Thoughts on Sin and Shame
Recently Doug Coleman asked thoughtful questions about sin in honor-shame terms. Jackson Wu has engaged Coleman’s thoughts on his site (one, two, and three). I greatly appreciate their gracious and constructive tone during this “public conversation,” as they help us understand the nature of the human predicament—sin. Completely unrelated, Colin Andrews emailed me some thoughts relevant for the conversation. His comments, posted below with permission, are not a direct reply to Coleman and Wu, but some parallel thoughts on sin, law, justice, covenant, and honor-shame that are worth noting.
Divine Honor as the Basis of Law and Justice
Biblical law is not merely a set of divine legal codes that humans are required to obey because God said so; and justice is more than following/enforcing the law. They are deeply rooted in divine honor and human dignity (which is also based on divine honor). At the culmination of creation, God set apart the Sabbath as a day in our weekly cycle to be reminded of the greatness of our Creator (Gen. 2:1-3, Ex. 20:8). Since “splendor and majesty” are always before God our basic response to Him ought to be to “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name” and we are to “worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness” (1 Chron. 16:24-29). Therefore, the essence of sin is a failure (or refusal) to ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. This is why Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Rom. 3:23). It is not simply a divine ethical or moral standard that we have fallen short of in Scripture. Sin is a fall from honor and dignity into dishonor and shame. Yes, we are guilty before God. But, we are guilty ultimately of Paul’s indictment that we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). Therefore, biblical concepts of law and justice are built upon biblical concepts of honor and dignity.
Prior to the giving of the Law to Moses, God initiated a series of covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even after the Law was given to Israel, God continued to issue covenants to Moses, David and ultimately the New Covenant in Christ. The language of the biblical covenants is infused with concepts of honor and dignity. The covenants often include the phrase, “I will…” invoking promises by God where He literally puts the honor and integrity of His very word on the line. The covenants are full of blessings and curses (not rewards and punishments). Finally, the requirement of the covenants was not simply rule-keeping, but rather trust and loyalty to the Giver of the covenant. God expected loyalty when he said to Abram to “walk before me faithfully…then I will make my covenant between me and you” (Gen. 17:1-2). And Abram’s trust (belief) in YAHWEH upon hearing God’s promise was credited as righteousness (Gen. 15:6).
The language of the Law then invokes these covenants. When God gave the Law to Israel he declared, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known” (Deut. 11:26-28). Observance of the Law was directly tied to the blessings and curses of the covenants. Likewise, trust and loyalty were the requirements of the Law, not merely obedience to the code. The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) begin with the injunction, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3). This is not just a prohibition against idolatry, but also a requirement that Israel declare allegiance. Thus, the Law begins with a pledge of allegiance to YAHWEH. The Shema also reiterates this idea of loyalty or allegiance, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4) and “Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements” (Deut. 11:1). It was, therefore, not possible to “keep his requirements” without first giving primary allegiance and love to YAHWEH.
The Honor and Dignity of the Law
God’s law is based on God’s honor. The Psalmist declared, “You are righteous, Lord, and your laws are right. The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy” (Ps. 119:137-138). The Law is just because God is Judge. The Law is right because God is righteous. Law-keepers aren’t described as good people, moral people or ethical people in Old Testament. Rather they are described as “blameless” and “blessed.” “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord” (Ps. 119:1). Likewise, lawbreakers are cursed, defiled, and full of shame, not merely guilty (cf. Deut. 11:27-28).
Examples of Laws
God’s laws and standard of justice are based on honor and dignity. Take for example, the Sabbath laws. The Sabbath laws are all based on God’s holiness (Gen. 2:3). Israel was to observe the Sabbath laws as a declaration of God’s honor and holiness. They were to observe the Sabbath by “keeping it holy” (Ex. 20:8), not by merely obeying it’s regulations. The law regarding murder is rooted in human dignity. Since humans are created in God’s image, killing another human being is essentially defacing God’s image (Gen. 9:6). This conjures up the notion of an invading army tearing down and defacing statues and images of the conquered ruler. In a way, the Decalogue can be seen as a basic guide for honoring God and extending dignity to others.
Biblical justice is not established by merely adhering to a legal code or the equitable administration of rules. Biblical justice is inherently communal and requires that we treat ourselves, others, and all of creation with dignity. The parable of the good Samaritan highlights this by showing people keeping the laws against defilement at the expense of someone in need of dignity. Biblical justice is redemptive, not merely “fair.” Biblical justice involves a humbling of oneself and elevating of the status of another. For example, God repeatedly commanded Israel to elevate the status of foreigners (a shamed status) by not oppressing them and treating them with utmost dignity and love (e.g. Ex. 22:21, 23:9, Deut. 10:19, Lev 25:47). “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33-34). This is why Jesus indicated that loving God and loving others is the foundation of the law. Love ultimately requires a humbling of oneself and an elevation of the status of others.