“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted.” — Isaiah 53:4, NRSV
“Know thyself!” says the old proverb. Taken correctly, it can actually be pretty fruitful advice. If we honestly check in with ourselves at many points throughout our days, we can get a sense of who we were, who we are, and who we run the risk of becoming. Unfortunately, we tend to confuse “Know thyself!” with “Think you know what you need to know concerning thyself!” Aside from the higher word count, the second, all-too-common phrase is problematic because it keeps us from recognizing where we are in our journey.
Looking at the Scripture quote above, we find one of the many Isaiah passages interpreted to explain the events that happened regarding Jesus. For many, this passage in Isaiah 53 is simply an explanation of how Jesus’ self-sacrifice did away with our sin on the cosmic level, and I think that is an unfortunately shallow interpretation. Yes, there is truth to it, but when it comes to this language of Jesus’ death, I fear we take too much for granted and miss a vital lesson.
While reading this chapter for my morning devotional a couple of days ago, the quote above struck a chord with me. The writer tells us that “our infirmities” and “our diseases” were what afflicted this servant. Then, we are informed that this servant is thought to be struck by the hand of God, one who must have done something to deserve this treatment. The reaction to this suffering one seems to be head-shaking and dismissal, as we are told “he was despised, and we held him of no account” (53:3). The twisted summary is that we are the cause of this person’s suffering, yet we act as though it is something deserved, as though the problem is with the afflicted. Sound familiar?
As someone born in 1991, I am often considered to be a part of the Millennial generation, which has drawn considerable (not wholly undeserved) ire from older generations who feel we are all entitled “snowflakes.” While I am not going to (in this post) discuss the ridiculous hypocrisy of that claim, I am going to point out a noticeable trend that is becoming more and more evident. It seems that we don’t like being held accountable for our part in the suffering of others, and we will do anything to avoid it. This, unfortunately, tends to include blaming others for what our words and actions have done to them.
This may chafe some people, but I do not subscribe to the idea of being “stuck in one’s ways.” I don’t care if you are 95 or 12 years old, if you are a part of this world, you have a responsibility to do the best you can to live a respectful and informed life. I don’t pretend that this is easy. It is hard to unlearn and alter deeply ingrained patterns of thought and living (trust me, I have learned this the hard way). However, it is flat-out impossible if we can’t honestly ask ourselves whether or not the opinions, beliefs, or actions by which we define ourselves are healthy and life-giving or not. Too often, we take for granted the kind of person we are and just expect everyone to conform to that reality. Otherwise, they can go kick rocks.
Interestingly enough, that is exactly the attitude Israel seems to be taking with the servant in Isaiah 53, and it is certainly the cultural climate that put Jesus on the cross. People who thought their way was above reproach and worthy of full acceptance did not take kindly to the “snowflake” talking about love, justice, and caring for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole (regardless of whether or not we think they deserve it!). Even today, followers of Jesus are put off by some of his teachings, and even flat-out ignore them when it comes to “practical” matters like politics, finances, and how we deal with difference. At the end of the day, the idea was that Jesus put himself on the cross for daring to challenge the religious and governing authorities of his time.
What does this have to do with how you, me, and how we treat each other?
Too often, our assumption seems to be that if our words or actions hurt others, the problem is with how weak they are as opposed to how crappy we are acting in a given moment. We blame others for a sin for which we will eventually have to answer. After all, which do you think God is going to take issue with: the fact that someone is sensitively offended by my prejudicial language or the fact that I don’t care and even persist in said behavior? You can bet I will be the one in the hot seat, no matter what rights I feel I am entitled to.
That’s a small example regarding how people treat the sensitive or offended, but you can take that template to any extreme you want. What about blaming the medically uninsured American because I voted for the guys who wanted to take the insurance they had away? Perhaps it’s blaming that “pig-headed” conservative family member for all the times I called them backward, racist, and ignorant? Could it be blaming the abused person we know for the psychological conditioning and brutal actions of the jerk laying hands on her? What if I blamed my spouse for my infidelity? As you can see, the gate truly “is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it” (Matthew 7:13).
We all do this in one way or another. I get asked why I wear a crucifix necklace when “Jesus isn’t on the cross any more.” While this is in some way true, I can’t help but think Jesus is always up there. I once had a professor who said, “We crucify Christ by our ‘isms.'” Indeed, I think it is safe to say that as long as the innocent suffer and as long as we refuse to acknowledge and change those parts of ourselves that contribute to that suffering, Jesus is crucified time and time again.
This is a harsh teaching, but it is also a blessed one. Just as we put Jesus back on the cross, we also have the freedom to not do that. If we put even the slightest effort into changing our habits and lifestyles to better care for others, we begin to mend the wounds of Christ instead of causing them. Every moment we set our pride or fragile ego aside and act for the good of all, we experience in some small way the resurrection of Christ, made complete at the end of our days.
Now, this won’t always be easy. People like to believe that true change is impossible. “We are who we are.” This is a shallow form of comfort that accommodates people who are too scared or stubborn to try to improve. For me, the biggest lie I had to overcome was the ideology behind that severely unhelpful phrase, “once a cheater, always a cheater.” I believed for so long that my issues with boundaries and commitment were who I was meant to be. “Perhaps I am just better off alone,” I would often think. Guess what? The day came when the Spirit within me refused to accept that, and I sought help. I talked to friends, pastors, and counselors. I faced the pain of my life and asked myself some tough questions. It wasn’t and isn’t easy at all, but for every foot of ground I gain, something in my heart breaks free and I find myself living joyfully with the woman I love. The struggles I face daily are still real. Temptation is always out there, but I have learned healthy ways of dealing with it, and I am now in a place I never thought I would be: happy.
The same thing is possible for you, no matter the affliction you face. You are not doomed to be what others say you are, even if the “other” you are fighting the most happens to be yourself. You may think you are too old, too lost, too broken, too scared, too weak, too [insert chosen adjective here], but “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (Luke 18:27). It may be hard as hell, but it is worth every bit of it to experience the transforming power of God firsthand.
It all starts with openness. We have to be open to honestly examining the effects our words and actions have on others. We have to be honest enough to see those moments when we are shifting the blame from ourselves to those we negatively impact. Instead of accounting them “stricken,” let’s admit when they are bearing the burden of our choices, and let’s make the decision to let God do something different through us. It is never too late to choose light and life, and I hope you will join me in trying to do so.
Peace be with you!