Getting out of the way
I've had the story of Naaman the commander of the King of Aram's army on my mind recently. It's one of my favourite stories in 2 Kings 5, the miraculous healing of Naaman and in my experience, when you return to a part of scripture you've not considered for a while, something fresh often hits you and this time I found myself puzzling over Elisha's behaviour.
Elisha barged into this story, and not only does he help the king of Israel out of a major pickle, but in doing so he also takes the opportunity to remind everyone, the king included, that God is still in Israel. Life may be lived out against a stressful and uncertain backdrop of constant political and military turbulence, but God had not abandoned His people. So Elisha took Naaman off the king's inadequate hands with a personal invitation and then proceeded to behave outrageously. First, Elisha denies Naaman entry to his home and then he refuses to see him. Even in our discourteous times this would be considered outrageously rude but, for the Middle East, it was scandalous! Next, Elisha sends out his servant Gehazi with an insulting message. Talk about adding insult to injury!
I've a lot of sympathy for Naaman, who reacted to Elisha's behaviour with anger! It's clear that Naaman behaved with humility from the outset by listening to a slave girl and taking action on her testimony alone. Naaman, the great military leader, had made himself personally vulnerable. Once in the king of Israel's court he discovered his journey didn't end there and he had to trudge on, this time to a strange prophet's modest house. His expectations must have been high, but he'd also have felt very anxious. So, of course, Naaman was angry at his reception! He was hurt by Elisha's discourtesy and frightened by his own suffering, fearful of his fate. Yet again though, he listens to his servants and so bathes seven times in the Jordan and is healed.
Only then does Elisha meet Naaman. Why?
I think we have to go back to Naaman's initial reaction: 'I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.' v 11. It seems that Naaman didn't just want to be healed, he wanted far more: an experience, a genuine encounter with this God who could heal him. He just had an inadequate view of how this could come about. Elisha knew what he must do though and by removing himself completely from Naaman's encounter with God in the River Jordan, Elisha ensured that Naaman got exactly what he was after all along: a genuine encounter with the living God, proof that there was only one God worth worshipping. Perhaps Elisha could have waved his hands over Naaman and he'd have been healed but Elisha would forever have been associated with this healing and encounter. Instead, Naaman discovered God for himself and by himself. Elisha's role was to point Naaman in the right direction and then to ensure he didn't get in the way of what God was doing with Naaman.
It can be horribly tempting, like Gehazi discovered, to embellish what God appears to be doing; or to get involved to manoeuvre events to go in a certain direction; to manipulate people into responding in a certain way to what is said or done. It can be hard to stand back, leave well alone and let the Holy Spirit work in people's lives, but I am increasingly convinced that our task is simply to find out where God is at work and help the work along, which sometimes means we need to get out of His way. And if we are ever tempted to grab some of that glory and honour for ourselves by inserting ourselves into the story of what God is up to, then running in the opposite direction is the wisest move we can make.
It's my hope and prayer that I am not tempted to meddle in situations that I should leave well alone but I suspect that I have quenched the Spirit on many occasions by blundering in with good intentions when I should have backed away. Over time I have realised it boils down to how much faith I have in God. Do I trust God enough to step away at times and refuse to interfere? Is my faith strong enough to let God be God and be content to live with the consequences? The roll call of the faithful in Hebrews 11 acts as a healthy reminder that although they did not get what they thought they were promised, nevertheless, throughout their lives God was active and at work. Most of the time, like Elisha in this story, we don't have to make grand gestures to help people to encounter the living Jesus, we just have to be willing to point them in the right direction and then get well out of the way to let God get on with meeting them. The steady, ordinary life of an obedient disciple who is humble enough to know their place and do what they are told is exactly what most of us are called to.
Revd Alison Griffiths
Director Pastoral Care: South