This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
A few weeks ago, our small group discussion turned to self-image. We had been talking about our dreams for the future. After a few people shared, one young woman noted how difficult it was for her, as a woman, to achieve her dreams. I asked if others thought the same. Of the six young women there, most agreed that the dreams that they had for themselves—an actress, a medical professional, an Olympic coach—were more difficult to reach because they were women. After speaking about the very real wage gap between men and women and the different expectations that they felt were laid upon them, it still felt as if we were talking around something.
Then, a theme emerged. At some point, most of these young women had been made ashamed. Their physical prowess, cosmetic appearance, and intelligence had all been questioned, not only by their peers, but also by adults. The girls agreed that the adults had been trying to spur them on by telling them that they were not yet good enough. But the comments produced shame in them all the same.
Shame has a sister condition, one that seems similar at first, but could not be more distant. We call it humility. If shame is being brought low because of damage to relationship, then humility is choosing to lift others up because you care about your relationships.
When I was in high school, a trusted adult, in a moment of frustration, told me that I was wasting my time bringing my acoustic guitar on a trip because I would never be able to play well. I felt ashamed. This comment still haunts my estimation of my musical abilities, despite the fact that I have led worship, with a guitar, for hundreds of people over the last decade. I am no Jimi Hendrix, but I can play well. Yet sometimes I can still hear this voice telling me that I will never be good enough. This is the lingering effect of shame.
We live in a far different time than the author of Psalm 25, and in many ways, shame means something different now than it did then. During that time, shame was so pervasive that if someone did something inappropriate, it reflected poorly not only on themselves, but also on their family and even their nation of origin. Despite considerable cultural differences, I believe that some of the contours of shame remain the same today. A person feels shame because she worries about the damage that might occur in her relationships because she failed to live up to an expectation. She came up short.
Now, there are better and worse kinds of shame. Some shame occurs because of something we have done wrong. If I call your grandmother a racial slur, I would be right to feel shame. Other shame comes about because of societal norms and expectations that exist beyond our specific actions. Some young people feel shame because of their appearance, or their sexual identity, or their lack of specific ability. This shame is less healthy.
Shame has a sister condition, one that seems similar at first, but could not be more distant. We call it humility. If shame is being brought low because of damage to relationship, then humility is choosing to lift others up because you care about your relationships (think Philippians 2:1–10). Both are rooted in relationships. But shame is passive, it happens to us; humility is something we enact. Shame stems from fear of damage, of lack, of coming up short; humility emerges from a loving desire for others to be whole.
In contrast to the shame I felt about my musical abilities, the purest examples I can recall of enacting humility have come when playing music with others. There are moments when a musical group just clicks. The wholeness of the musical sound transcends each person’s individual skill. If one person were to seize the moment to lift themselves above others, the music would be ruined. Instead, some will instinctively play more quietly, or more sparsely, so that another will be heard. Then that other will fade into the background as a different instrument comes forward. The music ebbs and flows with this mutual support and making room. Perhaps you’ve heard this musical flow from a particularly tight jazz ensemble, or a good a cappella group. This is humility: lifting others up because you care for their wholeness and the wholeness of the community.
The prayer at the center of Psalm 25 asks God to steer us away from a life of shame and toward a life of humility. It’s a prayer that I think is important to pray today. We can think about this in multiple ways.
God, do not let me do anything that would (rightly) give me shame.
God, do not let me be influenced by the comments of others that would cause me to feel (unwarranted) shame.
God, enable me to live humbly, lifting others up.
There is one more dimension to shame that is important to consider. In reverse fashion to the conception of shame in which one person casts a poor light on his family or nation, we can conceive of a person who feels shame because of what the larger group of which he is a part has done. In my experience, some people who say that they believe in God or follow Christ feel ashamed at things that either their local, global, or historical church family has done. This might be a healthy shame—the church has participated in some horrible atrocities—but sometimes it transitions from a warranted feeling of shame to a shame that encompasses everything about faith or religious community or even the good news of Jesus Christ. The question then becomes more complicated: are we doing anything, as followers of Christ, that might bring shame to the God we worship, or might make our young people feel ashamed to be associated with our church? If so, is this shame healthy, or unhealthy? How might we, instead, live into our calling to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?” (Micah 6:8)
Song Recommendations [Playlist]:
I have used all of the following songs in worship regularly. They are easy to learn and easy to sing.
- Justin McRoberts, “Psalm 25”: This song benefits from being sung through several times. The underlying “A” chord that permeates throughout lends a heartbeat to the music.
- Third Day, “My Hope Is You”: The driving rock beat and rough sounds of the guitars in the song get across the “crying out to God” aspect of this psalm, the experience of someone trying to escape from the clutches of shame. Yet I have also sung this song (with simplified vocals) a cappella, or with light acoustic guitar. Different musical atmospheres lend a different sense to the text.
- Bob Hudson, “Humble Thyself in the Sight of the Lord”: This is a great version of this 90s worship staple. Sung a cappella, in a call and response style. I actually prefer singing this without instruments.
- The Community at Taizé, “Ubi Caritas, Deus Ibi Est”: The English translation is easy to find and sing: “Where there is charity, selfless love, God is truly there.” Taizé chants are simple, and their very simplicity emphasizes the humility of the text. Sung over and over again, they evoke the sense of musical flow that I spoke of above.
Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.