Shame is a flexible word. I’ve pointed this out often (including here and here). For example, shame is a psychological and social phenomenon. For Christians, shame can even have a sacred orientation. What results when we attempt to link shame and theology? Confusion. Yet, that is due to our limitations and lack of reflection, not the Bible or the concept of shame itself.
In this post, I will show how the prophets, especially Ezekiel, relate shame and salvation in three distinct ways. Surprising to some, God intends for his people to experience shame after experiencing salvation. To understand my meaning, keep reading.
Saved from Shame
Ezekiel illustrates at least three ways that salvation involves shame. Taken in isolation, one might think certain texts contradict each other. In fact, they complement one another. The key to interpreting Ezekiel is understanding the various nuances related to shame. We are saved from, through, and for shame.
The first use of shame language will be familiar to readers of my work. Sin is shameful. The consequences bring embarrassment, disgrace, even humiliation. As I’ve said before, shame is not the root and the fruit of sin. In Ezekiel 39, God speaks of the coming restoration of his people. The mention of “shame” could either reference their sin or the exile suffered because of that sin. (I’d have to take a closer look at the text to decide between the two options.)
We are saved from shame. In verses 25–28, the prophet writes,
Therefore thus says the Lord God: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and I will be jealous for my holy name. 26 They shall forget their shame and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they dwell securely in their land with none to make them afraid, 27 when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies’ lands, and through them have vindicated my holiness in the sight of many nations. 28 Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God, because I sent them into exile among the nations and then assembled them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations anymore.
From this perspective, deliverance from shame entails a restoration of honor. God vindicates his name and Israel is brought back into right relationship to God. This leads us to a second point.
Saved through Shame
God’s people are saved through shame. In other words, shame is a part of the process by which God accomplishes his work of salvation in our lives. In Ezekiel 43:10–11, we read this:
As for you, son of man, describe to the house of Israel the temple, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and they shall measure the plan. 11 And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the design of the temple, its arrangement, its exits and its entrances, that is, its whole design; and make known to them as well all its statutes and its whole design and all its laws, and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe all its laws and all its statutes and carry them out.
In context, the prophet gives the people a vision for the glory of God that will return and fill the temple. It represents Israel’s hope, their symbolic reversal of fortune. Ezekiel’s message has an intended purpose–– evoke shame.
Those who rebel against the Lord are regarded as shameless, having no conscious to discern right and wrong. For instance, Jeremiah 3:3 rebukes an obstinate people saying, “Therefore the showers have been withheld, and the spring rain has not come; yet you have the forehead of a whore; you refuse to be ashamed” (cf. Jer 6:15).
Naturally, restoration with God requires the return of a proper sense of shame. In a sense, full reconciliation is conditioned on that change of heart. In effect, this aspect of salvation is tantamount to repentance and the gaining of a new heart, discussed in Ezekiel 36:26–27.
Saved for Shame
Finally, God’s people are saved for shame. What does this mean? Put simply, God’s salvation should bring about a new perspective about what is honorable and what is praiseworthy. Consider Ezekiel 16:53–54, where the Lord says,
I will restore their fortunes, both the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes in their midst, 54 that [לְמַעַן] you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done, becoming a consolation to them.
The intended goal of Israel’s restoration is to instill a right sense of shame. God’s people will no longer be indifferent or even boastful of their own ways. Ezekiel 16:59–63 states the matter plainly.
For thus says the Lord God: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, 60 yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. 61 Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. 62 I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, 63 that [לְמַעַן] you may remember and be confounded [בושׁ = “ashamed” or “disgraced”], and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God.
A shameless Christian is an oxymoron. Shame is more than a tormenting emotion of which we are a victim. It is a “moral emotion.” Our ambition is not to get rid of shame; it should be to gain the right kind of shame. This accords with salvation. After all, we are saved from, through, and for shame.