Crushed

The Bible never minimizes pain. Even though, from an eternal perspective, our afflictions are “light and momentary” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV), and even though we’re advised to embrace them with joy because of the fruit that grows out of them (James 1:2; Romans 5:3), still, when the Bible speaks of pain, it uses strong words — like the Hebrew daka, “crushed.” It simply isn’t like God to say that we have an “owee” or a “boo-boo,” or that we are having a bad day. He remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:14); He sympathizes with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). When we are hurting, God, and the people of God, say “crushed.”

If anything, it’s our translations that try to soften things. Some of our English versions render daka as contrite and contrition. It may be a good word, but for the life of me I don’t know quite what contrition is. And one thing I like about the Bible is that Hebrew seems to be a very visual language. At the root of almost every word, there’s a picture. “Crushed” means pulverized, ground up, reduced to powder or to dust. It’s what an old-fashioned pharmacist used to do with a mortar and pestle. It’s used to describe an extreme form of suffering that continues over time. It never speaks only of the body, but always includes as well the spirit, the emotions, and the mind.

In Scripture God’s people often use this word. Here’s David in Psalm 143:3: “For the enemy has pursued me; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead” (RSV). “Long dead” because his bones aren’t even bones any more; it feels as if they’ve crumbled away to dust. Psalm 38:8: “I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart” (NIV). Do you hear the pain of someone coping with a chronic or life-threatening illness, or with injury, or with loss? Similarly, in the New Testament, Paul writes that during one period of trial he was “so utterly, unbearably crushed” that he “despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8, RSV). More often than not, the One doing the crushing is God, as in Psalm 90:3: “You turn men back to dust” (NIV).

The word daka is used of Jesus twice, in Isaiah 53, in describing the Suffering Servant. Verse 5 says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities” (NIV). Most English translations say “bruised,” probably because what the Romans did to Jesus’ body seems more like bruising than crushing. (Not one of His bones was broken, John 19:36.) But bruising is far too slight a word; bruising is what happened when my older brother used to slap my arm with his bedroom slipper. Jesus’ spirit was crushed. “Gethsemane” means oil press; the name comes from big stone rollers, that took two people to operate, that crushed olives until every drop of oil was squeezed out.(1) Jesus was under intense pressure; we see this in His agony or anguish, His sweat like drops of blood (Luke 22:44), and His “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7, NIV and RSV). And in the Gospels the paraphrases do use this word. In the Living Bible, Jesus says to the three disciples, “My soul is crushed by sorrow” (Mark 14:34; “crushed with horror and sadness,” Matthew 26:38). In The Message He says, “This sorrow is crushing My life out” (Matthew 26:38).

But it’s the second occurrence in Isaiah 53 that takes my breath away: “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer,” making Him a guilt offering (v. 10, NIV). We know that God is anything but cruel. The Book of Lamentations, written right in the midst of the worst divine judgment in the Old Testament, still affirms, “He does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men” (Lamentations 3:33, RSV). Isaiah goes further; speaking of God’s faithfulness to Israel, he says, “In all their affliction He was afflicted” (63:9, RSV). The pain we feel is as nothing to the pain that fills His heart. How then could He bear to crush His own Son, and how can He crush the Body of Christ even now?

When God gives Moses instructions for the tabernacle, He tells him to make a special incense by taking certain pure spices and — God specifies — grinding or crushing them into a very fine powder. Only then is the incense “most holy” (Exodus 30:36), ready to be part of the atonement offering in the presence of God in the Most Holy Place (Leviticus 16:12-13). The crushing releases something, a fragrance, that can’t be brought out in any other way.

Jesus is that pure offering. Proverbs 27:22 tells us that even grinding a fool in a mortar won’t separate his folly from him. Crush me into a powder, and every atom will still be stained with sin. But we see from Isaiah 53 that crushing the pure One, as a guilt offering, removes folly and guilt and redeems the fool.

As for us, we are like harvested stalks. When the people of Israel made bread, the grain had to be threshed; it was crushed under the feet of an animal or the wheels of a cart or the weight of a heavy sled.(2) This was the only way to break the hard outer shell or husk, and separate impurities. Even manna, which is called “the bread of angels” (Psalm 78:25), had to be crushed in a mortar (Numbers 11:8). Throughout the Bible, threshing is an important process, and some significant events take place at threshing floors. The temple itself is built on the site of a threshing floor (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21).

Threshing doesn’t continue forever (Isaiah 28:23-29). David is bold enough to pray, “[L]et the bones You have crushed rejoice” (Psalm 51:8, NIV). How can a bone that has been reduced to powder rejoice? Only in God — only in the One who raises the dead and commands the dust to arise. So too, the crushing is not the end of the Servant: “After the suffering of His soul, He will see the light of life and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11, NIV).

In the meantime, there are remarkable promises addressed specifically to those who are crushed:

  • Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (RSV).
  • Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is . . . a broken and [crushed] heart” (RSV).
  • Isaiah 66:2, where God is speaking: “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and [crushed] in spirit, and trembles at My word” (NIV). Imagine being esteemed or valued or highly regarded by God.
  • My favorite is Isaiah 57:15: “For this is what the high and lofty One says — He who lives forever, whose name is holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is [crushed] and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the [crushed]” (NIV).       Think of all the preparations that it took for the holy God to dwell among us in a tabernacle or a temple: blood and sacrifices, special clothes, separations, curtains, washings.       And here He says, For Me to come in and to stay, it takes all that — or it takes being crushed. The person who is crushed is walking through the valley of humility. God opposes the proud, but He gives to the humble the continuous grace of His presence, and He comes to revive and sustain the heart of the crushed.

Jesus went to the lowest place of all. Even though He had no hardness to break, and no sin to separate, He allowed Himself to be crushed by the weight of our sins. He dwells in the high and holy place, and also and especially in the place of shame outside the camp (Hebrews 13:11-13). He meets us there.

I ended up studying the word “crushed” because I wanted to study breakthroughs in the Bible. What I found is that, for every occasion when God “breaks forth” against His enemies, there seem to be three or four times when He “breaks out” against His own people or “breaks down” their walls. Because of our sin, because He is holy, because He disciplines those He loves, we get broken. Before He can build up, He must tear down (Jeremiah 1:10).

When it comes to intercession, the Bible talks about three groups, and they’re all connected with walls. There are the watchmen God posts on the walls to call upon Him and give Him no rest (Isaiah 62:6-7; Ezekiel 3:17; 33:7). There are those who repair and rebuild broken walls (Isaiah 58:12; 61:4; Ezekiel 13:5), like Nehemiah. And then there are those who stand before God in the gap, in the broken place; only of this third group does God say that He looked and found no one to take on the task (Ezekiel 22:30). Before anyone can rebuild the wall, before anyone can stand watch atop it, we need believers who are willing to stand in their pain, still trusting. The rest of us need to say to our brothers and sisters, “You are the breakthrough.” For the gap is not “out there” somewhere in our culture; rather, wherever brokenness is found, there God is working. Where strength and pride are already broken down, that is where breakthrough occurs.

(1) R.K. Harrison, “Oil,” in J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, 1975), 906.

(2) J.L. Kelso, “Agriculture,” New Bible Dictionary, 19; Marvin R. Wilson and John H. Stek, note on Ruth 1:22, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 366.

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God of Breakthroughs

When we pray for a breakthrough, what exactly are we asking for? We might start with an episode from the life of David:

When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over all Israel, they went up in full force to search for him, . . . So David and his men went up to Baal Perazim, and there he defeated them. He said, “As waters break out, God has broken out against my enemies by my hand.” So that place was called Baal Perazim [“the Lord who breaks out”]. The Philistines had abandoned their gods there, and David gave orders to burn them in the fire. (1 Chronicles 14:8, 11-12, NIV; compare the parallel account in 2 Samuel 5)

The Lord “breaks out” or “breaks forth,” revealing His power, routing the enemy, vanquishing false and demonic gods. The comparison with surging waters is striking. The power associated with water is not often called divine in Scripture; more frequently, it rises in opposition to God (for example, “bursting forth” from the womb of its creation in Job 38:8). Water is “unstable” (Genesis 49:4), the home of a thrashing, chaotic monster (Ezekiel 32:2; Psalm 74:13; 89:9-10). The Lord is often praised for delivering from the raging, overwhelming, engulfing floodwaters (e.g., Psalm 124:2-5); but He also constrains and releases the flood, memorably at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:26-28; 15:8-10). His wrath is “like a flood of water” (Hosea 5:10, NIV), “like water rushing down a slope” (Micah 1:4, NIV). Ultimately, it is our sin that releases this explosive force; we foolishly make a breach or crack in a dam established by God (Proverbs 17:14).

Only on rare occasions is water both forceful and life-giving. Water “gushes” from the stricken rock at Meribah (Numbers 20:11; Psalm 78:20; 105:41; Isaiah 48:21). “Spring up, O well!” sing the desert wanderers (Numbers 21:17); and, centuries later, the Lord promises that, once again, waters will break forth in the wilderness (Isaiah 35:6; compare John 4:14).

Throughout the Old Testament, though, the Lord’s ability to “break out” is rarely connected with His redemptive acts. It is presented rather as the coiled force of His holiness, and thus a danger to all who are tainted by sin. So at Sinai, as the Lord reveals the Law of His covenant, the people and even the priests are warned to stay back, lest He “break out” against them (Exodus 19:22, 24). Plague “breaks out” when they provoke Him to anger (Psalm 106:29). During long centuries of relapse and rebellion, He repeatedly “breaks through” and “breaks down” Israel’s walls, leaving His people defenseless before their enemies (Psalm 80:12; 89:40; Isaiah 5:5). “You have rejected us, O God, and burst forth upon us,” the psalmist laments (Psalm 60:1, NIV). For Job, it is personal: “He breaks me with breach upon breach” (16:14, RSV).

In the very next chapter after David’s victory over the Philistines (according to 2 Samuel — or, in 1 Chronicles, the chapter before), we find another of these seemingly misdirected breakthroughs. The ark of God has been housed for many years at Kiriath-Jearim, at the house of Abinadab (1 Samuel 6:21-7:1), when David decides to bring it to Jerusalem on a new cart. This may have been a journey of as little as nine miles.(1) It begins as a festive procession. Abinadab’s son Uzzah is perhaps standing on the platform of the cart, using a stick or a cart-rope to drive the oxen:(2)

And when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and He smote him because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there before God. And David was angry because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah; and that place is called Perez Uzzah [“the breaking forth upon Uzzah”] to this day. And David was afraid of God that day; and he said, “How can I bring the ark of God home to me?” (1 Chronicles 13:9-12, RSV)

If Baal Perazim is a glorious “breaking out” of the holy God, Perez Uzzah is a terrifying outbreak.(3)

Zerah: The Outstretched Hand

Long before Uzzah, before the rout of the Philistines, there is another Biblical “breakout.” Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob/Israel, unwittingly sleeps with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar, and she becomes pregnant:

When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez [“breaking out”]. Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out and he was given the name Zerah. (Genesis 38:27-30, NIV)

Here we have another Perez, but this one comes with a twin brother — and a contrast. Unlike the earlier twins Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:21-26), this birth doesn’t signal a lifelong struggle for the rights of the firstborn; generations later, when the people return from exile, the clans of Perez and Zerah each furnish a prominent leader (Nehemiah 11:4, 24). Still later, the brothers are both named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3).

