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.

Advertisements

Stand

Every so often, I meet with an exhortation to “advance the Kingdom” or “take back the land.” There is a Biblical foundation for this idea in the conquests of Joshua and David. And the example of Caleb — at the age of 85, driving the Canaanites out of Hebron (Joshua 14:6-14; Judges 1:20) — shows that it’s not just a young person’s dream.

But for every reference to mounting an attack, there seem to be two or three that speak of standing — or, better, standing firm. (We also see cases in which it is right to run away,(1) but that is another matter.)

Standing Firm

This struck me recently as I read the famous passage about putting on the whole armor of God. As Paul explains it, we are not suiting up in order to attack the forces of spiritual darkness and take over cities for Christ. Rather,

Put on God’s whole armor [the armor of a heavy-armed soldier which God supplies], that you may be able successfully to stand up against [all] the strategies and the deceits of the devil. For we are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere. Therefore put on God’s complete armor, that you may be able to resist and stand your ground on the evil day [of danger], and, having done all [the crisis demands], to stand [firmly in your place]. Stand therefore [hold your ground], . . . (Ephesians 6:11-14, Amplified; emphasis added)

The habits, the Christian disciplines, involved in putting on God’s armor make us “strong in the Lord” (verse 10) so that, when (not if) the day of evil comes, the time when we are attacked and severely tried, we may stand our ground. The image is one of purely defensive warfare. At the same time, one of the reasons we are called “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37) is surely that what we have gained in Christ can never be lost to a counterattack, requiring reconquest. We can rejoice that we stand in grace through Christ, by faith (Romans 5:2).(2)

We have “taken our stand” on the Gospel and its truths (1 Corinthians 15:1). So to the Galatians, who dream of adding Law to grace, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, RSV; emphasis added).

Standing is linked with ideas and images of steadiness, steadfastness, stability, and being established. After assuring us at length that our Christian hope is sure — that Christ has been raised, and our bodies too shall be taken up into life — Paul concludes, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58, RSV; emphasis added; see also Colossians 1:23). Because we stand in hope, we can resist discouragement.

The Steadfast God

We are able to stand only because we have been created in the image of a God who stands fast and stands over. At the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud “stood behind” the Israelites, screening them from Egypt’s army through a long night (Exodus 14:19-20; compare Numbers 14:14). The Lord has established His faithfulness (Psalm 89:2), His throne (Psalm 93:2), and the earth (Psalm 119:90); and He alone can establish us. The Hebrew word aman can mean to stand fast, to be established, and to believe, and these are all related. Abraham believes God (Genesis 15:16), and later it can be said that the Lord found his heart faithful (Nehemiah 9:8). Through young Samuel comes the promise, “I will raise up for Myself a faithful (aman) priest, . . . I will firmly establish (aman) his house” (1 Samuel 2:35, NIV). Isaiah warns, “If you will not believe (aman), surely you shall not be established (aman)” (Isaiah 7:9, KJV; compare 2 Chronicles 20:20).

In a way, it sounds good when Eliphaz solemnly declares that the Lord places no trust (aman) in anyone, even the angels (Job 4:18; 15:15). What a high view of His holiness! But this is an instance of Eliphaz failing to speak what is right about Him (Job 42:8). For the truth is far more glorious: He makes us trustworthy. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). When we are weak, He stands by us, strengthening us so that we can stand (Acts 23:11; 2 Timothy 4:17).

It is in Christ — in faith and sufferings like His — that we stand firm (Philippians 4:1). Therefore, we stand together: we “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind . . .” (Philippians 1:27, RSV). We stand by faith (2 Corinthians 1:24; Romans 11:20), and this can be precarious: “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, RSV). By grace we can be steadfast and resist the devil (1 Peter 5:9); we can even “strengthen and establish” one another (Luke 22:32, Amplified).

Among these texts, one is a personal favorite. During a difficult period, fearful of missing God’s direction, I was dismayed by the apostle’s summary stating that he had written “encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it” (1 Peter 5:12, NIV; emphasis added). Which “this” did he mean? This what? Then it struck me: THIS. All this, the totality of the circumstances in which I’ve been placed. Stand fast, and trust. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace . . . [will] establish and ground you securely, and strengthen (and settle) you” (1 Peter 5:10, Amplified).

Eleazar and Shammah

What does it look like to take a stand? Two of David’s Mighty Men provide helpful portraits:

Next to him was Eleazar son of Dodai the Ahohite. As one of the three mighty men, he was with David when they taunted the Philistines gathered at Pas Dammim for battle. Then the men of Israel retreated, but he stood his ground and struck down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword. The Lord brought about a great victory that day. The troops returned to Eleazar, but only to strip the dead.

