I f shame is the problem, what do we do about sin? There’s a danger, for those of us wanting to speak God’s word to the shamed, to downplay the concept of sin – when people are already damaged by shame, talking about sin risks damaging them further. Judith Rossall’s brilliant book Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves deals with this problem head on, arguing that we need to be speaking more about sin, not less.
Our theology and our practice often only recognises sin in one direction – the sins that we have committed, which need God’s forgiveness. But in tracing the path of both sin and shame through the Bible, Judith finds another story there – the story of God’s dealings with those who have been sinned against. This is typified by the story of Cain and Abel – if we are to put ourselves into this story and ask what we can learn from it, most often we will put ourselves in the role of Cain, “for nearly all talk of sin is concerned only with the offender.”
It is as if we listen to Cain but not to Abel. In hearing only Cain and not taking the Exodus into account, we have restricted our understanding of sin – which in turn means we have not grasped the fullness of the gospel.Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves, 25
The Exodus, of course, is another story of God’s dealings with those who were enslaved, oppressed, and sinned against – and so are many other stories from the Bible that Rossall examines in this challenging and much-needed book.
I feel like I came away from reading this book with a more two-dimensional understanding of sin and how it relates not just to shame but to other aspects of the faith. There were a number of “aha!” moments as things clicked into place for me that I had not realised before, and times that challenged my understanding and turned old convictions on their heads:
God’s wrath against sin (to use the old-fashioned phrase) is part of the good news of the gospel, but we can only see this if we learn to see that wrath not as an annoyance with us for not living up to some petty rules, but rather as a passionate commitment to the value of, and justice for, all of God’s children. For the Abels of this world, God’s wrath matters.Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves, 144
Those living under shame because of what others have done to them need to know that God takes this kind of sin – the sins we ourselves experience – seriously too. Does our church practice really reflect this? As well as confession and repentance, do we help people with acknowledgement and forgiveness in our congregational worship?
The scope of the book is biblical and theological, bringing together an understanding of sin and forgiveness from the Bible stories in the context of shame, so it deliberately does not spend much time addressing pastoral or evangelistic issues. But the foundation it lays for understanding what ministering to the shamed needs to look like in a Christian context is invaluable, and if you are starting to think about how the Bible addresses shame, the readings of the Bible stories here will be eye-opening.
In short, this is the book I wish I had to hand when I was writing my own!