Christ’s Call to Grace: Beauty for Ashes

Christ's Call to Grace: Beauty for AshesThere is a somewhat enigmatic phrase in Isaiah that deserves attention. Had it the proper attention, it could cure all of the ills of modern society. People would work together until problems were resolved in a way satisfactory to everyone involved. Family relationships would be strengthened and healed. The world would be nearly completely devoid of conflict. We would do well to understand and intentionally internalize the very essence of this principle.

If we look at chapter 51, Isaiah is speaking about the Messiah. Specifically, he is talking about the mission of Christ. In verse 3, we read that he is:

“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.”

In this verse, we find the phrase “to give unto them beauty for ashes.” What is it about this phrase that can enlighten how we see the world around us? How can this simple phrase enhance our lives and those of everyone around us? How can these seven words make us more like Christ himself?

A Holier Exchange

The word “for” refers to an exchange. We are going to accept one thing and give something else in return. In this example, we are receiving ashes. This is not something we would generally seek. We may feel that it is even unjust or undeserved. “Ashes” could refer to any number of frustrating, annoying, or otherwise undesirable things, such as:

* A discourteous driver.
* An unkind word from a loved one.
* A disrespectful child.
* A coworker taking credit for your work.
* A neighbor playing loud music late at night.
* A roommate not cleaning up after themselves.
* Someone cutting in line.
* A person talking loudly on their phone in a quiet space.
* A relative giving unsolicited advice.
* A colleague interrupting you during a meeting.
* A friend sharing private information without permission.

Has anything like this ever happened in your life? Of course it has, probably on a daily basis. The natural man in each of us wants to pay back the offender with even more ash. But what would Christ do in these situations?

The Lord’s Example

How many times did the Lord receive ashes during his lifetime? There are many examples in the New Testament. Let’s look at one. In Luke 10, there is a beautiful example of this. Starting in verse 25, there is a lawyer, intent on embarassing Jesus, asking what to do that he might inherit eternal life:

“And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

And then verse 26:

“He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?”

Christ does not whip out some kind of sarcastic, condescending answer, as we may be tempted to do. The Lord responds, recognizing the man’s knowledge and understanding. He is saying, “I know that you are learned in the scriptures. What do you understand that they say about this question?” He sets the stage for a fruitful dialog. He knows that a counter-attack will destroy any possibility of connecting with this man.

We then read in verse 27:

“And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.”

Christ then responds in verse 28:

“And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.”

In this response, the Lord again reaches out to the lawyer. He endorses the man’s answer, giving him positive feedback. He is building a relationship and connecting. He wants to lift more than he wants to “win,” whatever that means. Do we do this with others in similar situations?

He then waits for the man to respond. Christ was a master of timing and holding the space, allowing others to think. Do we do this? Or do we try and force the situation? Do we allow for an open dialog? Do we patiently allow others to share their thoughts?

The lawyer, still trying to save face answers in verse 29:

“But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?”

Christ then gives one of the most famous parables in the scriptures, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In “Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage,” H. Wallace Goddard shares some enlightening insight on this particular passage. He says:

“Jesus clearly recognized the sneaky, nasty intent of the lawyer, but rather than confront and lecture him, He taught and invited him with a parable that challenges us all, a story that can teach us the central purposes of life. Maybe when we feel attacked by [others], we might revisit the story told by the Master.

“It is also worth considering what the reason was that Jesus treated such a relentlessly malicious lawyer with such graciousness. Why would Jesus return beauty for ashes? Did He know something about the lawyer that was not evident to anyone else? Or was He more focused on goodness and graciousness than anyone else?

“I suspect that both are true. I think that Jesus honored the malicious lawyer with such grace because He knew that there was underdeveloped tenderness inside the man. Under layers of prejudice and small-mindedness, there was a seed of goodness waiting for life-bestowing water. Jesus is the Water that gives life.”

How Do We Do This?

Mastering this ability takes plenty of work. But is there a more noble pursuit we could have? Christ did not say, “Prove that you are right at all costs,” he gave as a commandment “love one another as I have loved you.” We are to follow the example of Christ. We simply cannot follow an example of someone we do not know well. How can we emulate the Savior unless we are intimately familiar with Him?

In the moment of frustration, stop. Take a few breaths. Remember that the offending party is a child of God. Understand that you may have at some point been the offender, and that you appreciate the benefit of the doubt. You know that during your moments of weakness, you want forgiveness. You remember that you want to be like Christ. You then ask yourself, “What is the best way I can possibly respond right now?” You then intentionally respond in a way that lifts you both.

Another approach that can help is to ask yourself, “What might have happened to this person to cause them act this way?” People rarely behave badly because they are feeling good. They hurt and offend us because they are hurting or have been offended. Why perpetuate the pain and suffering? It is a form of grace to be kind in difficult circumstances. Lift the hand that hangs down. Dry the tear of the crying child. Indeed, we should all “succor those that stand in need of [our] succor.”

It takes willful, deliberate effort to grow in this capacity. The natural man in each of us will fight this approach, but it is worth learning. It is an empowering way to free yourself from much unneeded stress and anxiety. It allows you to

As the saying goes, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Why carry all of that around? Let go of it.

This is not always immediately applicable, however. There may be situations where there is an immediate threat of abuse or trauma. In these scenarios, finding safety should be the highest priority.

Conclusion

People can affect us negatively in so many ways. Some may be trivial, some may be life-altering. Extending forgiveness, especially when unsolicited, is one of the most Christlike things we can do. It heals, restores, and unites. That is significant, seeing that one of the few things we take into the next world is our relationships with others. May we all learn and practice returning beauty for ashes.

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