Sin is muddy. When it splashes, we rightly want to clean it up. But sometimes our zeal to clean causes us to oversimplify sin’s muddiness by seeking trite answers for complex situations.

Consider the example of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9. This man had spent his entire life in darkness, and his misery had no comfort. His blindness brought shame. He couldn’t get a job or volunteer in God’s temple. All he could do was sit and beg.

Jesus’ disciples asked a reasonable question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2)? In other words: Is he responsible, or are his parents responsible?

The disciples knew that shame is no accident, but unfortunately they knew of only two possible causes: immorality or abuse. And while we know Jesus will present a third perspective, let’s consider these two options the disciples presented.

Shame #1: My Sin Against God

In this case, I did something I’m ashamed of, and I should be ashamed of it. There’s a standard of right and wrong, moral and immoral, kindness and cruelty—and I broke it.

This is the shame of immorality. In moments of clarity we’re horrified by our ability to be horrible. We’ve lied to people who trust us. We’ve ridiculed others to get a good laugh. We didn’t wait for marriage, or we selfishly destroyed what could have been a sweet honeymoon. We’ve aborted our babies. We’ve touched people—perhaps even children—in ways they didn’t want to be touched. We touch ourselves often, and we don’t want to stop.

Jesus acknowledged that suffering and shame are sometimes caused by our own sin (John 5:14). But though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud.

Shame #2: Others’ Sin Against Me

In this case, someone else did something to me and that person should be ashamed of it. There’s a standard of right and wrong, moral and immoral, kindness and cruelty—and he or she broke it. But I’m stuck with the shame of it.

This is the shame of abuse. Do you replay the memories and wonder if you’re a horrible person? Perhaps your best friend lied to you or betrayed your confidence. Perhaps you were the ridiculed outcast. Perhaps your dream date or honeymoon became a nightmare when your lover lost control. Perhaps you felt manipulated into getting an abortion. Or someone touched you where you didn’t want to be touched. Maybe you even trusted that person—everybody trusted that person. When you told people about it, they didn’t believe you.

Jesus acknowledged that innocent people sometimes suffer under the hand of evil (Luke 13:16). But though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud.

Shame #3: The Work of God in Me

Now we get to the blind man’s true shame. “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

Sometimes this is the most difficult kind of shame, because it seems to serve no purpose. There’s nobody to blame for it but God, but you and I still have to bear the weight of it.

Do you carry the shame of being different, such as a physical deformity or speech impediment? Maybe people think you’re not as pretty as the other ladies, or not as strong as the other guys. Maybe you feel attracted to people you know you shouldn’t be attracted to. Perhaps you’re too tall, too short, too clumsy, too geeky, too stupid, or too awkward.

Though we are blind, Jesus sees us. He wants to cleanse our mud and so work the works of God in us.

How to Minister to Shame

All three kinds of shame surround us. They fill our neighborhoods and our churches.

Foolish counselors and teachers assume all shame falls in only one category. For Job’s miserable helpers, everything fell into the first category (your sin against God). Today, the spirit of the age puts everything into the second category (others’ sin against you). We who are Calvinists sometimes overreact by placing everything into the third category (the work of God in you).

Wise counselors and teachers recognize shame’s complexity, and they seek to understand the mud before laboring to clean it. They know the shame might get worse—by coming into the light—before it can get better. They empathize liberally, and they denounce sparingly. They speak of shameful things in a way that invites disclosure and doesn’t drive the issue further underground.

For example, as you preach against abortion, do you put yourself in the shoes of those who have sought abortions? Does your tone and word choice invite confession and repentance, or does your harshness confirm their need for ongoing secrecy?

Are you honest about sin and shame, even while you take people to Jesus for cleansing?

For one blind beggar, the work of God showed him the reproach of Christ so he might bear courageous witness to it. Jesus—who could have given sight with a mere word—spit. Not a nice, clean spittle, but a loogy so wet and slimy that it turned dirt into mud and stuck to the man’s eyes (John 9:6). Then Jesus sent him groping across Jerusalem to find a certain pool. Thus, having endured the shame of both blindness and healing, the man faced the Pharisees and staked the claim that earned ejection from the synagogue: “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:33-34).

Finally, when the man asked Jesus who the Son of Man is, he heard something that had never been said to him before: “You have seen him” (John 9:37). Jesus turned his shame into his glory, and he can do the same in our churches today.