Next to him was Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. When the Philistines banded together at a place where there was a field full of lentils, Israel’s troops fled from them. But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the Lord brought about a great victory. (2 Samuel 23:9-12, NIV; emphasis added)

To begin with Shammah, allow me to make a scientific observation: Lentils! Really? My wife sometimes makes lentil soup, and I turn up my nose at it, or gently inquire whether anyone has yet discovered the antidote. Were I in Shammah’s place, I would hand over the field, purely as a matter of strategy, hoping that those nasty beans would make the Philistines as sick and disgusted as they have made me. I’ll be down the street, defending the barbecue joint.

The point is, Shammah’s decision isn’t rational. The lentil field isn’t a military vantage point. It’s not even his land. One might risk death to defend one’s own farm; failing that, one might take one’s stand in the gates of Jerusalem, the city chosen by the Lord as a place for His Name to dwell; better yet, one might cede the city gates, and draw one’s line at the Temple. But Shammah chooses an arbitrary plot of ground. Something rises up in him, a sense that enough is enough.

This isn’t simply anger. People who have been given a gift of faith, and have made a stand, sometimes say afterwards that they got mad at the devil. I have never found this to be productive; rather, as James 1:20 warns, “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (RSV). Neither is it stubbornness, for Shammah is not trying to prove a point, and it’s not himself that he is asserting. The Spirit of God stirs up in him a settled determination. He will not quit, give up, or run away.

Turning to Eleazar, we see what such a decision can cost, even if one lives: “his hand . . . froze to the sword.” The Hebrew is dabaq, “cleaved,” the same word used of a husband and wife cleaving and becoming one (Genesis 2:24).(3) Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the verb is used of people holding tight to God (Deuteronomy 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Joshua 22:5; 23:8; 2 Kings 18:6) or to others — Shechem to Dinah (Genesis 34:31), Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:14), the men of Judah to David (2 Samuel 20:2), Solomon to foreign women (1 Kings 11:2), one good friend to another (Proverbs 18:24); it also describes an unnatural attachment of sin to our hands (Deuteronomy 13:17; Job 31:7) or of disease to our bodies (Deuteronomy 28:60; 2 Kings 5:27; Deuteronomy 28:21). Affliction causes one’s soul to cleave to the dust (Psalm 119:25).

Eleazar’s hand fuses or freezes. Perhaps oil or warm water will soften it, restoring suppleness; perhaps he makes a full recovery. Or he may be permanently disabled and disfigured. At the very least, making a stand has probably ruined him for certain other pursuits. You won’t find him playing the piano or working the loom.

The stands we take may ruin us for other things. When Jacob wrestled with the angel, his hip was put out of joint, but he held on, declaring, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26, NIV). I think it was Jim Goll who said that Jacob failed to recognize that he had already been blessed, because up to that point in his life he had always run away when things got difficult. From this night forward, he limped (Genesis 32:31), but he also stood.

First and foremost, we are called to stand in prayer. The Lord looks for people to “build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land” (Ezekiel 22:30, NIV; emphasis added). The watchers on the wall are to call on the Lord day and night, giving themselves and Him no rest, “till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7, NIV; emphasis added). Abraham, Moses, and Aaron stood in the breach to intercede (Genesis 18:22; Psalm 106:23; Numbers 16:48; compare Exodus 17:9), and Habakkuk took his stand on a tower, watching till the Lord should answer (Habakkuk 2:1).

What would it mean if we took this calling seriously? What if we were ruined for anything else, if our hands froze to the sword, if we became the prayer?

It begins with a settled determination, the declaration of God Himself that the Philistines have wrought enough destruction, and that the tide must be turned. We stand in the foolishness of a field of trampled lentils, steadfast and immovable, in faith and hope and a fierce joy.

(1) See, for example, Matthew 2:13-15; 10:23; 2 Corinthians 11:33; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22.
(2) In his classic discussion of Ephesians, Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), Watchman Nee says well, “We do not try to gain ground; we merely stand on the ground which the Lord Jesus has gained for us, and resolutely refuse to be moved from it” (67). But I think Nee earlier (42-45) goes too far in insisting that we never attack, never fight for victory. Even though it is the Lord who fights for us, sometimes we are called to “stand” by marching forward (2 Chronicles 20:13-21; Exodus 14:13-15). Nee is commenting on Ephesians, yet right in 6:19-20 Paul speaks of his work as an ambassador: marching out, invading enemy territory, not as a warrior but as one proclaiming the peace that has been made.
(3) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 37, notes that the modern Hebrew word for “glue” derives from dabaq.

Can We Forget God?

Before her death, I watched my mother grope through the fog of Alzheimer’s. She lost names and concepts, aspects of present awareness, and whole stretches of past experience. She was still herself, although more subdued, more querulous, and more childlike; she retained the ability to recognize family members. Had she lived longer, much more might have slipped away.

