If there’s one word which describes my experience of 2014 so far, it’s “inadequate”. I have felt utterly inadequate to the challenges of my life. Whatever good I can and have done has been wholly inadequate. In fact, this feeling has been so strong that I have frequently found myself battling a sense that anything I do or try to do is pointless.
And into this jolly state of affairs, a few little church mice come whispering in my ear, “it’s all filthy rags. Whatever you do is no more than filthy rags.” Which just makes it all seem even more pointless. If everything I do is as worthless as a pile of dirty rags, then life is hopeless. Maybe I’ll have better luck in the afterlife.
Except that’s just not true. Which is why this post from Derek Leman is an important corrective to the all too common notion that God regards all our efforts and good works as filth:
Isaiah 64:6 is not a divine dismissal of the rightness of loving deeds; it is a prayer of complaint by the people about how they feel overlooked by God. . . In the voice of complaint, the believers are saying, “Where are you, God? It’s like our words and actions of love and faithfulness for you are filthy rags!”
It turns out that this idea that our deeds are worthless, disgusting even, does not come from God. Instead, it’s the perspective of people who are worn out and tired from waiting and suffering who fear that God has rejected them. This passage isn’t a condemnation of our good works and efforts, but a very human cry many of us can relate to.
Is this what God actually thinks of their deeds? Not at all. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. That is God’s counsel from Isaiah 1:16. The righteous will not labor in vain. They will be blessed by the Lord. Their prayers will be so powerful, God will answer them before they speak them (Isa 65:23-24). God does not despise the good deeds of his people. He teaches us to do them. It is good to pray, to visit the sick, to provide justice for the widow and orphan. These things God does not despise. They are not filthy rags, according to the Bible. And at the center of human beings is not corruption, but purity and holiness. It is the image of God. It is who we truly are. The corruption is not at the center, but is a veil of darkness refusing to let out who we really are. We are not evil beings pretending to be good, but good people fallen from our true selves finding in God and Messiah the path back to our pre-ordained glory as his sons and daughters.
What we need to hear when life is hard isn’t the human perspective which says that what we do is pointless or worse than nothing. What we need to hear is God’s perspective which views us as beloved image bearers whose goodness is precious to him.