Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Looking pride in the face

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he [Elisha] would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. 2 Kings 5:11-12

How humble are you? How easily does the word “Sorry” come to your lips? Or the words “All right, I admit it, I was wrong”? I suspect that if you are like most people – certainly if you’re anything like me – you would have to reply “Not very good, if I must be honest.”

Our problem can be summed up in a single word: pride.
Naaman is a proud man. He is the commander of the army of Syria (Aram), but he has suffered the great misfortune of contracting leprosy. (This isn’t, by the way, the disease which today is called by that name, properly known as Hansen’s disease, but a more general name for various nasty, infectious skin diseases.)

Naaman has been told that the man of God in Israel, the prophet Elisha, has miraculous healing powers, and has been sent to him by no less a person than the king of Syria himself. He comes with staggeringly massive gifts with which to honour Elisha. And he has every expectation that Elisha will treat him accordingly.

But… Elisha doesn’t. Elisha doesn’t even condescend to come out of his house to greet him, but simply sends a message via a servant: “Go and dip yourself seven times in the Jordan river and you will be healed.” A modern commentator has written: “Naaman was accustomed to the melted snows of Mount Hermon…The dwellers of Damascus [capital of Syria] have always enjoyed the finest source of ever-flowing waters in the Middle East. How could he be expected to lower himself and get dirty in one of Israel’s muddy streams?”

So in one sense you can’t really blame Naaman for being enraged. He and his king have acted entirely in accordance with the conventions of the time – not to mention extremely generously – while Elisha has very pointedly failed to do so. How dare Elisha treat him like a nobody! How dare he not recognise his prominence and respect his status and dignity! So off he stomps.

It takes a deputation of his servants to bring him to his senses (verses 13-14). And here we should give Naaman credit. He does eventually swallow his pride and obey Elisha’s instructions; and, yes, sure enough, “his flesh was restored and became like the flesh of a little child” (verse 14).

For the Christian it’s impossible, surely, to read this without all sorts of thoughts about baptism – cleansing, rebirth, new life – crowding into your mind. So wonderful! And so simple!

Naaman, it’s worth noticing, is transformed in far more than the purely physical sense. He returns to Elisha, calls himself “your servant” (what a turnaround there! talk about eating humble pie!), declares his belief in Elisha’s God and his determination to worship him, and pleads with him to accept a gift. Elisha declines any recompense, but he sends Naaman on his way with a word of blessing: “Go in peace” (verses 15-19).

One big question arises in my mind: Suppose Naaman hadn’t eventually humbled himself? What then?

I don’t know if he could have continued to command Syria’s army. I rather doubt it. But I imagine he would have remained a rich and respected man, with a high reputation in his home country.

But until the day he died there would have been that tormenting, agonising question, “What if I had done what Elisha said?” All right, in his continuing pride he might have tried to convince himself, “Oh, it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. Elisha was just a jumped-up charlatan!” But he never would have known…

Most of us probably know the pain of that little question, “What if…?” And the sadness of that nagging longing, “Oh, if only…” Vain regrets, ah, vain regrets!

Well, Naaman did humble himself, and his story has a beautiful ending. And as long as we are alive we too have the opportunity to do the same.

What can I say? Just this: Don’t put it off! Do it! Do it now! It’s only pride, ultimately, that shuts God out. And it’s only humility that lets him in. The person who says, or even just thinks, “I’d rather die than admit I was wrong!” will one day hear the sad voice of God: “Very well, you have your wish…” Isn’t that exactly what death, spiritual death, is?

Here are some wise words from the nineteenth century evangelist D L Moody: “God sends no-one away empty except those who are full of themselves.”

It’s true. It’s wonderfully true.

Oh God, forgive my stupid pride and stubbornness. Help me to understand the harm and damage I am doing to myself, to appreciate the peace and joy I am shutting myself out of, and to come to you now on bended knee. Amen.

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