Reflected shame

Over the many months of exploring the Psalms here on this blog, we have seen repeated examples of psalmists pouring out their complaints to God, pleading to be rescued from persecution and calamity. Psalm 69 is no exception. The psalmist is surrounded by enemies who hate him and want to destroy him, who mock him, who accuse him falsely. He is nearly drowning in his troubles, weeping incessantly, and wondering where God has gone in the midst of it all:

Save me, God,
    because the waters have reached my neck!
I have sunk into deep mud.
    My feet can’t touch the bottom!
I have entered deep water;
    the flood has swept me up.
I am tired of crying.
    My throat is hoarse.
    My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God
. (Ps 69:1-3, CEB)

Unlike the so-called penitential psalms, the psalmist doesn’t think any of this is his fault. He does admit, “God, you know my foolishness; my wrongdoings aren’t hidden from you” (vs. 5). But in context, this seems more like a way of saying “You know I’m innocent,” than “Could I be guilty?”

And yet, in a culture which prizes honor and abhors dishonor, the psalmist is experiencing a deep sense of shame. Perhaps we’ve been accused of things we didn’t do; people insisted on our guilt no matter how much we protested our innocence. We may still have felt shame even if we bore no guilt. We may have wanted to hide our flushed faces or turn away.

This, too, is the experience the psalmist seems to describe:

LORD God of heavenly forces!—
    don’t let those who hope in you
        be put to shame because of me.
God of Israel!—
    don’t let those who seek you
    be disgraced because of me.
I am insulted because of you.
    Shame covers my face.
(vss. 6-7)

But note here the direction of the prayer. The psalmist doesn’t pray, “God, take away my shame!” True, he recognizes his own shame and lays it before God. But the gist of the prayer is that his shame, unjustified as it is, won’t be the cause of shame for others.

The psalm is attributed to David. Whether or not this means that David actually wrote it, these verses suggest that the psalmist is someone in a position of representative leadership. A king’s shame, after all, is the nation’s shame — and doubly so if the king rules in the name of God.

Such is the burden of leadership, whether of a nation, a corporation, a family, or even a church. To be in such a position already makes us more likely to be the targets of other people’s anger and malice. We may feel unjustly persecuted and falsely accused. We may burn with shame. And we can take all of this to God, seeking his justice and vindication.

But what the psalmist demonstrates here is an important part of humble and compassionate leadership: the recognition that our shame, justified or not, may reflect on those under our care.

We should want to keep our noses clean, not merely for our own sake, but for the sake of others. We should want to have a clear conscience before them, and not merely before God. And we should pray that nothing we do will bring shame on others.

As leaders, we can’t always avoid being hated or wrongly accused. But we don’t have to get lost in our own private despair and resentment. We can lean into prayerful concern for the good of others who look to us as an example of godly leadership.