Instead, the emphasis here falls on the midwife’s observations. Initially, it appears that the son who stretches out his hand will “come out first.” Then, contrary to expectations, the other twin bursts out, and even makes a way for his brother.

The imagery here is indelicate to us — I doubt that the Sunday school supply companies ever made a flannelgraph rendition of this scene — but the sequence has prophetic significance. We see, I believe, two very different approaches to life and salvation.

Baby number one puts out his hand. The hand symbolizes power, so that it is a terrible thing to be “delivered into the hands” of one’s enemies (Deuteronomy 1:27; Judges 2:14; and often). Encouragement “strengthens the hands” (1 Samuel 23:16; 2 Samuel 2:7; 16:21; Ezra 1:6; 6:22; Nehemiah 2:18; Job 4:3; Isaiah 35:3; Zechariah 8:9, 13), and discouragement weakens them (2 Samuel 4:1; 2 Chronicles 15:7; Ezra 4:4; Nehemiah 6:9; Jeremiah 38:4); this link is made explicit in Ezekiel 27:14: “Will your courage endure or your hands be strong in the day I deal with you?” (NIV). Indeed, when the Lord judges, “all hands will go limp” (Isaiah 13:7; Jeremiah 6:24; 47:3; 50:43; Ezekiel 7:17; 21:7).

Human beings do evil “because it is in the power of their hand” (Micah 2:1, RSV). The defiant man “has stretched out his hand against God” (Job 15:15, Amplified) — as Jeroboam is stricken for stretching out a hand against the Lord’s prophet (1 Kings 13:4), and as fallen Adam must be ejected from Eden, “lest he put forth his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22, Amplified). At one time or another, “He seals up the hand of every man, that all men may know His work” (Job 37:7, RSV).

In the Old Testament, the people of God struggle to learn when not to use and trust their own power. Obedient Abraham is restrained when he “stretches forth his hand” against Isaac, his only son (Genesis 22:10). Joseph’s brothers, though their jealous hatred is in full flood, are persuaded by Reuben and then by Judah not to “lay hands” on him (Genesis 37:22, 27). Most strikingly, David — though the Lord has “trained his hands” for war (Psalm 18:34; 144:1) — David steadfastly resists the temptation to “put forth his hand” against Saul, reminding himself that even this murderous and unjust king is the Lord’s anointed (1 Samuel 24:6; 26:9, 11; 2 Samuel 1:14). As Paul summarizes it, much of the Law boils down to setting limits on our hands: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Colossians 2:21; emphasis added).

But Tamar’s first baby instinctively puts out his hand. The midwife marks him with a scarlet thread: a sign of redemption and covenant inclusion. The kissable lips of the beloved are a scarlet thread (Song 4:13). A scarlet thread, tied in the window of Rahab the prostitute, saves her household when Jericho is destroyed (Joshua 2:18, 21); it echoes the Passover blood on the Israelites’ doorposts (Exodus 12:7, 13). Scarlet is also a sign of all that needs redemption, of sins bright as blood (Isaiah 1:18).

The boy is named Zerah, which means “to rise” or “to come forth,” like the sun.(4) It is a hopeful name; it speaks of the light that rises, even in the midst of darkness, for the upright (Psalm 112:4; Isaiah 58:10); of the glory of the Lord, risen upon His own (Isaiah 60:1-3); of the Sun of Righteousness, risen for and on us, with healing in its wings (Malachi 4:3).

But this child is not the one rising; he is the one who waits in darkness to be risen upon. He is the literal ancestor of Achan (Joshua 7:1, 17-18, 24), whose sin of reaching out his hand and taking (7:21) brings wrath upon the whole community (27:20). And he is the spiritual ancestor of all who draw back, turn back, and falter (Hebrews 10:38-39; Proverbs 26:11; Numbers 14:3-4).

Perez: The Breaking Forth

Then there is baby number two. He “comes forth” from the womb,(5) but this emergence is so sudden or (after his brother’s false start) so surprising that the midwife pronounces it a “breaking out” (Genesis 38:29), and this becomes his name.

Perez appears as the crowning rebuke to his “overreaching” father. “[Y]our hand will be on the neck of your enemies,” Jacob prophesies of his son Judah (Genesis 49:8, NIV), but there is some question as to how the hand will reach this triumph. Moses says of Judah, “With his hands he contended for himself; but may You be a help against his enemies” (Deuteronomy 33:7, Amplified).

No less than Zerah, Judah demonstrates ambivalence. He approves the attack on and betrayal of his brother Joseph, so long as the conspirators stop short of “laying hands” on him by taking his life (Genesis 37:27). He withholds his son Shelah from Tamar (38:11, 14) — his son Onan having withheld himself from her in another way (38:9). Judah has failed in his responsibilities as a brother, a son, and a father-in-law; next he fails even to honor his pledge to the woman he thinks is a prostitute. Tamar “disarms” him of the seal of his authority and the staff in his hand (38:18). Only after he acknowledges that Tamar — a Gentile and an apparent prostitute — “is more righteous than I” (38:26) does he receive a breakthrough: the births of Perez and Zerah.

While Judah contends or manipulates, Joseph is “in the hands” of others. He resists temptation, and is more righteous than the woman who takes his garment as a sort of pledge (39:12). Even though he endures unjust suffering, everything prospers in his hand (39:3, 23), and eventually he receives a ring of authority (41:42). As his father declares of Joseph, the hands of God make his hands strong (49:24). His elevation from prison is a Perez-like breakthrough: he is “brought hastily out” (41:14).

As Perez makes a way for Zerah, so Joseph helps to redeem Judah. When his family needs food, Judah takes Benjamin into his hand from Jacob. He himself becomes the pledge for his brother’s life (43:9; 44:32), and it’s when he honors this pledge — confessing before the man he believes is a Gentile, “God has uncovered your servants’ guilt” (44:16), and offering to take Benjamin’s place in bondage — that Joseph reveals himself as brother.

Perez bursts forth, and then Zerah comes out. Joseph is elevated, and Judah is saved. Joseph again — Ephraim, the northern kingdom — is preeminent for many years, but the kingdom of Judah prevails, and returns from exile.(6) The Jews are, humanly speaking, the conduits and custodians of salvation, but the Gentiles are included and redeemed.

Ruth and David

Generations after the birth of Perez, Naomi concludes, “. . . the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me” (Ruth 1:13, RSV). Like Judah, she has lost a spouse and two sons; and in her case there is no Shelah — she truly has no more sons to step in and marry her daughters-in-law. She advises them to “return home,” “turn back” — the same Hebrew word, shub, used of Zerah’s drawing back his hand — and Orpah does so, but Ruth refuses (1:11-12, 15-16). She is “determined” (1:18), with a strength of mind and fixity of purpose that recall Tamar, also a Gentile bent on redemption.

Boaz (perhaps “strength”) directs his workers to fill Ruth’s hands when she gleans, and buys both land and Ruth “from the hand of” Naomi (2:16; 3:17; 4:5, 9). The elders’ blessing on the marriage of Boaz and Ruth includes these rather surprising words: “. . . may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman” (4:12, RSV).

Why Perez? It may be that the villagers are thinking of a secondary, less explosive meaning of his name — not so much “breaking forth” as “increasing” and “spreading,” as when the Lord supernaturally multiplies Jacob’s descendants (Genesis 28:14; Exodus 1:12) or the flocks and lands of Jacob and of Job (Genesis 30:30, 43; Job 1:10).

Still, the reference is to Perez, and through Boaz and Ruth’s great-grandson, David, we see the beginning of breakthroughs. At last Judah’s hand appears to grip the necks of all his enemies. At Baal Perazim, David exults, “God has broken out against my enemies by my hand” (1 Chronicles 14:11, NIV; emphasis added).

Then the Lord “breaks forth” upon Uzzah. At first David is angry (1 Chronicles 13:11), and afraid (13:12). Later, he finds a solution he can live with: the Levites must carry the ark.

It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the Lord our God broke out in anger against us. We did not inquire of Him about how to do it in the prescribed way. (15:13, NIV)

Surely David is right to acknowledge the holiness of the Lord, but his anguished question — “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9, NIV) — signals a shift. He is more like the Philistines, enemies of a holy God, than he had realized. He is not the one who can redeem and make a way. He will experience great victories, but no further breakthroughs. Soon enough, he will reach for Bathsheba, and then command the army to draw back so that Uriah will be killed. The Lord will build him a house (7:11), but the creation of a house in which the holy God can remain forever in fellowship with sinful people must await the coming of a Son of David who will be “a man of peace and rest” (1 Chronicles 22:9, NIV).

Until the birth of this Son, the best that can be hoped for is an ongoing series of defensive actions. Stone by stone, obedient deed by deed, our communal life builds up a wall of righteousness that separates and protects the people of God. The Israelites cannot break through their enemies, but, by repenting and returning to covenant faithfulness, they can at least maintain the wall and the community. Surveying Israel’s princes, priests, prophets, and people, the Lord says, “I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found none” (Ezekiel 22:30, RSV). Observe the dual role: the restoration will never be complete, and the godly leader will still need to appeal to God to cover gaping brokenness.

The Lord is especially disappointed with the prophets: “You have not gone up into the breaches, or built up a wall for the house of Israel, that it might stand in battle in the day of the Lord” (Ezekiel 13:5, RSV). The example was set by Israel’s first prophet, following the incident of the golden calf: “Moses, His chosen one, stepped into the breach before Him to turn away His threatening wrath” (Psalm 106:23, Amplified).

David looks forward to a day when “[t]here will be no breaching of walls, no going into captivity” (Psalm 144:14, NIV), but in the Old Testament the walls are always down, signaling “trouble and disgrace” (Nehemiah 1:3, NIV). Solomon repairs breaches (1 Kings 11:27); so does Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:5). Nehemiah stirs the remnant of his generation to close every gap (Nehemiah 6:11), infuriating their enemies (4:7). But every lapse into sin creates new vulnerability: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28, RSV).

Moreover, we are apt to trust anything we build. “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and as a high protecting wall in his own imagination and conceit” (Proverbs 18:11, Amplified). The Lord must bring down the high and fortified walls in which we trust (Deuteronomy 28:52; Isaiah 25:12). He dwells with the one who is contrite, bruised, crushed in spirit (Isaiah 57:15) — the one whose walls have been breached, and who now stands in that gap, crying out to God. If we want spiritual breakthrough, we must stand in the gap, in the place where the Lord has already broken through in holy wrath and judgment.

Ultimately, God Himself must mend the broken places: “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11, RSV). Yet He holds out the hope of a holy people who will work with Him as ministers of reconciliation: “. . . you shall be called Repairer of the Breach, Restorer of Streets to Dwell In” (Isaiah 58:12, Amplified).

At the same time, there is a very different promise:

One who breaks open the way [Amplified has “The Breaker”] will go up before them;

they will break through the gate and go out.

Their king will pass through before them,

the Lord at their head. (Micah 2:13, NIV)

This at last will be Perez.

