Shame and Respect

Summer is here.  Long days, cool nights. Living life outdoors. Writing, editing and reading. Not much time for blogging.  But here I am. I was inspired to write because of something my pastor said on Sunday. He said that nowhere in the Bible does God say to his people, “Shame on you,” or “I am ashamed of you,” and that really blessed me.

There are some human emotions that are just difficult to manage. Are you still angry or bitter about someone or something that happened to you? Do you still feel guilt for something that happened in your childhood? Did someone ever say to you, “shame on you!,” and you have never forgotten that? Are the ugly, stinging words, and the negative emotions of the past affecting your relationships today? If you said “yes” to any (or all) of these questions, you are not alone. Beauty fades, but ugliness seems to last forever. For most of us, some wounds are just hard to heal.

However, the bottom line is that God is not ashamed of us. Hallelujah! His creation is “good,” and God blessed all that he created; in fact, the creation of humanity is “very good!” (Gen 1:25, 27-31). My pastor was right; the burden is lifted.

And yet, given a choice, humanity chose to rebel against God, and to be deceived into disobedience and self-interest. Before this decision and the “fall” of humanity, there was no “shame” (Gen 2:25). Shame is not from God; it is from “the deceiver,” “the accuser,” Satan (Gen 3:1-4). In fact, the word “satan” in Hebrew means “adversary” (Job 1:6). Sin and shame entered the world together, hand in hand.  

Doubtless, we have all messed up at some point in time. We disobey, we think terrible thoughts. We say the wrong things at the wrong times; we find it hard to forgive others when we need forgiveness for our own behavior. In spite of how things are, God’s purposes are not to accuse, to condemn or to shame anyone, but to redeem and restore his people.

The opposite of shame is respect. We would all like to feel respected for who we are, but we forget to respect others. If every human being is worthy of respect and dignity because we are God’s good creation, how does the Bible direct us concerning shame and respect? There is a lot of ground to cover, but I will be as brief as possible.

Group of words surrounding the idea of “shame” in the Hebrew language are found frequently in Isaiah, Jeremiah and in the Psalms. The emphasis in the OT is less on the status of human beings in society, and more to do with the judgment of God. It is God who determines if something (or someone) is worthy and honorable, and who is not. Shame is the result of rebellion, disobedience and failing to worship the one true God. Psalm 35:26-27 is an example of an appeal for God to bring “shame” and “disgrace” on the psalmist’s enemies. It is also interesting that in this psalm, “shame” is connected to “confusion.” Respecting his own human creatures, God spoke with unquestionable clarity (without confusion) in his laws, his commands and covenants with his people. Finally, this psalm is a plea for God to vindicate “his servant” in view of his enemies, and the result is “joy and gladness,” and “praise” for God.  

In the NT, however, it is all about status in society. In the first-century Roman Empire, there were fervent and effective rules about honor and shame. It was shameful to be in a low-ranked position, a poor peasant, a prostitute or a foreigner.  The elite people of high rank deserved and demanded honor and respect based on their position, power and prestige. Honor was a mandate, and there was nothing worse than bringing shame and dishonor to one’s self and one’s family. To dishonor the empire and/or the emperor was punishable by death.

The Greek verb is “to be ashamed, be put to shame, be disgraced, confounded.” In the NT, this group of words is found much less often than in the LXX (the Greek OT). The noun and the verb are used only 11 times; in the Gospels they appear only in Mark and Luke. Nevertheless, the manner in which the Apostle Paul used kataischyno (“to shame”) is a total reversal of what was recognized by his society: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27; see Jeremiah 8:9). In opposition to the Roman societal “ranks,” God is actively putting to shame the elite, the wise and powerful, while he chooses to give standing and worth to the foolish and weak in the world. In his day, and in his culture, this was a radical and revolutionary insight by Paul into who God is, and what God thinks of human self-aggrandizement.

Remarkably, Paul said that he was “not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile” (Rom 1:16). The elite leaders and philosophers in the honor/shame culture in Paul’s day rejected the gospel message of a humiliated, crucified Jew in Jerusalem, and they considered Paul to be a “babbler” (Acts 17:18, 21). Yet, without shame, Paul boldly confessed his belief in the Christian message of the personal, “known God” and of his Son (Acts 17:22-34).

Furthermore, with Paul, no Christian should ever be “ashamed” of the gospel and of the hope of Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1-5).  The hope of believers is not unfounded optimism or “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by.” It is confident assurance of God’s love and acceptance of and for us now, as demonstrated to us by the work of Christ on the cross. Instead of shaming the “ungodly,” Christ died for them, and for all humanity. When we first believed in Christ, the Holy Spirit “poured out” his love into our hearts as a promise and a protection, so that we do not have to live with shame, anger or guilt anymore (Rom 5:5-8).


Author: Judy

Christian educator, writer, specializing in the New Testament

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