If My People, Part 3: Conditions
“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 I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
II Chronicles 7:14
Micah 6:8 says simply, “He has shown thee, O Man, what is good and what the Lord desires of thee: but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
As poetic as that verse is, it is hard sometimes to put feet on it—to see how that works in daily life. The 2 Chronicles verse in some ways is a parallel passage, and expands Micah 6:8 into four principle tasks.
First, we are to humble ourselves. This tends to be one of the harder things for us Americans to do. Our spirit of rugged individualism and self reliance can be at odds with humility before the divine majesty. There is a place for determination, self reliance, independence…but it is very limited. Christ taught that without Him, we can do nothing, and Paul calls us to bear one another’s burdens. Yet in the same breath he says we are to carry our own load. In other words, we do have things that are for us to accomplish and it takes real effort on our part to do them, but that does not mean we do them alone or without the empowerment from God. More importantly, we are dependent on Him, and before Him, our rugged individualism is less than an ant moving a dust mote.
Have you ever met someone with a commanding presence? Whether intimidating or benevolent, some people are imbued with or have developed a majestic dignity that radiates from them, commanding respect, and in some cases inspire humility among those they encounter, simply because of who they are or their office, or both. If you have not met someone like that, I’m sorry. I hope you do someday. There are people who hold positions of leadership, and then there are people who are truly leaders, regardless of the position they hold. These can represent the very best and worst of humanity, depending on how they use their charisma. If we are ants, then they are the queen. By comparison, the commanding presence, the majesty of God is greater than the sun to the ant queen.
We sing of Jesus meek and mild, and we root for God like a superhero, and we miss the point. His invitation of intimacy has caused us all too often to put Him in a superhuman box, not the divine Creator Almighty. As a blade of grass before a hurricane, we bend before Him. To do otherwise would be inconceivable. Now we see through a mirror darkly, and bring Him just a little higher than us, when Scripture commands otherwise. To humble ourselves is to treat God as He is, not as we perceive Him. It is an act of the will to look past our perceptions. It proves we know and acknowledge Him because we give Him the deference now, while we are shielded from His glory, that His undiluted Presence will compel and inspire us to give Him.
Second, we are to pray. Ok, that sounds easy, and is the one task of the four that we focus on when parroting the verse. But remember that prayer comes in the context of having first humbled ourselves before the Almighty. Prayer is ‘merely’ a conversation that happens to have God as one of the parties, yet it takes on so much more significance when coming from a heart of humility. God honours us by allowing us to petition Him in such a manner, and by His delighting in our joining with Him to redeem a fallen world. Prayer is a holy thing, even if it is a daily or casual activity. When we are doing the kind of business with God that this verse calls us to, it is no trivial small talk—it surpasses treaty negotiations in magnitude.
Third, we are to seek His face. Here is a curve ball. We are worker ants before the sun, and not only has He invited us to converse with Him, but we are to seek His very face—to know Him fully. An ant seeking out the face of the sun will vaporize long before approaching it, but we have not only been invited, but commanded to do so, with the assurance that we will survive the process.
When we look into the sky, we see the sun and it appears to be something the size of our fingernail, in spite of the power of its heat and light. It is so far away that we give it some credit and respect, but it is easy enough to ignore and even evade by going indoors. But when we see a scale model astronomy display of the solar system, and begin to comprehend its magnitude and how far away it is from us and still has the power it does, our perspective changes.
It is the same with God. Yet, He invites us in and strengthens us to be intimate with Him, but only after we understand somewhat better the magnitude of the invitation, and gain a sense of perspective that He is 1) real, 2) with real power, 3) has a purpose, and 4) has the means and 5) will to accomplish that purpose. It is only by seeking His face that we begin to understand how small are the problems we face, how small are our own agendas and dreams, how big and majestic are His, and the roles He desires for us to have with Him in accomplishing them. We are to fill all of our hopes, dreams, plans, and agendas with Him.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, the voyagers sail east on the ocean to the edge of the world. As they do so, the light becomes stronger and brighter, for they are actually approaching Aslan’s country, which is a physical manifestation of heaven. Yet, as they go, they adjust to their environment, the local food and water strengthening their eyes so that they not only can tolerate the light, but see even more clearly by it. This is an allegory of the process of seeking God’s face—that as we fill ourselves with more and more of Him, we are strengthened and perceive the world more clearly and truly. And not just the world, but ourselves also.
Finally, we are to turn from our wicked ways. After we have done the first three tasks, the only reasonable thing for us to do is to live our lives in the reality of who God is. We understand our smallness and humility before Him, we have begun to converse with Him, and now we are knowing Him from seeking His face, and anything in our lives that is not consistent or in harmony with what we now know needs must be abandoned.
Many people falsely think (and many false religions falsely teach) that we must repent before we can approach God. But it is only after we comprehend (to whatever extent we can) who He is that we understand from what we should repent and why. Again, we see through a mirror darkly, so we do not know how far we are from Him and His ways.
It goes something like this. You have been exploring a dark deep cave. Yeah, you tried to be careful to stay clean, but you know you got a little dirt, or mud, or whatever on you. You’ve knocked of some of the big pieces, so you are probably ok. As you head back to the mouth of the cave and the first rays of sunlight reach in feebly, you see a bit more of the soiling you’ve received. You grimace, but oh well. It will be easy to clean up. However, the closer you get to the mouth, the more you realize how dirty you are, until in full light, you realize your clothes are ruined and even some of your skin is stained by the mud and dirt, and will not be completely removed by a hot shower and strong soap. The sunlight has revealed the truth about your expedition to the cave, and it is only then that you realize your efforts at brushing off the dirt have only resulting in smearing things around and pushing the mess deeper into the fibers of fabric.
The closer we get to God, the clearer the magnitude of our need becomes apparent. It doesn’t matter who in the group is dirtier, all are filthy. Comparative cleanness is a joke. If we want the land healed, we need to realize how much healing we need first.
Now, in truth, as Christians we have been cleaned fully. It is a past action and completed, even while we were still in the cave. And we have been given the ability to see more clearly in its depths so as to avoid slipping and muddy spots. Yet we all still do get dirty again, yet it is as if we are in Teflon armour and the dirt slides off again. However, the purpose of the armour is not so that we can play in the mud, but to let us do the job of helping others out of the cave. How can we do that when we are engaging in the same behavior they do and playing around with them rather than showing them the way out somehow?
While we are already forgiven, it is possible to lose sight of His face, to forget why we are there and slip back into old habits. This verse, for the Christian, reminds us of the process we have gone through and continually go through as we abide in Christ. This verse is not a magic incantation or self-help formula that we can do once and see the world transform before our eyes. It is as we live out all four tasks daily, working out our salvation in the power of the Holy Spirit within us, and guiding others in doing so, that God is able to forgive sin and heal our land.
I have no doubt that the organizers of the day of fasting and prayer that Governor Rick Perry has declared for Texas on August 6 will use this verse heavily, probably even the theme verse. Fine. There is a benefit to reminding us as a body of these things, of coming together as a body to worship and repent. I even believe it will do some good, that God will hear and act. I plan to participate myself in some way. My goal in these last few posts is to help us approach it rightly, in humility and wisdom, not in ignorance or worse, in the expectation that we are compelling God to act according to our bidding. It is quite the other way around.