Isaiah felt it deep in his gut. Upon seeing the Lord and the heavenly entourage in all their glory, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…” (6:5, KJV)
The King James Version’s “undone” is today an innocuous and antiquated term. When feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, fear or despair cause you to spontaneously erupt, “undone” is probably the last word you would use. When an opposing player sacks a quarterback on the final drive of a game, rarely is heard shouted from the stands, “We’re undone!” This is why nearly all contemporary versions translate this feeling in our terms, as in “I’m ruined!” or “all is lost!” The Message may describe it best: “Doom! It’s Doomsday! I’m as good as dead!” The feeling of being undone is universal, and even as Christians we know what that is like.
What causes you, as a follower of Jesus Christ, to feel undone? Consider Isaiah’s response to the holy God: I don’t belong here! I am “a man of unclean lips” living among “a people of unclean lips.” The problem isn’t our lips, or even what comes out of our lips. As Jesus reminds us, it’s what’s in our hearts that matters: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45).
What causes us to feel undone in today’s culture? We live in a time of unprecedented social fragmentation and cultural polarization. As we’ve moved beyond fragmentation to atomization—where fewer of us even know or care to know our next door neighbors, much less our fellow citizens—we have increasingly become a culture of disconnected people whose self-interests have become more important than civility and dialogue. This, in turn, plays out in ways that concern and even frighten us to the point of defending, protecting and/or running away. In short, we become undone.
How, then, do we respond? As Isaiah’s work on God’s behalf unfolds, he delivers this message to the new king: “Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid” (Isaiah 7:4). These three commands provide us with the sustaining guidance we need to follow Christ with integrity in a culture that so easily causes us to come undone.
Be Careful: When tempted to become undone, we need to maintain a disciplined commitment to being careful. Perhaps it is frustration over political perspectives, or attitudes about differences among us, or an event that causes us to be frightened in defense of what we perceive to be “God’s agenda.” Whatever the issue, followers of Christ in this post-Christian world must search the Scriptures with the utmost integrity (reading texts in context, for example, or building a theological case using the full record of Scripture). Remember, in American history some of the most stringent defenders of the status quo on issues that we all would today agree are morally repugnant—like slavery, Jim Crow laws, and fair voting for all people—were self-proclaimed conservative Christians. We should not avoid deciding which issues are worth engaging. But how we engage, and where we engage, must be biblically and theologically grounded and Spirit-led.
Keep Calm: Second, while we can easily fall prey to discouragement and the feelings associated with “ruin,” it is vital that Christ-followers maintain a healthy perspective of who we are before God. Notice Isaiah 6. In the presence of God and the heavenly servants, the prophet instantly recognizes, before lamenting the unclean lips of the people around him, that he is “a man of unclean lips” who is undeserving of his place. Throughout the gospels if one truth pours out in response to current social structure, it is that the “last will be first” (Matthew 20:16) and “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). Keeping calm means we must never forget that the only difference between us and those whom we allow to cause us to become undone is that we have been found by the Great Shepherd who has come “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
Don’t Be Afraid: The Book of Isaiah is a book of hope—hope in God’s work to bring reconciliation to the creation he loves. God has not left us abandoned, on our own to fend for ourselves. We trust in God’s power and in his mercy. When we disagree with others, or are disparaged, or lose our power and place, we come free and clean with a rag for foot washing and a cloak for sharing, to communicate that in Jesus Christ we all have hope.
We do live “among people of unclean lips,” and we do often despair. But when I’m honest, I realize that my lips are also unclean, and my heart is wretched every bit as much as the most despicable of my neighbors. My hope, therefore, is not in my own ways or thoughts, but in Christ who has set me free to witness to his goodness and mercy. Recalling and aligning my mind and heart through trust in him who first loved me, I will be able to be careful, remain calm, and be courageous in love.
Dr. Chapman Clark, Ph.D. is Associate Provost for Strategic Projects and Professor and Chair of the Youth, Family, and Culture Department in the School of Theology at Fuller Seminary.