Jesus the Champion

“[F]rom the days of John the Baptist until the present time,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven has endured violent assault, and violent men seize it by force” (Matthew 11:12, Amplified). What does this mean? Most commentators agree that He is referring to a new and forceful faith. Thus, Marvin Vincent: He is not describing “a class of habitually and characteristically violent men”; rather, “the violence in this case is the result of a special and exceptional impulse.”(7) Sometimes this is misguided, as when the crowd, their stomachs miraculously filled, wish to use force to make Jesus king (John 6:15). But at other times we witness an impressive, dogged persistence, as when four men break through (or scoop out)(8) a roof in order to lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus — so convinced are they that He can heal any affliction (Mark 2:4; compare the single-minded determination of the woman with the issue of blood, who “kept saying” to herself that she would be healed if she touched Jesus, 5:28).(9)

In the parallel account in Luke, Jesus comments that, though people are forcing their way into the kingdom, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:17, NIV). This sounds as if He is qualifying or even invalidating the radical changes at work. Just here, we must look more closely at His statement that He has come, not to abolish or loosen or destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill (Greek pleroo) them.

In Matthew 9:16-17, Jesus presents two metaphors to elucidate the contrast between life in Him and life under the Law:

  1. He is a piece of new cloth, that has never needed to be cleansed by human hands. He has not come to repair the rips in the Law — that was a garment given to cover man’s sin with God’s holiness (Genesis 3:21; Psalm 32:1; Ezekiel 16:8-14), but we have ruined it through continued acts of rebellion (Isaiah 64:6; Zechariah 3:3-4). If Jesus is simply tacked on to the Law, His very fullness (pleroma) will “lift away,” making the tear worse. So, when He dies under the Law, the temple curtain that separates sinful people from the holy God is torn in two (Matthew 27:51). Luke adds that the new and old garments won’t match or agree (5:36), and we see Jesus fulfilling God’s redemptive purpose by becoming, in the Law’s terms, accursed (Galatians 3:12-14) and even unclean or vile (Hebrews 13:11-13).(10)
  1. He is new wine, alive with a force that intoxicates as it transforms. This is “wine made from the first drippings of the juice before the winepress was trodden. As such it would be particularly potent.”(11) It must be stored in fresh skins, elastic enough to expand or “breathe” with it; inflexible old skins can’t contain it, and will burst under its power (though men may try to mend them, Joshua 9:4). These skins don’t represent forms and traditions (the Law itself), I believe, but people. This is part of the point of Jesus’ first miracle at Cana, filling people with fresh, heady wine from an inexhaustible supply (John 2:1-11) — and this is the good wine (verse 10).(12) We are the skins that need to be filled and then changed from within, and we can’t give ourselves wholly to this process if we are also striving to conform to a rigid system of rules. The psalmist, focusing on God’s decrees, fears that he is becoming shriveled and dried, unfit for use, “a wineskin in the smoke” (Psalm 119:83). But in the New Testament the skin that bursts is Judas. Although he receives Jesus’ Gospel, something about him remains stiff and unyielding. He is offended at Mary of Bethany’s extravagant display of love for Jesus, when she pours out her heart and her expensive perfume (John 12:3-6; Mark 14:3 tells us that she “broke” the jar).(13) Judas goes to Jesus’ enemies, the chief priests, and conspires to betray Him or hand Him over. Later, he changes his mind or is tormented by remorse (Matthew 27:3)(14) — as the chief priests never are (Matthew 21:32). His suicide is presented by Luke as a “bursting” that spills his entrails or internal organs (Acts 1:18), figurative in the New Testament for the heart or emotions.(15) When some Pharisees charge Jesus with allowing His followers to break or transgress (parabaino) Jewish tradition, He replies that they, in honoring tradition, break or transgress the command of God (Matthew 15:2-3); but Judas breaks or turns aside from his apostolic office (Acts 1:25). A wineskin that resists the love of God, he suffers unbearable pressure and explodes.

Jesus does not come to break even a bruised reed (Matthew 12:20). He doesn’t destroy the Law: the temple isn’t torn in two when He dies, but only one symbolic barrier within it. It’s true that the Law can’t contain Him or define Him, even as the nets tear asunder before the immense catch of fish (Luke 5:6), and even as chains fall (Acts 12:7) and “loose” (Acts 16:26) from His apostles. But, though He and we have died to the Law (Romans 7:4; Galatians 2:19), He leaves it in place to convict, warn, instruct, and testify.

His “breakthrough” power is directed rather at the separations made by sin. The heavens are torn open when Jesus is baptized (Mark 1:10), and the Holy Spirit descends — both signs of a restoration of intimacy and communication. When Jesus dies, the earth shakes, rocks are split, and graves open (Matthew 27:51). He rises “because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him” (Acts 2:24, NIV). In the Exsultet, an ancient part of the Easter liturgy, believers rejoice because Christ has “burst the bonds of death.” And He is the “Breaker” who opens a way (Micah 2:13) by smashing the proud illusion of a life of perfect righteousness. We follow Him by going where there are no walls, bearing the shame of admitting that we are unrighteous (Hebrews 13:12-13) and our guilt is uncovered (Genesis 44:16).

Breaking through, the last Perez redeems and makes a way for Zerah. Steeped in the Old Testament, we can appreciate the breathtaking grace of Jesus’ invitation: “Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3:5). Where there is weakness, hesitancy, and paralysis, He restores reach and grip. When we, like Zerah, grow weak and falter, He strengthens us so that we do not “draw back,” draw in, contract (Hebrews 10:38-39).(16) And when, like Uzzah, we overreach, He gently corrects, guiding us toward faith (Martha in Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:20-27). He places a ring of authority on our finger (Luke 15:22); He equips our hands to bless, pray, ordain, heal, lift others’ burdens, and work. He only cautions that we should not be hasty in reinstating and ordaining (1 Timothy 5:22, Amplified).

He is the living ark of God’s testimony, covenant, and might. In Him are found the bread of life, priestly authority, and all that God requires of us (Hebrews 9:4). He is the atoning cover, the seat of mercy, where the cherubim-attended God is enthroned in all His fullness to dwell with us. And He has broken through: having taken away our sins, He brings the Presence outside the temple walls, to mingle with all who have faith.

Under the Law, sin is stronger than holiness. The Lord even sends His prophet to confirm this with the priests: a holy thing consecrates only what it touches directly, but an unclean thing defiles anything it touches and also whatever that touches (Haggai 2:11-14). And so, by all the expectations of the Old Testament, contact between Jesus and a leper should render Him unclean till evening. Instead, so great is the power of holiness in Him, over and over He cleanses skin and heart, releasing praise. The Law warns us back with “Do not handle! . . . Do not touch!” (Colossians 2:21), but Jesus invites our touch (Luke 24:39).

How do we receive breakthrough? We stop striving in our own strength, acknowledge our unrighteousness, and then stretch out the empty, ribboned hand of faith to persist in knocking (Matthew 7:7-8). We stand, with our Lord, in the gap, for that is where breakthroughs occur. And breakthrough has come already, decisively, in Jesus; as John exults, “our hands have touched . . . the Word of life” (1 John 1:1, NIV). Graciously, He continues to draw near, and to dwell with us, as we lift up His name.

(1) J.D. Douglas, “Kiriath-Jearim,” in J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, 1975), 701.

(2) D.J. Wiseman, “Cart, Wagon,” New Bible Dictionary, 201, with illustrations. The 13th-century Crusader Bible has illustrations juxtaposing these two “breaking out” events on the same page, Folio 39r; see http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/77.

(3) Just as there are two breakthroughs in 2 Samuel 5-6, one exhilarating and one terrifying, so it is with fire coming out “from the presence of the Lord” in Leviticus 9-10: in the first case consuming a burnt offering and provoking joy and awe; in the second case consuming Nadab and Abihu. This juxtaposition is noted by Jerome M. Segal, Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible (New York: Riverhead-Penguin, 2007), 175.

(4) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 280; K.A. Kitchen, “Zerah,” New Bible Dictionary, 1359.

(5) See Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 95: yasa’ is a common Old Testament word, but can signify deliverance out of Egypt (Exodus 13:3) or into a spacious place (2 Samuel 22:20).

(6) We also see Joseph and Judah standing together in the account of Moses’ 12 spies. Only Joshua (a descendant of Joseph) and Caleb (from Judah) believe that the way is open into the land of promise, because the Lord has removed the Canaanites’ protection (Numbers 13:6, 8; 14:6-9).

(7) Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.], 1:64; emphasis in original.

(8) Vincent, 1:170.

(9) Vincent, 1:190.

(10) In Luke, it is the new garment that is torn — which of course is what happened to Jesus, His body torn to uphold or patch the Law.

(11) F.S. Fitzsimmonds, “Wine and Strong Drink,” New Bible Dictionary, 1331.

(12) Some of our translations (e.g., KJV, NIV) have Jesus saying in Luke 5:39 that no one who has tasted the old wine wants the new because they pronounce the old “better.” But the best texts have “good” (Vincent, 1:305). Jesus is not talking about a careful judgment but a biased preference for what is familiar. A knowledgeable and impartial connoisseur, like the master of the wedding feast at Cana, will always acknowledge the superiority of the wine only Jesus can provide.

(13) There is a matter of degree here; we read in Matthew 26:8 that all the disciples are indignant at an action they perceive as wasteful or destructive. Jesus stretches all of us.

(14) Vincent, 1:116-17.

(15) William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1952, 1957), 770.

(16) On hupesteilamen, see Vincent, 1:560.

The Idol of Serenity

I sometimes attend Al-Anon meetings. I’m grateful for them; the regulars are much better people than I am, and they work hard at cultivating spirituality and serving others, sometimes in the midst of very difficult situations. But they sure talk a lot about serenity.

The word “serenity” describes an emotional state, or a state so calm and composed that it has been drained of emotion. (The Greek root means “dry.”)(1) This is considerably narrower than “peace,” particularly Biblical peace (Hebrew shalom, Greek eirene), which signifies inner and outer wholeness, harmony, health, rest, reconciliation, and even salvation and prosperity.(2) The opposite of serenity is stormy weather or emotions, but the opposite of peace is nothing less than death.

When I first showed up at Al-Anon, I lacked both peace and serenity. In key relationships I tended to be frantic, agitated, controlling, and — ugliest of all — manipulative. I am a Christian, and I knew very well that the fruit of the Spirit in every believer’s life should include not only peace but patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It must be some root of unbelief that causes me, when the going gets rough, to fail to walk by the Spirit and to fall back on legalistic thinking and strivings out of the flesh.

Al-Anon encourages new habits of mind and spirit. Acknowledge that I am powerless to change others; detach myself from chaos, and set boundaries; focus my attention and effort on my own defects of character. There is wisdom, strategic wisdom, in these disciplines. They are better by far than my old habits, especially the impulse to fix, and the fear that shouts that there isn’t time to wait on God. I once had a history of healing others’ wounds “lightly and neglectfully” (Jeremiah 6:14, Amplified). Now I mostly content myself with pointing others to the Physician, or to the hospital.

Yet when I join in praying for serenity, or listen as others speak of preserving it, I am often at a loss. Is this really something I should aim for? Or does the Bible in fact present “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, KJV)?

Let me emphasize at the outset that my purpose is not to tear down Al-Anon, but to try to think and pray and live Biblically. I shall close this essay with responses from some in the program.

A Grieving Spirit

It was, I like to imagine, a beautiful afternoon in Jerusalem, and everyone else was having a good day. The Passover crowds might be annoying, the Roman presence galling, and the prices of sacrificial animals exorbitant, but people were glad to be in the house of God. Like the disciples, they marveled at the stately and impressive buildings (Mark 13:1). Indeed, only one man was deeply upset. Jesus turned over tables, drove out buyers and sellers, and disrupted even the transportation of merchandise (Mark 11:15-17). On that day, He had less serenity than almost anyone else in the city. His disciples later described His spiritual state as a consuming “zeal,” or jealousy for the honor of God (John 2:17).(3)

Similarly, when Paul had some downtime in Athens, he didn’t carefully cobble together a sightseeing itinerary that would keep him in unruffled calm. Rather, “his spirit was grieved and roused to anger as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16, Amplified). The Greek verb paroxuno, the root of our English word “paroxysm,” suggests a sharp, convulsive, visceral reaction.

