Stopping the Shame Cycles of Massah

The devil [said] "For it is written . . . "

 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

In 2002 I was in my third residency at Gordon-Conwell as I finished up my Doctorate.  The first day of class Dr Haddon Robinson, the seventy-one-year-old distinguished professor, gave his famous opening lecture to a classroom full of doctoral pastors.  I was taken in by his Charlton Heston voice, natural movements, and his winsome illustrations.  He opened with a story about his first day as a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois with his advisor and classics scholar Dr. Otto Dieter. 

"In the eerie classics library sat Dr. Dieter, a chain smoker wreathed in smoke. I went in, and he said to me, ‘Well, what do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to preach.’ ‘Preach, huh? You believe you need the Holy Spirit to preach?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘You’re out of luck,’ said Dr. Dieter. ‘He hasn’t been on campus for fifty years.’”

On the long library table between the two of us lay a pulpit Bible, covered in dust. Dr. Dieter pointed at it and said, “You know how that book differs from Aristotle, Quintilian, and Plato? I’ll tell you: that book’s alive. I don’t know anybody whose life changed by studying those books, but I do know some people whose lives have been changed by studying that book.”

“That was a word of grace to me, Here I was alone, facing this hard-bitten German professor. And that was like God saying to me, ‘Robinson, you need the Holy Spirit, and you need the Bible, don’t forget it.’”

Haddon's lecture continued as he talked about the task of handling a Living Word, the integrity and honor, the commitment to not dissect the life out of it, any time you dissect something you kill it, but let it live in its own natural habitat.   As he moved toward his climactic point the room became tense, at least for me, "Listen, pastors, each Sunday you stand before God's children and speak on God's behalf, this is a terrible responsibility.  When we preach the Bible, we preach with biblical authority. And like Augustine says: What the Bible says, God says.

  "You better make sure the Lord said thus when you preach from the Thus-saith-the-Lord words because if he didn't you have committed the ultimate rape of Scriptures.  If you are not interpreting God's word with an integrity on par with the kind of sacredness of God's voice, you are raping God's word."

So if, for example, you take Ruth and preach on how to relate to in-laws, the person hearing the sermon thinks, If I don't deal with my mother-in-law this way, I am disobedient to God. To me, that's a rape of the Bible. You're saying what God doesn't say.  

That moment was a watershed moment in my life.  I couldn't stop crying. I was keenly aware of this tension in my life between what I knew to be Truth and how I was living that truth.   There was a kind of dissonance between what God was revealing to me from Scriptures about his Spirit of love and grace and what I would get up and say in the classes, chapels, and Sunday worship services.   An inner tug-of-war stretched my soul and my existence into two halves.  

"Thou art the man!" Nathan's words to David were inescapable.  I felt singled out, exposed before the Eternal.  I felt like the lone culprit in the room.  The lone Jonah on the ship.   

I got up and walked out of class freighting this heaviness of dishonesty with God's word.  I found myself in the beautiful chapel, sunlight streaming in through the stain glass windows, sitting in the shadows and asking myself over and over, "What am I going to do?"  I knelt, then prostrated myself on the floor.  I cried and cried under the heaviness of the words I had just heard.  I had preached, taught, guided from these Scriptures and knowingly misapplied them, knowingly misused them, proof texting and eisegeting.  

I realize you may be thinking that I am being way too harsh on myself, over-burdening myself or simply just being too sensitive.  But here's the thing, I knew this wasn't me being harsh on me, this was God confronting and calling me to change.  There is a difference.  The former lurks under the despair that nothing will change, dis-courages you from taking any risk, and you are left with a denial of all new possibilities, as you seal yourself behind the dank cellars of fear.  The latter is an audacity challenging you to change, en-couraging risky faith, and calls you to step through the fear into the beyond.

All that said the initial engagement of God, to jar be free in my thinking, free in my spirit, and free in my living is heavy, existentially angst-filled.

I ached with the thought that I derived my income, supported Julie and our 2-year-old and 3-year-old, from preaching things that supported an image of God as being transactional, legalistic, demanding, and hard-to-please.   My eschatology, soteriology, ecclesiology, Christology, pneumatology.... all of it was under the microscope.   Jesus' woes directed at the scribes, lawyers and Pharisees targeted my heart.   This was my humbling Damascus Road moment, God was unapologetically confronting my life with his love.  

I stayed there in that prostrate posture well into the afternoon.

When I got back to my dormitory, I couldn't sleep.  I laid down on the bed and again started crying, staring up at the wooden rafters above my head.  I prayed and reflected, asked God to help me know what to do.  How would I support my family?  What would my friends and colleagues say?  Something had to be done.  Something would be done.  The Voice always moves us into life, moves us forward in resurrection.  Satan always holds us captive to our fears, shame, and distrust.

Satan's interpretive schemes perpetuate the status quo--deal with your shame by playing the devil's game.  Jesus is going to jettison this game, and open up a new world of shamelessness, freedom, grace, and love.  If Satan can loop Jesus into the human games of shaming, blaming, grandstanding, people-pleasing Jesus will simply provide us just another coping mechanism for the kingdoms of this world, the status quo.

Satan hermeneutic fetters us to the cyclical worlds of shame, the world where we read the Scriptures as though they are a primarily a checklist of things we are to do to deal with our shame.  Jesus, on the other hand, interprets the Scriptures as Good News about what God has done and is doing to deal with our shame.   This idea of Good News will be central to Jesus' message coming out of the wilderness.  The Gospel is good news, not a to-do-list.  It's history, what God did, not steps, what we do.   When we read Scriptures through Satan's hermeneutic shame is never dealt with, we're just given some busywork to perpetuate it: 

1. shame (I'm not enough) >
2. get-the-world's-attention (do something great to mask that feeling) > 
3. show the world that God reacts to my doing (if I jump he sends angels)
4. despair (realize how fleeting and temporal that moment of attention getting is) >
5. fail (realize the feeling of not being enough is still there) >  

Jesus says, "Do not put God to the test."

Once again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6.  Moses is speaking to the next generation of Israelites as they prepare to go into the Promise Land.  He reminds them of their father's generation who tested God at the waters of Massah, and Moses says, when you go into the land that God promised you do not go back to that "testing" disposition of your fathers.  

When Israel got to Horeb there wasn't enough water and instead of praying and asking God to guide them, which is what God wanted to teach them, they demanded Moses magically make water appear as proof that God was with him.  They filed a legal complaint against Moses and Aaron, threatening them with capital punishment for bringing them out into the wilderness.   Moses cries out to God and God has Moses strike a rock with his staff and water comes out of it.  

What ends up happening is a precedent and pattern is set in motion for the next 40 years that whenever there is not enough they demand Moses do something to prove that God is with them still, and the cycle continues over and over.   Hitting rocks, demanding quail, begging for Manna, victory, clothing, the list goes on and on.  Because the first generation of Israel doesn't trust God, they go through these cycles and never enter into the Promise Land.  

Moses says to the next generation, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah."


Read Devotional.  
Reflection.   What stuck out to you in the reading?  Think through how you would fill this in:   If only I had _________________'s attention then I would be enough.  When you are not abiding in the Shadow who's attention do you think will make you enough?   Reflect on the places where you have sensed you had God's attention and how that made you feel.
Prayer. Pray a lectio divina prayer with Deut 6:16-19
Conversation.  Have a conversation with Cleopas about all of this.