This post is the first in a new series on honor and shame. This subject is so important right now because many Christians are feeling attacked. Specifically, we feel attacked by secular progressives in academia, government, and entertainment. We are not being physically attacked, but our honor is definitely being attacked. We are even being shamed for our beliefs and ethical standards. Thankfully, Scripture has so much to say on this subject of honor and shame.

Honor and Shame for Christians

What is Honor?

Honor is what society gives to those who exemplify and embody cultural values. Pay attention to why certain people become celebrities. Why do people love, appreciate, or admire them? When people receive recognition, a standing ovation, an award, or have a monument built in their memory, ask yourself, “What cultural values do/did these people exemplify or embody?” 

The ancient Spartans honored their greatest warriors. Athens honored their philosophers. In Rome, perhaps politicians and the aristocracy received the highest honors. In Jerusalem, priests, scribes, and rabbis were honored. Identifying honored people will tell you a lot about a culture’s values. Whether it is the beautiful, wealthy, courageous, strong, intelligent, or pious, every culture honors those who exemplify and embody their values.

Unfortunately, honor can be intoxicating and addicting. Consider the Pharisees. Jesus said about them, “They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others” (Matthew 23:6-7). In modern terms, we might measure honor in retweets, likes, shares, compliments, promotions, awards, and recognition. This honor can be intoxicating and addicting.

In the first century, following Jesus almost always meant, to some degree, choosing to relinquish your honor. It meant you would no longer be seen as someone who exemplified and embodied cultural values. Today, many Christians must decide which they love more, obedience to Jesus or the place of honor.

What is Shame?

Shame is the flip side of the honor coin. And it is another way to understand a culture’s values. When someone does not conform to cultural expectations, the community explicitly or implicitly shames them. In other words, shame makes people feel that unless they change, they won’t really belong. 

Since we are social creatures, we are often willing to make dramatic changes to our apparel, appearance, speech, behavior, and beliefs in an effort to find acceptance and avoid shame. Most of the time, we do this subconsciously. We don’t even realize we are making decisions about clothes, hairstyles, cars, houses, politics, etc. in order to avoid someone thinking or speaking negatively about us. 

The Pharisees knew how to use shame as a tool to try to pressure others to conform. When they referred to, “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11), they were referring to people who had engaged in shameful behavior. The Pharisees wanted “tax collectors and sinners” to feel shame. They also wanted others to see the shame of “tax collectors and sinners,” so no one would follow in their shameful footsteps. Jesus surprised the Pharisees when he ate with such people. He was undermining the Pharisee’s use of shame.

If you want to see modern shame in action, look no further than social media. Harsh and cruel comments can be a form of public shaming. This applies to everything from online bullying to partisan political rancor. When you see someone get bombarded with abusive comments or get “canceled,” you are seeing what communities do to those who don’t meet their expectations or conform to their values.

The Message Shame Sends

Shame sends a message to:

  1. the person being shamed, “People who act/think/speak/look like you don’t belong.”
  2. like-minded community members, “I’m on your side and I’m protecting the community from those people.”
  3. anyone on the cultural fence, “If you follow in those footsteps, you’ll be treated this way as well.”

Jesus and his early followers experienced shame. Jesus was crucified and his call to discipleship was, “Take up your cross and follow me.” The cross was Rome’s way of not only executing someone but humiliating and shaming them in the process.

As the cultural values of our society shift, Christians are going to have to ask if they are still willing to take up their cross and follow Jesus.

Changing Cultural Values

Honor and shame are not inherently wrong. But they are wrong when aligned with a sinful value system. Cultural values determine what is shameful and what is honorable in a particular society. Behavior that is shamed in one place, may be honored in another. In fact, a nation can experience such major shifts in values that what was deemed honorable in one generation is shameful in the next. 

From a Christian perspective, this can sometimes be a positive change. It can be a form of repentance. When a generation realizes the previous generation(s) acted in ungodly ways, there should be an appropriate amount of shame attached to historical discussions (racism, slavery, segregation, etc.). We do not have to completely condemn our forefathers, but we should be appropriately ashamed of their sins, just as we are of our own (see Psalm 106:6; Jeremiah 3:25; Jeremiah 14:20).

That said, we should also be able to discern when values shift in sinful ways. For instance, our modern culture’s values have particularly shifted in the area of gender and sexuality. Now, the historic Christian perspective on sexuality is often seen as shameful, harmful, archaic, misogynistic, homophobic, and oppressive.

How we respond to this moment will say a lot about whether or not we have really been listening to Jesus.

How to Respond to Shame

You have several choices when you experience dishonor or shame:

  1. Fight to demonstrate your strength and preserve your honor.
  2. Change your values.
  3. Be content with the shame.

Preserving your honor can feel necessary. It can feel like preserving your life. Since the beginning of human history, people have fought, killed, and died to preserve their own honor and the honor of their people. In this cultural moment, there are plenty of people encouraging Christians to pound their chests, show their strength, fight fire with fire, and defend their honor. Brothers and sisters, this is not the way of Jesus.

Nor is it the way of Jesus to let the world shame you into conformity (Romans 12:1-2). Of course, there are times when society’s values actually align with God’s and we need to change our values as an act of repentance. However, many Christians are being shamed into adopting a sinful value system. Some are even joining the unbelieving world in heaping shame on those of us who hold to “traditional views” on marriage, sexuality, and gender. 

The way of Jesus is typically the hardest of the three options. Those who choose the way of Jesus will be despised by those on both sides of the culture war. Following Jesus means being “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Corinthians 12:10). After all, when we follow a crucified King, we must be content with the perceived weakness and foolishness of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). 

The Way of Jesus

Jesus calls his followers to be meek. Meekness is related to how we handle shame. You are meek when you are dishonored, disrespected, and humiliated, but persevere in faithfulness.

I have so much more to say on this topic. I will continue this theme of honor and shame in the next several posts. Until then, let’s remember the words of Jesus,

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:11-12)

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams

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