INTERSECT: Shame on You, Part 1
The concept of shame is less familiar to the modern, western context. We are prone to throw off shame in exchange for boldness or brazenness in our pursuit of desire. As a child, I remember doing something wrong and my mother telling me, “Matthew, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
On one particular occasion, after my mother attempted to shame me for my wrongdoing, I replied, “I not shamed!” That was my way of showing rebellion as a three-year-old. Unfortunately, it is the common ideal of our society today.
The concept of shame is introduced early in the Bible, occurring first in Genesis 2:24 following the creation of Adam and Eve: “The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.” In Eden, we find the right kind of absence of shame that resulted from the absence of sin. The marriage relationship was characterized by shamelessness. Unfortunately, once sin entered the world, shame immediately followed.
By definition, shame involves guilt that comes as a result of sin. Today our world strives to remove guilt from our lives in a variety of ways. We attempt to psychologize sin so it no longer means violating the laws of a personal God. By doing so, however, we completely internalize shame, making it an inner struggle of our own self-perceptions. The typical psychosocial explanation of shame defines shame as the source of low self-esteem, to be eradicated through self-actualization or awareness.
From a Christian worldview, however, shame is understood in terms of the creature and Creator relationship. God has made us a certain way and has ordained us to live a certain way; therefore, when we violate His ways, we are brought under the dominion of sin’s guilt, which results in the breakdown of our relationship with the Creator. Shame, therefore, comes as a direct result of guilt.
In the gospel, shame is being transformed. Redemption brings about the only means of escaping shame. The degree to which we fail to submit to God’s redeeming work in our lives is the degree to which we expose ourselves to the shame of sin. Our sins bring both personal shame and public shame—shame on us and shame on others.
Psalm 69 ties the concept of shame to the context of suffering as it records the lament of the psalmist when he faces unspecified affliction. We are not given any details regarding the nature of his suffering, but we are allowed to peer into the inner struggles of the psalmist as he wrestles through his debilitating circumstances. In looking at the first few verses of this psalm, I would like to focus on three particular areas—one in this issue and two in the next.
The Reality of Suffering
Suffering comes about in many different ways. Obviously, in many parts of the world, people today suffer physically for their faith. In contrast, most of what we experience in our country is on a social level, but even this type of suffering seems to be increasing. It comes as a direct result of our sworn allegiance to King Jesus. We are citizens of His Kingdom, and this places us at odds with this world.
Suffering can also be very personal. The broader context we have just described is felt on the individual level. As a community of faith we can experience being ostracized in our world, but we experience this in the reality of personal experience. Friction occurs in personal relationships, when our desire to follow Christ brings us into conflict with those who don’t, or even those who give in to their own sinful desires on select occasions.
These are the results of living in a sin-fallen world. Sin creates chaos and suffering. Sometimes, we struggle against the general effects of a sin-cursed world; at other times, we suffer as a direct result of our own sinful choices.
As we consider shame and suffering, it is important to examine our lives in light of the Scriptures so we might be able to discern the ultimate source of our suffering. We must not suffer as evildoers, as Peter warns the Church (1 Pet. 4:14-15).
In the next issue, we will consider the need for lament, and the importance of communal shame.
About the Columnist: Matthew McAffee is provost and professor of biblical studies at Welch College: firstname.lastname@example.org.