Woe is Me: A Different Kind of Spiritual Experience
I live in southern California, which has aptly been described as the land of fruits and nuts. It is a place where people deride religion while promoting a vague spirituality devoid of merit, meaning, or morality. Here you can find all manner of talk about experiences of the spiritual variety.
Surfers regularly refer to their early morning surf session as “spiritual.” Hikers often have a “mountaintop experience” as they gaze down in awe upon the majesty of creation. As I was contemplating the Old Testament reading of Isaiah 6 for the Feast of Holy Trinity, it got me thinking about spiritual experiences of a different kind.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the beauty of creation and fully appreciate how the “heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1). You just never hear much about the kind the prophet experienced.
In Isaiah chapter 6, he meets the LORD:
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train [i.e. the train of His robe] filled the temple.” – Isaiah 6:1
How does Isaiah respond? Well…to put it bluntly…if he was wearing adult diapers, they would have needed changing:
Then said I, “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: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” – Isaiah 6:5
The appearance of the LORD is not an event analogous on a continuum with other experiences. As Job found when he had a face-to-face with the Almighty, a divine encounter tends to wreck your day. Undone. Exposed. Unraveled. Isaiah cries, “Woe is me!”
There is some irony here because in the previous chapter, Isaiah had been dishing out “woes” of his own. “Woe” is a word that is equal parts judgement and sympathy. To say “woe to you” is to say, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.” It’s the kind of thing I used to say to my little brother when we were young: “I wouldn’t want to be you when Dad gets home!”
Isaiah had been handing out woes like Oprah does prizes: look under your pew, there’s a woe for you and a woe for you, and for you…everyone gets a woe! But when he meets the LORD he is humbled: “WOE IS ME!”
That’s where a true encounter with God leaves you. Unable to point the finger at anyone else, all you can do is fall on your face, confess your sin, be absolved, and join the angels in singing, “Holy, holy, holy.”
God is holy. He is completely set apart from us, so utterly transcendent that we cannot look at Him and live much less describe the experience. And yet He has deigned to dwell with us as the Son incarnate. “Holiness” carries us to the very edge, and from there on the experience of God is beyond words; even for a prophet, who is a wordsmith by vocation.
What hope is there for Isaiah? Well surprisingly, hope comes in the form of judgement.
But then one of the seraphs flew toward me. In his hand was a hot coal he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Look, this coal has touched your lips. Your evil is removed; your sin is forgiven. – Isaiah 6:6-7
Imagine yourself in Isaiah’s sandals. You have just confessed your corruption before the LORD Almighty. In response, one of His flaming angelic servants flies at your face with a burning coal from the altar—the place of judgement. Surely this is the end of the road for Isaiah. He’s singing with Jim Morrison, “This is the End…my only friend, the end.” And yet the judgement becomes the cleansing. The coal from the altar doesn’t harm but heals.
Do you see the picture of Christ’s cross? The paradox that our life comes through His altar? Like the prophet, we are driven down in confession but raised up in forgiveness.
Just as the angelic servant touched Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal from the altar, our Lord touches our lips with His body and blood in Holy Communion, which we receive for the forgiveness of our sins. Just as the angelic servant announces Isaiah’s absolution, so God sends pastors as His messengers to do the same: “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven!”
That is a true spiritual experience! It casts you lower than you would ever have imagined and at the very same time lifts you higher than you ever dreamed possible.
Blessed be the Father. Blessed be the Son. Blessed be the Holy Spirit. And blessed are you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Your evil is removed; your sin forgiven.
Brian William Thomas is a writer-in-residence and pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, CA. His writing focuses on confessional Lutheranism in a post-Christian culture and reclaiming ancient pastoral practices for present day service.
What are the differences between Lutherans and Calvinists, and do they really matter? In Wittenberg vs. Geneva, Brian Thomas provides a biblical defense of the key doctrines that have divided the Lutheran and Reformed traditions for nearly five centuries.