God’s Arm Seems Longer Somehow
Holy Week, for many of us, is a particular time of reflection. Isaiah 59 is not traditionally a Lenten, Holy Week or Easter passage. But it has, in the past few years, been the touchstone to which I return to as I contemplate the state of my own heart in light of the Cross. This post, first scratched out in the early morning light of near-Easter 2009 and run here every year since, marks the place where God said, “Here and no further,” turning me back from a dark descent in His firm but tender insistence the Covenant has no loophole, that He did not end that blackest of Fridays having spent all of Jesus’ blood and now drowning in buyer’s remorse.
I read this again this morning and while I know the fierce intensity that first pushed these words out, today that doubt does not feel so close at hand. His arm seems longer, somehow, than it has in years.
Just how long is Your arm, Father? How long is long enough for me?
The question formed as I knelt beside a queen bed in a hotel squeezed between Iowa cornfields. I rose early and lingered there before joining the growing crowd of family in the breakfast nook downstairs. I flipped through thin pages looking for Isaiah 59, wanting just one thing. I felt hungrier for the sustaining words of this one short verse than for an AmericInn breakfast no matter what the ads say.
Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. (Isaiah 59:1)
But I’m not good at just one verse. Raisin Bran would wait a little longer while I held up my bowl like Oliver and begged, Please, Sir, I want some mo’.
I got some mo’.
Mo’ than I know what to do with.
I know the problem is not God. His arm is long — long enough, even. Making the problem, as always, me.
But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:2)
I stare at the back of the Father. I don’t gaze into the splendor of His face. (Enter my inability to wait until the end. I always read ahead.)
The Redeemer will come to Zion . . . (Isaiah 59:20a)
The Redeemer will come, driven along by God’s own hot breath.
He doesn’t slip in quietly, unnoticed, but rather like a pent-up flood: rushing, roaring.
He surges in with his long arm, long enough to reach me, sufficient to bridge the gulf full up of my iniquity that threatens to turn Him away.
I take the tape, pull it from fingertip to shoulder and scrawl my findings in the record: Too short.
Your arm, Father, it is too short.
I considered in the days leading up to Resurrection Day the two who hung alongside Jesus on that place they called the Skull. How I wanted to see myself as the desperate one, the one who spent his last drops of juice on an all-or-nothing trust of One he’d just met: “Remember me, Jesus!”
But the one that looked more like me, he asked for no such thing. Knowing the answer to his own question, or at least thinking he did, he sneered, Aren’t you the Christ?
I see myself standing in the gravel at the foot of the cross, looking up at His ragged flesh as He groans His last.
He gasps, It is finished! while I shake a fist and scream back, No, it is not!
I would dare to tell Him He erred? Or was a fraud?
I would stand there, His blood dripping onto my face, and proclaim that He did not do enough? That He is not enough?
I would do this?
Clearly, it seems, I would.
This criminal and I, we hang side by side striving to do for ourselves what One we challenge as insufficient has already done.
Back to Isaiah 59. Strong words for the likes of me. Brutal, searing words that rip through my flesh. A scourge-striped arm – an arm that is not too short — stretches out to take hold of my collar and yanks me up from the dark hole where I hide.
He writes words, scarlet in the sand before my broken frame: No more!
And in that moment I see what it is that I do. How I hang with mockers. How, pride seeping, I find myself above and beyond His mercy.
I shake my head at Isaiah’s words, wondering at the audacity of those who would do such violence against God — those who would tell such lies, mutter these wicked things. They shed innocent blood, they hatch vipers and loose spiders and in the end try to cover their nakedness with mere cobwebs.
As my eyes come back from their roll I see them, there on my arms, my legs, my hands.
Have I sought to cover myself with this? No more than dusty filaments a spider left back?
The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace. (Isaiah 59:8)
So easy it is for me to see them as fools. They don’t know peace. They don’t know justice. They know nothing of straight roads.
His breath rustles through the pages and I know He speaks of me.
No, they don’t know peace and they don’t know justice.
But then, neither do I.
So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong we are like the dead. (Isaiah 59:9a-10)
When He dares speak into the darkness, I know He speaks of me. He names me the fool. He knows how I am given to groping along the wall, failing to see the sun at midday. He sees the way I stumble for lack of light.
But His arm, it is so long.
The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was none to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. (Isaiah 59:15a-16)
His own arm, that long one, worked salvation.
The arm I keep whittling back until I leave but a stub.
The pent-up flood sweeps me away and He holds my head under crashing waves for a while, making me breathe in intoxicating mercy.
When I surface, sputtering and gasping for air, He cautions in His quiet way.
Do not tell Me about loopholes and exceptions and rules made up just for you.
Do not tell Me it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t finished.
Do not scoff at My grace.
Do not dare think that to be sin for you was such a small thing.