Digging in Deeper: Zephaniah 3:5

“The righteous Lord is in her; he does no wrong. He applies his justice morning by morning; he does not fail at dawn, yet the one who does wrong knows no shame.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

“Shame on you!” Have you ever heard that before? Have you ever said that before? The answer is probably yes on both counts. It is for me. Why? What is shame that it would be projected onto us by other people or by us onto them? And besides, isn’t shame a bad thing? We’re sure told as much by our culture. We should live lives that are free from shame, shouldn’t we? Well, yes, but maybe not for the reason you think. Let’s talk about it.

This last section of judgment in Zephaniah is really kind of disturbing. It flows smoothly enough from the preceding judgment against the nations in the second half of chapter 2 that it seems to be part of it. This is just another nation deserving of judgment. But which nation is this? Your section heading probably helpfully identifies it for you, but if you didn’t have that, it’s not immediately clear unless your translation inserts the name for the sake of clarity. Mine doesn’t.

As you gradually read through the section, though, it becomes clear that this last nation, this last city to be judged, is Jerusalem. So God has come back again to pronouncing judgment against Jerusalem. But why do it in the context of the judgment against the nations? Because that adds an extra little bit of umph to the message. It’s like God is saying here, “I don’t even know you anymore.”

When Israel first asked for a king hundreds of years before this point, their justification was that they wanted to be like all the nations around them. They had finally hit that mark…and now God was going to treat them like those nations. That wasn’t going to go well for them.

In the couple of verses before this one God basically says, “The whole lot of you is corrupt.” You don’t follow me anymore. You don’t obey any of the commands I’ve given you. Your leaders are bad and your politics are broken. Your judges are bad and your justice system is broken. Your prophets are bad and you are morally broken. Your priests are bad and your worship is broken.

Then we get to v. 5 here, and what God says next is a little surprising. He says, “The righteous Lord is in her; he does no wrong. He applies his justice morning by morning; he does not fail at dawn…” In other words: I’m still here. I haven’t left. I’m still doing good for and to you. You’re being unfaithful to me and I’m still standing right here.

He follows that up with this: “Yet the one who does wrong knows no shame.” That is: You’re being unfaithful to me, I’m standing right here, you know I’m standing right here, and you’re still being unfaithful to me. Have you no shame?

Here we are again at that word shame. What is shame? Google’s official definition is that shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Honestly, that’s pretty much right on the money. Put more simply, shame is an awareness that you’ve screwed up. When someone says, “Shame on you,” what they are expressing is their belief that you have done something wrong and should feel it.

Shame is no fun to feel. That’s the humiliation and distress part of Google’s definition. It’s embarrassing to know when we’ve done wrong. It’s worse when we know that other people know we’ve done wrong. Shame is bad enough that we naturally seek to get out from under the feeling in any way we can manage it. This is not necessarily a bad desire. The trouble is there are only two ways to get out from under a sense of shame.

The first way is to stop doing things we know are wrong. If we aren’t knowingly doing what’s wrong, we don’t have anything of which to be ashamed. This is a conversation I have with my boys fairly often. They are at an age when tattling is common. When that happens, the one who has been tattled on is often even more upset than the one doing the tattling. This is especially true when he doesn’t believe he’s done the wrong of which he’s been accused. My regular response to this situation goes like this: Did you do it? (The answer is unfailingly a resentful no.) Then don’t worry about it. Know what’s true and be confident in that. If we haven’t done anything wrong, we have no need for shame.

The second way to stop that sense of shame is to change our understanding of what is right and what is wrong. If we don’t believe something is wrong, then we don’t feel that shame when we do it. Thus, the way to get out of a sense of shame for having done something we believe to be wrong is to convince ourselves that it really wasn’t wrong to do. If it wasn’t wrong, then we don’t need to feel shame.

Without a doubt our culture prefers this second option. Right and wrong are open questions and are situationally dependent. In some situations some things may be wrong, but if you did them in another situation, then they aren’t wrong. No need for shame. Or better yet, right and wrong are whatever you define them to be. You don’t ever have to be ashamed of anything you do. At least, that’s the sermon our culture preaches. The truth is somewhat more complicated.

You see, everyone lives by some sense of right and wrong. Everyone. What’s more, everyone expects the people around them to live up to their sense of right and wrong. When we have convinced ourselves (usually because of the work of others in convincing us) of the moral rightness of some particular code, we are deeply uncomfortable to be around people who are actively living according to a different moral code. This is why we naturally gather in groups and neighborhoods and whole communities that share a generally similar moral framework. This is why demographers can talk about urbanites, suburbanites, and small town folks in generic terms. The people who live in those places tend to share a roughly similar moral…and political…outlook on life.

If we are going to attempt to pursue the second solution to shame we have two choices before us: Convince the people around us to adopt our preferred moral framework so that they don’t project onto us the very shame we are seeking to remove, or change our community. This is why so many young people trying to escape the moral (often religious) framework of their parents move away to communities with other young people who share a similar moral outlook. That way they can get the affirmation of their preferred moral outlook and not the shame their parents might have been projecting onto them (or the shame they were feeling themselves by virtue of living in the context of a moral framework that condemned the behavior they were trying to pursue).

Here’s the problem with all of this: As much as we might like to pretend otherwise, right and wrong are not situationally determined. They are objective categories defined by the character of the God who created the world and everything in it. When we don’t live within that framework, we are living in a fantasy world that will eventually be revealed as such. That won’t be fun to say the least.

That sense of shame we feel when we do something wrong, therefore, is actually a gift from the Lord. It’s a guardrail of sorts to caution us to the fact that we are entering into dangerous territory and should pull back from there to stay on the safe, sure path. No, we shouldn’t feel shame. Ever. But because of sin we do. Thank God we do too because it reminds us that we have sinned and should look to quit doing that so we don’t have to feel the shame. The first solution, you see, is the only one that will truly get rid of the shame we so seek to avoid.

Israel’s problem here is that they had lost their sense of shame. They had successfully pursued the second solution…and it had led them straight down a path of destruction. Let us not follow suit. When we feel that gnawing sense of shame twisting in our gut, let’s take it as the gift that it truly is and stop doing whatever it is that was causing it in the first place. In fact, if we do something that used to cause us shame and it doesn’t any longer, that should leave us deeply concerned. It means we’re driving on the other side of the guardrail, veering perilously close to the cliff that will be our downfall. Turn back. There’s no life to be found there. Embrace the shame and move to get rid of it in the way that leads to life. You’ll be glad you did.

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