better than him!” That last example is a deliberate effort to drain off some shame in a situation where it’s just not useful.
When we employ guilt and shame in situations where they are useless, they often become much worse than useless. For the child learning to ride a bike, they become a monkey on his back. Because guilt feelings are telling him he’s bad, he soon expects to fail. And the expectation of failure distracts him from the task, clouding his mind with thoughts of “What’s going to go wrong this time?” and “It’s really going to hurt when I fall!” and “What am I doing wrong? I must be doing something wrong!” Then fear becomes a growing obstacle as well. With his energies so diverted by irrelevant guilt and shame, the harder he tries, the worse he fails. He’s now working against himself when he should be gaining confidence, anticipating success, and enjoying what’s going well.
A third ministry implication of Nehemiah 8 is that sometimes it isn’t motivation people need at all. They need to be told what to do. They need understanding and skill in doing right. The day after the reading of the Law, Ezra met again for Bible study, this time with the leaders of the community (8:13). What they discovered together were details of what God expected of them in the seventh month: the Feast of Booths (“tabernacles”). So they prepared instructions and sent them out to all Jerusalem and the surrounding villages telling everyone exactly what to do, and how, and when. In our efforts to help ourselves and others change, we must not overlook the power of practical wisdom for solving problems.
When someone already has enough motivation to keep getting on the bike and keep trying again, the difference between success and failure may come down to understanding some physics: “Did you know that it’s easier to keep a fast-moving bike up than a slow-moving one? Try it!” or “Some people find it helpful to practice on grass so falling isn’t so scary and painful” or “When I finally learned, I was practicing on a hill and didn’t pedal at all.”
Other times, all the necessary information and motivation are in place, and there’s nothing left to do but acquire skill. We can help with that, too. “How about if I hold the back of the seat and run behind you while you pedal for a while?” Or maybe even, “I’ll put the training wheels back on for now. We’ll try riding without them again another day.”
In the end, there’s no substitute for prayer, discernment, and a disposition to think well of others. When we approach opportunities that way, we’ll do a much better job of knowing when it’s time for guilt and when it’s time to get it out of the way.
Aaron Blumer, SI’s site publisher, is a native of lower Michigan and a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He, his wife, and their two children live in a small town in western Wisconsin, where he has pastored Grace Baptist Church (Boyceville, WI) since 2000. Prior to serving as a pastor, Aaron taught school in Stone Mountain, Georgia and worked in customer service and technical support for Unisys Corporation (Eagan, MN). He enjoys science fiction, music, and dabbling in software development.