Passion, Purpose, and the Missing Peace

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God is love, light, and a consuming fire. We tend to embrace the one and avoid the others.  But a look at the oxcart account in scripture shows it is a package deal. They are bundled into one because God is one. Anything less is not God, but a god of our making. A god who affirms our preexisting assumptions. A god who does not speak up when we are off the mark. A god who does not judge — or at least does not judge us, for our preferred god is too busy judging others. His attention is averted while we deep-dive our own ways. 

The short-term benefit of this one-not-three tendency is that we may feel a bit more settled, a bit more in control, a bit more on track for our goals. But, for the one whose heart truly desires the Lord, such errors never last. Our Lord cares for us too much to permit it so. 

Perhaps this reality is hardest to discern when we try to earnestly obey the Lord and do what He says. For here, too, a package deal is freighted in. Our motives are mixed. Our minds are divided. Our wills are weaker than our ideals. Much weaker. But the Lord’s words awaken passion and purpose in us, and so we, like the foundational disciple Peter, arise and build. And, like Peter, we turn out to be a work in progress: wheat in need of sifting.1

Enter the oxcart account. In the ancient agrarian world and our present world too, oxen carry loads and pull the instruments of threshing: the wheels roll over the harvest and the sledge drags through it, cracking the grain ears, separating the wheat from the chaff. 

Likewise, our passion and purpose need threshing, for we are missing something when we plant only those two powerful forces. Let us look at the oxcart account, which tutors us away from harm and into life. It is found in the Hebrew scriptures 2 Samuel 6:1-23 and 1 Chronicles 13, 15, and 16. We also discover important details in the version of this account which Greek-speaking Jews preserved in the Septuagint.

Let’s take in the whole account:

Return of the Ark from the Philistines to Israel. Gustav Doré (1832-1883)

King David was a man after God’s own heart who served the Lord’s purpose in his generation. After years of offline faithfulness, he rose to lead God’s people. He had passion, he had purpose, but he did not always have good judgment. Legendary though he was, he still missed the mark at times. We should not disparage him, nor any leader, for getting it wrong. Consider this: if the legends of major league baseball fail to get on base seven out of ten times,2 the same rule applies to spiritual legends, who have a much harder job than just getting on base. Most of the time, they strike out. David did too. The oxcart account is one example.

David, the young men, and the rulers rallied around a captivating vision: restoring the Ark of the Covenant to its central position in the life of Israel. What could be a nobler purpose than that? What could better mobilize men, captivate popular imagination, and catalyze unity? What better way to be a light to the nations? What is more, along with earnest desire and clear vision, they had the scriptural mandate, they had the resources, and they had an eager following ripe for revival.

David Brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Hermann Vogel (1854-1921)

But they lacked something in this surge of the good, the godly, and the gifted: a full recognition of His real presence. What is that presence? A dread glory we cannot contain unless we are very, very close to Him. So close it is the same as digesting bread and wine into our bodies. Yes, what I write is a mystery, but it is the way things are. Any other way is fatal to our faith and harmful to the lives of those around us.

But we love to preserve things. We love to control. We love appearances. We might not say it like that, but it is our nature. Look at Peter again, our model disciple from the original twelve: consider his freaked-out response to seeing Christ transfigured into His real, radiant self on the mountain. What did Peter say when confronted with the Lord’s dread glory? “Um — let’s…let’s build something! Yes, let’s make structures that retain this phenomenon! Let’s leverage this!” 

And what was the response of our Lord? A mysterious three-in-one answer. The Spirit enveloped them as a bright cloud, causing all pretense of control to depart. Then came the Father’s voice: “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” And when the soundcloud had disappeared, they saw just Jesus, the One Thing Necessary.4

So it was with David long before Peter, but it did not seem so at first. David had accurately grasped the purpose of God and had devoted his life to it. He was, as the slang of some would put it, “locked and loaded.” And yet it was not enough. He had to learn the hard way that lock-and-load can backfire. His people had to learn it too.

We and David face the same temptation: to shoehorn truth into the purposes we are passionate about — for truth is like a potent essential oil, effective even when dismembered from its living roots. We, like David, hope that the energy of truth-inspired passion and purpose will imbue us with sufficient power to accomplish our goals. Let’s see what happens to David when he does this:

Seventy thousand young men, all the leaders of Israel, and a throng of singers and musicians mobilize to align the nation with the Lord by optimizing the ark’s place and role. Passion and purpose are at an all time high. The oxcart method of transport had succeeded for the Philistines when they had sent it back to Israel in fear (the ark of the Most High had afflicted them with plagues while they kept it.5) Wouldn’t the oxcart way work for those who belonged to the Lord too? Could they not leverage that innovation for Him? Oxcarts are practical, after all, and strong. Oxcarts have wheels. Oxcarts streamline things. Oxcarts get the job done. They build momentum. And new oxcarts yoked to sleek bovine brutes look impressive and fitting for the occasion. Granted, oxen consume a large amount of resources and require a lot of work to keep tidy, but we take that all in stride in light of the prize we are envisioned for.

