Friday, June 24, 2016

What's in a Word?

What is one of the most important words in any language? There is no one right answer. After all, there are plenty of them. It is not my intention to make an exhaustive list, either. I just have one in mind that struck me with particular force recently. It is the word “but.”

Why is it so valuable? Now maybe your first thought about it is that it serves as the beginning of an excuse. “I would have stopped at the store like you asked, but I forgot to write it down.” “I meant to do my homework, but my dog ate it.” Certainly that is one way to use it. It is not its most common or important function, though. It is really only a subset. The reason “but” matters is because it represents negation. It is a force for destruction. It takes whatever was written or said before it and makes it as if it never was.

Before the “But”

Perhaps that is a bit of hyperbole, but I think there is a lot of truth in it (see what I did there?). And there is a story out of Scripture that serves to powerfully illustrate this point. If you can, pause this and take some time to read 2 Chronicles 26:1–15. If you can’t, though, here is a brief summary. Chronicles is a history of the kings of Judah, and one of the kings, Uzziah, is our subject.

Uzziah was what is sometimes called an “indispensable man.” He came along right when Judah needed him. For more than a century before he became king, the international landscape had been dominated by the Assyrian Empire. However, at nearly the same moment Uzziah ascended to the throne, Assyria’s power waned. It allowed him the breathing room to restore Judah’s military, its weaponry, and its defensive structures, and also to expand his borders and influence. He was given a golden opportunity, and he pounced on it, leading to new glory for Judah and preparing it for future threats.

The fortunes of the nations rise and fall. They have always done so and always shall, and it is easy enough to chalk the process up to coincidence mixed with the efforts of remarkable humans. The Bible, however, gives a different perspective. It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “God governs in the affairs of men,” but he took his cue from verses like Psalm 22:28, Psalm 67:4, and Daniel 4:17. It is also the message of 2 Chronicles 26:5, 15: “[Uzziah] sought God… and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper…. [H]e was marvelously helped till he became strong.” Uzziah became great, and Judah with him, because He served God. It is God who has all power and authority, and gives it to whom He will for as long as He wills. And blessings go to those who are humble before Him, as Uzziah was.

After the “But”

This, sadly, is where our word comes into play. The second half of 2 Chronicles 26 begins with a “but,” in Hebrew and in English. Verse 16 says, “But when [Uzziah] was strong his heart was lifted up, to his destruction, for he transgressed against the Lord his God by entering the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”

Uzziah had become a great king, one of the greatest kings of Judah in centuries, and everything he had gained had been given to him by God for his faithful service. However, it was not enough. He also wanted to perform religious duties in the Temple, which God had reserved for the Levitical priests. When the priests attempted to dissuade him from his rebellion, Uzziah became infuriated with them. And the Lord, in response to this arrogance, punished the king with a sudden outbreak of leprosy. Not only, then, could he not serve in the Temple. He could no longer be part of the community at all. The power of the throne was handed to his son, and he was forced to become a recluse.

Uzziah’s story is not one we often hear, but it comes with a valuable message if we are willing to listen. Pride is a dreadful thing. The good we have in this life comes from God, and we need to recognize it as such. As soon as we lift ourselves up, seeing our skill as the source of our blessings, it can all be lost. It can happen in an instant. Pride becomes the “but” in our lives that makes everything good that came before seem as though it never was. We need to remember that we only hold what we have in trust. It is God’s, not ours, and the best thing we can do is to seek to follow Him in the ways He asks us. To go outside of that can lead to disaster, even if we think we are doing it for Him.

The Final “But”

Pride is the negation of goodness, and we all act in pride. In one way or another, we pursue our own goals in contradiction to God’s will. That is what it is to sin. If pride is the negation of goodness, then we are without hope. And our state would indeed be hopeless, if not for the even greater goodness of the Lord. He must not be concerned with grammar, because He introduced the great double-negative. God created us so we could be blessed, but we lose the blessing of relationship with Him through our sinful pride. This, in turn, has led to death. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23).

Through trust in Christ’s sacrifice, everything that came before is washed away. In what He did for us, if we come to Him in faith, our pride is made as if it never was. Instead of death, we have life through Him. This world is filled with trouble and pain because of all the ways we have negated what God intended for us. But if we hope in Jesus, He gives us new and better things.

“But” is an important word. It is important because it is so destructive. In the story of Uzziah, it made it so that all of his former accomplishments came to nothing. It serves as a reminder to all of us that we can suffer the same loss, and ultimately stand under the same condemnation. But most importantly, it is used to show how God has overcome what we have done. In gratitude, let us make it our goal to glorify Him for doing away with our sins. And let’s also be grateful for language, where one word can have so much meaning.

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