Shame is a hot topic these days, in part due to the enormously popular TED Talks and bestselling books of researcher Brené Brown. Shame as a human emotion has always been with us, but Brown worries that it has reached epidemic proportions in modern society.
Though they often come as an emotional package deal, shame is different than guilt. As Brown puts it, while guilt is directed at our behavior, shame is directed at the self, at our sense of who we are and what we’re worth. Guilt says, “I did something bad; I made a mistake.” Shame says, “I am bad. I am a mistake.” That’s why we can have such a hard time apologizing for what we’ve done wrong — guilt shades over into shame, making us feel small and worthless.
In today’s world, we experience shame as a deep sense of inadequacy in any number of personal areas. Do we measure up, for example, in the way we look? In where we are in our careers? In how people see us as parents? If the answer is no, we experience shame, an emotion that leaves us feeling “trapped, powerless, and isolated.”
And apparently, the psalmist would agree.
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The psalmists write from a cultural context of honor versus shame. This way of thinking can be a bit foreign to many in the western world. Think of the story of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom in 2 Samuel 13. Amnon raped Tamar, dishonoring her; her brother Absalom took revenge through a premeditated murder that he had plotted for over two years. In an honor-shame society, what Amnon had done to disgrace the family needed to be avenged. Not that people would simply look the other way — but they would understand Absalom’s motive.
In recent posts, we’ve been studying the complexity of Psalm 25: a prayer for help with prayers for wisdom, mercy, and humility embedded within it. The prayer for help begins and ends the psalm, and it’s marked by a strong emphasis on shame:
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. (vss. 2-3 NRSV)
Note the parallel between “do not let me be put to shame” and “do not let my enemies exult over me.” For the psalmist, shame is not a private emotion: he will be shamed in the eyes of others when his enemies jump for joy over his downfall. You may know what that feels like. It’s one thing to lose a game; it’s another to have the winner crow over it and call you a loser.
The theme of shame comes up again near the end of the psalm: “O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you” (vs. 20). Clearly, the prayer for help is not simply about being rescued from some physical danger, but from being subjected to disgrace. And as Brown has suggested, even here in this ancient poem, shame is associated with feeling trapped, powerless, and isolated.
Trapped: “My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net” (vs. 15). This is an image we find in other psalms as well. The psalmist’s enemies lie in wait for him, trying to snare him in a net like a bird. The psalmist also prays that God would bring him out of his “distress” (vs. 17): the word implies being in dire straits, being squeezed by circumstances.
Powerless and isolated: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted” (vs. 16). The word translated as “lonely” means “to be one.” Positively, it can mean to be united as a married couple is “one”; but negatively, it can also mean being alone and solitary (Three Dog Night fans, sing with me now: “One is the loneliest number…”). The psalmist feels cut off and alone in his troubles.
Moreover, the word “afflicted” is an important one in the Old Testament vision of God’s saving grace. It implies being humbled or even humiliated by life, being poor, needy, or, yes, powerless. This is why Jesus, when characterizing the essence of God’s kingdom, considered the poor in spirit to be blessed (Matt 5:3) — God is indeed the God of the afflicted and oppressed.
Don’t let me be put to shame, God. Don’t leave me feeling trapped, tangled in this net, suffocated by circumstances. Don’t leave me feeling powerless and oppressed. Don’t leave me feeling isolated and alone. The tone of the prayer is desperate.
But there are also notes of hope in the psalm, which we’ll see in the next post.