Humiliation, part 1

Shame. Nobody wants it. But if researchers like Brené Brown are to be believed, shame has become epidemic in our society. It’s one thing to feel guilty for the things we know we have done wrong; that’s good and healthy, particularly if it spurs us to make amends or change. But shame — that sense that we are “not enough” and never can be, no matter what we do — is corrosive.

The Psalms point to the experience of shame, but don’t treat it as a psychological phenomenon as much as a spiritual and moral one. The Psalms were written in the context of an honor/shame culture in which shame and dishonor could be shared by an entire people, particularly in the face of being humiliated by an enemy. And one of the most important theological lessons we learn from the Psalms is about the character of God and what it means to trust God in the face of the worst possible situations of national humiliation.

. . .

Psalm 74 is a case in point. The psalm seems to have been written in response to destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the temple by the invading Babylonians. The psalmist describes the wanton destruction in vivid terms. The enemy isn’t content to simply win a military victory; they want to crush the spirit of the vanquished. So they enter the temple, roaring and shouting as they swing their axes, hacking down the cedar carvings that line the temple walls. Then they burn the temple to the ground. No signs remain of the people’s religion and worship; the invaders have planted their own flag where the temple once stood. And there is no official prophet in the land to give the people comfort and guidance.

One imagines the taunts of the enemy: Where is your god now? Must be some puny god you pitiful people serve! The psalmist suggests that the people’s humiliation is a result of God’s anger at their own disobedience (e.g., vs. 1), an anger which was well deserved. And yet. The psalmist gives voice to the people’s anguished questions: How long can this go on? How long, God, are you going to let the enemy abuse your name? Have you abandoned us? Forever?

But having described the destruction, having moaned “How long?” and “Why?”, the psalmist also voices the communal memory of God’s faithfulness toward his covenant people, the shared stories of his power, sovereignty, and deliverance. Near the end of the psalm, we get these words, familiar to anyone who is familiar with the Psalter as a whole:

Don’t let the oppressed live in shame.
    No, let the poor and needy praise your name!
(Ps 74:21, CEB)

This is the vocabulary of powerlessness and humiliation. The word translated as “oppressed” only occurs four times in all of the Old Testament, and three of those are in the Psalms. More picturesquely, it could be translated as “crushed.” The root of the word “shame” implies a wound, and is often used in descriptions of one’s dishonor, disgrace, or humiliation.

But I want to focus here on the expression “poor and needy.” The two words appear frequently in the Psalms, and often together (e.g., 35:10; 37:14; 40:17; 70:5; 86:1). The expression points not merely to economic poverty, but the spiritual sense of impoverishment that comes from being oppressed or afflicted from the outside. And it is almost certainly the state Jesus was referring to in the Beatitudes when he pronounced God’s blessing for the “poor in spirit,” the meek, and those who mourn (Matt 5:3-5).

How are such people blessed? Because God is their God, their champion, their rescuer, even if such salvation seems a distant reality. This is not “humility” in the sense of being modest or self-effacing: this is humility in the sense of being humbled by one’s circumstances, and not by choice. This is the state of being humiliated and powerless.

God is their God. That’s why the psalmist can pray:

LORD, you listen to the desires of those who suffer.
    You steady their hearts;
you listen closely to them,
    to establish justice
        for the orphan and the oppressed,
    so that people of the land
        will never again be terrified
. (Ps 10:17-18)

And this is our God. This is the God to whom we turn with our shame and humiliation. And as we’ll explore in the next post, it matters how we do this.