Lord, what do you want from me today?” is a natural question for any child of God. Most of us would like to hear a clear voice with specific instructions, but rarely, if ever, does He address us this way. Instead, God asks His children to spend time talking to HIm, listening to Him in silence, consulting the documents of the Church, speaking with a spiritual director or mentor, and of course reading Holy Scripture.
Despite God’s revelation to us through these many sources, it is normal to feel uneasy as we attempt to interpret them. The words of Scripture, for example, can at times be difficult to apply to our own lives. “How do those ancient passages from the Old Testament have anything to do with my conflict at work?” one might ask himself. In fact, some of these passages do not seem Christian at all – what are we to make of the Psalmist hating his enemies and asking God to kill them? Yet, St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” St. John Henry Newman was also interested in these questions, and his sermon, “Jewish Zeal, a Pattern for Christians” teaches us how to understand and apply these difficult passages for our benefit.
A sound approach to Scripture, Newman says, is to look for the “the lesson to us as individuals; for surely it is with reference to our own duties as individuals [sic], that we should read every part of Scripture.” The Old Testament is full of stories and sayings a contemporary believer can apply to his life, but not without effort. Newman faces head on some difficult passages like the following:
- “So perish all thine enemies, O Lord! But thy friends be like the sun as he rises in his might.” – Judges 5:31
- “Thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them.” – Deut. 7:1-5
- “O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God, and that men of blood would depart from me, men who maliciously defy thee, who lift themselves up against thee for evil! Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe them that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” – Psalm 19-22
As Christians, should we hate our enemies, and have no mercy on them? Newman says emphatically, “There can be no doubt it is not our duty to take the sword and kill the enemies of God as the Jews were told to do.” Rather, what we can draw like blood from these passages is the zeal, the passion, and the commitment of one totally surrendered to God.
Newman defines the zeal of our Jewish forefathers in the faith, “ … as essentially a duty of all God’s rational creatures, as prayer and praise, faith and submission; and, surely, if so, especially of sinners whom He has redeemed; that zeal consists in a strict attention to His commands—a scrupulousness, vigilance, heartiness, and punctuality, which bears with no reasoning or questioning about them—an intense thirst for the advancement of His glory—a shrinking from the pollution of sin and sinners—an indignation, nay impatience, at witnessing His honour insulted—a quickness of feeling when His name is mentioned, and a jealousy how it is mentioned—a fulness of purpose, an heroic determination to yield Him service at whatever sacrifice of personal feeling—an energetic resolve to push through all difficulties, were they as mountains, when His eye or hand but gives the sign—a carelessness of obloquy, or reproach, or persecution, a forgetfulness of friend and relative, nay, a hatred (so to say) of all that is naturally dear to us, when He says, ‘Follow me.’”
Passion for God and righteous anger for sin are marks of Christians as much as they were marks of believers before Christ. If we blush when we hear these passionate denunciations of sin and all God’s enemies, then we are more children of this age than children of our God. He is the one who gave us these words to form our attitudes and characters after His own character. If we are embarrassed by these passages, we are embarrassed by Christ, who overturned the tables of the moneychangers in zeal for His Father’s house.
Our zeal will not be expressed in the same way, and we must carefully avoid the danger of applying Scripture too literally, just as we avoid the danger of dismissing a passage because it is old. You should see by now how we have come full circle: God is not interested in mindless obedience. He created us free because only free creatures are capable of love. If we are ever tempted to believe God keeps us at a distance – guessing His will and agonizing over interpreting His words – let’s remember there is nothing cruel about it if we understand it correctly, if we read it in the context of the whole of Scripture, in particular with God’s condescension and love for mankind. The agony originates with us, not with Him. The anxiety lies with our desire to understand and control, or to do it right, or to have no regrets; but if we are concerned about these things, we have already lost our way. Love has no time for these things. That’s why St. Augustine wrote, “Love and do what you will.” Lovers of God can rest freely in the uncertainties that are part of this life, because they know God as their certainty in the midst of it.
Next week we will hear from the final part of Newman’s sermon, where he teaches us how to apply these Scriptures specifically, with love as our motivation. If something else is our motivation and leading us astray, we can share this with our Father right now, honestly and plainly. He already knows, and will guide our feet back onto the path.