Many of us have loved ones who struggle with dementia, brain injury, or other intellectual disabilities. It is often difficult to gauge what they remember or understand. Among other things, if we are believers, we can’t help wondering about their grasp of the gospel.

It is probably good for us to wonder, since our faith is both less and more intellectual than we often think. Alone among the world’s major religions, Christianity is not essentially a book to read or a rule to follow, but a Person to know, and He seeks us out, whatever our capacities. And yet He usually comes speaking, and His words are life (John 6:63). In Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, the seed is the word of God (Luke 11:11), and the good ground receives and retains it. His teachings, promises, and commandments are our guide and our protection: “I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). What happens, then, when we cannot remember and reflect on these words?

The Storehouse of Memory

In the Bible, human memory is described as a treasury or a storehouse. God’s Wisdom promises to fill the treasuries of those who love her, particularly with riches of insight and understanding (Proverbs 8:21; 2:1-4). But this is not an inert deposit: the servant who buries his talent in the ground is condemned (Matthew 25:25-27). Nor are these truths simply for show: King Hezekiah is wrong to give the Babylonians a tour of his storehouses (2 Kings 20:12-18). These are supplies to be distributed (Nehemiah 13:12-13), like a daily food allowance (Luke 12:42). God’s words are to be kept in our hearts and ready on our lips (Proverbs 22:17-18). For when we don’t remember, we rebel (Psalm 106:7, 13).

There is an intellectual component to our participation in filling the storehouse. Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 says that the human teacher of wisdom “set in order many proverbs,” stated in “just the right words.” Similarly, modern cognitive psychology suggests that we remember best information that we have “chunked” or organized.

Yet, Biblically, remembering is never merely an intellectual process. Faith (“the fear of the Lord”) is the key to the treasury (Isaiah 33:6). Our memory may be jogged by a blue tassel worn for this purpose (Numbers 15:39), by the crowing of a rooster (Matthew 26:74-75), or by bread and wine. Habits may help, as, for Israel, the annual round of sabbaths and festivals reenacted the mighty acts of God.

Forgetting God and His words is not just loss of information or thinking about something else; it is allowing other experiences to crowd out the memory and the awareness of His steadfast love. The prophets say that Israel “forgets” the Lord when she chases idols, acting like an unfaithful spouse (Hosea 2:13; Jeremiah 23:27). There is a visual dimension, an “out of sight, out of mind” quality: “You have forgotten Me and thrust Me behind your back” (Ezekiel 23:35). Senses are dulled (2 Peter 1:9) and minds are confused, disoriented: “My people have been lost sheep; . . . They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place” in God (Jeremiah 50:6). This forgetting is not a matter of intellectual decay or disability but of moral corruption.

And this raises the hope that remembering, too, may have a moral or spiritual dimension.

A Thousand Tongues

I have had occasion to reflect on this. In 2010, my wife underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. The operation went well, but that night there was bleeding in the brain; she suffered a stroke, and went into a coma. Four days later, she awoke with severe aphasia. Initially she wasn’t speaking any intelligible words at all, and she didn’t understand what others said. She didn’t recognize her sisters or me; mostly, she looked agitated and afraid.

My faith seemed weak and inadequate, my prayers ineffective. Mostly out of desperation, I booted up her laptop and played Christian songs. I hoped that familiar music might at least be reassuring to her.

All at once, she began singing a different tune. I rushed to mute the computer, and listened. What she could produce for lyrics sounded like “Waa waa,” but the melody was unmistakable. I had been playing contemporary worship songs, but she was singing an old hymn, not on the laptop:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace. . . .

Charles Wesley’s words were remarkably appropriate for someone who had lost her language. Lacking even one tongue to voice her pain and fear, my wife longed for a thousand in order to praise her God. And we did, right there in neurological intensive care. She smiled, and conducted with the arm she could move. And I saw that she was still a worshiper of God.

How much did she remember in that hour? I don’t know, because she doesn’t remember the event at all. Her stroke was severe enough to be classified as a traumatic brain injury, and she still has trouble finding the right words. Her recollections of the initial recovery period are pretty fuzzy.

But I can’t help thinking that the hours she spent in worship through the years deposited treasures in her storehouse. Even damage to the brain couldn’t take these away, for she had “sown to the spirit” (Galatians 6:8), not merely to the intellect. She had no words to call on His name, and yet He quickened a memory.

Perhaps this is not the precise experience of every believer, but one way, or another, we each can say, “When I awake, I am still with You” (Psalm 139:18).

The Sin I’d Never Commit

My wife is recovering from a stroke. It is a good and hopeful process, but the path is pocked with frustrations. One of the smaller ones is that I get accused of things.

