In God’s presence, not only did Isaiah see that his goodness was not that good, he saw that his strengths were not that strong. Isaiah specifically bemoans the filthiness of his lips. A prophet’s “lips” were his trade. He would have felt about his mouth the way a pianist feels about her fingers, or the way a quarterback feels about his arm. But in God’s presence, Isaiah declares even those strengths worthless.5
The King James Version of the Bible translates what Isaiah said as “Woe is me! for I am undone.” I think that translation probably better carries what Isaiah was trying to say. In the presence of God, Isaiah felt like he was literally coming apart at the seams. The “glue” that held his life together—his goodness, his accomplishments, his strengths—he now found utterly worthless. What did he have left? His goodness was a sham and his strengths were worthless. What else of worth did he have to hold onto?
The apostle Paul records a similar experience. As a Jewish leader, Paul prided himself on his obedience to the law. He kept it better than anyone he knew. But one day as he meditated on the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet,” he realized that he had always wanted more—more success, more fame, more power, more recognition. What he had was never enough (Rom 7:9). He began to realize that all his supposed “righteousness” was, in reality, “dung” (KJV) or “garbage” (NIV). Actually, the word Paul uses in Philippians 3:8 is scubala, the kind of word your parents would have grounded you for using. In the light of God’s holiness, Paul saw even the praiseworthy things on which he had proudly based his identity to be a disgusting pile of scubala.
Each of us has something that defines us, some strength that we believe holds our lives together. What is it for you?
Here’s a way of figuring that out: When you’re worried about your future, to what do you look to tell yourself that things will be okay? Your talents? “Even if I lose it all, I can rebuild.” Your family? “As long as we have each other, we’ll be fine.” Your morality? “At least I’m a decent person. Good always wins in the end.” Your wealth? “We can weather this storm. We have plenty in savings.”
We can truly know God only when we see that everything else we rely on—our intelligence, our virtue, our possessions, our religion, and even our relationships—are worthless in our pursuit to understand, please, and serve the only one who matters.
Thus, God’s gracious work in us begins, as it did with Isaiah and Paul, by leading us to despair. Just as Job had to realize the smallness of his mind in order to receive the wisdom of God, so Isaiah had to realize the filthiness of his heart to embrace the grace of God.
God doesn’t reveal our sins and our shortcomings in order to embarrass or humiliate us. Quite the opposite. He wants us to know his love, the greatest treasure in the universe, and it’s not until we see how sinful and incapacitated we are that God can introduce us to that love. Despair leads us to a new hope, a hope found in his grace and not in our goodness. As John Stott says, “We can cry ‘Hallelujah’ with authenticity only after we have cried ‘Woe is me, for I am lost.’”
Greear, J. D., and David Jeremiah. 2018. Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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