For the past few years, I've tended to go on a major shopping spree on my birthday. I'm not a big clothes shopper and I don't really like buying a lot of things overall (excepting the occasional tea pot, ceramic, or glass bottle for one of my collections!). Splurges tend to all be on books. My daughter has convinced me of the importance of the physicality of a print book, and she and I have steadfastly created multiple library areas in our home. Last year's birthday found me sitting "criss-cross applesauce" in the religion section of Barnes and Noble, surrounded by a pile of Richard Foster and N.T. Wright books. I also purchased a small, brown NRSV Bible. I particularly like to read the Psalms in this Bible, as I eagerly open up to where the brown cloth page marker has held my place, and hold both sides of the leather in my hands as I pray and read the Psalms. I love how this translation supports both the beauty and literal meaning of the text, upheld by incredible scholarship and current archaeological record.
It also bridges more archaic translations and modern ones, keeping gems like this one in Isaiah 55:
Ho! everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
As an 80s kid, any mention of "Ho" inevitably elicits mental images of Lion-O, the most awesome of the Thundercats!
"Ho" is definitely an exclamation that gets my attention, which is clearly the intent of this opening verse that connects so seamlessly with Christian theology that emphasizes that salvation is a free gift.
It's almost like Isaiah has to "slow roll" readers to fully impress upon them that there is no catch to what he is saying. First, he grabs our attention with the "Ho!" Then he invites readers who have no money to buy and eat. And then he emphasizes that they are to buy without having any money and, oh by the way, there is no cost to the drinks anyway.
I know Christians who have struggled over the free gift theology. They have it so deeply embedded in them that they have to earn everything that they really struggle with the reality of this and need continuous reminders. I haven't had this particular struggle and have deeply embraced this wonderful truth that salvation is offered as a free gift. But perhaps I've embraced it too much that it's almost the "cheap grace" that Bonhoeffer writes against. Is my attitude, "Sure. Yep. Free gift. Got it," or am I continuously in awe that immortality, eternity itself, and perpetual happiness and wholeness in community with the Lord of the Universe and all those connected to Him is given at no cost?
Even if I do accept this and occasionally am in awe over it, do I follow through on the logical implications of this belief? As Isaiah asks in the next line,
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food.
Why indeed? Why do I keep living my life as if this purchase hasn't occurred? By keeping my gaze on the small, inconsequential things and letting them disturb me, it's clear that I haven't fully internalized this message. The conclusion of Isaiah 55 emphasizes the implication of fully accepting these truths:
You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Still, more convincing is needed, for Isaiah's readers and myself. We have a major obstacle that needs to be overcome: our thoughts.
I've spent the past 25 years studying thoughts, with the field of psychology my chosen area of study. Human cognition involves a lot of complexity, with biological, emotional, environmental, and situational inputs influencing how we think. The body of research is enormous, and I've primarily focused on how people learn in formal and informal educational settings. Learning involves change, by the way--this was one of the first things I learned in my educational psychology coursework. As Inigo says in the movie The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." I often think this when I hear people talk about learning that involves no change in thought in behavior. It's simply not learning, then.
God cuts through this complexity by just laying out the facts and what must occur for change to occur:
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Christians frequently quote the last two sentences of this passage. We can definitely agree that God's thoughts appear in stark contrast to humans', based on what we see in the Bible as well as our experience in the world. But, as many good pastors teach, we need to look to see what the "therefore" or "for" is "there for" in this passage. And right before it, people are told to forsake their thoughts. Now, we may think that this does not apply to us, since we may not count ourselves in the "wicked" or "unrighteous" categories.
We need to recall that this passage was not originally written to Christians, but to God's chosen people--the people of Judah. And Isaiah is not differentiating here between the righteous people of Judah and the unrighteous. That "unrighteous" line quickly morphs to "your thoughts" in the very next lines. Therefore, the whole list of instructions applies to all:
Seek the Lord
Call upon Him
Forsake wicked ways
Forsake unrighteous thoughts
Return to the Lord
Salvation may be a free gift, but these are the instructions for how to take hold of it. Just as psychological research indicates multiple ways to counter negative thoughts, the forsaking of unrighteous and unhelpful thoughts is a continuous battle. For example, Aaron Beck's hugely influential cognitive theory identifies types of maladaptive thinking that--while not called sinful--are considered to be errors of thought. For example,
Overgeneralization. One negative event of thing gets globalized to everything in your life. Such as, someone treating you poorly being translated to the feeling that no one will ever like or connect with you ever.
Jumping to conclusions.
All-or-nothing thinking. "If this happens, then I'm done for."
Believing that the way that you feel in a given moment reflects reality.
Catastrophizing--assuming the worst possible scenario is what will happen.
Also, blame, labeling oneself and others, blowing things out of proportion, dwelling on the negatives, etc. etc. It's a very useful theory for therapeutic purposes as well as self-checks about one's own thoughts. We likely all lapse into some of these from time to time and when they become life patterns they are harmful to self and others. As such, according to a Christian framework, they can become sins. Negative thoughts are not necessarily morally neutral, as if we can be good religious people and not deal with these. We spend a lot of time with our own thoughts. They can be glorifying to God and life-giving toward self and others or they can be a hodge-podge of negativity, evil, and unhelpfulness. Thoughts and emotions are connected and a key element of emotion has to do with what what is thinking (cognitive appraisal). Emotions also consist of behaviors and the physical feeling of the particular emotion.
We see in Isaiah's instructions list components of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors--the full package of our response. We are to seek and call on the Lord (behaviors). We are to attack these thoughts that show our lack of faith in our swirling and frantic efforts to protect ourselves (thoughts). And we are to return to the Lord, which involves our full self, including emotions (feelings). This involves being right with the Lord. Much as being reconciled to a family member also involves the feeling of being connected again, we need to put the time into prayer, study, and meditative practices in order to have that connection. Otherwise, we are expecting connectedness to occur without the building blocks of a relationship, which doesn't happen in other areas of life and is super unlikely to happen in relationship with the Creator.
Responding to Isaiah's list isn't a to-do list of works for us to do, optional disciplines that we can take or leave. He's simply speaking the truth of what it takes to be in right relationship with the Lord of the Universe. The joy that concludes the chapter is then ours for the taking!