Sometimes, a good dose of perspective is all that lies between me and a serenity of spirit which contents itself with God’s faithfulness and love despite circumstance, however awful. In short, everyone should read Isaiah.
It may have been only a Twitter quote by Tim Keller, but it was apt when I saw it: “Worry is not believing God will get it right, and bitterness is believing God got it wrong.” It was this exact anxiety which lead me recently to Isaiah.
Just have a read through Isaiah 40-41.
Have you read it? Are you sure?
Read it slowly again.
In his book, Prayer, Tim Keller (forgive my over-reliance on this brilliant man’s brilliant phrasing) puts it like this: “Perhaps the most life-giving and crucial part of repentance is found in using the joy and benefits of the gospel to both convict and assure you at the same time.” In my experience, noticing and feeling for one’s faults and vices is seen as uncomfortably close to self-mortification, perhaps something to be preached from the pulpit to guilt you into reform, but discouraged by friends—you’re really not so bad, don’t worry.
What I’ve noticed is that these verses are not intended (as is often my first response to much of Scripture) to make us feel insignificant, small or worthless—as indeed we are (worm-like, according Isa. 41:14). If it does, you’re not only staring down the wrong end of the telescope; in fact, it’s pointed at the wrong thing as well. If I’ve started reading about myself (insignificant as dust in Isa. 40:15), I need to refocus. My readings ought to begin on the bigness of God, (then, unavoidably, truthfully, the smallness of me).
So what is it telling me about God?
Love for the Fragile and Fading
It begins with His love for us: the imagery begins with lambs--fragile, vulnerable, liable to injury—and He carries us “in His arms” (Isa. 40:11) with gentle leading.
I find that immensely comforting and not in a trite, superficial way. Starting with the right image of God necessarily shapes the personality of our faith, so that we may have a right view of ourselves, and once we do, it is one in which we should rightly find comfort.
The imagery develops as we start to understand who God is, and what we are faced with is a picture of such immensity, such infinity, that without the assurance of His personal embrace, it would be fearsome—the scale of His almighty power and worth in comparison to us (just see Isa. 40:6-8, 15).
I wrote this sitting at a canal, next to a clump of clover and tiny daisies. Although there were many of them and the clump was extremely clumpy, you just know that a good frost would finish them (very likely, as we are heading into winter months in Cape Town). Isaiah points out that we are like fading flowers, grass that withers. Currently, South Africa is going through a massive drought, so we’ve had our share of plants which live brief lives and wither suddenly. And somehow, I wasn’t discouraged by the comparison. Surely we are so temporary, so finite and un-influential. Dust, field flowers, a drop in the ocean—we are insignificant, and there is nothing we can decide to do about it. This is the point of Isaiah 40:16-17.
And yet, Jesus says:
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? […] Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
Matt. 6:26, 28b-30.
He Who Calls the Stars by Name
Isaiah asks us to consider whether we can say to the One who does not miss or neglect a single star in the universe that we are disregarded. He asks “Why do you say […] ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?'” (Isa. 40:28). In the first half hour of my time at this canal, two pinecones fell (that I noticed), and it occurred to me: God knows about those two. And all the others. It was suddenly so awesome to me. It took me twenty minutes to notice there was a squirrel in the tree, knocking them off, and a further ten minutes to spot him, once I heard him.
If the God who can keep record of every star in history knows the movements of the sparrows—or the squirrel—how much more must He know me, my specific suffering, the anguish that is unique to me, the things that wear my heart out praying?
And still, to His children, He is a Shepherd. Moreover, He chose me, a soul that might pass unnoticed in a crowd (like one daisy in a field full of them), and He found me, as wormlike, an insignificant speck, and called me. He speaks to me in Christ, like He spoke to Israel:
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Fear not,
I am the one who helps you.”
Fear not, you worm Jacob,
you men of Israel!
I am the One who helps you, declares the Lord;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
Isa. 41:8-10, 13-14
He has mercy on my humble state, a state not worthy of recognition or distinction, and He calls the “worm,” the “bruised reed,” the “smouldering wick” to life (Isa. 42:5), to His arms.
A simple message, but perhaps one He saw fit that I should re-learn once again: when I am yearning; when I long to serve Him but find my efforts empty, or misinterpreted, or thwarted; when I try to honour Him by considering first His kingdom and His people, and find myself once again only self-justifying my selfishness and own immediate comfort; the prayers of my heart, the surrender I pray for daily (because I cannot keep it for long)—to all that, God replies: I am near. You are mine. I know.
The beauty of God-as-man is that Christ is perfectly acquainted with grief, humanity in all its hardship. He is not ignorant. So we read Isaiah 40:17-20 as a comfort. And we know and delight in the fact that it’s not about us.
The human existence is tainted with a kind of persistent existential dread that nothing really matters in life.
And Isaiah agrees.
However—conviction and affirmation—this realisation is the very opposite of despair. Nothing in this life matters, very well. But God does. And that Only Important Being distinguishes you and knows—completely knows! —you.
And calls you into relationship with Him.
It is the greatest source of comfort and purpose.