Friday, February 20, 2009

Downsides of Dignity

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me.”

                        2 Kings 5.11

When Everything Changes

A lot of truth hangs in the cliché “Life is full of surprises.” Most of them are of a minor, “I-had-no-idea” variety calling for small adjustments. But every so often revelations or events come along to impact all we know and expect of life. Some are eagerly anticipated—finding a life partner, starting a family, or embarking on a career, for example. Some gradually announce themselves as we develop awareness and wherewithal to deal with them. Sexuality, identity, independence, and realizing the need for God are changes of this sort. Lastly, others blindside us with illness, separation, and similar realities we can’t alter yet irrevocably alter us. Positive or negative, they present tremendous risks demanding we respond without sacrificing our dignity. The story of Naaman, as told in 2 Kings 5, epitomizes conflicts we face when everything changes.

An International Incident

Naaman is a highly regarded, valiant soldier who’s risen in rank to command the army of the king of Aram. He’s prosperous and happily married. All of this changes when he contracts leprosy, the Biblical term for a range of maladies from psoriasis to modern-day leprosy. Apparently, Aramite society is better enlightened than its neighbors. Naaman lives and works as always, neither stigmatized nor isolated like Hebrew lepers. Still, his illness frustrates his effectiveness and his skin’s appearance challenges his dignity. Observing Naaman’s distress, an Israelite housemaid tells his wife, “If he went to our prophet, his sickness would be cured.”

After Naaman mentions this, the king urges him to go. He gives Naaman a letter of introduction to the king of Israel: “I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” This sends Israel’s king into a tailspin. “I’m not God,” he cries. “I can’t cure leprosy. He’s trying to pick a fight!” In the finest of melodramatic fashions, he rips his robe to shreds, making news that ripples across the land and reaches the prophet Elisha. He dispatches a message advising the king to settle down before things balloon into an international incident: “Send the man to me and he’ll know there’s a prophet in Israel.”

Too Far to Turn Back

So Naaman and his entourage remount their chariots for the long drive to confer with Elisha. They pull up to his house, expecting he’ll come to them as befits a foreign dignitary’s arrival. But the prophet sends instructions via messenger, saying Naaman’s skin will clear after he bathes seven times in the Jordan River. This does it for Naaman. He storms off in an angry tirade: “I thought he’d come out, say a prayer, wave his hand, and I’d be healed. No, he sends me to the filthy Jordan, when there are cleaner rivers to wash in.” Were Naaman alive now, he’d add, “Does he know who I am?” Elisha puts such a dent in Naaman’s dignity he’d rather live with his problem than follow the prophet’s orders. Miles he’s traveled, attention he’s drawn, people he’s involved—none of that matters next to his indignation. It never occurs to him he’s come too far to turn back.

Much in life hinges on how tenaciously we protect our dignity. Allowing people to run roughshod over our integrity, sense of self, and God-given rights depletes our self-confidence, stamina, and commitment to purpose. Yet there are downsides of dignity we should bear in mind. It’s acutely susceptible to false perceptions, often reading benign gestures as targeted contempt. We don’t know why Elisha doesn’t personally greet Naaman, but many possibilities exist beyond breaking protocol or disrespect. Dignity also tends to mistake insensitivity for insult. Granted, sending a messenger disregards all Naaman’s been through. But, given the politically volatile situation, it’s unlikely the prophet means to belittle him.

Finally, defending dignity easily slides into protesting pride. What starts as guarding self-worth ends with demeaning others, often at our expense. In the heat of indignation we forget we’ve come too far to turn back. We toss off progress we’ve gained and hopes we harbor in exchange for asserting our importance at the moment. Naaman’s indignity nearly costs his cure. If his demand for respect is reasonable, his reaction isn’t. In the end, his men convince him to obey the prophet. He leaves the Jordan the seventh time with new skin and returns to Elisha with humble apologies. That’s the thing with dignity. It’s best served by humility, constant mindfulness that all we are is never all we can be. Once we accept that, dignity loses its fragility and downsides to become an enduring expression of self-confidence, faith in others, and faith in God.

Naaman's indignation at Elisha's perceived rudeness and instructions to bathe in Jordan's muddy water nearly cost him his healing.

(Tomorrow: Graveyard Faith)


kkryno said...

Hey; maybe the mud held magic just like the dirt at Chimayo.

Tim said...

Could be, Vikki, but I'm prone to believe the magic happened just before his first plunge into the mud--when he decided to trust the prophet, set his dignity aside, and dive in. Oh, and BTW, I'd never heard of Chimayo. Thanks for mentioning it!

Annette said...

Me - Broken Record. You - providing exactly what I needed to hear this morning. Thank you my sweet friend.

johnmichael said...

I needed to hear this today.

Tim said...

Annette and John, you're not alone by any means. This post has become most uncommon in that several other friends and family who come by without commenting have called or sent emails saying the same thing. And before my work day ended, I needed to hear it TODAY.

How great is our God that He sends us what we need when we need it! He never fails, and never fails to amaze. He's worthy of all our praise.

Thanks to both of you for your comments.