He would not grab the life ring offered him by a chum-soaked fisherman in a bunged up scow; if he must be rescued, he would wait to be helped aboard the lush, teak deck of a Scandinavian sloop, piloted by a sun-drenched blonde named Astrid. After all, even a drowning man has his pride. So he turned his back on the old fisherman and swam off in search of a better offer. And when no other boat happened along, he grew tired, cursed the Fates, and disappeared beneath the waves.
Likewise Naaman — a Syrian general whose power as the head of his King’s armies had made him known and feared throughout the ancient middle east — found himself stricken with an incurable and dreaded disease, leprosy. With a disease like that, even a decorated general would have very few invitations to Syrian cocktail parties.
Deeply concerned for Naaman’s health, the King of Syria, in an act of desperation, sent him to Israel, to the prophet Elisha, sending with him a caravan laden with gold and silver to grease the prophet’s palm.
But when the great commander arrived at Elisha’s tumbledown doorstep, God’s prophet showed contemptible manners by leaving Naaman standing in the hot sun and dispatching a lowly servant to communicate a rather strange message:
“Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy.” — 2 Kings 5:10, NLT
You can imagine what happened next. Naaman was greatly offended. He was, after all, the General McArthur of his day, a man used to being treated with deference and respect.
Whatever he might have imagined while trekking across the boiling desert to that god-forsaken little burg, being left standing at the door of a broken down hovel and ordered to bathe in an insignificant little river was not among them. Naaman spun around in a huff and stormed off, ready to leave the disrespectful prophet in his dust.
His entourage jumped in and tried desperately to change his mind:
But his officers tried to reason with him and said, “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something very difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? So you should certainly obey him when he says simply, ‘Go and wash and be cured!'” So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as the man of God had instructed him. And his skin became as healthy as the skin of a young child’s, and he was healed! — 2 Kings 5:13,14, NLT
Our pride gets in God’s way. We want God, at least some of God, but only on our terms. We set conditions. We bargain. We dig in our heels and say, “Yes” to this but “No way!” to that. Unconditional surrender is always a bitter pill to swallow, so we try our best to negotiate a better deal for ourselves; anything would be better than a complete capitulation to God’s terms.
God apparently found Naaman’s reputation underwhelming. Hard to imagine that. You mean to tell me that the creator of heaven and earth, the inventor of the elusive Higgs boson, is just a smidge less impressed by all of my accomplishments than I am?
The Apostle Peter gained some insight into God’s perspective while visiting Cornelius, a Roman officer and a Gentile who was eager to hear Peter’s testimony about Jesus. Peter was a Jew, a member of God’s elect people. He was rightly proud of his favored position with the Almighty.
Jews didn’t mingle with Gentiles, and Peter was reluctant to associate with Cornelius, but God startled him with a vision that told him that all men and women stand as equals before God — even Jews and Gentiles — and all are equally in need of His mercy.
Then Peter replied, “I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation He accepts those who fear Him and do what is right.” — Acts 10:34,35, NLT
That phrase “God shows no favoritism” is famously translated “God is no respecter of persons” in the old King James. It doesn’t mean that he has no respect for us, but that there is nothing about any one of us that merits any special favor over anyone else. None of us can stand on privilege. We’re all drowning, whether we will admit it or not.
We all need to be rescued, but most of us, myself included, are too proud to take the hand that is extended to us. We want to approach God in a way that allows us to hold on to our autonomy, our self-control, our independence, our pride.
Forget it, says God. Go dip yourself in that little stream called Jordan, then come back here and worship Me. That’s My deal. Take it or leave it.
Naaman, the great general, wisely relented, set aside his pride and waded into the river, just as the prophet had instructed. And when he came out, his leprous and decaying skin had become like new.
Pride that holds God at arm’s length is nothing but pure foolishness.
Illustration credit: Theodore Gericault, The Raft of the Medussa, 1818