More about hard issues

The Measure of Your Soul

     Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’
      “This is what the LORD says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’“
     Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
     Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.
—2 Samuel 12: 7-13, NIV

We think the lowest point a person reaches is the most revealing about his character. We see this at any party that gets out of hand. Someone gets too much alcohol. They start putting the make on someone else’s spouse, they start making loud and offensive remarks, or they begin a lewd striptease. Sometimes the victim is rescued by a date or a spouse or even the host with the sudden proclamation that it is time to go home. Sometimes, especially if the conduct is lewd, the victim is allowed to go all the way for the entertainment of the others, who cover their eyes, but peek through their fingers. The victim awakens to shame and humiliation the next day. Or maybe the victim takes it in stride, saying, “Wow, I must have really been smashed last night!”

But whenever this happens, someone in the crowd invariably says, “This is a side of Penelope we seldom see,” or more often, “Well, now the real Poindexter comes out.”

Because, you see, we think that the lowest point a person reaches is the most revealing about his character. We either cover up the flaws of our heroes, or we esteem them less, or we discard them when we find that they are human. We take the lowest point of a person’s soul and judge it by that.

So when we read the biblical accounts, where the writers tell all the dirt on their heroes, yet extol them as heroes, we marvel at what we find. These accounts are earthy, we say. They are refreshingly honest, we say. But most of us find these texts disquieting, because we believe we see the heroes crashing to the ground, disgraced, refuted, not heroes at all.

David sent his friend, Uriah the Hittite, on a suicide mission so that he could marry the widow. Yet despite this incident, the Scriptures herald David as a great king!

It’s a good thing for David that Israel was a kingdom, because if it had been a democracy, the legislature would have impeached him and they would probably have thrown him out of office for abuse of power. Yet David is given credit for most of the psalms, the hymnbook of the Temple! We would have banished those psalms, or at least taken his name off them. David is the one through whom God sends the Messiah, and it is on David’s throne the Messiah sits—so we say, “no disrespect intended, Lord, but we would not have done it that way.”

We are very uncomfortable when we read Old Testament narratives like this one, because the biblical writers do not share our values. For us the lowest point of a person’s character is the measure of their soul, but for the biblical writers,

I’m sure you’ve noticed that none of our biblical heroes would be heroes today.

Abraham was a liar. He misrepresented his wife as his sister. He suffered the indignity of receiving a lecture about personal morality from a pagan—and to make it excruciatingly embarrassing, the pagan was right, and Abraham was wrong. Then he fooled around with a slave girl, with Sarah’s cooperation. Sarah was no shrinking violet; she forced Abraham to send her rival and her rival’s son into the desert; surely she could have put a stop to it in the beginning. Neither Abraham nor Sarah would survive a background check today. But God chose them to be the ancestors of His chosen people—and reading about it, we say, “no disrespect intended, Lord, but we would not have done it that way.”

One day, Moses murdered an Egyptian who was harassing his people, and even his people saw the wrongness of his act. Surely Moses could never hold a security clearance today. Yet God chose Moses to lead His people out of Egypt and to give them the Law—and reading about it, we say, “no disrespect intended, Lord, but we would not have done it that way.”

Peter betrayed Jesus. Not the sort of person you or I would trust, but Jesus commissioned him as an apostle. That’s like making Benedict Arnold the President of the United States! So reading about it, we say, “no disrespect intended, Lord, but we would not have done it that way.”

The woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with expensive perfume was a horrible sinner, as Jesus’ hosts rightly pointed out. If a notorious woman who ran a house of ill-repute burst into the church, claimed to have seen the light, and asked to become a member, we might ask to see some evidence of amendment of life or even have her politely, but firmly escorted to the door. But Jesus accepted this woman’s penitential worship, forgave her all her sins, and lifted her up. So reading about it, we say, “no disrespect intended, Lord, but we would not have done it that way.”

Paul persecuted the church, causing many people to come to their deaths. With a background like that, he could never pass the psychological screening to become clergy today. Yet Jesus commissioned Paul to be an apostle, to write a huge chunk of Holy Scripture, to bring the gospel to the gentiles, and to found many churches. Reading about it, we say, “no disrespect intended, Lord, but we would not have done it that way.”

Why does the Bible have this assessment? Why does it uphold heroes despite their flaws? Because the biblical writers know that we have fleshly things pulling us down, but nothing pulling us up. Every human sin has a mitigating circumstance; sometimes it is faint, but it is always present. We get tired, we get hungry, we get constipated, we feel surges of hormones; all these things affect our judgment or make us cranky, all these things pull us down, but there is nothing of the flesh that pulls us up. There is always a mitigating circumstance for sin, but never a mitigating circumstance for virtue. Therefore, we are wrong and Scripture is right:

We are really a bunch of smarty pants, you know. We are so smug in our sophistication and our technology. We think we can improve ancient worship and hymnody; we take our blue pencil and edit what the ancients have written, correcting it as we go. When we read the Old Testament accounts of flawed heroes, we arrogantly think we have a higher moral code. But we cannot even tell the difference between cynicism and wisdom! Our arrogance is refuted and our stupidity is revealed. We are wrong and they are right! The lowest point to which a person can sink is not the measure of the soul, because there are always mitigating circumstances for sin, but never any for virtue. Therefore the ancients are wiser when they tell us:

Look at yourself, the good things you do, and the evil that you have done when your flesh was weak. Look at the despair that you feel every time you realize that your flesh will be weak again and you will do evil things again. This is why our modern confessions of sin are corporate and not personal. We are afraid that if we confess our actual personal shortcomings, God will measure us by them, and we will suffer loss.

Take consolation in Jesus. He does not believe that the lowest point you can reach is the most revealing about your soul. The Lord Jesus knows that the measure of your soul is not how low you can go, but how high you can rise.

Jesus descended from the Throne of God, down past the seraphim, the cherubim, the thrones, the dominions, the virtues, the powers, the principalities, the archangels, the angels, the stars, the planets, and the clouds; all the way down to a handkerchief-sized country into the womb of a young virgin of the working class. He was born in a stinky stable and laid in an itchy manger, and suffered the indignity of the cross, not to mention potty training. Jesus descended very low.

Jesus rose from the tomb and, after commissioning His disciples, He ascended from the hillside, up past the clouds, the planets, the stars, the angels, the archangels, the principalities, the powers, the virtues, the dominions, the thrones, the cherubim, and even the mighty seraphim, and sat down on the Throne of God, where He rules over all the universe! Yes, Jesus descended very low, but He ascended very high, to His throne in heaven, where He rules over all things!

This is why David confessed all his sins to the Lord. He did not hide his iniquity from Him. And that is why you can safely confess all your faults and sins and shortcomings to Jesus. Your real sins, the ones you try not to remember. You not only try to hide them from Jesus, you try to hide them from yourself. You can freely confess everything to Him—all the dark secrets of your soul, things so incriminating you would never even write them down. You can confess these to Jesus and receive His forgiveness, because:

Therefore follow the advice of the Psalmist; acknowledge your sins to Jesus, do not hide your iniquity; confess your transgressions to the Lord, and He will forgive the guilt of your sin. Acknowledge how low you have gone, He will measure your soul by how high you can rise—and He will lift you very high indeed.