This post is part of a series on 12 Miracles of Spiritual Growth by E. Kent Rogers, which was featured earlier this month on the Patheos Book Club, and which I was invited to discuss as part of the Book Club Roundtable.
Do I want to be healed from feelings of unworthiness? That’s a real question. And in fact, right now, I’m leaning toward “no.” So my feelings toward the first chapter of 12 Miracles of Spiritual Growth – a chapter entitled “Healing from Feelings of Unworthiness” – are mixed.
The chapter deals with a story that I used to find immensely troubling. The text is Matthew 15:21-28:
Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. (Matthew 15:21-28, NKJV)
Like me, Rogers says that in the past he found this text troubling. Jesus seems so dismissive, and almost contemptuous. But Rogers recommends reading it from a different perspective; he writes, “I have found a very useful tool in coming to understand difficult passages in the Word of God, namely to assume a message of love exists in all of scripture and to search for that message” (p. 4). So, he suggests, listen with an assumption that Jesus spoke His words from love. Also, Rogers suggests using “meditative imagination” – empathizing with a character in the Bible, meditating deeply on the story from their perspective.
I’ve come to really value both these techniques for reading Scripture, and I think they work very well in reading this story. But when I do this, I come to a different conclusion from Rogers. He suggests that the woman needs to be challenged by Jesus to learn to stand up for herself, for her daughter’s sake – and in doing so, to learn that she is worthy. I take away a different message. Yes, the Lord speaks these words as He does because He knows they are what the woman needs to hear, rather than from contempt. But what I hear the Lord saying to me when I put myself in the woman’s shoes is, “From yourself, you have not earned anything.” And to me, the response to that is, “You’re right – but I still need you, and I still believe You can save me.” The thing that is so moving is that the woman accepts her unworthiness – and believes that the Lord has enough mercy to save her daughter anyway.
I do understand the kind of crippling unworthiness that Rogers is talking about, that it’s different from the kind of humility I have in mind. But for myself, I need to hear that I am not worthy. I need to hear the Lord speak those words. Now, I don’t hear Him speaking them with contempt. The disciples are urging Him to send the woman away – that would have been contempt. But He turns to her, and speaks to her. I hear His voice almost as a Socratic teacher, pushing, prodding, getting the woman to come up with the answer herself – speaking His words in such a way that He clearly was asking for a response, not telling her to go away. But what I take away from the miracle is that kind of faith that heals is one that says, “Yes – of myself, I am nothing but a little dog. But in Your mercy, I believe that you can heal what is sick in my life anyway.” Not that the Lord desires that humility for His own sake – not at all. But without it, I know I can’t help feeling like I have somehow earned the things that the Lord gives freely.
Maybe this isn’t so different from what Rogers has in mind – he writes, “This wonderful woman is inspiring in that she refused to let anything take precedence over her love for her daughter, not even her pride.” And the kind of unworthiness that says, “I am unworthy – and the Lord can do nothing to change me, or make me better, or use me to serve others,” is a one that does need to be healed. But for myself, a bigger struggle is with the feeling that I am worthy. The beauty of the meditative approach Rogers suggests is that with his method, I can clearly hear message I need to hear, whatever anyone else needs from the story.