Summary: We often want a "no demands" Christianity, and feel little regret over our failures. This needs to change.
Earlier this week Lance Armstrong confessed to doping, using performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France. He’s been stripped of his titles and his Olympic medal. We can only imagine the shame he is feeling, especially because the world now knows the truth. Shame is found in many places…
Early on in my military career I learned about shame-based cultures. I was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea. I quickly found I had two challenges of cultural adaptation: the gung-ho Infantry, and living in Asia.
The military is a unique sub-culture, and within it are some elite units. The 2nd Infantry’s mottos were “Fit to Fight” & “Second-to-None.” They operated in an advanced state of readiness just below the North Korean border, the DMZ where tensions were high. My battalion was hard-charging, demanding and unforgiving. You met the mark or you were disgraced. There was no hand-holding or gentle encouragement. Field duty was about high performance under miserable conditions: “high-speed, low-drag.” We thought nothing of winter maneuvers without tent stoves, and road marches in our chemical suits and gas masks. PT/Physical Training was demanding; I remember running past rice paddies at zero-dark-thirty, then up a mountain, circling a Buddhist temple at the top, then running back down. After Physical Training you needed Physical Therapy!
Arriving in Korea was like going to a new planet. Everything seemed different; even the sidewalks didn’t look like ours. The food was strange; if you’ve ever had kimchi, you know what I mean! The architecture seemed totally foreign; only in Seoul was there evidence of western influence, but even there the Asian culture was predominant. It is a beautiful country, but for a westerner, a very alien environment. Not wanting to be an “Ugly American,” I quickly learned the cultural dos and don’ts, and a bit of the language. In my limited free time I saw as much as I could, and took soldiers on cultural bus trips.
I found that these two cultures--the Infantry and Korea--had one thing in common: they shared what is known as a “shame tradition.” I learned that if you brought shame upon your unit, you’d be ostracized; and the Infantry fosters a zero-defects mentality. Bluntly put, mistakes aren’t tolerated, and forgiveness is not an option. Any mistake can kill a career. And with Koreans, their greatest motivation is to bring honor to their parents. To fail in life is to bring shame upon one’s self and one’s family, which is an unforgivable disgrace. The pressures to succeed are enormous, and for those who do not meet expectations, life can become unbearable.
Americans are largely driven by success, yet for the most part we do not live in a “shame culture.” Fear of shaming our name or our family is simply not a prime motivation to strive toward excellence. We fail, perhaps learn from our mistakes, and drive on. We accept our failures with positive self-esteem. Even when we don’t succeed we’re encouraged to still feel good about ourselves. The word “shame” isn’t much in our American vocabulary. Yet a century ago Mark Twain observed, “Man is the only animal that blushes…or needs to.”
What place does shame have in the Christian life? In Colossians one, Paul is praying that we might live “worthy of the Lord”, which is setting an extremely high standard for believers. I wonder if we ever feel shame over our lack of spiritual discipline? God has set the bar high, yet we are all too often indifferent to His expectations. We miss church if we don’t feel like going; we don’t pray or read the Bible with regularity, and we sin with little thought of how God must feel. We want a comfortable, “no pressures, no demands” Christianity. We take advantage of God’s mercy and grace by not striving towards holiness.
Paul wants us to live up to our heritage, to bring praise and honor to God by our conduct. How we live matters. We do not have to work our way to Heaven; that’s been taken care of, thanks to the Cross…yet we are expected to be fruitful, to live a life where what we do is a reflection of what we believe. “Faith without works is dead,” we’re told in James. We are to conform to the image of Christ. Do our lifestyles bring honor to the family of God, or shame and disgrace? We’re saved by faith, which (if genuine) leads to a life of faithfulness.
Paul’s plea to live worthy is more highly regarded in Korea, where people feel bound, obligated to please; where indifference is not an option. When we consider the Christian life, do we see it as an obligation? Do we live to please the Lord, or simply to please ourselves? It is not uncommon for Koreans to get up at four in the morning during the week before going to work to gather for prayer. Here in America, Pastors do all they can to persuade their congregations to simply show up on Sunday.