This pastoral passage was originally written for LRBC for 20 February, 2022.
A young woman I knew years ago once needed to have a “DTR” conversation with a guy who had been spending time with her. The conversation was needed because she wanted to know what the young man’s intentions were – hence she demanded that he Define The Relationship. Relationships of any kind only function when both parties know where they stand (As it turned out he was oblivious to the necessity and had no ulterior intentions!).
Between God and any human being, God has defined what the relationship is and how we should behave appropriately. Isaiah 66:2 is one place where he has clarified this. Rather than wanting us to relate to him by doing great things for him (as in Isaiah 66:1-2a), he respects the person who is “humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Each of these three show us something of the way humans should relate to God.
- Humility in the biblical Hebrew language carries the idea of being ‘poor’ or having nothing. For a human to be humble before God they must recognise that they are dependent creatures. Everything good we have going for us must ultimately be attributed to our Creator. The things we have are provided by God (cf. Psalm 104). We exist because God provides and is pleased to sustain our existence. The proper response to this is humility. We recognise that we have been made for God, to worship and glorify him. Just as the planets revolve around the sun, we revolve around God who provides light and life to us. That entails humility.
- The ‘contrite in spirit’ also know how to relate properly toward God. The person who does this recognises themselves as a sinner and God as holy. The response to this recognition is to be contrite – knowing we are ruined without a word of mercy. The Hebrew word carries the idea of being ‘broken’. We can’t be contrite without a sense of our sin. This is why the story of Simon the Pharisee and the ‘sinful woman’ in Luke 7:36-50 is helpful. The woman was contrite and broken. The man was not. He was at ease and at peace. He kept his dignity – he didn’t feel his sin, and so wasn’t prepared to be broken and was unable to relate to God in the way he asks us in Isaiah 66:2. The woman, blessed with a second chance, was broken but grateful and pleasing to God.
- God is pleased also with those who ‘tremble at his word’ because this attitude demonstrates that they know that they are a subject, and God is the King. They know that when God speaks, they are obliged to listen carefully, and do what he asks. The story of John 6:60-69 has always been a favourite of mine – when most disciples wouldn’t accept Jesus’ words, the chosen twelve stuck with him. The story highlights the importance to respect, trust and commitment to God’s word. Even when it is hard, when you can’t make sense of it, and others are turning their back on it. This attitude of trembling at God’s word fosters an inherently conservative inclination. We must be cautiously (not stubbornly) inflexible in our biblically-grounded faith in the face of cultural challenges to the contrary. That way, even if we get things wrong, our attitude toward God’s word is not.
These attitudes display the relationship between humans and God. Humility shows us as creatures in need of provision from our Creator. Contrition acknowledges we are sinners in need of grace from a holy God (grace which is provided to us in Jesus, which in turn opens up an even more wonderous relationship with God). Trembling at God’s word proves us as subjects in receiving instruction from our King.
All of these are things that western cultures militate against in one way or another, making them challenging attitudes to adopt.
We need a renewed sense of the beauty of these attitudes to be the people God will look at and be pleased with. We must desire God’s regard, see ourselves rightly as creatures, sinners, and subjects, and then act accordingly to be the kind of people in the world that God is pleased with.