From “Woe!” to “Whoa!” – Bradley Jersak

I am troubled when I read Scripture’s heaviest divine warning—Woe to you!—especially when it comes from the mouth of Jesus Christ, and more so when I hear it land in my own heart. Christ brings out the ‘woe’ in the following passages (though some are duplicates): Matthew 11:20-21, 18:7, 23:13-16, 23-29, 26:24, Mark 14:21, Luke 6:17, 24-26, 11:37, 42-52, 17:1, 22:22.

It’s one thing to evade the woes to the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law (but should I?) or in Luke’s beatitudes to the rich, well-fed, and jovial (but that’s me!). But for me, there is simply no way around Luke 17:1, addressed to his disciples (to you and me, right?). He says,

“Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come,
but woe to anyone through whom they come.”

Well, dear friend, you may be innocent, but as for me, I can recount many instances where that particular woe applies to me, and even more so as a former pastor.

Now, some of my friends have been so wounded by religious shaming and spiritual abuse that the most important way they can work out their salvation for the foreseeable future is to focus on God’s grace and mercy, and to hear again and again, “There is, therefore, now no condemnation.” It’s as if they cannot hear the ‘woes’ of Christ without being triggered into either self-loathing or, more commonly, flight mode. So yes, camp in sheer grace for as long as you need to. Yet I hope camping is not mere stuckness. When one can no longer even read the loving correction or urgent warnings of Christ without a visceral reaction, you know there’s a serious problem and a long course of healing ahead.

I understand. I also know that avoidance is not healthy, it’s not growth, and definitely not the best that Christ has for me. Fleeing from the shame of my nakedness into the refuge of Adam and Eve’s fig leaves is not grace. It’s an exit ramp off the Way of the Cross. But what if, instead, wholeness leads us to hear and pass through the full force of those woes into God’s grace and all its glory?

I want to share an ancient and reliable prayer in response to the woes of Christ when I feel them. When my eyes are opened to my complicity or participation in that which grieves others or alienates me from God, myself, my neighbor, my world, I pray from the heart, sometimes with tears,

Suddenly the Judge shall come,
and the deeds of each shall be revealed:
but with fear we cry out in the middle of the night:
Holy, holy, holy art thou, O God,
have mercy on us.

This old prayer should be understood, first of all, existentially (not eschatologically), as the response of those who have heard the ‘woe’ as an invitation to repentance. Indeed, it is repentance. It’s not a rebuttal to the free grace revealed in Christ, and the fear here is not about being afraid of God. Rather, I see my woeful implosions for what they are and the hurt they cause, and I am aroused to a heartfelt response and am me with what? The mercy of God. Every time. In that sense, even the “woes” are pure grace, because they welcome me to return home.

We remember Paul’s words,

“All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”  

My godfather, David Goa, said to me,

All have sinned because sin is, at one level, experience.
All experience is particular and comes out of the choices I make,
…out of what I have done or failed to do.
All experience involves saying yes or saying no.
And whatever we do is related to our glory.
Sometimes our glory unfolds and sometimes implodes.
When it implodes, it is because it wasn’t part of the divine glory.

There is no way out of this. It is the nature of our experience and it has its sadness about it, and it has its ordinariness about it. In our day and age, with public faces in private places and private faces in public places, our choices also become part of larger political matters (and for damn good reason) and this adds an additional threat.

All we can do is our best.

David shared with me how moved he was buy Peter Seeger’s remake of the old Shaker song, “How Can I Keep from Singing.” It begins with the human condition, “My life goes on with endless song amid life’s lamentations…” And then David offered hope from the final stanza, a comforting line referring to friends:

When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

We sing with joy because whatever might be said about us by others, factual or not, their words will not affect the way one’s true friends look at us—“friends undefiled” by our sin, by our experiences.

I know enough about myself to know there is something here for me and probably for all of us.
Best of all, talk about an ‘undefiled friend’: we experience this friendship with Christ, who despite our ‘crimson stains, is “not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11).

Now, back to those words, “All have sinned and fall short.” True. Thank God that was not Paul’s final word. To finish his thought,

22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 

Should we narrow all three uses of all here to ‘those who believe’ (v. 22)? If so, then all who believe fall short and all who believe are justified. Far better to retain the symmetry of verses 23-24, where Paul is expanding on verse 22 to show us that all Jews and all Gentiles share the same failings and need the same mercy. He’s describing not only those who believe but all people. Would reading further into Romans lead us to that same conclusion? I can see clear signs of that:

Romans 5:18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people

Romans 11:32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

These texts come full circle to my opening theme: those unnerving woes. Here is my conclusion: Through the Cross, God’s ‘woe to you’ becomes Christ’s ‘blessed are you.’ So too, Christ’s ‘woe to all’ portends his ‘blessing to all,’ because every warning ‘woe’ is his open-armed ‘Come to me!’ Then I can hear the “Woe!” as a “Whoa!” … as in, “Stop running. Come! Here you will find mercy.”

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Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More