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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Peace Through His Blood

Every year at this season, I get suckered in again.  I start yearning for peace, both as an inner condition of soothing tranquility and as an outward ease and warmth in relationships.  As Christmas approaches, I expect the peace of God to descend and enfold me like a comforting blanket, or like Isaiah’s river of peace (Isaiah 48:18; 66:12): wave upon wave, spreading out and bringing life.  But every year, in me and around me, I find tension, anxiety, conflict, resentment.  My wife and I talk with people who dread the holidays with their family gatherings and memories.  Perhaps it may help to remind ourselves of some basic truths concerning Biblical peace:

 1.  Lasting peace, the healing reconciliation of God doesn’t come to us simply by contemplating the baby Jesus. Here part of the problem may lie in all the cards and carols that have the angels proclaiming,

Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace, good will toward men.  (Luke 2:14, KJV)

In our best texts, eudokia (“good pleasure”) is in the dative rather than the nominative case, and so most modern translations say “and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (NIV) or “peace among men with whom He is pleased” (RSV); one could also render it “peace among men of good will.” (1)

The angels’ declaration is made to the shepherds, indicating that it may be God’s pleasure to extend peace along different lines than we would expect, whether our criteria are based on Mosaic Law or on Santa’s “nice” and “naughty” lists.  Even outcasts who sleep outside, who have not waited patiently nor searched diligently for God’s salvation — even the unworthy and unlikely — are invited into peace; but we are given fair warning that it will change us to receive the peace of God.  This echoes the prophecy of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, that the Coming One will rise upon us like the sun and “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79, KJV, RSV), a way we have not known (Romans 3:17; Isaiah 59:8).

2.  Peace does not come to us automatically even when we direct our attention to Jesus and sing His praise. Nothing is easier, at a modern Christmas, than to go through these motions.  But peace with God requires that we acknowledge that we are rebels, and lay down our arms, and even die.

Some 30 years after the nativity, on Palm Sunday, a crowd forms, centered on Jesus, hailing Him as their King, rejoicing, praising God.  They cheer about “peace in heaven” (Luke 19:38).  Even the great throng gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover joins in welcoming Him (John 12:12-13).  Yet Jesus weeps, telling the city named for peace, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!  But now they are hid from your eyes” (Luke 19:42, RSV).  The people laid down their garments rather than their hearts; they received Him in accordance with their own expectations, and thought He would make peace by destroying their enemies.

Jesus Himself says that He comes to bring, not peace on earth, but division, a sword (Luke 12:51; Matthew 10:34).  Simeon, rejoicing over the baby Jesus, is ready to depart in peace, but also sees that disruption is coming for many, and that a dividing sword will go through Mary’s soul (Luke 2:29, 34-35).  Something in her will die.  And I too stand under the swordlike word of God (Hebrews 4:12-13; Revelation 1:16).

3.  The birth announces the gift of peace, but peace cannot reign in our hearts until we have followed Jesus to the cross. He is our peace offering (Leviticus 3); His is “the punishment that brought us peace” (Isaiah 53:5, NIV).

Paul says that God has made peace with us through Jesus, in a process that began in the Bethlehem manger and ended at Calvary:

For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross.  (Colossians 1:19-20, NIV)

We have peace with God as we receive Jesus by faith (Romans 5:1-2), and we enter into peace with other people as we allow Jesus to put to death our hostility.  He is our peace (Ephesians 2:14-17; Micah 5:5).

God’s peace in me begins with the Incarnation, not because the baby “sleep[s] in heavenly peace,” (2) but because He is “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12, NIV).  As Luther says, God “sends, as it were, an earthworm lying in weakness, helpless without his mother, and [later] he suffers him to be nailed to a cross.” (3)  Both in the manger and on the cross, He puts to death all my proud expectations.  There is nothing left in me to draw me to Him, except the faith He gives; and so I die, and faith rises up in me.  His life, wholeness, righteousness, salvation, health, well-being, reconciliation, rest — all the richness of the Hebrew shalom — become mine as I enter into His death.

4.  The world still does not know “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42), but “the God of peace” continues to sanctify His Church, and each believer (1 Thessalonians 5:23). His river of peace washes over us and heals us.  I like the Amplified Bible’s expansion of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper:

. . . in Me you may have perfect peace and confidence.  In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer — take courage, be confident, certain, undaunted — for I have overcome the world.  — I have deprived it of power to harm, have conquered it [for you].  (John 16:33)

“Let the peace of Christ rule [brabeuo] in your hearts” and in the Church, urges Paul (Colossians 3:15, NIV), even though others, particularly legalists, may try to rule against [katabrabeuo] us or disqualify us (2:18). (4)  His peace rules in us as we die to earthly hopes and desires (3:2, 5).  He is “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) as His peace rules in us, and Isaiah also promises, “Of the increase of His government and of peace there shall be no end” (9:7, Ampl).

Around us, the whole creation continues to groan (Romans 8:22), and peace will yet be taken from the earth (Revelation 6:4).  All are bound over to disobedience and unbelief, that all may receive mercy through faith (Romans 11:32, 20), finding life “from Him and through Him and to Him” (11:36), united with all creation, and at peace.

Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times in all ways.  The Lord be with you all.  (2 Thessalonians 3:16, RSV)

 

(1) William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1952, 1957), 319; Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), New Testament section, 671.  Compare Lewis Foster, note on Luke 2:14, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 1539: “Peace is not assured to all, but only to those pleasing to God — the objects of his good pleasure . . .”  Through the risen Jesus, “the God of peace” now works in believers what is “well-pleasing” [euarestos] in His sight (Hebrews 13:20-21).

(2) Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber, Stille Nacht (1818), tr. as Silent Night by John Freeman Young (1859).

(3) Roland H. Bainton, The Martin Luther Christmas Book (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1948), 48.

(4) Vine’s, New Testament section, 540, 537; Arndt and Gingrich, 146, 410.