Ringing In the New Year with Ezekiel

Some Christians treat the turning of the calendars as an opportunity to take stock spiritually.  Others emphasize gratitude, setting up memorials and declaring, “Hitherto the Lord has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12, RSV).  Looking ahead to a new year, some elaborate goals, while others fast and pray.

All of these practices have merit.  Yet one Old Testament prophet, at one new year, was led in a different direction.  God gave him a fresh vision, renewing his hope, not for the next twelvemonth but for a much longer vista:

In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was conquered, on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me in the visions of God into the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city opposite me.  When He brought me there, behold, there was a man, whose appearance was like bronze, with a line of flax and a measuring reed in his hand; and he was standing in the gateway.  And the man said to me, “Son of man, look with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and set your mind upon all that I shall show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show it to you; declare all that you see to the house of Israel.”  (Ezekiel 40:1-4, RSV)

This new year — the date was perhaps April 28, 573 B.C. by our calendar (1) — did not begin auspiciously.  Ezekiel was part of a second group of deportees, who had now lived a full quarter-century in exile in Babylon, a 900-mile journey from the city where the Lord had caused His Name to dwell. (2)  Jerusalem lay in ruins; the temple — of which the Lord had said, “I have chosen and consecrated this house that My Name may be there for ever; My eyes and My heart will be there for all time” (2 Chronicles 7:16, RSV) — was no more, the Glory departed (Ezekiel 8:3-11:23).  And the prophet’s wife, “the delight of his eyes” (24:16), had died.

No doubt Ezekiel, who even in a distant land saw visions of God, who upheld the Lord’s justice and declared His love, promising that He would gather His people (even from long death) and shepherd them once more — no doubt he could still have produced a gratitude list.  But sometimes God comes graciously to lift our eyes and set our hearts on all the goodness He has in store.

In the vision, Mount Zion has become “a very high mountain” (verse 2), “chief among the mountains” (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1, NIV).  A new temple stands and, as the prophet looks on, the Glory of the Lord enters and fills it, never again to leave (Ezekiel 43:1-9).  The rebuilt city around it receives a new name, which closes the vision and the book: “The Lord Is There” (48:35).

This is a remarkably long and detailed vision, but much of it makes dull reading.  The angel with the yardstick leads the prophet through the temple buildings, and we get the dimensions of every wall and alcove.  It’s about as exciting as a building inspector’s notes, except that here we don’t even find the occasional substandard flaw.  Everything is perfect: the Lord reestablishes the covenant of holiness as separation, with daily blood sacrifices to cover sin.  The very layout of the temple, along with its regulations, is intended to instruct the people in holiness and the fear of the Lord (43:10-12).  Only, since they will never forget their exile, and the sins that provoked it, this temple is the center of a spirituality steeped in shame.  Every distance and dimension is a reminder of falling short, every perfection a shining mirror in which to see the heart that must be covered:

Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins.  (43:10, NIV)

In fact, this is something of a theme in Ezekiel: the restored people of God will bear their shame (16:52, 54; 44:13), perhaps forever:

. . . that you may [earnestly] remember and be ashamed and confounded and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I have forgiven you all that you have done, says the Lord God.  (16:63, Ampl)

Yet there is a tension, for He also says:

They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward Me . . .   I will no longer hide My face from them, for I will pour out My Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord.  (39:26, 29, NIV)

One is left with the impression of an ineradicable shame, an incurable disposition toward sin, that nevertheless is swallowed up by the power of His Presence.

There are many discrepancies, both small and significant, between the temples built by Solomon, Zerubbabel, and Herod and the one seen by Ezekiel.  None is more striking than the life-giving stream that flows out from it:

The man brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east).  The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar.  He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was flowing from the south side.

As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep.  He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep.  He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist.  He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in — a river that no one could cross.  He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?”

