I'm not sure who was more surprised, but I have a pretty good idea who was more embarrassed. They were. You would be too — if you had been caught with your pants down.

Running up a steep, rocky and unfamiliar wilderness trail, I came over a rise and there they were — the man on the right side of the trail and the woman on the left. Both with their pants down. My dog, Eli Sackett, looked as surprised as I.

Seeing me suddenly appear as I did, they both moved faster than a centipede at a jitterbug contest, pulling up their drawers and jumping back onto the trail as if nothing happened. We moseyed toward them, asking casually about the trail system and making small talk about the beautiful day. But talking wasn't on their agenda at that point, and they wouldn't make eye contact with me.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to be caught with one's pants down means "to be surprised in an embarrassing situation; to be caught off guard." We Americans use other idioms to describe this uncomfortable moment in time. We talk about being "caught red-handed," or "caught with your hand in the cookie jar." In other words, you are found out. Busted.

Most of us will probably never experience a literal pants-on-the-ground moment like the people on the trail that day, but I dare suggest that we all know what guilt and shame feel like.

When I pull back the covers on this idea in my own life, I realize that when other people "get caught," I want justice. In the times when I've been exposed, however, I didn't want justice at all. I wanted grace and mercy — and lots of it.

Who among us can honestly say we've never been embarrassed, mortified or even haunted by our own inexplicable words or actions? I'm talking about things like a promise not kept, a truth half told, a debt unpaid, or maybe some petty, whispered comment that made us look good and someone else look pretty bad.

Thinking about situations of shame and vulnerability, my mind wanders to the New Testament book of John, Chapter 8, where a man and woman are caught in the very act of an adulterous affair. In this story, the woman takes the brunt of condemnation, her guilty partner melting into the crowd. The air must have been thick with shame as a group of religious people gathered around her, sharp-edged stones gripped for perceived justice. Judgment was in the air that day as the angry mob pressed around Jesus and the shamed woman.

But so was something else.

Jesus said, "Let's have the man who has never had a sinful desire throw the first stone at her." And then he bent over again and wrote some more words in the dust. Upon hearing that, her accusers slowly left the crowd one at a time, beginning with the oldest to the youngest, with a convicted conscience. Until finally, Jesus was left alone with the woman still standing there in front of him.

So he stood back up and said to her, "Dear woman, where are your accusers? Is there no one here to condemn you?" Looking around, she replied, "I see no one, Lord." Jesus said, "Then I certainly don't condemn you either. Go, and from now on, be free from a life of sin." — John 8:7-11 TPT

Maybe you have found yourself in a tightening circle of shame — or just caught flat-footed and off guard by a wrong direction, debilitating habits and a few too many foolish, self-centered life choices.

Jesus says to all of us that there is grace for those who repent, forgiveness for those who respond in faith and a liberated future for anyone who humbly comes to him.

The Rev. Micah Smith is president and founder of Global Gateway Network (www.globalgatewaynetwork.org), author of "Heaven's Heartbeat," and a Tri-City Herald Spiritual Life contributor. He enjoys trail running and coffee roasting with family and friends. email: micahs68@gmail.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.