Now set these responses alongside the options presented in the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference. (4)

Jesus did not, in fact, put an immediate end to the temple trade in currency and animals, nor did Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill make much of a dent in Greek idolatry. On the prayer’s terms, it would appear that they lacked wisdom, since they gave up their personal serenity without bringing about any change. The better course would have been to admit that they were powerless over great spiritual and social evils. “There’s wisdom — and serenity — in accepting what can’t be otherwise. We can only be responsible for ourselves.”(5)

There is a logical fallacy here. To permit myself to be disturbed and affronted by evil need not entail that I take responsibility for it, nor that I commit myself to changing it — not if I believe in a sovereign God. It requires only that I cry out to Him.

One man who recognized this was Bob Pierce (1914-1978). Shaken by the poverty of mothers and children in Asia after World War II, he wrote on the flyleaf of his Bible what might be called an anti-serenity prayer: “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.”

Pierce wasn’t a Bill Gates, wondering what to do with his extra billions, or a Jimmy Carter, accustomed to power and familiar with world leaders. He was just an evangelist, an ordinary guy, powerless over geopolitical forces, natural disasters, entrenched poverty, mass starvation. Yet he went on to found the aid organizations World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. At great cost to his family and himself, he did without serenity, acknowledging that he had “become a part of the suffering.” A journalist described him as “one of the few naturally, uncontrollably honest men I have ever met.”(6)

Which is the better prayer, to ask for courage to change only what one can, and power serenely to detach from the rest? Or to lay serenity on the altar, and make oneself available to the consuming zeal, compassion, and love of a God who is never powerless, but who may work slowly, and begin with groanings?

It isn’t our ability to change things that counts with God. Ezekiel, himself powerless and in exile, is shown that those people in Jerusalem who “grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done” in the city will be spared in the coming judgment (Ezekiel 9:4, NIV). Lot was ineffectual against all the wickedness of Sodom, and a poor father to boot (Genesis 19), yet he is remembered as “a righteous man . . . tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8, NIV). There is neither serenity nor detachment for those who serve the God who pours out “a spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10), whose priests are called to weep between porch and altar, rending their hearts and crying out that He might spare His people (Joel 2:13-17). Jesus commends those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6), who cry out to God day and night for justice (Luke 18:7).

Redemptive Metaphors

Prayers rise out of situations, and perceptions of situations. Today one metaphor has gained wide acceptance as depicting what we need above all:

 In Al-Anon we learn to put “First Things First.” Just as airline passengers are instructed to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their children or fellow passengers with theirs, we must learn to attend to our own well-being first. We owe it to ourselves to give ourselves the love, care, and attention we need and deserve, even if the needs of others sometimes have to wait. (7)

This metaphor serves to crystallize and even to justify a whole ethic of self-care. But is it, in fact, self-evident? A person who lives with an alcoholic or an addict may feel as if he or she is hurtling through space, trapped in a cabin from which the air has been sucked out. Most of us, though, most of the time, face circumstances that are not this dire. We at least have room to breathe.

Before the age of air travel, a popular metaphor for a disastrous and out-of-control situation was the shipwreck, and it bred a very different ethic. The limit lay not in one’s strength and stamina, but in external factors: time and lifeboats. Adult males were enjoined to place gallantry ahead of self-care, and to say, “Women and children first.”(8)

A still older metaphor is more Biblical: it suggests that we are bound together indissolubly. Moses didn’t want to find his name in the Lord’s book of life unless it was accompanied by the names of all the Israelites (Exodus 32:32). Paul said the same (Romans 9:3), and explained why, writing to one of his most difficult congregations, “you are (nested) in our hearts, . . . whether we die or live, it will be together” (2 Corinthians 7:3, Amplified).

Here there is identification with no thought of detachment, and sacrifice rather than serenity or self-care. We are not seated side by side on a damaged airplane; we are members of one body, with Christ as our head.

This is not to deny that separations occur or that boundaries and a measure of detachment are often necessary.(9) But these are not our resting-place, nor do we particularly pray for them. We seek the place where we may “spend and be spent” (2 Corinthians 12:15), “poured out like a drink offering” (2 Timothy 4:6, NIV).

I have no wish to return to frantic overinvolvement, yet I feel called to something more than self-care. Perhaps many of us, like Moses, begin by being too engaged, too identified, too sure of our power to save. Situations blow up in our faces, and we end up in the wilderness, watching sheep mostly fend for themselves. It is reasonably comfortable there, and we are afraid even to contemplate the resumption of efforts to change a church and a community. But God has other plans.

How Shall We Pray?

Should we pray for serenity? We can and must commit our emotional pain to God, but it seems to me that He does not so much dispel it as make it bearable. Serenity is more characteristic of other religions, as John Stott observed:

 In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. (10)

At the cross, as we contemplate Jesus, we exchange all hope of serenity for submission to the redemptive will of God. We pray, as Jesus did, “Thy will be done.”

Do we even pray for peace? In the Latin Mass, the petition Dona nobis pacem (“Grant us peace”) is part of the Agnus Dei; it has been set to music by some of the great composers. But in the prayers of the Bible, it is surprising to find how rarely peace is mentioned. A rare exception is 2 Thessalonians 3:16:

 Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. (NIV)

Even this statement (like Numbers 6:26) is as much a blessing or benediction as a prayer, and it indicates why we need not plead for peace: When Jesus is present, His peace naturally fills the room and our hearts (John 20:19, 21, 26; 14:27). So Paul can say, more simply, “The God of peace be with you all” (Romans 15:33).

It cannot be wrong to pray for the growth in us of peace as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).(11) But we must remember that this is shalom peace, not some “personal” emotional state. God’s peace comes to transform and sanctify (1 Thessalonians 5:23), to rule in the hearts of an entire congregation and unite us in obedience (Colossians 3:15). The prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,” is better aligned with these realities than the simpler “Grant us peace.”

Lastly, from an earlier post on Biblical peace, I reiterate that it comes when we focus not on peace but on God Himself: “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3, NKJV; compare Romans 15:13).

Al-Anon Responds

When I shared a synopsis of these concerns at an Al-Anon meeting, I heard a number of thoughtful responses. One was that we don’t simply detach from the difficult people in our lives; rather, we aim at “detachment with love.” The love means that we remain connected, working toward compassion.

A couple of people said that they don’t view serenity as a goal. One commented that we pray for “serenity to accept,” and suggested that the emphasis falls on acceptance. This is supported by one version of the Serenity Prayer, asking for “grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change”; here, the object of our prayer is neither serenity nor acceptance, but grace.(12)

Perhaps, then, this is a tempest in a teapot; we are all seeking the same mercies, and I just lack the wisdom to discern the similarities. Privately, I normally pray the Lord’s Prayer; its petitions for daily bread, a practice of forgiveness, and deliverance from every temptation seem to me to sum up the basic relational needs of dependence on God as provider, committed love, and boundaries. But when I elaborate on relationships, my prayer is this:

 Lord, pour out the love of Jesus through me toward each creature I meet today. Give me His eyes of hope, to see them as one day complete in Christ. Release in me the groanings, cries, and words of His faith, committing both myself and them to Your care, submitting us to Your will, desiring above all else for us the grace of Your presence, now and always. Amen.

(1) Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA.: G. & C. Merriam, 1971).

(2) See, e.g., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 173-74, New Testament section, 464.

(3) Because John places the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the synoptic gospels set it within Passion week, some scholars conclude that there were two cleansings. It seems more likely to me that John has altered the sequence of events in order to juxtapose this incident with Jesus’ first miracle, changing water to wine at the Cana wedding feast. For the sake of all who wonder why God would multiply wine, John suggests that every one of Jesus’ miracles both reveals divine glory (2:11) and upholds divine honor. So we encounter the God of life-sustaining abundance side by side with the God of life-stilling holiness. But this is, of course, conjectural.

(4) See, e.g., How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics (Virginia Beach, VA.: Al-Anon Family Groups, 1995, 2008), 79.

(5) Discovering Choices: Recovery in Relationships (Virginia Beach, VA.: Al-Anon Family Groups, 2008), 150.

(6) Tim Stafford, “Imperfect Instrument: World Vision’s Founder Led a Tragic and Inspiring Life,” Christianity Today, Feb. 24, 2005, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/march/19.56.html; Steven Gertz, “Tsunami Catastrophe: ‘Let My Heart Be Broken . . .,’” Christian History, 2005, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2005/jan27.html. Quotations are from the Stafford article, only part of which may be viewed online by nonsubscribers.

(7) How Al-Anon Works, 87. A quick search turns up two books entitled Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First.

(8) Among others, the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody embraced this metaphor, stating in 1877, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’” See William G. McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (1959; Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 257.

(9) In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus does urge us to step back temporarily from “helping” others, not to put on oxygen masks, but to attend to our blind spots; not to give ourselves the love we deserve, but to recognize that we ourselves are hypocrites who cannot see and judge clearly.

(10) John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (1986; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 326-27.

(11) In fact, the serenity I need is often not peace but another fruit of the Spirit, patience, as Thomas a Kempis recognizes: “Those things that a man can not amend in himself or in others, he ought to suffer patiently, until God orders things otherwise” (The Imitation of Christ I.16.1 [ca. 1471], ed, Paul M. Bechtel, Moody Classics [Chicago: Moody, 1980, 2007], 62).

(12) See Fred R. Shapiro, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 28, 2014, available at http://chronicle.com/article/Who-Wrote-the-Serenity-Prayer-/146159/. This essay makes a convincing case that the prayer was composed by Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, though the “grace” wording seems to have been one of his late revisions. Shapiro prefers a version in which Niebuhr asks for courage before serenity, but here my sympathies lie with Al-Anon: when one lives with chaos, one is all too apt to be bold and hasty, reaching out to steady the ark. A good argument can also be made that the Serenity Prayer is closer to Stoicism than Christianity in its essential division of phenomena into two classes, things in our power and things not in our power; see, e.g., W.R. Dynes, “Origins of the Serenity Prayer,” Nov. 10, 2005, Dyneslines, http://dyneslines.blogspot.com/2005/11/origins-of-serenity-prayer.html.

When Pain Prays

In Romans 8, Paul talks about our struggles in prayer. The Amplified Version says: “the [Holy] Spirit comes to our aid and bears us up in our weakness, for we do not know what prayer to offer nor how to offer it worthily as we ought, but the Spirit Himself goes to meet our supplication and pleads in our behalf with unspeakable yearnings and groanings too deep for utterance” (8:26).

Just before this, Paul has said that the whole creation groans, in hope and frustration, because of the Fall (verse 22), and that we “groan inwardly” because we’re weighed down by the heaviness and bondage of life in these bodies (verse 23; 2 Corinthians 5:2, 4).

So there’s a kind of prayer that’s inarticulate, wordless. It puts us in a position of weakness, but it also connects us with all of creation. And the Spirit Himself meets us and moves in us with groanings.