Then he led me back to the bank of the river.  When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river.  He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Sea.  When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh.  Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows.  There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.  Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets.  The fish will be of many kinds — like the fish of the Great Sea.  But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt.  Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river.  Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail.  Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them.  Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”  (47:1-12, NIV)

Jerusalem had no river, and none of Israel’s temples featured flowing waters, but the psalmist speaks of “a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4, RSV, NIV) and “Your river of delights . . . the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:8-9, NIV).  The Lord pours out His Spirit, His own life-giving Presence, and “where the river flows everything will live.”  Even the Dead Sea loses its salinity, confounding our expectations; just so, the Presence of the Lord will overturn the very limits established by His Law.  For in Mosaic Law, sin and uncleanness are more powerful than holiness; as the priests confirm to the prophet Haggai, a holy object consecrates only what it directly touches, while defilement continues to spread (Haggai 2:11-14).  By all the logic of the Old Testament, when Jesus touches a leper, He should be unclean and the leper unchanged.  Instead, like the potent, ever-fresh river, His touch banishes sickness and sin, while He remains pure.  Sorrow and sighing flee away (Isaiah 35:10).

We picture Ezekiel standing amid his measurements, scratching his head and wondering, Lord, how can this be?  Hasn’t God Himself said that our sin and shame must be reckoned up and remembered forever?  Yes, it is all counted, before our eyes — and then canceled and set aside:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.  On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be any curse.  (Revelation 22:1-3, NIV)

God practices immersion learning.  Zeke is being set up, and he never quite realizes it.  He walks all around and through grace, gathers its dimensions incrementally, and knows nothing about it until he’s engulfed.  Look at him, solemnly led along by the Angel of Measurement: ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, splash!  And he’s in over his head, baptized, floundering in the immeasurable, hearing the angel asking, Do you get it?

Six centuries later, Paul writes:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV; Ampl “wholly filled and flooded with God Himself!”)

A river grows deeper only as tributaries feed into it, or as it runs through narrow channels. The river Ezekiel enters, the river of God, is fed by no other sources, and is spreading out.  The water rises, as it flows, because God does more than start it.  He sustains, feeds, and indwells the life-giving river. (3)

Corrie ten Boom said that we can never use our imaginations too strongly in thinking about heaven or things to come, (4) because “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.  But God has revealed it to us by His Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10, NIV; Isaiah 64:4) — and He revealed it, by His Spirit, to Ezekiel.

Sometimes life seems like a railroad track, straight and fixed.  When we look back, we see it stretching afar, the iron rails of our forced march, our banishment.  With hunch-shouldered heaviness, we turn and face forward, expecting more of the same.

Our past may be a long exile, our hopes in ruins, our delight more than a decade dead.  Our shame may appear inexpungible, and never more so than when we contemplate a holy God.  But a new year need not spell mere continuation.  The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a way of surpassing all measuring sticks, even the ones He has furnished.  When He chooses, He comes in power.  There is no deadness or uncleanness that His life cannot purify and make fruitful.  We cannot fathom His love, and yet it can fill us and flow out of us.  Even now, He calls us and carries us toward a future we cannot imagine, though we know its name: The Lord Is There.

 

(1) Mark Hillmer, note on Ezekiel 40:1, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 1283.

(2) Edwin Yamauchi and Ronald Youngblood, note on Ezra 7:7-9, in NIV Study Bible, 684.

(3) This sense of the Divine Presence, rather than the movement of heavenly bodies, also underlies the picture of the path of the righteous shining “brighter and brighter” as they walk with God (Proverbs 4:18, RSV; compare 2 Corinthians 3:18).  The philosophers Descartes and Malebranche argued that, since a cause must be greater than its effect, it is not enough to say that an object exists because it existed a moment ago; the greater cause must be the sustaining will of God, choosing to keep it in being.  Thus God is ever active, willing, sustaining, perhaps augmenting.  Jonathan Edwards drew on this idea in his misunderstood and vilified 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” arguing that only the forbearing will of God preserves the life of the wicked.  See Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 (Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Vol. 22), ed. Harry S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch with Kyle P. Farley (New Haven: Yale, 1957, 2003), 404-18; available at http://edwards.yale.edu/research/browse.

