For to be humbly ashamed
is to be plunged
in the cleansing bath of the truth.
— George MacDonald (Unspoken Sermons)
The Western world is trying to eradicate shame. Shame has become little more than the enemy that holds us back from living up to our true potential.
Some anthropologists have made the distinction between two types of societies: guilt-based and shame-based. In guilt based societies like North America and Western Europe, getting caught is the arch sin. In shame-based societies like China and Japan, the actual act—whether caught or not—induces shame in the subject. Of course these are generalizations. There are guilt-driven people in shame-based societies just as there are shame-driven people in guilt-based societies. Also, societies shift over time.
In Ezekiel 16, Yahweh uses shame in a very unique way. For God, shame is not something to be glibly overlooked. It is to be a driving motivation for a holy life.
. . .
God identified one of Jerusalem’s major problems as her tendency to disdain the wickedness of Sodom and Samaria, while living wickedly herself. To make matters worse, Jerusalem should know better. God had revealed himself to her. Ignorance is no defense, but knowledge-based crimes are more culpable.
This reminds me of something Jesus will say a few centuries later:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5, NRSV)
God identified pride as a major problem in Jerusalem—indeed, it is a foundational problem in the best of us. How can Jerusalem (we) mock the sins of other nations (people) when they (we) have not taken inventory of their (our) own lives?
. . .
We have now come to the end of the longest single oracle in the Old Testament. The metaphor of the unfaithful wife has come to a surprising end. God’s final method of judgment, beyond the imminent slaughter and exile of Jerusalem, would involve elevating wicked nations along with Israel.
God judged Israel by forgiving the wicked nations that surrounded her. God’s forgiveness was intended to shame Israel. This is the opposite of how we usually view things. We assume that shame—a sense of our wickedness before God—drives us to repent and receive forgiveness. Here, God’s forgiveness reminds Jerusalem of her shame which will leave no room for future pride.
. . .
I know there’s shame-based psychological problems that some people need to overcome. I understand that some people carry an unhealthy amount of shame around with them. On the other hand, there is always room for a bit of godly shame when we remember that God rescued us in spite of our wickedness.
God ends this lengthy chapter by restating his faithfulness to his covenant. No matter how wicked Jerusalem was and no matter how severe his judgment was, he will never break his covenant with her. For God’s part, there is no such thing as spiritual divorce.
. . .
Gracious Lord, thank you for rescuing me. When I am tempted, help me to remember my shame in the midst of your overwhelming grace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.