One of the most beautiful passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 61:2-3, says that the Lord will comfort those who mourn and provide solace for those who grieve -- bestowing on them "a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair."
What a relevant biblical promise for so many who are hurting these days due to financial losses, job losses, marital strife, and worse.
Relevant, that is, if we understand the word pictures that the prophet Isaiah employs in these verses.
In biblical times, abject sorrow and grief and mourning and anguish and despair were expressed in very tangible and physical terms.
First, the individual, family, community, or citizens of a given region would tear the garments they were wearing.
Second, they would throw ashes and dust on their heads.
Third, they would tear out, cut off, or shave the hair on their heads.
Fourth, they would remove their shoes, refrain from wearing nice clothes, quit using facial creams or oils, and stop perfuming themselves. No soap. No showers. No deodorant. No fresh clean clothes every day.
Fifth, they would dress in sackcloth -- the equivalent of wearing rough, scratchy, but sturdy farmer's market potato sacks.
Sixth, they would sit in silence or cry or weep and then sing songs of lament.
Seventh, they would fast, refraining from food and sometimes from water for a time.
So what are some of the ways today that we can submit ourselves to God and demonstrate our trust in His mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love?
First, let's remember that while physical expressions of humility before God may take different forms in various cultures, they're as valid today as ever.
Such physical expressions of humility before God can include bowing down before God, lying prostrate on the floor before God, weeping over sin in our lives or the lives of others, washing each other's feet, praying for one another, and taking time off work for the purpose of silence and meditation and prayer and Bible reading.
Physical expressions of humility before God can also include doing difficult or menial but necessary acts of service in the church, in the workplace, in institutions of learning, in hospitals and care centers, on the streets and rescue missions, in your home, in other people's homes, and in the community at large.
As well, physical expressions of humility can include public confession.
Second, let's not forget seven very important words: "Life is a long lesson in humility." For our wedding 26 and a half years ago, someone gave my wife, Renée, and me a napkin holder imprinted with that statement. Again, those seven words are: "Life is a long lesson in humility." If you think about it, that's a very bold and telling thing to say to a young couple-but very true. And very good. Even when the lessons are hard.
Third, let's not forget that in time humility bears rich fruit. True, Renée and I have learned hard lessons in humility -- including several severe losses of our own -- but we have learned the sweetness of humility as well. Because God is near to the humble, God gives grace to the humble. So Renée and I want to be where God and His grace are.
Fourth, let's always remember that humility is not denying the amazing strengths, talents, abilities, blessings, and gifts of God at work in and through my life.
Fifth, let's not overlook the fact that humility is dependence on Jesus Christ and the strong awareness that God is at work in all his love and power in the other person's life just as he is in mine.
Sixth, let's not overlook the fact that one of the paths to humility is thankfulness. Thankfulness for what God has done in and through my life, in the lives of those I love, and in the lives of my church family.
What about you? Where is your heart today? Are you wholeheartedly following Jesus Christ? Are you dependent on Him? Do you feel humble, righteous, and wise in the Lord's eyes? Do you feel cleansed, forgiveness, blessed, and honored by God? Do you feel thankful for all He's done in your life and in our midst? I hope so.
Or perhaps you're feeling conflicted inside. May you've experienced crushing circumstances or overwhelming temptations that have all but shipwrecked your faith. Perhaps you've lost more money this past year than you ever thought possible. Perhaps you've lost the best job you've ever had, to boot.
Let's never forget that the Lord will comfort those who mourn and provide solace for those who grieve -- bestowing on them "a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair" (Isaiah 61:2-3).