(4) Pamela Rosewell Moore, The Five Silent Years of Corrie ten Boom (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan-HarperCollins, 1986), 132.

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To Heal the Land

On patriotic holidays such as July Fourth, I always intend to pray for my country.  I also mean to pray for Israel, for the many nations experiencing great suffering, for Christian missionary work throughout the world, and for the return of Jesus to establish His righteous Kingdom.

But I usually don’t get very far with such prayers.  Over the years, I have lamented my laziness, and decided that others have more of a calling to intercession than I do.  But now I think there is also another reason at work.  Resolute and persevering intercession seems to be at war with gratitude and worship.  Even in heaven, the voices of the souls of the martyrs, calling “How long . . . ?” from under the altar (Revelation 6:9-10), seem to us to clash with the just-concluded anthem of “blessing, and honor, and glory, and power” (5:13, KJV) — even though, since “every creature” joined in that chorus, the martyrs apparently offer both protest and praise.  In the same way, the watchmen posted by the Lord on Jerusalem’s walls, calling on Him day and night, giving themselves and Him no rest till He establish the city and the kingdom (Isaiah 62:6-7), come across as unbalanced, as severe and fierce, though, as heralds of the rejoicing Bridegroom (verse 5), they roar in hope.

God is so kind that He helps us with such dilemmas, teaching us in many different ways.  He gives us His great and precious promises, but His Word also presents accounts and examples of people believing these promises, living by them, and claiming them in prayer.

There is one promise in particular that Christians often think of on patriotic occasions, but we don’t always remember the context.  David desired to build a Temple for the Lord in Jerusalem, and made many preparations for it.  His son Solomon spent seven years building it, and all Israel gathered for seven days just to dedicate it.  Some time after this, the Lord appears to Solomon at night and makes this promise:

I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for Myself as a Temple for sacrifices.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among My people, if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.  I have chosen and consecrated this Temple so that My name may be there forever.  My eyes and My heart will always be there.  (2 Chronicles 7:12-16, NIV)

This promise is made at the height of the Kingdom of Israel’s glory.  Its territorial boundaries were greater than at any other time, with safety and “peace on all sides” (1 Kings 4:24-25); we also read, “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth” (10:23, NIV).  This was Israel’s golden age.

Now we move ahead about 420 years, and we find one person who enters into this promise.  The times are very different: because of sin, the Lord has torn Israel in two, handed them over to their enemies; the Temple is destroyed, Jerusalem lies in ruins, and the people are in exile.  It seems to some as if all the promises of God have failed.  But a man named Daniel is reading his Bible and trying to understand.

. . . I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.  (Daniel 9:2, NIV)

He’s thinking that the time should be about up, and yet there’s no sign of a restoration.

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with Him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.  (9:3, NIV)

Remember what the Lord said to Solomon: “if My people . . . will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways . . .”

I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:

“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with all who love Him and obey His commands, we have sinned and done wrong.  We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from Your commands and laws.  We have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, You are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame — the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where You have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to You.  O Lord, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against You.  The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against Him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws He gave us through His servants the prophets.  All Israel has transgressed Your law and turned away, refusing to obey You.

“Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against You.  You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster.  Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem.  Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to Your truth.  The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything He does; yet we have not obeyed Him.

“Now, O Lord our God, who brought Your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for Yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong.  O Lord, in keeping with all Your righteous acts, turn away Your anger and Your wrath from Jerusalem, Your city, Your holy hill.  Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and Your people an object of scorn to all those around us.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of Your servant.  For Your sake, O Lord, look with favor on Your desolate sanctuary.  Give ear, O God, and hear; open Your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears Your name.  We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy.  O Lord, listen!  O Lord, forgive!  O Lord, hear and act!  For Your sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people bear Your name.” (9:4-19)

This is a remarkable prayer.  Notice, first, that Daniel fully identifies with Israel.  If anyone among the exiles could have called himself “special,” it was Daniel: he had been chosen as a young man, trained in all the wisdom of the Babylonians; he had lived many decades in or near the king’s palace.  But from the first, when he insisted on a diet of vegetables and water, he allied himself with the Israelites, a displaced people, living as refugees.