A medication causes my wife’s skin to bruise easily, and a visual problem results in frequent collisions with furniture. A social worker, well-meaning if overzealous, saw marks on her arms and jumped to the conclusion that I must be hitting her. Neither her denials nor mine were accepted. Instead, I was told that, if the bruises continued, I would go to jail.

Despite better things to do and much to be thankful for, I wasted some energy in sputtering indignation and resentment. And then I very nearly lived up to the labels placed on me.

A stroke can strip away layers of self-restraint. Doctors speak of “disinhibition,” but sometimes it is more like a child’s tantrum. On one particularly bad day, when a scene went on and on, something snapped in me. I grabbed my wife’s wrists and yelled “Stop it!” several times. She was terrified.

How does one come back from such an ugly, sinful outburst? I tried to justify myself, but the rationalizations sounded lame even to my ears. So I confessed my sin to God and to my pastor. I apologized to my wife. I tried to retreat more quickly when tempers flared. And, eventually, I read a statement by a godly man.

Capable of Violence

Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic who has devoted his life to serving, and learning from, people with severe intellectual disabilities. He founded the first L’Arche (“The Ark”) community in France in 1964; today there are 145 in 40 countries (see http://www.larche.org/discover/larche-since-its-creation/).

In Befriending the Stranger (2010), Vanier describes Lucien, a man unable to speak. Disoriented and afraid when he was brought to L’Arche, he resorted to constant screaming. A calming touch or gentle words served only to increase his anguish. Listening, Vanier writes, “I could sense anger, violence, and even hatred rising up within me. I would have been capable of hurting him to keep him quiet.”

At this time, Vanier had been living in the communities for 15 years. He might have concluded that he wasn’t cut out for it. Instead, with profound insight, he suggests that our brothers and sisters who have severe disabilities become our teachers by revealing to us “our inner limits and brokenness,” so that we may live together in a more honest dependence on the God who is our loving Father.

Understandably, we want to set any fence we can between ourselves and sin. But our best resolve and the full force of our disapproval are flimsy barricades. As Paul says, “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands” — who says, “Oh, I would never behave like that” (Living Bible) — “take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). The Message adds, “Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.”

Consider Peter’s vows to stand by Jesus even if it meant death (Matthew 26:33, 35). Before morning, he denied his Lord three times.

Certainly we can make progress. Peter lived to write about the possibility of never falling (2 Peter 1:10). Paul changed from a merciless and violent man (Galatians 1:13; Acts 9:1) to behaving as gently as a mother with young children (1 Thessalonians 2:7). But we can’t dare to be smug, or to entertain the thought that we’ve arrived (Philippians 3:12-16).

The Power of Defenselessness

In Luke 18:9-14, the self-righteous man is sincere in thanking God that he hasn’t stolen money or committed adultery. He is saying, in effect, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Yet he is not justified in God’s sight; he is really exalting himself, not magnifying grace. In contrast, God hears the flagrant sinner who has the humility to plead only the divine mercy.

The first man in this parable excuses himself by focusing on “especially bad” sins. Some sins may be worse than others, but God’s rating scale isn’t necessarily the same as ours. David is punished less severely for adultery and murder than for the arrogance of numbering his troops (2 Samuel 12:10-14; 24:13-15).

In this life, we never get beyond the position of the second man, confessing our sins (1 John 1:8-10), clutching a holy dread of sinning (Jude 23; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Romans 11:20; 1 Peter 1:17).

When I was accused, I was quick to defend myself. I thought that I was maintaining my integrity and my Christian witness. What if, at least in private, I had seen an opportunity for self-examination, a fresh revelation of my heart, and a deeper confession? “Come to terms quickly with your accuser,” says Jesus (Matthew 5:25). We “come to terms” not through bluster and bravado, but by confessing honestly and pleading the cleansing blood of Jesus.

I am trying to meditate more on Jesus, standing silent. Accused of many things before Pilate and Herod, He “made no reply, not even to a single charge” (Matthew 27:14).

Jesus could have said, accurately, that He had never claimed any authority that wasn’t rightfully His. He never lied; He never stole. But you and I couldn’t say this. And because Jesus was already bearing our sins, or because He refused to distance Himself from us, He kept silent. He stood there, completely defenseless.

In some movies, the actor playing Jesus looks proud during this scene — as if He won’t deign to answer. But it had to be painful for One so innocent and so sensitive to be associated with evil. He bore the stinging shame for us, allowing our sins to be like a gag on His mouth.

If I had been the only sinner, and He had taken my place, He still would have had to stand silent. I am capable of any sin; I am not better than others; apart from Jesus, I can make no claim of heart innocence. Only as I embrace these truths can I live and walk “in Christ.”