4 ways we seek honor and avoid shame

4 ways we seek honor and avoid shame March 2, 2021

Everyone wants to gain honor and avoid shame. That basic idea is true across time and cultures.[1] And although honor and shame play such a significant role in our lives, we often misunderstand them.

For example, many people assume that shame is entirely bad, something to get rid of. That’s not entirely true. Consider Romans 2:6-7, where Paul says that God…

“will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”

I’ll mention several ways that we seek honor or recognition and try to avoid shame.[2]

How We Acquire Honor and Shame

1. Performance and Position

We acquire honor or shame in two primary ways: through our performance and our position. Americans tend to emphasize performance or achievement. This includes both our failures and successes such as athletics or academics. However, position matters too. We have honor or shame ascribed to us based on titles, labels, relationships, gender, ethnicity, among countless other inherited characteristics.

Here are a few questions that help us identify how our own honor or shame is linked to performance and position.

  • What have we accomplished? Where have we failed?
  • Who do we know? What titles do we have?

Paul reorients how his Roman readers should think about honor via performance and position. In Romans 2:6-7, he says:

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.

Likewise, he challenges the ancient Jew who presumed his ethnic identity bestowed unique honor before God. Paul writes,

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Note: Others have referred to “performance” and “position” as achieved and ascribed honor/shame.

2. Public

Honor and shame are also relative to an audience or a watching public. Our status or social esteem will vary depending on the people around us, especially the number of people around us. The more people who observe us will mean either more honor or more shame.

But also, we have to ask, “Who sees us? Who matters to us?” Perhaps we will be more sensitive to the opinions of our coworkers in front of particular family members. In front of certain strangers, the same action will likely not evoke the same sense of pride or embarrassment.

This should be sufficiently self-explanatory. So, I won’t offer examples.

3. Perspective

Perspective is the third factor determining the degree of our honor or shame. I refer to the selective nature by which we judge honor and shame.

For example, what criteria to use when assessing honor or shame? Some adults assume they are doing a good job as a parent because their child has good grades or has some other school achievement. Other adults will describe to themselves honor or shame based on the cleanliness of the house and the behavior of the children in public. The criteria we use are selective. By one criterion, I might feel a sense of honor or pride; by another standard, I would feel shame.

Likewise, our degree of honor and shame is based on comparison. I excel or fall short of some standard compared to whom? We can always find someone who is better or worse than us. So, perspective matters. The criteria we use and the comparisons we make will either increase or decrease our honor or shame.

  • What things are measured and noticed for excellence?
  • Compared to whom?

When we look at Paul’s letters (later), we will see how Paul speaks to each of these areas when using honor and shame.

In the next post, I’ll look at four levels of motivation with respect to honor, shame, and moral decisions.

For a deeper dive, check out a recent talk I gave at Redemption Tempe.


[1] Possible exceptions are the most immoral or shameless among us.

[2] The following three categories are adapted from Geoffrey Brennan & Philip Pettit, “The Hidden Economy of Esteem.” Economics & Philosophy, Vol. 16, no. 1 (April 2000): 77-98.

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