Moreover, Daniel doesn’t say that a previous generation sinned — or “those people.”  He keeps saying “we.”  There is utter humility here — no excuses, no boasts.  Partly because of this, as he prays, his faith rises up; he reminds himself of what he genuinely believes about the character of God: “You are righteous . . . merciful and forgiving . . . righteous in everything [You] do . . . great in mercy.”

The outcome of this prayer is astounding.  While Daniel is still speaking, the angel Gabriel shows up to instruct him (9:21).  Within two years the first return begins, and the rebuilding of the Temple. (1)  More enduringly, the Lord reveals to Daniel and to us that He has a plan “to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness,” and He announces the coming Anointed Ruler (9:24-25, NIV).  In other words, when Daniel prays, the Lord in some measure reveals Jesus to his heart.

It can seem out of balance to pray like this; it’s as if Daniel has joined the ranks of the martyrs and the watchmen.  Normally, we want and need to enumerate our blessings and give thanks to God, and praise Him for who He is.  Daniel knew this; in an earlier chapter, he is described as praying, “giving thanks to his God” three times a day (6:10, NIV).  But sometimes God calls intercessors to focus their attention on the glass half empty, to groan and travail over sin and its consequences.  And yet Daniel isn’t moved to pray because things are “so bad,” because of a plague or a drought.  Rather, it’s a promise from God, stirring his hope, that prompts him to cry out for restoration.  Remember, he has just been reading the words of his contemporary Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My gracious promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.  I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”  (Jeremiah 29:10-14, NIV)

Daniel doesn’t turn from thanksgiving to intercession because conditions are so awful, but because God is so good and His purposes so marvelous.  The prayer of faith that honors God doesn’t spring from a desperate, bargaining fear but from clear-eyed hope in a gracious Lord.  And it is a people filled with wonder, practiced in the discipline of giving thanks, who are best equipped to take up the calling (be it long or short) of unrelenting intercession.  We give Him no rest because of the joy set before us.

Let us then pray for our nation, and for the world, not because we have no other hope but because we have been given such an astonishing hope.  We are able to humble ourselves, and to acknowledge the extent of our depravity, as we stand in the light of His glorious plans.  This holiday, let’s pray not because we see desolation — wars and refugees, famines and epidemics, injustice, poverty, trauma, ruination — but looking toward the unseen, grasping hold of some great Biblical promise of national and global healing.  If we spend time in His presence, taste His goodness, consider His plans, we will invite His coming.

Father, we pray:

  • That You will establish, guide, and bless “all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness,” and that You will raise up people in every place “to lift up holy hands in prayer” (1 Timothy 2:2, 8, NIV), for, though we are now citizens of the heavenly realms and of God’s Israel (Philippians 3:20; Ephesians 2:6, 12, 19), still, so long as we are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, RSV; 1 Peter 2:11), we seek the peace and prosperity of the places to which You carry us (Jeremiah 29:7);
  • That You will open doors in every land for the message of the gospel (Colossians 4:3), “that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1, NIV), and that as Lord of the harvest You will send out workers into the field (Luke 10:2);
  • That believers “may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (2 Thessalonians 3:2, NIV), that You will protect them from the evil one (John 17:15), and that we may all be one in Christ (John 17:21-23), increasing and abounding in love and in faith (1 Thessalonians 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).
  • We pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), that You will establish Jerusalem and make her the praise of the earth (Isaiah 62:7), and that all Israel may be saved (Romans 10:1; 11:26).
  • And we groan with all creation for the return of Jesus, liberation from sin, and “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21, NIV), when “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2, NIV), and when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, NIV; Isaiah 11:9) and every knee will bow “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11, NIV).  Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20; 1 Corinthians 16:22).

When even one person humbles himself or herself, prays, seeks God’s face, and turns from wickedness, He begins to heal the land.  So we ask for “a spirit of grace and supplication” (Zechariah 12:10, NIV).

