Faith: Holy, Hidden, Intimate

“Do not gloat over me, my enemies! For though I fall, I will rise again. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.” — Micah 7:8, NLT

We value intelligence in people — and strength, some skills, experiences of certain types, and a shifting set of appearances that we call “character” or “leadership.”

God values faith. This is scandalous to us; it levels and defeats our hierarchies. Admittedly, there is a thoughtfulness to faith, and it is strong. Skills serve it, sometimes, though they ever strive to run ahead. Faith is shaped by experience, while refusing to be bound or defined by it. But the great scandal, to minds steeped in human culture, is that faith presents no consistent face, not even for one generation. Often, it does not appear at all.

In the wild, fierce stories of Elisha, one moment stands out. A wealthy married woman, known to us only as “the Shunammite,” sets apart a room for the “holy man of God” (2 Kings 4:9, NIV). In return — and over her anguished, doubting protest (verse 16) — he prophesies that she will bear a son, and she does. Years pass, and the little boy dies suddenly, perhaps of heat stroke. The mother stretches him on Elisha’s bed, like a mute accusation, and then with steely determination sets out to confront the prophet. To her husband and Elisha’s servant she will say only, “All is well” (verse 26, ESV; Msg “Everything’s fine”; compare verse 23), a false screen of shalom, “peace.” Behind it, she is single-minded, all her fear and grief and rage and hope channeled in one direction.

The prophet sees her coming, watches her dismiss his servant. He does not move to meet her, but stands on his mountain, waiting, waiting, till she completes her journey and seizes his feet. Yet when his servant starts to intervene, he barks out, “Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me” (verse 27, MEV).

The remarkable note here is precisely Elisha’s ignorance. Two chapters later, we read about the intense frustration of the king of Aram (Syria), because the king of Israel routinely anticipates his troop movements. Summoning his military council, the Aramean king demands to know which of them is the spy; one officer replies, “None of us, my lord the king, but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom” (6:12, NIV).

Elisha can overhear the distant plotting of men in another country, but he cannot discern the sorrow of a woman at his feet. God honors as something holy the grief of a mother, the anguish of a parent; it is a pain that He knows better than anyone. He draws a curtain round it, like the dense darkness of Good Friday (Matthew 27:45; compare Exodus 10:21; 20:21). Even His prophet is not allowed to peer within. God shuts her in, alone, with Him.

It is in such hidden places that faith takes root and grows. The heart of God for us may be still waters and soft, abundant grass; but His path to the next meadow leads through the dark valley. Somehow, only there can “He” become “You” (Psalm 23:1-4). A lifelong intimacy (verses 5-6) is forged; we come out of the wilderness leaning on our Beloved (Song of Songs 8:5). Something in us relaxes and yields, even to the rod, as we find Him sufficient in our suffering.

Granted, the process is not pretty. The Shunammite’s faith is a flickering candle, a tent under siege: “My master, did I ask you for a son? Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t make me hope for something that won’t happen’?” (2 Kings 4:28, NIRV). She will not even entertain the possibility that the servant bearing the prophet’s staff may resolve the crisis; she is adamant that Elisha must go with her (verses 29-30). I for one am tempted to keep score, ranking her lower in faith than the centurion content to have Jesus “just say the word” (Matthew 8:8, NIV). But this, I strongly suspect, is beside the point. God is not keeping score; He is drawing a space, around an affliction, so that the faint embers of faith that are in the heart may stand out against a backdrop of darkness, and fan into flame. See, already, how focused she is, and how wholehearted! God honors the Shunammite, and she continues to walk with Him (2 Kings 8:1-6).

We see something like this in the Gospels, when a widow steps into the temple to make her last two coins an offering to God. Her poverty serves as a cloak; nobody except Jesus pays any attention to her. And He, so far as we know, gives her no word, no touch, no blessing of abundance; He leaves her in the holy place of commitment, alone with God. The Savior, who went out of His way to pick Zacchaeus out of a tree, takes not one step toward this woman. Yet He shares her secret, calling the disciples to Him (Mark 12:43), commending her to them (and us). He lets us glimpse how, in heaven, the Father does the same, summoning angels, pointing proudly, bragging on those who trust in Him (compare Job 1:8; 2:3).

No doubt He watches over her. But the curtain descends. We are not told any more of her story; we must await the day when all such hidden devotion comes to light. For now, on our pages, she trundles slowly out of view, perhaps resting in joyful hope, perhaps despairing and reproaching herself.

This is in the very nature of faith: frequently the attaboys, the assurances, the felt Presence are withdrawn. Night presses in. “God has driven me away and made me walk in darkness instead of light,” cries the survivor in the devastated city (Lamentations 3:2, GW). “We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows,” laments the erring nation (Isaiah 59:9, NIV). Job longs for the days “when He caused His lamp to shine upon my head, and by His light I walked through darkness” (Job 29:3, NET); now he has no light. Faith is the great leveler: to raise it, strength, skill, wisdom, authority are all snuffed out. Faith blooms in hiddenness.

But God looks on — catching His breath, betraying the glimmer of a smile. “Do you see that one?” He whispers. He draws the curtain round, but inside He is already working. The stricken child is stretched out on His bed. He stands watching, ready to act — to heal and restore, or to comfort and receive — when faith is fully uttered or alight.

“Who among you walks in darkness, and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord; let him lean on his God” (Isaiah 50:10, CSB).

To be sure, Isaiah goes on to warn those who respond by kindling their own fires, making their own light (verse 11, ICB). But you who read this are not in that place. The word of faith has taken root in your heart; it trembles on the tip of your tongue (Romans 10:8). Stay within the curtained darkness. Take hold of His feet. Hold fast.

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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.