The human capacity for self-delusion is endless. It began mysteriously with Adam’s un-coerced choice to make covenant with Satan rather than to keep the covenant of works that God had made with him. Since that time things have not improved.
In the earlier phase of the modern period, which began roughly in the middle of the 17th century, the West rebelled against revealed truth and divine authority by re-locating all authority to the subject. In earlier Modernity, we replaced God’s authority with reason (rationalism) or sense experience (empiricism). As those moves proved unsatisfying they provoked a reaction toward to subjectivism where we are still at the center but instead of talking about what may be known to be objectively true via autonomous human reason or the autonomous use of the senses we turned, in Romanticism, to intense emotional experience. This later form of Modernity assumed the same autonomy as before but it replaced reason and sense experience with emotional experience, with feelings.
This is why today experience trumps all. The reader, not the author, is king of the text. The one who suffers most and emotes most effectively (and affectively!) on television wins. The politician who can cry and evoke sympathy wins the argument regardless of whether she makes sense. We’ve traded king reason and his prince, sense experience, for queen drama.
Good intentions dominate in a world where feelings are primary. It matters less what was actually said or done or what is actually true. It matters more, now, how one felt when one spoke or acted. It matters more what one intended rather than what one did. In such a world, where we have replaced reality with our experience of it, we are bound to have difficulty with God and his holiness and yet it is precisely with these that we need to get to grips. What matters finally is not how we see ourselves or what we feel or intend but whether we see things the way God would have us do and whether we conform to his account of things.
One place in the history of redemption that spotlights the dissonance between good intentions and reality is the episode of Uzzah and the ark of the covenant. The history of disobeying God’s instructions about the ark was not promising for those who persisted. When the Philistines captured the ark, took it to Ashdod, and set it next to Dagon (1Sam 5) it did not go well for Dagon. Eventually, “only the stump remained.” Nor did it go well for the people of Ashdod. It became so miserable for them that they sent it to Gath, where misery followed, and thence to Ekron for more of the same.
Pagans that they were the Philistine nobility sought to manipulate God with gold replicas of the things with which they had been cursed (1Sam 6), just in case the God of Israel found that propitious. They set up a test to see whether it was Yahweh who was afflicting them or whether it was coincidence. They would send back the ark to Israel using cows that weren’t likely to go there on their own. In other words, if the ark was to make it back to Israel it would require direct divine intervention—they did this with full awareness that the God of Israel had struck Egypt and they wanted none of it. This was the first time the ark was transported by cart, by the way.
When the ark arrived in Beth-Shemesh the Levites removed it and set up an altar, burned the cart, and made a sacrifice. Some of the men of Beth-Shemesh couldn’t leave well enough alone, however. They took an unauthorized peek at the ark and died (1Sam 6:19). The God of Israel is strict like that.
Fast forward to David’s retrieval of the ark to Jerusalem (2Sam 6). Again the ark was transported by cart but this time it wasn’t pagans ignorant of God’s revealed will but God’s people. Exodus 25:14 says “And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them” (ESV). The Lord did not authorize the transportation of the ark in a cart, however well crafted that cart might have been. There was one authorized mode of transport: rings and poles. There was one class of people authorized to transport the ark: Levites (1Chron 15:2).
They took the ark back to Jerusalem with great joy and celebration. 1 Samuel 6:5 says, “David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” (ESV). Yes, things were being done strictly in accord with God’s self-disclosure but they were having a grand time. After all, the ark had been rescued from the pagans and was being restored to its rightful place amongst God’s people. Who could complain about that?
The cart was being driven by two men, Uzzah and Ahio. As the procession approached the threshing floor of Nacon, the ox stumbled and Uzzah apparently reached back to steady the ark. “Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it” (2Sam 6:6; ESV). It was a natural, reflexive act. How many times have parents reached across to steady a child while bringing the car to a quick stop. We do it so often and instinctively we don’t even realize we’re doing it. The unfortunate thing for Uzzah is that that Lord will not be steadied. Instead, Scripture says, he “broke forth” against Uzzah. His righteous, holy anger was “kindled” and he struck well-intentioned Uzzah dead. He died next to the ark, in the cart (2Sam 6:7).
David and company were having an intense, enjoyable religious experience and they meant well. Our intentions and experience, however, are not ultimate. There is a reality that trumps our experience and our intentions. God’s holiness, as they say, is what it is. It doesn’t change because God doesn’t change. It isn’t affected by our experience. He doesn’t suspend his law and expectations because we overlooked details such as poles and Levites. God doesn’t become less holy and less righteous because we mean well.
The turn to the subject explains the enormous degree of self-delusion we see about us today. It’s not new.
- It won’t rain that much (Gen 6-9)
- Sodom and Gomorrah weren’t that wicked.
- The Lord won’t mind if we use a cart just this once
- The Lord won’t miss just this little bit of gold (Joshua 7)
- The Lord has made us all holy such that there is no difference between Moses and Korah et al (Numbers 16)
- The Lord wants me to have these 30 pieces of silver
In the case of Uzzah, reality met good intentions, intense experience, and even delusion and Uzzah died. Ecstasy turned to mourning.
Jesus was crucified for telling the unvarnished, unalloyed truth. He was killed for exposing our delusion that we’re basically okay. We couldn’t stand it. We hated it. We didn’t want to hear it. So we murdered him.
The good news is that he came to tell the truth about himself and us knowing what we would do to him and he did it anyway because he knew a truth that we know now, by grace alone, through faith alone: He would not and could not remain in the grave. Our self-delusion and idolatry could not keep him in the grave. He has the power of an indestructible life (Heb 7:16). He rose from the dead, ascended to the Father’s right hand, has poured out his Spirit, and by the Spirit grants new life to all his people.
God is gracious to the delusional. By his mercy and unconditional favor they regain their senses when he gives them new life and faith and through faith alone free acceptance with God and union with Christ. Those so blessed, however, will continue to struggle with reality and especially in a time and in a culture so apparently reality adverse. Those who know the truth in Christ and who’ve been set free, however, ought to be marked by a clear-eyed apprehension of the truth and gracious enough to speak that truth in love.