 

(1) Here I am following the dates proposed by The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985): Solomon’s Temple dedicated in 958 B.C., Daniel’s prayer in 539-38, and the return under Sheshbazzar and the commencement of Temple construction in 537-36 (see pages 482, 485, 1313, 674).  Note that 1 Kings 9:1-2 and 2 Chronicles 7:11 suggest that the Lord’s promise to Solomon was made some years after the Temple dedication, when the royal palace was also completed; NIV Study Bible (489) dates this at 946 B.C. or later.

 

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.

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.

Advent

Year by year, I try to prepare my heart for the coming of the Christ. As I grow older, I notice two changes. The obstacles and distractions seem to grow more formidable; at the same time, my practice becomes simpler. There are readings, music, prayers, church gatherings. But the one essential lies outside all these. I need to sit awhile where I can see a baby.

No doubt of it: I am a romantic. Babies are hard work, bottomless wells of need. I can never quite overlook the frazzled, exhausted mother or father, the frantic grandparent, the neglected sibling. If babies perpetuate us, they also bring us pretty quickly to the end of ourselves.

But babies are also beautiful, glorious. Even if I am on a crowded airplane, craving sleep, dismayed to hear a baby’s cries, I smile if I can glimpse its face, or hand, or foot. Here is life straight from the Father’s hand, life that is all potential, all promise. Something softens in me, and relaxes into wonder.

If truth be told, I am afraid of babies. All my inadequacies surface: I will drop them, wake them, scare them, fail them. I joke that I can never hold a baby without spilling some, out one end or another. Fortunately, proud parents ignore my protests and thrust their child into my arms — and I am transfixed. As I hold this little being and watch the act of breathing, I feel my own heart rise and fall. As C.S. Lewis says, most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of heaven.

Afterwards, I always think of Immanuel, God with us. Not like corrupt and pagan gods, assuming a human disguise for the sake of an afternoon’s dalliance. No; in earnest He became flesh, turned into one of us. So much so that He was tiny, needy, helpless. Weaker than a toddler. Dependent on His parents. So much so that for many months He had no words.

Most years, December finds me discouraged. I will have been struggling with problems that to me seem both big and important. I will have prayed and read and waited to hear the voice of God, only to stumble on, in the dark, in a resounding silence. My flickering faith will be the proverbial smoldering wick, lightless, on the point of going out. I will feel forsaken.

But Immanuel is the God who comes too close for words. Beneath the prickly radar of intelligence, He arrives with the insistence of present, utter helplessness. Not bothering to address ears grown too dull to hear, He shares our darkness, our hunger, our exposure, our heartbeat, our flesh.

He comes. And we have only to open our arms.

For to you is born this day in the town of David a Savior, Who is Christ, the Messiah, the Lord! And this will be a sign for you [by which you will recognize Him]: you will find after searching, a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:11-12, Amplified)

. . . open wide your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:13, NIV)

Merry Christmas.

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 Value of Futility

“You will be unsuccessful in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 28:29, NIV). This is an apt description of some of us. We have a history of failed relationships, unfulfilling work, abandoned dreams, moral and spiritual defeat. With Job, we can say, “I have been allotted months of futility” (Job7:3); “when I hoped for good, evil came” (30:26).

Yet the Bible says of the righteous man, “Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3). The verdict “unsuccessful in everything” is part of a long passage describing the curses that come upon those who disobey God. Similarly, a sketch of people who “earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:6) applies to those who fail to put God first and give to His work.

Why is it, then, that some of us who love Jesus lead lives characterized by frustration and futility? Does a failure to prosper always indicate that we are walking in disobedience?

Futility’s Many Levels

Taken as a whole, the Bible may be black and white about moral standards but it is faithful to the complexity of human experience. And so statements that the wicked “will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing” (Jeremiah 12:13) do not exhaust its teachings on futility. The poor, simply because they are poor and in a fallen world, also see their plans frustrated (Psalm 14:6).

