It was my first and only murder trial. As a volunteer chaplain with the jail, I had been asked by the defendant to be present as spiritual support during the trial. Most days I was the only person sitting on his side of the courtroom while the victim’s side was typically packed.
I thought about that scene this week as I was reading the opening chapters of Job. There, we are introduced to a character that looms large in theological and spiritual conversations. He is referred to in Job as “the satan.” Contrary to popular depictions, he doesn’t wear red, carry a pitchfork, or have horns upon his head. Instead, he is depicted as a kind of prosecuting attorney for the courtroom of heaven.
The word “satan” is a Hebrew word that means “the accuser.” In the opening chapter of Job, “the satan” appears as the one who accuses God’s people rather than an embodiment of evil. The “satan” (not “Satan,” as if it were a proper noun) appears twice in the Hebrew scriptures — once here in Job and also in Zechariah where he accuses the people of God of being guilty of sins.
Too often we credit this figure with an excess of power in our theological and spiritual imaginations, echoing the humorous protestations of comedian Flip Wilson, “It’s not my fault. The Devil made me do it.” The power of the “the satan” in the Hebrew Scriptures is solely that of accusation.
I’m not suggesting that evil is merely an illusion. On the contrary, we see tangible evidence of evil all around us. Perhaps we bear a greater responsibility for the evil in this world than we typically are willing to admit. Blaming all the bad in the world on evil forces outside of ourselves isn’t a satisfactory response for people of faith.
I believe that an important part of the solution to evil in our world is to understand the difference between conviction and shame. In short, conviction focuses on your behavior, while shame focuses on your character.
Shame says to me, “You are a mistake. There is no hope for you.” Conviction says, “You have made a mistake. Come to God to address it and make it right.”
Shame chides, “Look at you. You are nothing, a nobody. There is no hope for you.” Conviction encourages, “Look to Christ. There is always hope.”
Shame accuses, “You are guilty. You must pay the penalty for what you’ve done.” Conviction beckons, “Come to the One who offers forgiveness as a gift. In him, you can be washed clean and your guilt removed — if you will just accept it.”
Shame originates in the Accuser. Conviction emanates from the Holy Spirit.
At the end of the day, the Accuser might point the finger and hurl indictments at you. He may even be accurate in recounting the facts. However, it is essential to remember that we have an Advocate in Christ Jesus — one who tells a different story about our lives, our guilt, and our destiny.