The best-known example in Scripture occurs when the Israelites are slaves in Egypt. We read, “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant . . .” (Exodus 2:23-24, NIV). The Lord says to Moses, “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites” (6:5, NIV; Acts 7:34). They may not have the strength or even the faith to pray, but it doesn’t matter. God hears their groaning, and counts it as a prayer. It’s as if, sometimes, faith begins as pain.

Later, throughout the period of the judges in Israel, “the Lord had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them” (Judges 2:18, NIV). In the Psalms, we read, “‘Because of the oppression of the weak and the groanings of the needy, I will now arise,’ says the Lord” (12:5, NIV) and “The Lord looked down from His sanctuary on high . . . to hear the groans of the prisoners” (102:19-20, NIV). And Jesus Himself, on one occasion when He heals a deaf man, looks up to heaven and sighs or groans before saying, “Be opened” (Mark 7:34; compare 8:12).

In addition to groaning, there is crying — both tears and calling out, not words but a loud cry of pain. God hears Abel’s blood crying from the ground (Genesis 4:10), and the outcry against the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20-21; 19:13). When Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert and run out of water, and Hagar gives up, the angel of the Lord says, “God has heard the boy crying” (21:17, NIV) — not an eloquent prayer, but wailing. The psalmist says, “He will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help” (72:12, NIV; compare Exodus 22:23, 27). The Lord raises up a king because, He says to Samuel, “I have looked upon My people, for their cry has reached Me” (1 Samuel 9:16, NIV). David testifies, “. . . the Lord has heard my weeping” (Psalm 6:8, NIV), and believes that the Lord prizes his tears, storing them up in a bottle (56:8). Even Jesus, we are told, while He was on earth, offered prayers “with strong crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7, Amplified).

There is a balance here. When the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1, NIV), He doesn’t tell them to lie down and groan, or to start crying. He gives them the Lord’s Prayer; He teaches them words and attitudes. Paul says, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind” (1 Corinthians 14:15, NIV); Jesus instructs our minds. And yet, even with the Lord’s Prayer, as Paul says, we don’t know how to pray as we ought.

I suggest that there are times when something is being birthed in us, and we have no words, but we are interceding. When Nehemiah, far away in exile in Susa, heard about the miserable and ruined condition of Jerusalem, he says, “I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (1:4, NIV). From the dates that he gives, we know that this period of “some days” was four months long, roughly from November to March. At the end of it, he prays an eloquent prayer, in which he says, “Today, give me favor with the king” (verse 11). So he’s praying for four months, but, so far as we know, it’s only on the last day that he has any words. What does he pray with until then? Tears. Groans. Cries. Pain.

It’s often pointed out that the Book of Esther never refers to God, but the Jews — like Nehemiah — mourn and weep and fast (Esther 4:3). Only the fourth verb is different: where Nehemiah prays, Esther’s earlier contemporaries wail. Perhaps they lack the faith to pray, and perhaps their deliverance is one source of Nehemiah’s faith.

To be sure, not all pain is counted as prayer. The Lord warns some that they will cry out to Him and not be heard: His enemies (Psalm 18:41), those who rebel against His word (Deuteronomy 1:45) and break His covenant (Jeremiah 11:11; 1 Samuel 8:18), and wicked oppressors (Micah 3:4). He especially hears the righteous (Psalm 34:15, 17). In the Book of Job, it is axiomatic that He will not listen to the cry of the godless or the wicked (27:8-9; 35:12-13). Yet there is a sincere repentance that creates an exception (Hosea 8:2-3; 7:14): the Lord hears the entreaty of wicked King Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:33) as well as the weeping of good King Josiah (34:27). Always, we are brought back to Daniel 9:18: “We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy” (NIV).

Throughout the Old Testament, there is an uncertainty — a sense, sometimes aggrieved and sometimes despairing, that one’s groanings and cries and tears have so far fallen on deaf ears (Job 23:2; 24:12; Psalm 6:6; 102:5; Jeremiah 45:3; Lamentations 1:21; 3:8). In the New Testament, this is transformed, because Jesus hangs on the cross and is not delivered. His pain is redemptive, and believers’ pain is so much His that we can be said to “fill up” or “complete” His afflictions (Colossians 1:24). Some, at least, are granted “the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, NIV). Surely this number includes not only eloquent martyrs but many hidden “little ones” who groan with the pain of all creation.

I am brought to these reflections, in part, by observing my wife’s experiences following a stroke and severe aphasia. During her weeks in hospital, I often felt that my prayers were ineffective as I stumbled through the day. Not so with hers. Though she lacked all words at first, her complaints seemed to be a cry in the ear of God. For some time she was consumed by her own pain, but gradually she took in those around her. On good days we might visit another wordless patient, and they would embrace and weep together and hold hands. Then my wife would beckon to me to pray, and I would add words, declaring again the great and precious promises of God. But all the while I suspected that the words I prayed, like those we preach, are more obedient “foolishness” than persuasion (1 Corinthians 1:21), and that the real work of prayer lay in the loving, hopeful pain-sharing.

We love to quote the words of the Lord in Isaiah 57:15: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite [Hebrew dakka: contrite, crushed, pulverized, shattered, broken](1) and lowly in spirit” (NIV). But how does He dwell in such a vessel? Frequently, as pain.

We are not heard for our perfect words, or our many tears, or our deep groans. We are heard because God listens, and because He Himself stirs even our yearnings and cries. So we don’t give up; we say with David, “All my longings lie open before You, O Lord; my sighing [or “groaning”] is not hidden from You” (Psalm 38:9, NIV). And Isaiah assures us: “the Lord longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion. . . . How gracious He will be when you cry for help! As soon as He hears, He will answer you” (30:18-19, NIV).

(1) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 193-94.

Jonathan Haidt and the Possibility of Moral Instruction

In The Righteous Mind (2012) and The Happiness Hypothesis (2006),(1) social psychologist Jonathan Haidt goes to the heart of today’s polarized, profoundly unsatisfying disputes over right and wrong, justice, and fairness. He argues that we become so obstinate and so heated because none of us possesses a reasoned morality. Rather, we take up intuitive positions, and only then does our reason come in, to justify and defend our gut commitments.

Haidt proposes six foundational moral intuitions: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. In The Righteous Mind, he suggests that each of these evolved in response to a particular adaptive challenge facing human social groups. In this review, I focus almost entirely on his discussion of the sixth foundation, sanctity.

A Reductive View of Religion

First, it should be said that Haidt extends a rather large olive branch to religious people. Although he describes himself as “a Jewish atheist” (HH 183), he contends (against such New Atheists as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) that religions have been adaptive — for groups, not individuals, increasing trustworthiness and cooperation (RM 255-73). Religions may be primitive “moral exoskeletons” (RM 269), but it’s not yet clear that societies can thrive without them.

This qualified acceptance of religion slips a bit when Haidt considers origins. He acknowledges that such an undertaking is more speculation than science:

I didn’t want to make the classic mistake of amateur evolutionary theorists, which is to pick a trait and then ask: “Can I think of a story about how this trait might once have been adaptive?” The answer to that question is almost always yes because reasoning can take you wherever you want to go. (RM 122)

Yet to understand sanctity and religion, Haidt starts with the emotion of disgust; then, groping in the opposite direction, he discovers a vague “uplift” or “elevation” (HH 185-199; RM 13, 146-53), which he equates with agape love and the Holy Spirit (HH 199). Add in vastness and beauty, and one can even speak of “awe” and “transcendence” (HH 200-06; RM 227-28), emotions illustrated in both books by quotations from Emerson and Darwin responding to nature.

This is a good try, and a well-intentioned one, but I suspect that any religious person must feel let down by so thin an account of religious experience. Scientists are inclined to believe that the most economical explanation of any phenomenon must be the best one. If you come home and find your windows broken, it makes sense to think first of vandalism. But if you don’t find any brickbats, you might at least consider the possibility of an earthquake — especially if there are old records of a fault line running through the neighborhood.

Is any other account of religion possible for the scientist or social scientist? It is if we look back to an old but influential book. In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto finds at the core of religious experience a Presence that he calls “the numinous.” It is felt as awful and overpoweringly majestic, raising in us the consciousness that we are but creatures; at the same time, it is attractive and fascinating, desired and sought for its own sake. (2). Primitive religion does make much of disgust, loathing, uncleanness, and impurity (122-24), but, says Otto, these of themselves could never give rise to religion and the sacred; rather, they can only be explained on the basis of the numinous (124, 132-35). The daunting aspect of the numinous becomes moralized as justice (Haidt’s “liberty” and “fairness”), and the alluring aspect as love (Haidt’s “care”) (140).

We can see this, at times, when the Bible speaks of what is loathsome and impure. It is after the Lord speaks out of the whirlwind that Job says, “I am of small account and vile” (Job 40:4, Amplified; Hebrew qalal: light, trifling, contemptible, cursed) (3) and, later, “I despise [Hebrew maas] myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6, NIV). Isaiah wishes that the Lord would come down to earth as long ago, blazing like fire, doing awesome deeds, making mountains and nations tremble (Isaiah 64:1-3). But His present anger is worse; He hides His face.

How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean [Hebrew tame],
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:5-6, NIV)

There is an echo here of Isaiah 6:5, when the prophet has seen the holy Lord:

Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone and ruined [Hebrew damah: also destroyed, cut off], (4) because I am a man of unclean [Hebrew tame] lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean [Hebrew tame] lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Amplified)

Sanctity does not begin with feelings of disgust and repugnance, which by reaction find their way to uplift and elevation. Rather, sanctity appears whenever the Holy makes itself known, and the disgust that (among many other emotions) results is first of all a revulsion at aspects of oneself.

I am not sure whether there is anything “adaptive” about so shattering an encounter. But it lies at the root of all religion and all specifically religious morality. Haidt is convinced that psychology can improve on ancient wisdom (HH xi, xiii, 109), but, without the Holy, all of us — social scientists or not — are like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, (5) gazing at shadows. Job and Isaiah have seen the Sun.

On Learning and Teaching Morality

Still, Haidt has much to teach religious people, particularly in his insistence that morality has a non-rational basis in our intuitions. We know too well the frustration of being drawn into arguments over choices and behaviors, self-evidently wrong to us, but just as self-evidently right or neutral to others. Reason and persuasion can accomplish little, and these exchanges usually end with the religious people calling their neighbors immoral (or worse), and the neighbors calling the religious people close-minded and intolerant (or worse).

Haidt argues that these divisions persist because of different orientations toward the foundational moral intuitions. Conservatives value all six more or less equally, but liberals emphasize care and liberty, while libertarians build almost exclusively on liberty (RM 295-309).

Can’t we change? Can’t we listen to and learn from one another? In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt takes the position that one must change one’s “repertoire of available thoughts” — and that willpower won’t accomplish this. He discusses three effective methods: meditation, which can “change automatic thought processes”; cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck’s deliberate challenging of negative thoughts; and Prozac, which works rather mysteriously to transform personalities (35-44). In The Righteous Mind, he takes a different approach, acknowledging that other people influence us and cause us to change our intuitions and judgments, both through reasoning (which may trigger new intuitions for us) and simply by expressing their preferences. Private reflection, my ability to change my own judgments, he believes to have a much lower success rate (46-49).

This is a big shift in books written six years apart, and Haidt doesn’t account for it. But even his later view offers little support for traditional moral instruction. Our moral intuitions and judgments, he says, are not shaped or changed by lectures on moral principles, nor by stories of virtue rewarded and vice punished, nor even — more surprisingly — by role models and good examples. There must be interaction, a dialogue; it is another’s response to my intuitions that has the power to challenge and change me.

