One of the things I love about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is that I don’t have to believe that any of it is factual to see the truth in it. Do I really believe that the Red Sea actually parted just like it did for Charlton Heston? Does it even matter whether or not I do?
Fortunately my faith in God has never depended on blind belief in any particular translation of an ancient text. It’s based on experience; mine, of course, and also the experiences of others. So when I listened to this weekend’s Old Testament selection about Moses and the seraph serpents, it wasn’t with a literal ear, but with an ear longing to relate my own experiences to the story, and I was rewarded with an interesting interpretation.
The story takes place well into the Israelites’ wandering in the desert after fleeing Egypt. They’d starved and thirsted. They’d been fed with manna and quail. And they were weary from wandering in circles and living the Hebrew version of the Groundhog Day movie. They grumbled against God.
How many times have I done the same thing? I beg God to save me from whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into, and no sooner does He provide a way out and I’m complaining about my new circumstances! My discontentment will follow me wherever I go, if I allow it.
So in the story, God punishes this discontentment with serpents to bite the people, killing some of them. This does not sound like the God in which I believe! My God is loving and compassionate and would never deliberately harm me! This is why people reject Christianity, I think to myself.
And that’s when I ponder, maybe God didn’t send the snakes. Maybe the Israelites attracted them, and God simply chose not to stand in the way of a crisis.
And maybe they weren’t literal reptiles. They are called “seraph” serpents. The word means “burning.” Most people interpret this to mean “poisonous snakes.” But a seraph was also a sort of angel in the book of Isaiah. What if they were spiritual “serpents” who were attracted to the Israelites who were “feeding” them with resentment after heaping resentment? (I do believe in spiritual beings, both light and dark. Again, based primarily on personal experience.)
How many of my own resentments grow when I feed them until they turn on me, poison me, and bring me to death’s door, spiritually speaking? How often does my anger at God bite me? I’m a figurative snake handler.
God provided Moses with specific instructions for a remedy. Make a serpent, mount it on a pole so everyone can see it, and instruct the people to look at it, so that they will be saved. Christian theology interprets this as foreshadowing of the Crucifixion of Christ, as the words of Jesus in this weekend’s Gospel clearly state. But as a stand-alone story, it is also an analogy for how I can be saved from the spiritual serpents that plague me when I am grumbling against God.
I need to take a good, hard look at my resentments.
For me, this takes the form of a written list. In one column is the name of the person I resent. In the second column is why. It’s a freeform exercise, like brainstorming. I don’t judge myself, and I don’t censor myself either. I write it all down. I don’t consider whether resentment is justified or just a selfish indulgence. I just get it out on paper. Like mounting it on a pole. Then I look at it, hard.
Making this list is kind of like drawing out the poison from a snake bite. Sometimes I have to make a little cut in the skin of my pride and suck the poison out. It can be painful. I have to be careful not to let it get into my spiritual bloodstream while I’m doing it. I have to sit still.
I also have to consciously make the decision to let go and forgive. Like Jesus on that cross, I have to say, usually out loud, as much to myself as anyone, “They didn’t know what they were doing. They were sick. They were poisoned. They were hurt, and hurt people hurt people.” I don’t believe it yet. At this stage it’s just an intellectual exercise, but it’s a start.
Then I have to look at myself. In what ways have I engaged in the same behaviors I’m resenting? If I’m being honest in my search, I will find an absolute gem of a gift – compassion. I will find my own dark side, and I will sit with it. I will ask, where did that dark side come from? What payoff do I get by indulging it? Is my dark side just one of my talents or survival skills taken to an extreme?
And I go back to my resentment list and recall that anger is nothing more than a mask for fear. I fear these people on my list, and in fearing them I give them power that isn’t really theirs. Why? I name the fears. I remember that fears and worries are like prayers for a negative outcome. That fear is the opposite of love, that it will destroy me as certainly as any physical harm. I take the power back. I look in the mirror at my own darkness and find compassion for myself, and for them, and I cut the strings that bind me to the pain they may have caused me. I forgive. For real.
I look at my darkness and ask, what gift is there in this negative trait? There’s always a gift. Maybe I’m overly critical; that’s just the extreme form of being discerning. Maybe I’m competitive; if I tone that down I’ll discover a healthy drive to achieve excellence. As I look at every negative thing about myself and search for the positive within it, I find gratitude. Gratitude for all these wonderful gifts I never realized I had, and gratitude for that pain that drove me to look in the first place.
I ask God for help to see the patterns, and I ask Him to remove whatever of these characteristics keep me from being of service to others, and to help me stop hurting people. And I ask Him to show me how to repair the relationships that have been harmed by my poisonous resentment. Maybe I was only 10 percent of the problem, but I want to clean up my 10 percent.
Then a miracle happens. When I accept my faults, and when I start to take responsibility for them, no one can use them against me! I walk secure in the knowledge that I’m human and that God loves me.
This weekend’s gospel included the most well-known, often-quoted verse in the whole of scripture. Even atheists know it. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
It’s too bad that’s the verse everyone knows, because John 3:17 is even better. I wish Christians of all denominations would display this at sporting events and on their license plates and church billboards, because most have them seem to have forgotten it.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
The seraph serpents, the resentments that eat away at us – they are not a condemnation. They are the gift that compels us to look within and then turn to the source of salvation.