Joseph Matovu and Ken Irungu served as ministry apprentices with iServe Africa. Here, Joseph, Ken and Andy Harker (former programmes director for iServe Africa) talk about shame.
Joseph: Uganda has a shame culture – if you do not go along with what the community does then it is shameful. I felt this when at university - the Christian Union taught ‘hyper grace'*, as well as other strains of the prosperity gospel. I felt real shame about my opposing convictions and at points it pushed me to go along with the crowd. I was being made to think that I would miss out on something important as a Christian if I followed my own convictions.
Andy: The Apostle Paul was in a shame culture, similar to most East African cultures today. People are concerned about issues of public face and honour and what the community thinks of them. It is similar in the UK: social media, for example, is all about public face and what others think of you. Ever since Genesis 3 we’ve all had this big problem with shame and being exposed and being seen. Some of this is right shame - we’re afraid of God seeing our dirty hearts and minds. But some of this is ‘misplaced shame’ – we’re too worried about what other people think about us and not worried enough about what God thinks of us.
One of the big reasons Paul wrote 2 Timothy was to deal with misplaced shame. In verse 8 of chapter 1 Paul says, ‘do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord’ and in verse 12, ‘But I am not ashamed.’ In 2 Timothy Paul reminds us that the gospel message has always been unpopular and counter-cultural. Gospel ministry has always looked small and unspectacular and shameful. So Paul says in verse 8, ‘do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord.’ It is vital for Timothy (and us) to overcome misplaced shame in the gospel. Shame keeps us silent, makes us want to fit in with our culture, separates us from other Christians and shackles us to the world.
Ken: Shame is a big thing in African culture and many people will be affected by what society thinks of them. When I was growing up my parents would constantly point out people they wanted me to emulate when I grew up. They wanted me to excel in life - get a good job, house, car. In Kenya, children are expected to obey throughout their life, especially before they are married. It is considered disobedient and a lack of respect if they join gospel ministry without parental blessing. There is also the feeling of shame that, if you don’t get a good job, house, car, etc., you’re letting your parents down.
After I became a ministry apprentice, family members tried to coerce me to change my mind. They said I would be ‘wasting my degree’ if I joined Christian ministry. I know people whose family members won’t even be associated with them because they do not want to share the shame of a university graduate joining gospel ministry. Shame is also felt among peers - gospel ministry is considered a ‘lower profession’ and so when I was about to graduate my friends and course mates tried to persuade me to join them in establishing ourselves in the world. It was such a big temptation to want to be like them.
Andy: So, what’s the remedy to shame? In part, it is being with others who are fighting the same battle. But the real power, the real antidote is the gospel.
In 2 Timothy 1, in between saying ‘do not be ashamed’ (v8) and ‘I am not ashamed’ (v12) Paul spells out the gospel. He could have just said, “Of course you know the gospel Pastor Timothy” but instead he spells it out explicitly.
In Kenya ‘the gospel’ is so often assumed. Church pastors will believe the gospel and so assume everyone knows it is too. They don’t spent time unpacking the riches of Christ in church and so very soon no-one really knows what the gospel is.
Paul is not assuming the gospel. He knows that we need to be reminded of the gospel again and again because it is not only the power for salvation but also the power for discipleship and the power for ministry. Paul says in verse 9, ‘he saved us’. That’s the core of the gospel in three words: God saved us. The gospel is not a testimony about us and how we have changed to become better people – it is a testimony about our Lord, so that he gets the glory.
When we feel shame about gospel ministry we’re making the mistake of focusing on us and what we do and how we are seen. But it was never about us and what we’ve done and what we look like. God saved us not even looking at our works but purely because he has purposed before time to save us.
Life is not about what we’re doing and how we look. It’s about God and how he looks – his glory. The key to overcoming shame is to look at him! Verse 8 goes on ‘do not be ashamed… by the power of God who saved us.’ We are able to move from shame to persevering though suffering by focusing on the God who has powerfully saved us. When we’re feeling ashamed of the gospel, the disapproving world feels very big and scary. But we’re to focus on the God who saved us and is immeasurably greater and immensely powerful. His power created the world, raises the dead, changes rebels into his children and keeps them going to the end.
Misplaced shame can stop us in our tracks but the antidote is keeping on reminding ourselves and one another of the detail of the gospel of God who saved us by grace in power.
*Hyper-grace emphasises the grace of God to the exclusion of other vital teachings such as repentance and confession of sin. As all sin past, present and future has already been forgiven, there is no need for a believer to ever confess it. Hyper-grace also teaches that people are gods who cannot sin and can command blessings.
Joseph and Ken served as ministry apprentices with iServe Africa and are both now studying on the Cornhill Training Course in London. When they complete their studies, Joseph and Ken will return to their home nations where they hope to serve long-term in local church ministry.
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