I submit that there is some truth in this, truth that churches and Christians should not ignore. By and large, we do not succeed in persuading others through our moral reasoning. The lives we intend as exemplary strike others as priggish and self-righteous, lived inside a sanctimonious bubble. We are much better at lecturing than at listening and responding. We are not regarded as wise, but as inflexible.

If we devoted ourselves to the pursuit of Biblical wisdom, it might change us, both in some ways that Haidt discusses and in some that are not on his radar at all. Here, I will touch on five aspects of Biblical wisdom.

1. The Fear of God

Again and again, the Bible emphasizes a theme stated most memorably in Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (RSV).(6)

When we read this verse, we tend to interpret “fear” as “reverence,” but we run the risk of diluting the Biblical meaning. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1971) defines “reverence” as “profound adoring awed respect,” but the fact remains that I can revere Shakespeare. The fear of God comes closer to Otto’s sense of creature-consciousness in the face of overwhelming majesty. In the Presence of the Holy One, I am not merely hushed and respectful; I am shaken and very nearly annihilated.

This fear does not lead directly or logically to a set of moral principles and behaviors. In Scripture, it is only because God Almighty chooses to make His ways known that we have commandments and statutes; apart from this, we are left dependent on the moment-by-moment revelation of His will, and might like Abraham be called to sacrifice a child (Genesis 22). Initially, the Presence of the Holy One has a wholly negative force, morally speaking: it stops us in our tracks.

We see this in the account of a pagan king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It begins when he has a dream that terrifies him (Daniel 4:5): a “holy one” warns that he will be stripped, scattered, his mind changed “so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes and sets over them the lowliest of men” (4:17, NIV). The prophet Daniel, who is also terrified by the dream (4:19), urges the king to respond with a thorough reformation in moral behavior: “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquility” (4:27, RSV).

We are not told whether Nebuchadnezzar pays any heed to these words. But 12 months later, the warning is fulfilled when he privately claims for himself the glory that belongs to God. He endures a period of helpless madness. When his sanity is abruptly restored,

I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified Him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; . . . All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as He pleases . . . Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of Heaven, because everything He does is right and all His ways are just. And those who walk in pride He is able to humble. (4:34-35, 37, NIV)

The story ends here. It is complete with the acknowledgment, the heartfelt surrender before the Most High. It doesn’t require (what we so often insist upon) a consequent, Ebenezer-Scrooge-like life of good works. So too, in Psalm 49, the “words of wisdom” that “give understanding” (verse 3) are largely a recognition that all men must die: something to halt us, not to direct our steps.

2. The Problem of Holiness

Fear stops us cold; then it wants to move in, set up shop in our lives. The problem at the center of Israel’s calling is first presented to Moses as a living riddle. How can a bush — dry and wooden, considered little more than fuel — burn and not be consumed? (Exodus 3:2). Even so, how can the incandescently holy God dwell in the midst of people — frail and fallen, bent on sinning, mortal as dust — and not destroy them? In times of judgment, this is the cry of every heart: “He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire that consumes everything around it” (Lamentations 2:3, NIV). “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?” (Isaiah 33:14, NIV).

After the incident of the golden calf, the Lord offers Moses and the Israelites a strange proposition: He will send an angel to guide them into the promised land, and He will drive out every rival; “but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you” (Exodus 33:3, RSV). It is the one safe course, and yet the people mourn, and Moses pleads, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here,” from the wilderness (33:15, NIV). This is the attractive quality of the Holy One. Even when Moses and all his generation except for two men do in fact die, “consumed by Your anger” (Psalm 90:7, NIV), he doesn’t regret the decision; looking back over their walk with the Lord, he exclaims, “Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?” (Deuteronomy 4:32, NIV).

This is the paradox of knowing, grounded in the One who is real, and of being so known as to be almost obliterated. His servants “delight in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3, NIV; compare Nehemiah 1:11; Psalm 112:1). Even rebellious kings are enjoined, “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11, NIV), for His Presence is “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

Our fear of the Lord extends to His words (Psalm 119:120) — not rules taught by men (Isaiah 29:13), but whatever declares His ways, helping us to hate and shun evil (Proverbs 8:13; 3:7; Job 1:1, 8), the wildness that seeks to live apart from Him. So our fear deepens because He is Just (Job 37:23-24), because He is forgiving (Psalm 130:4), because He keeps promises (Psalm 119:38), because He is not arbitrary and implacable. Fear leads to trust (Exodus 14:31; Psalm 115:11).

Of course the burning bush points to Jesus, in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9, NIV). The blazing fire in Him illumines and heals instead of destroying, and cannot be quenched even by death. The news of His rising awakens “fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8). The New Testament, no less than the Old, is permeated with the fear of God (e.g., Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1; 1 Peter 1:17). It is not a fear of punishment (1 John 4:18) — any more than, as Satan charged, it is a self-seeking servility (Job 1:9) — but it continues to tremble at His word (Philippians 2:12; Ephesians 6:5).

Truly to fear Him requires a changed heart: “. . . give me an undivided heart that I may fear Your name” (Psalm 86:11, NIV; compare Jeremiah 32:29). This leads to a thoroughgoing transformation, summed up in the calling, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2, RSV; compare 20:7; 1 Peter 1:15-16). We may even become fearsome to animals (Genesis 9:2) and to others (Genesis 35:5; Psalm 105:38; Deuteronomy 2:25; Esther 8:17).

3. The Wisdom from Above

Nebuchadnezzar goes out of his mind, while Moses, because of a hissy fit, is denied entry to the promised land; yet both affirm, not merely that the Most High God has the right to do what He pleases, but that what He does is right:

He is the Rock, His works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He. (Deuteronomy 32:4, NIV)

Over time, those who know God come to see that, though His ways frequently astonish, ultimately they are good. He binds Himself to His creation, keeps promises, shows steadfast love. So, in the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom personified speaks as His first creation, the foundation of all that He has made and done:

The Lord created me at the beginning of His work, the first of His acts of old. . . . I was beside Him, like a master workman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him always, rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. (8:22, 30-31, RSV)

The words of God come with power, “making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7; compare 119:98-99). In its opening invitation, the Book of Proverbs expands upon these benefits: wisdom brings prudence, discretion, discernment, a disciplined life, and power to do “what is right and just and fair” (1:2-6, NIV). But the first step is one of correction; Wisdom says, “If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you . . .” (1:23, NIV).

Who wouldn’t want to be the confidant of God? Always, though, this comes at a steep price. No less than Nebuchadnezzar, we must turn from madness and surrender our lives. Throughout Scripture, God the Holy One confounds all human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:19-20, quoting Isaiah 29:14; compare 1 Corinthians 3:18-20). No one is more to be pitied than the man “wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:12). When Jesus rejoices that the Father has hidden the truths of salvation “from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21; Matthew 11:25, NIV), He is fleshing out Proverbs 11:2: “with humility comes wisdom” (NIV).

If humility invites wisdom, wisdom produces further humility (James 3:13). James offers a stark contrast between a so-called wisdom that is earthly and even demonic, characterized by jealous desire and ambitious self-promotion, and the heavenly wisdom that “is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, fully of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:14-17, NIV). It is not intellectual mastery so much as a standing in the Presence, and then, like the Fire that desires to come near without consuming, a bearing with. As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV).

4. Written on the Heart

Do we, then, not know what is right? Paul’s answer is that we know and don’t know. Rebellion darkens our minds (Romans 1:21) and sears or corrupts our consciences (1 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:15). Only as we come to know God can we learn His ways and walk in them.

Precisely here, Haidt misunderstands the Bible. He believes that the Biblical writers hold what he calls the “nativist” position on the origins of morality: “that moral knowledge is native in our minds. It comes preloaded . . . in our God-inscribed hearts” (RM 5). In support he quotes Jeremiah 31:33: “I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (RM 324n.). But, of course, Jeremiah is not talking about a preloading; he is describing a new work that God will do to change existing minds and hearts. Compare Ezekiel’s promise: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27, NIV).

In fact, the Bible doesn’t fit any of Haidt’s schools of thought on the origins of morality: nativist (innate), empiricist (from experience), rationalist (self-constructed), or his own view, combining innateness with social learning (RM 5, 26). Biblical wisdom is learned through a process of renewal. The Holy Spirit becomes our teacher (John 16:12-15; 1 John 2:27), using the Scriptures to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15, NIV). The interaction that challenges my moral intuitions is first of all a dialogue with God.

Perhaps for some people these exchanges are like the moral discourses of Proverbs: a Father earnestly laboring to inoculate the next generation against both waywardness and snares. For some, they may add up to a comprehensive set of moral rules and principles, a Torah or way, as Moses describes:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, . . . Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6, NIV)

Even in the Old Testament, though, the way is much more than a code of laws. As Haidt says, ancient wisdom relies less on rationalistic logic than on evocative maxims and role models that address our emotional, intuitive side (HH 159-60). The Bible is filled with narratives, parables, riddles. But a listing of genres still doesn’t do justice to the richness of the Biblical conversation between God and humanity.

In the Book of Hosea, the prophet’s marital woes usher us into a revelation of the heart of God. Like a jealous husband, He takes us on an emotional journey, marked by sharp turns and sudden outbursts. He no longer loves Israel; He has always loved her and cannot now give her up. The Israelites are no longer His people; they will always be His people, and He will redeem them. He will scatter them to the winds; He will plant them and create a fruitful vine. And when this emotional roller coaster shudders to a stop, the last words of the book are these:

Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them. (Hosea 14:9, NIV)

This book resists summary and systematization. We just have to read it, again and again. It’s as if God has set aside Proverbs 1:23, and, although we have not heeded His rebuke, has poured out His heart to us anyway. Wisdom and discernment grow in us as we share this journey with Him. We feel, ever so dimly, His pain, His hope, His love; and all the while, His ways are being written on our hearts.

5. Walking with the Wise

Yet there is also, in the Bible, a form of social learning. God in His kindness gives us wise and godly people, at least a few of them, though we may have to seek them out and attach ourselves to them. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20, NIV). I take it that this “walk” is less a matter of formal instruction, and even of words, than most of us would prefer. It is especially an opportunity to observe another’s journey through life: how he or she handles people, responds to disappointment and injustice, spends time, makes choices, fears and loves God. Remembering such mentors, we “[c]onsider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith,” knowing that Jesus — their Lord and ours — doesn’t change with times and circumstances (Hebrews 13:7-8, NIV). They are not perfect but, as members of Christ’s Body, they make some of His ways visible to us: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NIV, and often).

Sometimes these relationships involve conflict and confrontation, and some of our most effective teachers are difficult people. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV). This is a slow, painful, rasping and grinding process. I may need to receive correction (Proverbs 15:31, and often), or the other may just grate on my nerves, my pride, my willful self-sufficiency.

Ultimately, we must learn from one another because we are being fitted together into one Body, working cooperatively to reveal God’s “manifold wisdom” (Ephesians 3:10). Our wisdom is corporate, springing up as we meet to worship and serve. The “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 2:7, RSV) is made known in this, that together “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16, emphasis added).

Where Then Is Wisdom?

