The other day, I politely asked three junior high girls who live behind my church not to climb the fence that separates the church and their homes. My concern was legal liability; if they fell and hurt themselves, we could be sued. I was a bit surprised by the sarcastic vituperation they hurled my way. When I was their age, which wasn’t that long ago, you simply didn’t talk to your elders that way. And if you did, it would be reported to your parents, and just wait till dad got home!
Social scientists tell us there are two kinds of social control: external and internal. External social control is the discipline that authorities impose on us, whether it be a parent spanking a wayward child, a cop arresting a disorderly drunk, or a nation waging defensive war against an aggressive enemy. Internal social controls, by contrast, are the discipline we impose upon ourselves. The leading internal social control is our sense of honor our shame.
Honor and shame is built around our regard for other people’s opinion of us. We act in ways that bring us honor, and avoid ways of acting that bring us shame. The Book of Proverb says a lot about honor and shame.
Learning the difference honor and shame begins at home.
He who keeps the law is a discerning son,
but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father (28:7).
The rod of correction imparts wisdom,
but a child left to himself disgraces his mother (29:15).
Our parents are the first people who teach us to control our actions in socially responsible ways. But “correction” or “discipline” is not something appropriate only for children. Learning to live wisely and in a self-disciplined manner is a lifelong pursuit.
He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame,
but whoever heeds correction is honored (13:18).
And that lifelong pursuit is first and foremost a quest for the humility before God and others that leads to wisdom.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
but with humility comes wisdom (11:2).
Indeed, wisdom brings honor upon the wise person.
A man is praised according to his wisdom,
but men with warped minds are despised (12:8).
Wisdom is moral in nature, knowing the right thing to do in the right circumstance. Wickedness, however – doing the wrong thing – inevitably (though not necessarily immediately), results in shame.
When wickedness comes, so does contempt,
and with shame comes disgrace (18:3).
Finally, while external social controls are necessary, internal social controls are always preferable. I could apprise the sheriff of the girls’ trespassing on church property or rat them out to their parents, but it would be far better if the girls decided to do the right thing without such harsh measures. Proverbs 25:8 says:
Do not bring hastily to court,
for what will you do in the end
if your neighbor puts you to shame?
At the end of the day, wouldn’t you rather hear your conscience saying, “Shame on you” then some cop saying, “You’re under arrest” or a jury saying, “Guilty”?