Portraits: Naaman

In his warning to the church in Corinth about the danger of idolatry, Paul used the disastrous examples of Israel under the Old Law in 1 Corinthians 10.1-10 – of Israel’s idolatrous worship of the calf, of their sexual immorality, of testing God, of grumbling and complaining – before concluding with this observation:

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction,… – 1 Corinthians 10.11

The prophetic period of Elisha contains many notable circumstances and occurrences. Perhaps none is as well-known as the episode with the Syrian captain Naaman found in 2 Kings 5. This successful military leader was a man of renown in his own country, but at least partially, for the wrong reasons. Though a capable and decorated leader, he had leprosy – a terrible stigma that marred an otherwise stellar career. But during one of his successful raids against Israel, a young Israeli servant was captured, and she subsequently relayed, through her mistress, to Naaman that there was a prophet in Israel who could address this awful malady. When Naaman was sent by his king to Israel, what ensued is what always happens when God steps into the lives of human beings: divine grace simply and directly overwhelmed a desperate human condition that its subject could do absolutely nothing about. What a wonderful picture for us – and how typical of God to use a foreigner to illustrate His love for all men, and His willingness to address our “leprosy of sin.”

We Can’t Demand Grace

Initially the king of Syria sent Naaman with a letter to Jehoram, the king of Israel. It was not one of humble request, but arrogant demand:

“When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” – 2 Kings 5.6

The king was not only arrogant, but ignorant of how a spiritual relationship with God works. From the human perspective, as the saying goes, we’re in no position to make demands. Jehoram reacted with disdain:

“Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” – v.7

Elisha caught wind of the fiasco, perhaps providentially, and stepped in. He sent a message to Naaman to dip seven times in the river Jordan to be cleansed. Naaman was shocked and disappointed. But his servant saw the response of Elisha for what it was: a gift. One that could not be purchased or demanded, or found anywhere else. He pleaded with Naaman, and convinced him that this was far beyond anything he might have hoped for – and Naaman eventually took his advice and was cleansed.

We are in no position to demand of God any kind of merciful or graceful response to our disobedience. Every human experience with God is the same: we are dependent on God’s grace to do what we cannot do. Grace is a gift. And it must be accepted humbly. We cannot dictate the terms if we desire to be cleansed.

We Can’t Repay Grace

Naaman was an ancient celebrity of sorts. When he went somewhere, he traveled in style:

“So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes.” – v.5

Probably a full complement of horses, chariots, luggage, servants, and travel advisors, too. He and the king apparently figured that a cure for leprosy wasn’t going to be cheap.

After dipping in the Jordan seven times and being cleansed, Naaman went back to Elisha, and the story describes his attempt at reciprocation:

“And he said, ‘Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.’” – v.15

What a typical human response! When someone conveys a gift, we feel indebted. It is a natural response. And we feel like we have to respond in kind, and provide an equal (or sometimes superior) gift in return. While there is nobility in wanting to balance such circumstances, we aren’t very good at receiving blessings from others. It harbors a sense of indebtedness. Naaman felt this way, and he was in a position to give in return far more (or so it seemed) as a means of showing appreciation.

Elisha refused the gift, of course. He knew that the cure was an act of God’s grace, and that grace is free by definition. He understood how inappropriate it would have been to accept such a gift for a pure act of grace that came from God – not from him. Yes, Naaman felt indebted, like any of us would. We don’t like to owe anyone. But Naaman owed nothing. And we owe nothing:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” – Ephesians 2.8

We are just as mistaken as Naaman to think we can repay God for the gift of salvation. The price for our forgiveness is handled entirely by God – we contribute nothing to it. As Paul wrote earlier in Ephesians:

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” – Ephesians 1.7

No one can purchase or repay the cost of grace. It is not obtained by barter or purchase. But even if we could – who could afford such a gift? Who can put a price on the blood of Jesus? Grace is for anyone who is willing to accept it.

We Can Only Accept Grace through Obedience

The story of Naaman is a clear demonstrate of how grace and faith work together (see Ephesians 2.8). Naaman could do nothing to relieve his leprous condition – it was an incurable disease. We can do nothing to relieve our sinful situation, and the price we owe is our life (Romans 6.23).

When told to dip seven times in the Jordan, Naaman recognized clearly what was being asked. He knew there was nothing special about the water of the Jordan. It did not have healing qualities that no other river had. Naaman recognized quite easily what was being asked of him: to receive the gift, subject his will to God’s will. And that’s why he hesitated, because that’s a tough ask. And it’s why we hesitate to obey God today, because it means we put someone else in charge of our life. That tops the list of things human  beings simply do not want to do – let someone “call the shots.”

Eventually, Naaman’s servant convinced him that a humble, obedient heart was the key to resolving this circumstance. And the story teaches us a most valuable lesson about our relationship with God. The only way grace works is when the heart is freed to accept it, and the will is subjected to God through our obedience.

The story of Naaman is a parallel to every story of spiritual success between man and God. Man finds himself in a desperate situation. God reveals a remedy. Man must decide whether he will do things God’s way, or try to find a way out of his dilemma alone. When man chooses God’s way, it always works. When man chooses his own way, it always fails… as Solomon noted,

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. – Proverbs 14.12

The principles of grace and faith remain constant and firm: God’s grace is available to anyone who is willing to subject their will to God’s will.

Naaman teaches us comforting thoughts about our relationship to God. First, anyone can come to God if their heart is right. Naaman was not an Israelite, not of God’s chosen people. But God accepted his obedience.

Second, God offers gifts that are completely beyond what we might imagine. Naaman could never have dreamed their was a cure for his leprosy.

Third, God asks us to humble ourselves before Him, in ways that are largely unrelated to the gift He offers. The message is simple: our obedience is not directly related to God’s gift – there is nothing special in the waters of baptism to wash sin out of our lives. God does that when we obey Him.

Lastly, responding to God in theory is easy. But practically, it is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Because it means you’re not in charge of your life. Whose will directs your life?

May grace reign in your lives through righteousness.

– Bo Couchman

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