More than 50 years ago, Watchman Nee wrote:

Nothing has done greater damage to our Christian testimony than our trying to be right and demanding right of others. We become preoccupied with what is and what is not right. We ask ourselves, Have we been justly or unjustly treated? and we think thus to vindicate our actions. But that is not our standard. The whole question for us is one of cross-bearing. You ask me, “Is it right for someone to strike my cheek?” I reply, “Of course not! But the question is, do you only want to be right?” As Christians our standard of living can never be “right or wrong,” but the Cross.(7)

Haidt reminds us how much we focus on moral behavior (our own and others’), and how much we rely on formal, verbal moral instruction to shape it. A better and more Biblical course would be to pursue wisdom.

Wisdom is a paradox. Like all gifts of the Spirit, it often seems to benefit everyone except the recipient. If one tries to grasp and hold it, it evaporates. It must be received afresh every day, in each new situation. When the manna from heaven was stored, “it bred worms, became foul, and stank” (Exodus 16:20, Amplified); the same thing generally happens when, apart from the Spirit’s prompting, we take the word or example that “worked” in one context and mechanically try to apply it in another. It must be worn lightly, for God is ever choosing the least likely person in the room to administer correction or deliverance.

Wisdom is standing in the Presence of the Holy One in fear and trembling. It is the humility that comes from acknowledging that one has lived long in a darkened madness, with the mind of an animal. It is the Cross, and dying, and being raised to serve within a corporate Body.

In the end, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ is our only wisdom — “that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30, NIV). He declares us just and washes away our uncleanness; He leads us through the valley of sanctification; He will deliver us from every trace of bondage and decay. He is all we have, and all we need.

(1) Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic-Perseus, 2006); Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon-Random House, 2012). In the citations that follow, I will abbreviate these works as HH and RM.
(2) Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational (1917), transl. John W. Harvey (1923), 2nd ed. (1950; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1958), 8-32.
(3) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 886; Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 53.
(4) Brown, Driver, Briggs, 198.
(5) Republic, Book 7.
(6) Compare Proverbs 1:7; 3:7; 14:16; 15:33; Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Micah 6:9. In Proverbs 30:3, Agur confesses that he is deficient wisdom because he lacks (adequate) knowledge of the Holy One.
(7) Watchman Nee, Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 20; emphasis in original.

“Radical”: Two and a Half Caveats

David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (1) is admirable in its intentions. And the book is bold in challenging American Christians’ complacency and love of comforts. Perhaps the fact that I found myself arguing, on almost every page, testifies to the effectiveness of Platt’s presentation. Still, I object to his articulation of Biblical priorities and a Biblical program at three main points.

Issue 1: What Does Radical Abandonment to Jesus Look Like?

This is the “half” caveat. I commend Radical for insisting that we cannot have Christ and self-fulfillment. Yet somehow, as I read it, the emphasis seemed to fall on all the wrong notes. To be blunt, there is a great deal in the book about what one must abandon in order to follow Christ, and much less about the Christ who calls.

I can demonstrate this best by contrasting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach in the opening chapters of his classic work The Cost of Discipleship.(2) Bonhoeffer takes up, in turn, four Gospel texts, each of which issues a challenge, and each of which reveals Christ.(3)

  1. Jesus’ call to Levi in Mark 2:14 is simply, “Follow me” (COD 57); in Mark 1:17 and John 21:22, He issues the same call to Peter (45). This word “gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after” (58). There is only Jesus: “When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person” (59). His call is always this stark and this uncompromising.
  2. In Luke 9:57-62, after Jesus has resolutely set out for Jerusalem and the Cross, He converses briefly with three would-be disciples, none of whom ends up following Him. Because Jesus is God incarnate, He is able to speak a word that is a call, a word that makes faith possible. But faith must obey (60-63).
  3. Similarly, when the rich young man approaches Him with an academic question (Matthew 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-31), Jesus challenges him to make an irrevocable break with his present life, and to embrace “adherence to the person of Jesus Christ and fellowship with him.” He calls him to “spontaneous obedience” (70-76, 84-85).
  4. These passages prepare us for Mark 8:31-38, the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus. He “is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection,” and we must join Him there: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The specifics are different for each of us; indeed, the call makes us individuals: “Every man is called separately, and must follow alone” (86-94).

Platt, who cites Bonhoeffer (Radical 14), quotes the same four passages (7-11). But he takes them in a different order, and passes quickly from one to another. Because he is concerned about American materialism, he spends the most time on the rich young man, even though eventually he must admit that Jesus’ words on this occasion are not a literal command for everyone (119-20). In an impatient and distracted age, it is tempting to be more concise than Bonhoeffer, but the difference is striking. In The Cost of Discipleship, we meet a suffering and majestic Christ, who makes His way to each of us to speak an empowering word, a call that is personal and different for every hearer. We hear Him call others, and consider; at last, inescapably, He calls to me. In Radical, we go quickly to the bottom line: we read about abandoning everything and “risking it all.”

Another way of stating this is to recall a point made well by Watchman Nee: that Christians must sit, rest, before they can walk. “For Christianity begins not with a big DO, but with a big DONE. Thus Ephesians opens with the statement that God has ‘blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ’ (1:3) and we are invited at the very outset to sit down and enjoy what God has done for us; not to set out to try and attain it for ourselves.”(4)

Bonhoeffer sees this: “Discipleship is bound to Christ as the Mediator, and where it is properly understood, it necessarily implies faith in the Son of God as the Mediator. Only the Mediator, the God-Man, can call men to follow him” (COD 59). Though it may seem paradoxical, though it may occur in a moment of time, the resting of faith precedes the step of following. And the resting of faith may entail a certain amount of letting go.

But Platt does not dwell on the Christ who calls. His discipleship has no sitting and resting, only walking and striving.

There is a tension in Bonhoeffer: although Christ’s call makes one an individual, “It is impossible to become a new man as a solitary individual” (COD 242). One must become a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. (And so Bonhoeffer would go on to write Life Together.) With his less individuated call, Platt might have more to say about corporate discipleship, right from the start. Yet, as we shall see, he presents, not so much a Body in which diverse members work together, but a likeminded fellowship in which individuals march in lockstep. Even his closing challenge, the Radical Experiment, asks one to decide how to give and where to serve before committing to a church (Radical 218-19).

Issue 2: Does God Exalt Our Inability?

Again, I am in sympathy with the main thrust of Radical’s third chapter: that believers must depend on the power of God instead of trusting in our own wisdom, strength, and resources. Jonathan Edwards placed a great emphasis on the Christian’s (and the creature’s) “absolute dependence” on God; this doctrine was a cornerstone of his theology, his preaching, and his devotional life.(5)

Unfortunately, Platt shapes his discussion as a response to a definition of the American dream by James Truslow Adams, which, paraphrased, assumes that “our greatest asset is our ability” (46). So the chapter’s thesis becomes: “In direct contradiction to the American dream, God actually delights in exalting our inability” (47).

In fact, God delights in exalting human weakness; as He says to Paul, His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Some weaknesses are inabilities, but many are not — the youth of Samuel and Jeremiah and Timothy, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the lowly status of the shepherds who were witnesses to the Incarnation and of the women who were witnesses to the Resurrection, and Christ’s offensive death (“crucified in weakness,” 2 Corinthians 13:4) are all examples of Biblical weakness. Weakness can coexist with great ability; the same Paul who rejoices that God chooses the foolish and weak and lowly (1 Corinthians 1:27-28) is himself a brilliant thinker, preacher, writer, teacher, and leader; and similar claims could be made for Moses, David, Solomon, and others.

This may seem like a quibble over words, but words matter. If every natural ability is a spiritual hindrance or an idol, no one should go to seminary, or even to school. There is no reason for “training” to become “equipped” (2 Timothy 3:16-17); we are better off helpless. Such ideas have surfaced from time to time in church history, never with good results.

In the Bible, we find that God is graciously pleased to give His people abilities, from “the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18) to the New Testament gifts of the Spirit, which are entrusted to us like abilities for us to steward or administer, though of course “with the strength God provides” (1 Peter 4:10-11). So far from leaving us helpless, He makes some among us “competent as ministers” (2 Corinthians 3:6, NIV) and “qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2, NIV).(6)

Platt quotes the words of Jesus in John 15:5: “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (46). By themselves, though, these words invite passivity, quietism, even testing God by demanding that He act for us. Therefore, Christians typically balance this text with another one, Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (NIV; RSV has “in Him”; Amplified “I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me [I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me; I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency]”).

As pastors know, there is a creative tension between these two texts. When I am proud and overconfident, I need to hear John 15:5, and recognize afresh my absolute dependence on the Savior. But when I am crushed and in despair (or, like Paul in prison, tempted to discontentment and fretfulness), Philippians 4:13 reminds me to persevere — and perhaps even to take godly initiative.

We desperately need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, more than all the talents and gifts imaginable. But because God is good, He doesn’t glory in our inability. He is the loving Father who teaches us to walk (Hosea 11:3). He makes us able, qualified, and competent, even as He exalts and fills our weaknesses.

Issue 3: Is Every Christian Commanded to Go to the Nations?

The bulk of Radical is concerned with the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (RSV).

It is an important focus, ever timely. But after a horrific story about a church that dismisses the unsaved (or at least any who are overseas), Platt makes this statement: “Jesus commands us to go. He has created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity” (64).

If Matthew 28 were the whole of the New Testament, this conclusion would be inescapable. As it is, we have the Book of Acts and the epistles, which help us understand what “radical devotion” to Jesus’ words looked like soon after they were spoken, and what it might look like today. What do we find? Paul doesn’t urge his converts to go on to the next city, but to lead quiet lives and work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Writing to his fellow missionaries Timothy and Titus, he focuses on elders in each congregation to provide stability.

According to Platt, “Jesus himself has not merely called us to go to all nations; he has . . . commanded us to go to all nations. We have taken this command, though, and reduced it to a calling — something that only a few people receive” (72-73).

Yet in Acts 13:2, while the church at Antioch is worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Already, perhaps 20 years after the Great Commission, it is a calling. Moreover, the calling comes to two individuals through the whole congregation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t rebuke everyone else for not following suit; their job is to hear, commission, send off, support, and pray. Not everyone goes, just as not everyone baptizes. The Great Commission is corporate, addressed to the entire Body of Christ; within each congregation, some are called to go, and some to send. Not for nothing does Scripture record David’s edict that the soldiers left behind, taking charge of supplies, would share equally in the reward with those who bore the heat of battle (1 Samuel 30:21-25).

Anyone who has lived on a mission field has observed the consequences of “All must go” teaching: uncalled, ill-equipped missionaries who crash and burn, harming themselves and the work.

Chapter 7 of Radical adds another element: the terrible urgency of missions work, because people are dying and going to hell. Platt writes, “We are the plan of God, and there is no plan B” (156).

I hesitate to take issue with this point, because this sense of urgency has helped to motivate some of the greatest Christian missionaries. Amy Carmichael was haunted by an image of people streaming over a precipice, while Christians sat by making daisy chains.(7) But we must ask whether it is Biblical to make this our overriding concern.

Even though Paul was called preach “where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:20), and lived “so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), he sometimes allowed other priorities to intrude. Instead of going on to unsaved Spain, he set sail for Jerusalem in the interests of church unity (Romans 15: 24-28). He was not deterred by the thought that thousands in Spain would die and go into eternity before he could return. Similarly, we read of the Holy Spirit preventing him from entering certain regions (Acts 16:6-7). If all that mattered were the presence of unsaved souls, such decisions would be positively immoral.

The “perishing souls” argument raises awful questions. Whey didn’t Jesus come earlier? Why didn’t He visit the large population of China? Why were Native Americans cut off from the Gospel for more than 1,000 years?

