Many of you will know the story of the tragic figure, Samson, the biblical character whose prodigious strength could defeat whole armies. Samson, however, also had a prodigious weakness–an attraction to foxy Philistine women. One of them, Delilah, asks him three times for the secret of his strength and three times he gives her a false answer. Each time she tells the Philistines, but when they try out what Samson has said, he breaks free.
The fourth time Delilah asks, Samson tells her the truth that lies behind his great strength–he has never cut his hair. Sure enough, while he’s asleep, Delilah lops off his hair, the Philistines attack, blind him and put him in prison. How, when Delilah has told the Philistines the other three answers, could Samson be so stupid as to tell her the real secret the fourth time?
I believe the answer has to do with what I wrote about in my last post–the human ability to step back and reflect before taking action. As we delve deeper into the story, it appears that Samson lost this inner space which in turn led to his tragic downfall.
First, let’s look at a Hebrew word, mezimmah, that is sometimes used for this planning or decision-making faculty. One commentator describes it as “the capacity for private, hidden thought”–space for freedom and creativity. We all have it and we can use it either positively or negatively. In the latter case, mezimmah is translated evil devices or wicked schemes (e.g. Psa.37:7). The manipulative individual steps back into his own thoughts and schemes how he might get his way. On the other hand, mezimmah can be positive at which times biblical translators use words such as discretion or prudence (e.g. Prov. 2:11). Wise people step back and choose paths that are good, peaceable, loving and healthy.
In the Bible spaciousness is seen as a blessing from God and when we invite God into our inner world, he increases the space inside for free, uninhibited thought. Conversely, shutting God out reduces it. The NIV’s usage of mezimmah in Psalm 10:4 illustrates the power we have to decrease this space. “In his pride the wicked man does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.” Only when we make room for God in our thoughts will we ultimately have this wonderful sense of freedom. He is the One who created us with the precious ability to choose and he wants us to have it. He doesn’t want this capacity minimized by unruly passions or desires, fears, stress, anxiety, pressures from other people or anything else.
This brings us back to Samson who stands out in the Bible as someone whose lust for illicit sexual relationships crowded out his capacity for rational thought. As he gave himself over to Delilah, his thought-life became breached. Here’s the description of the beginning of Samson’s end when he tells Delilah his secret. “It came about when she pressed him daily with her words and urged him, that his soul was annoyed to death. So he told her all that was in his heart. . .” (Judges 16:16,17a).
The Hebrew word translated pressed is often used for what an enemy does to a city as it lays siege to it. It is also translated constrain, bring distress, oppress. Delilah besieged Samson. She bombarded him with her words and she did it relentlessly until he was hemmed in, “annoyed to death.” The word translated annoyed means to be inadequate or to not have enough of. The literal meaning is to be short as when a bed is not long enough to be comfortable. Delilah pressed in upon Samson until he ran out of inner room.
Samson had a history of involvement with prostitutes and other inappropriate relationships. As he continued to give himself over to illicit sexual pleasure, he opened himself up to a relentless spiritual onslaught. The turmoil thus experienced robbed him of space for reflective thinking. He lost the ability to make a rational decision.
Samson vividly illustrates Prov. 25:28, “Like a city that is broken into and without walls Is a man who has no control over his spirit. In our next post we’ll take a look at the “door” of the city and to whom we’re to open it.
In the previous post, I spoke of the Bible’s audacious claim that human beings are created in the image of God. Whatever progress I make in understanding that statement comes to a screeching halt the moment I take a good look at myself. When I consider God’s others-centered love, the contrast with my deep-rooted self-centeredness hits me like a brick wall. At the suggestion I be like Jesus, I become a small boy on a hike whose path leads straight to the foot of a 300 foot vertical cliff that somehow I must scale.
The first step in beginning the climb is understanding that this sense of utter helplessness comes about precisely because I am created in God’s image! I’m speaking of our ability to step back and think about our circumstances, in this instance to reflect on how far I am from God’s nature. Animals, whose instincts drive them on, can’t do this. We humans, on the other hand, have an amazing power to stop, consider our situation and decide on our course of action. Many men on the Titanic, for example, chose to reject the powerful instinct of self-preservation and allowed women and children to get into the lifeboats while they faced certain death.
The principle of being able to step back from reality and choose our destiny under-girds the entire Bible. Old Testament leaders such as Elijah and Joshua exhort the Israelites to “choose this day” whether they will serve God or not (1Kings 18:21;Jos. 24:15). The prophet, Joel, saw, “multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). Billy Graham understood this truth with crystal clarity. Decision became the watchword of his ministry. He had a radio program called Hour of Decision, his magazine was simply called Decision Magazine and, of course, virtually every message he preached climaxed with a call for men and women to decide for Christ.
This incredible power of reflection, however, only reaches its full potential when we combine it with the reality of God’s presence. That is, we can step back from the current situation and reflect, but we can do it in two ways. We can think by ourselves or we can invite God to join us in our deliberations. We can go into abstraction or we can come into relationship. The difference is monumental. Alone, in the hollow halls of my own head, I eventually suffer an anguished emptiness. Reflecting with an upward glance to Jesus, I have better, higher quality ideas which lead to a sense of contented fullness.
The Bible specifically teaches us this principle when, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God says, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. (Jer 6:16). The crossroads, of course, is the place where we step back and choose which way we will go. The verse gives us two profound insights. Firstly, when we are faced with a decision, rather than merely think about it by ourselves, stop and pray. Ask God what we should do. Think about what he might want us do.
Secondly, ask for the good way. This is the secret for so many who feel they never hear from God. “The Lord’s goodness and mercy endure forever.” To hear God speak, we must understand his language and, simply put, it is love. “God is love.” So ask God, ask yourself, “Where do I see God’s goodness most clearly? What’s the most loving thing I can do in this terrible work situation? How can I show graciousness to this troublesome individual? What career will give me the best opportunity to do good?” It’s surprising then how often we’re inspired by better thoughts than our own.
So every time you’re discouraged by the wall of your own self-centeredness, realize that you’re at a divine place–the crossroads. You have the power to choose! Because you’re like God, you have an opportunity to mold your own destiny. It doesn’t matter how often you seemed to have come up short, “it’s never too late to make a right decision!” You can step back; you can give an upward glance; you can look for the good way and see what God will do!