This article can also be read in The Expository Files.
“Then I proclaimed a fast there…that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.’ So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty” (Ezra 8:21-23).
Ezra led the second wave of exiles from Persia to Jerusalem. He came to Jerusalem with a letter in hand from King Artaxerxes that granted him a huge amount of authority, including authorization to tap into the royal treasury (7:20) and permission to punish any Jew disobedient to the Law of Moses (7:26). In modern terms, Ezra might be called “the Secretary of State for Jewish Affairs;” he could have asked for nearly anything from the King of Persia. However there was one thing Ezra did not ask for: a military escort to make the 4 month long journey to Jerusalem. The reason? Shame!
Ezra had assured King Artaxerxes that the Almighty God would protect himself and the travlers on their journey. Perhaps later, Ezra realized that the journey back to Jerusalem would be long and dangerous, and thought, “it might be nice to have a Persian military escort with us.” But what stopped Ezra from making this request was not timidity or fear of the king, but shame! He realized that it would be inconsistent to talk about God’s protection but then ask for a military escort. He was ashamed that earthly worries had trumped the faith he professed in God. Yet Ezra’s shame did not simply cause him to feel bad for a moment; it motivated him to bring his practice of faith into harmony with his profession of it. After his shameful realization, Ezra commanded a time of prayer and fasting, “and God listened to our entreaty.”
Have you ever felt ashamed that your practices did not live up to your profession of faith? Consider three common examples.
I profess that God hears and answers prayer. I know lots of things God has said about prayer. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8). “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Mt 21:22). “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (Jas 5:16). I can see fervent and effective prayer demonstrated by Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, and many others in Scripture. Yet I can easily go days where the only prayer I offer is a token, “thanks for the food.” Prayer is often my last resort, only to be tried when all else has failed. Prayer sits behind a pane of glass that reads, “break only in case of emergency.” What should my reaction be when I make such a realization? Shame! My profession is inconsistent with my practice.
I profess that a child of God’s life should be full of joy and contentment. I know that God cares about all his creation, even down to the smallest sparrow. And I know that I am of more value to God than many sparrows (Lk 12:4-7). I know that worry will not add a solitary hair to my head or single hour to my life (Mt 6:27). I have read about how Paul learned to be content in any and every circumstance (Phil 4:11-13). Yet I often find myself obsessing over money. I am constantly anxious about having enough for retirement, investments, insurance, renovating the house, trading up for a better car. What should my reaction be when I realize that my profession of faith in God’s providence is different than my practice of constant anxiety? Shame!
I profess to be nothing more than a pilgrim and sojourner on this earth (Heb 11:13). I know that Christians have their citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20). I have learned from Revelation that no matter what evil forces seem to be standing against me, siding with God guarantees ultimate victory. I even know that God has promised opposition, persecution, and hatred from the world (Jn 15:18-20; 1 Pet 4:12; 1 Jn 3:13). Yet I find myself living and dying by daily earthly kingdom happenings. The news instructs me on the latest crisis I need to fret about. Stories of the world treating Christian values unfavorably shock me every time. Like Ezra, I find myself putting more trust in political causes and candidates than I do the Almighty God. What should my reaction be when I make this realization? Shame! My profession is inconsistent with my practice.
Ezra’s shame does not teach us to merely feel bad when we see realize our profession of faith is inconsistent with our practice. Certainly Ezra felt bad about his lack of faith. But then that shame pushed him toward change. Shame motivated Ezra to trust God rather than the king—a trust that manifested itself in action. Shame caused Ezra to remind others of the Almighty God he served. Shame caused Ezra to be more prayerful. Shame spurred on Ezra to bring his practice of faith into harmony with his profession of it. Would to God that we would have such transformative shame when we stopped trusting Him!