In fact, God has subjected the entire creation to frustration and futility (Romans 8:20-22). The Lord Almighty has determined that our labor goes for nothing (Habakkuk 2:13). This is a universal experience, above all because we all must die (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). “For what futility You have created all men! What man can . . . save himself from the power of the grave?” (Psalm 89:47-48).

In this setting, believers, no less than the most disobedient, are tempted to conclude, “It is futile to serve God” (Malachi 3:14); “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:13); “I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4). We are tested precisely in this regard. The patriarchs spent their lives wandering (Hebrews 11:8-9). Job lost everything and felt, “. . . my days have no meaning” (Job7:16). David was a fugitive, wondering if his integrity was “useless” (1 Samuel 25:21). Several of the prophets were commissioned specifically to speak to people who wouldn’t listen (Isaiah 6:9-10; Ezekiel 2:3-5). Jeremiah recorded one set of prophecies only to have them burned, and another set only to be told to sink it in a river (Jeremiah 36; 45; 51:60-64).

God Himself — whose every word accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:10) — at times expresses frustration. “In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction” (Jeremiah 2:30; 6:29). He looks in vain for the righteous (Isaiah 59:15-16; Ezekiel 22:30). Jesus weeps over Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34; Isaiah 65:2)

Futility and Hope

God grieves (Genesis 6:6; Isaiah 53:3), yet He does not succumb to despair. Rather, in a wonderful paradox, it is “in hope” that He has subjected creation to futility — hope in the glory that will be revealed when we have despaired of our flesh and put it to death (Romans 8:18-21). He frustrates human wisdom and striving in order that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14; 1 Corinthians 1:19).

There is a suspense about our lives. We groan with creation, and grieve with God and neighbors. Like farmers, we sow our seeds of effort and obedience, but may wait a long time for any indication of fruit. Yet because “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7; 4:18; Romans 8:24), we continue to hope for a harvest and to trust that our work is not in vain. Sometimes, like Habakkuk (3:17-18), we must resolve to rejoice even in the absence of any prosperity.

We see this tension in Paul. At times he worries that he has wasted his efforts and labored for nothing with some converts (Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16) — that he, or they, might thwart or nullify the grace of God, receiving it in vain (Galatians 2:21; 2 Corinthians 6:1). At other times, he is confident that godliness is profitable (1 Timothy 4:8) and labor fruitful (Philippians 1:22), that our work “in the Lord” is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 6:9-10; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

If Paul’s confidence occasionally wavers, it’s because he is “hard pressed on every side, . . . perplexed, . . . persecuted, . . . struck down, . . . We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He compares himself to a broken jar (verse 7). Our English word futile comes from a Latin term meaning leaky or easily poured out. Paul lives with precisely this frustrating inability to retain and accumulate. Yet he refuses to “lose heart” (verses 1, 16) because, by the grace of God, what leaks out of him is “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (verse 6).

Paul also reminds us that, no matter who we are, our real work is other people. His converts are his joy and crown (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; Philippians 4:1), his boast (2 Corinthians 1:14), the result of his work (1 Corinthians 9:1). If they frustrate him and cause him anxiety, still they are in his heart for life or death (2 Corinthians 7:3): that is, he is so identified with them that his own salvation is bound up with theirs. For their sake, he is willing, not only to leak, but to be “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).

We are not apostles, but on this point we are not so very different. Wittingly or unwittingly, we all sow into the lives of those around us. People watch us. Some may even be “won over without words” by our behavior (1 Peter 3:1). When we die, they may present evidence of our good works (Acts 9:39).

I sometimes wish that we could retire the phrase “full-time Christian service.” Of course we should honor our leaders, but every believer is a full-time servant of Jesus and of our neighbors. Paul makes this clear when he tells even slaves — who had little freedom to choose how they spent their time — that they are “serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:7; Colossians 3:23). In truth, we are all slaves marching in a procession that honors Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9).

So failure shouldn’t surprise or overwhelm us. I am not called to realize my artistic vision, but to be a vessel shaped by the finger of God. I may never inherit the promises in this life, but I can die still living by faith (Hebrews 11:13). I may never prosper, but I can sow abundantly. I may never proclaim, but I can leak.