Against all such speculations, the Bible declares that God sent His Son “when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4, NIV), and that Christ died “at just the right time” (Romans 5:6, NIV). Jesus begins the Great Commission with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18, NIV; compare John 17:2). He is the general, opening and shutting doors; there are times and seasons that only He understands.

So when Platt says that I don’t need to inquire concerning God’s will for my life, because the answer is the same for all (159-60), I respectfully disagree. It is more Biblical to pray that we may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, so that we may live a life worthy of Him and know Him (Colossians 1:9-12).

I saw the consequences of overriding missionary zeal at one church, where every sermon emphasized Christians’ duty to bring their unsaved friends to church. One Sunday I brought an unsaved friend, and he listened without interest to a sermon on Christians’ duty to bring their unsaved friends to church. Meanwhile, church members struggled with addictions, failing marriages, and every temptation and trial, but no help was extended, because all that mattered were the perishing souls. In a way, that pastor cared a great deal for people — up until the moment when they joined his flock.

The Great Commission also colors Platt’s view of discipleship. Against James 3:1 (“Let not many of you become teachers,” RSV), Platt says that “Jesus’ command for us to make disciples envisions a teaching role for all of us” (100). Worse, he advises that, when I listen to a sermon, I should ask not What can I get out of this? but How can I listen to his Word so that I am equipped to teach this Word to others? (102).

This is poor counsel. The words of Jesus are spirit and life, but only as they are believed (John 6:63-64). If I do not sit under the Word and allow it to prune and change me, I am in danger of becoming one who preaches Christ insincerely or impurely, for effect (Philippians 1:17). Jesus doesn’t tell a parable of the sower and his little son, who is also learning to sow; rather, the sower interacts with soil — which, in the wisdom of God, has its own way of producing and dispersing seeds, without itself becoming a sower.

Conclusion

To present a “radical” Christian call to the modern world, it is not enough to attack wealth or comfort or even complacency. One must strike at the root of individualism, calling people into a community that is diverse and differentiated, yet intimate and deeply united. Platt ends by sketching this (204-07), but it cannot be tacked on at the end. Barnabas and Saul receive their calling to the Great Commission, or at least receive the confirmation that equips them to walk it out, as members of a worshiping community (Acts 13:2).

I repeat, Radical is written with good intentions. I hope that David Platt will write a better book one day. In the meantime, though, I urge believers to spend their time reading the radical calls of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jonathan Edwards.

(1) Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010.
(2) 1937; transl. R.H. Fuller, rev. Irmgard Booth, 1959; New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 1995.
(3) Bonhoeffer also discusses the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (76-78), but this is largely to clarify and reinforce a point made about Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man.
(4) Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 2.
(5) See Edwards’ first published sermon, God Glorified in Man’s Dependence (1731; full text online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.dependence.2.html. A search for “absolute dependence” at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center website, http://edwards.yale.edu/, yields 36 occurrences. Within 50 years of Edwards’ sermon, American declared independence. In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson exalted “Self-Reliance,” and in 1931, just 200 years after the sermon, J.T. Adams made the statement about the American dream that Platt quotes.
(6) The Greek word in both verses, hikanos, speaks to ability: it can be translated adequate, qualified (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.], 3:175), competent, worthy (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996], New Testament section, 3).
(7) Any Wilson Carmichael, Things As They Are: Mission Work in Southern India (1903; London: Morgan and Smith, 1905), 41-44; Amy Carmichael, Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship (1932; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1952), 339, 348.

Holy Hands

In Exodus 17:8-15, we seem to have a picture of intercessory prayer. The Israelites have just left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea when they are attacked by the Amalekites. Joshua musters and leads an Israelite army, but Moses, Aaron, and Hur go up a hill. Israel wins the battle as long as Moses holds up his hands, but they start to lose whenever he lowers his hands. He gets tired, so he ends up sitting on a stone, with Aaron and Hur holding up his hands, until the enemy is overcome.

This is a curious story.(1) In the first place, it stands alone. Though the Israelites take the field as a ragtag band of former slaves, this victory appears to have no lasting impact on their military strategy. Even when they are defeated in later battles (e.g., Number 14:45; Joshua 7), we don’t read of anyone saying, “It’s because we forgot to station someone on a hill with hands upraised.”

Moreover, on the face of it, the story doesn’t quite make sense. There are three men; why can’t they take turns lifting their hands? With 20-minute shifts, Moses would have a 40-minute rest break every hour. Aaron, after all, has been the human agent in some of the signs and plagues (Exodus 7:9-10, 12, 19-20; 8:5-6, 16-17), and he will be high priest. Why does it have to be Moses’ hands?

A Staff of Authority

So I went back to the text, and noticed a couple of points I had forgotten. Before the battle, Moses announces that he’ll stand atop the hill with the staff of God in his hands (Exodus 17:9). The staff isn’t mentioned again, but its presence would help to explain why his hands grow heavy.

This staff is the one Moses used as a shepherd. When God called Moses, He asked, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). It represents the natural authority Moses had developed. For in the Old Testament, that is what happens: God takes a man as he is and empowers him for service. The Law can’t change what’s in him. So when the Lord tells Moses to throw his staff on the ground, it becomes a snake, and he flees from it (4:3); there is sin inside. God shows him how to master it, for a time: take it by the tail and it becomes a staff. But there is an uneasy relationship between the calling and the vessel — just as, in a central symbol, Moses wonders how a woody bush can burn and not be consumed. This is the great question for Israel under the Law: Can the divine Presence, aflame with holiness, rest upon and dwell among stiff and dried out men? Won’t fallen humanity inevitably be consumed (33:3, 5)?

The staff is used in five of the ten plagues (Exodus 7:19-20; 8:5, 16-17; 9:23; 10:13); it becomes a sign of the authority of Moses and of God. At the Red Sea, Moses is told to lift his staff and stretch out his hand to divide the waters (14:16, 21). Presumably, he must hold the staff for some time, and not just wave it once, but we don’t read that he grows tired as in the battle. When we assert the Lord’s authority over nature, it yields, but men resist.

Later, the staff gets Moses into trouble. Told to take the staff but merely speak to a rock in order to obtain water, he instead strikes the rock with the staff, twice. He is rebuked for not trusting, and told that he will not enter Canaan (Numbers 20:7-12; contrast Exodus 17:5-6). Natural authority not only becomes burdensome and weary; it also oversteps.

Echoes of Empty Hands

Yet the battle with Amalek is won. Moses’ actions do establish some small precedents:

  • He sits on a stone, a rich symbol of Christ. The stone of stumbling (Isaiah 8:14; Daniel 2:34-35, 45; Zechariah 12:3; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:8), the stone rejected by the builders, becomes the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16; Luke 20:17-18; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-7). Moses rests on the intercessory work of Jesus.
  • Like Jesus, Moses is on a hill, lifted up. But Jesus is also Joshua, down on the plain in the heat of the battle. When Moses raises his hands, he is flanked by two men who support him. When Jesus’ arms are stretched out, He dies between two sinners (Matthew 27:38) who can’t support themselves or Him; He is “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
  • After the battle, Moses sets up an altar and declares a new name for God, Jehovah Nissi, The Lord Is My Rallying Standard — because, he says obscurely, hands were lifted to His throne (Exodus 17:15-16). This may be echoed in Isaiah 11:10-12, where the Root of Jesse stands as a banner and nations rally to Him, while the Lord stretches out His hand to gather His remnant. Moses acknowledges that the Lord Himself acts to rally His people. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself,” says Jesus (John 12:32, NIV). Like Moses, He summons our weakness, invites our weariness, solicits an offering of empty hands; “crucified in weakness” (2 Corinthians 13:4), He lays in the dust our strength and boasting (1 Corinthians 1:25-31).
  • This is almost the first time in the Bible when we read of prayer with upraised or outstretched hands. Abraham lifted up his hand to the Lord to make an oath (Genesis 14:22). Moses and Aaron have stretched out their hands (with or without the staff) over areas to be judged: Egypt’s waters (Exodus 7:19; 8:5-6) and land (8:16-17; 10:12-13), and the sky over the land (9:22-23; 10:21-22). Here, though, Moses lifts up his hands to God, toward His throne. He has done this before only once, asking the Lord to end a plague (9:29, 33).(2) The posture is an expression of utter dependence upon God, and at the same time it extends His authority — not man’s — over the situation.
  • Finally, in this passage we see the very first Biblical occurrence of an important Hebrew word, emunah: faithfulness, steadfastness, truth.(3) Aaron and Hur hold up or stay Moses’ hands so that they are emunah, steady. They help him become faithful.


Lifting Up Holy Hands

In the New Testament, we don’t have many staffs — the disciples are even told not to carry them (Matthew 10:10 and Luke 9:3; contrast Mark 6:8). But in 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul says, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (NIV). Holy hands: the Greek word for holy isn’t the usual hagios, set apart, but hosios: righteous, undefiled, gracious. Our hands become holy, in part, as we empty them, laying down the staff of authority, ability, strength, pride. Paul asks us to pray without the strong passion of anger, and also without disputing or “reasoning,” relying too much on the intellect. Such men(4) sound more than a little detached, rather like the Old Testament image of watchmen on the wall (Isaiah 62:6-7; Habakkuk 2:1).

How can we lift up holy hands in prayer? I suggest that, like Moses, we need to be still and rest on Jesus. Empty our hands: let go of anger and authority; don’t rely on our own understanding. Our words are not the most important thing; sometimes what counts is that we persevere in an attitude of complete dependence on God.

And, finally, we can help each other to become faithful. The most vivid impression that I took away from this study is that I need to pray specifically for the prayer lives of others, especially the intercessors and the busy. I may never become a watchman on the walls, but I can help to steady someone’s hands.

(1) If we fail to be struck by this incident, it may be because it is part of an incredible sequence. Readers sometimes complain that the Biblical narrative is dull and repetitive, but the stories are bursting with signs and symbols that have shaped our culture and our expectations. We overlook them only because they are so familiar. In Exodus alone, we have the slaughter of the innocents, the virtuous lie of the midwives, the baby in a basket, the burning bush, the Name I AM, bricks without straw, the plagues, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, palpable darkness, Passover, the blood of the lamb, the destroyer, the spoiling of the Egyptians, the ransoming of firstborn sons, the pillars of cloud and fire, the parting of the Red Sea and the overwhelming of Egypt’s chariots, Jehovah Rapha (The Lord Who Heals You), manna, water from the rock, the Ten Commandments, the Tabernacle and the Ark, the golden calf, the cleft in the rock, the veil over the radiant face, and the great cloud of glory, among much more. Shakespeare and Dickens are not so fertile in powerful images within so small a space.
(2) The verb used in Exodus 9:29, 33 is paras, to spread out. According to Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 242, the word first occurs in this passage. “Such stretching of the hands probably reflected the characteristic posture of prayer in the Bible.” It is used, for instance, to describe the prayer stances of Solomon (1 Kings 8:22, 54; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13) and Ezra (Ezra 9:5); compare Job 11:13; Psalm 143:6; Isaiah 1:15. The verb does not appear in Exodus 17.
(3) See Vine’s, Old Testament section, 75-76.
(4) In 1 Timothy 2:8, Paul seems to be thinking primarily of males, since the next verse states his intention for women. Other passages (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:5; 11:5; Luke 2:36-37) clearly show women engaging in intercessory prayer. Paul’s point here may be that men often have more difficulty emptying their hands.