But oxcarts do not provide intimate friendship. They do not honor what is holy. They place the Lord’s presence within the manufactured efforts of men. And men stumble, their oxen too. For man tends to prioritize power over love and performance over humility. He tends to preserve what he has built over the relationships he has cultivated. This will not do, no matter how accurate our purpose and authentic our passion. No matter how much we are working with real gold and not fool’s gold. For, in the Lord, real gold is always, always subject to a refiner’s fire that makes it holy and us along with it. We had best not smudge up the process with our fingerprints, our “helping hand” to the Lord’s ways.

Such was the fate of Uzzah, whose name, in Hebrew, means “strength.” He cared for the place where the ark rested before it went on David’s parade route. But here, in the oxcart tragedy, he has the job of making sure a man-made method doesn’t topple the ark into the manure of the horned beasts that it’s hitched to:

“And when they came to Nachon’s threshing-floor, Uzzah placed his hand on the ark of God to hold it steady when the oxen shook it out of its place. The Lord was angered against Uzzah, and there God struck him. And before God, he died there next to the ark of the Lord. And David became angry because the Lord inflicted a fatal wound against Uzzah, and he called that place Wound of Uzzah to this day.”6

Disheartened, David abandoned the project, but the Lord immediately re-initiated it in His kindness. David found courage, for he had learned from his fatal error. When he organized the bringing of the ark into Jerusalem again, this time he entrusted it to the chosen stewards of the Lord’s presence, that is, the Levites, saying to them:

“Because you were not prepared the first time, because we did not strive for judgment, God divided us within ourselves.”7

Consider carefully how David describes the death of Uzzah. He does not say, “Well, Uzzah blew it because contact with the holy is deadly. He shouldn’t have been so presumptuous and irreverent.” David could have said this, and the Law of Moses would have backed him up. But what does David say? “We all blew it, not just Uzzah. We fractured from one another because we did not make an earnest effort to discern the Lord’s voice above the voice of our impassioned vision and values. We did not search out the written words He gave us and take seriously their life-giving practices. We did not thoroughly listen to Him, and the cost was failed relationship with one another.”

One wonders what Uzzah himself said when he found himself instantly translated from the presence of the ark to the presence of the One of whom the ark was a veiled, energized symbol. Perhaps he concluded that the moment of pain was worth the promotion to God’s presence veil-free. But we should also like to ask Uzzah’s mother or his widow and children if such a thought was consoling when Uzzah’s leaders, who had paved the way for his early departure, remained alive.

On the other hand, one also wonders at the Lord’s desire to not slay Uzzah, a preference we can be sure of through the ample testimony of both prophets and apostles.9 For it is clear from the full counsel of scripture the Lord was not willing to strike down the man. But this was the age of the law, not the age of grace and truth. It was the age of painful tutorials pointing to the time when all things would be made new. Therefore Uzzah touches the ark and dies against the Lord’s wishes.

What is the painful lesson here? It is this: that the Lord prefers His holy presence to hit the dung and dirt below the cart rather than bear the touch of man’s face-saving efforts. It is as if the Lord says, “I prefer to be dropped rather than propped. That way I can bless your mess.” 

Returning to the second attempt at carrying the ark to its new resting place in Jerusalem:

What do we see in the success of this second attempt? The musicians are there again. The singers are there again. The liturgy (“production order,” if you prefer) is there again, enriched with sevenfold sacrifice twice over. The leaders, young men, and twelve-tribe multitude are also there again.

But what is missing? The oxcart.

And what is in its place? Vulnerability. Transparency. Humility. Weak men carrying the portal of the great God on poles on their shoulders: not at arm’s length but at that place on the human body where head and heart meet His Presence. And what else do we see in this second attempt that was absent in the first: no parade dress for David, but instead a reverent king tossing crown and decorum aside to worshipfully dance without pretense to the point of being “undignified.”10

David Dancing before the Ark. James Tissot (1836-1902)

And so, this time, having absorbed and obeyed the words of the Lord, they carry the ark on their shoulders with no oxcart in sight, and all goes well. Passion and purpose submit to His real presence. There is much joy — one might say, sustainable and reproducible joy — such that not only Israel but surrounding nations experience a greater grace to know the One who is love, light, and a consuming fire; the One who would one day become flesh in a living, wound-bearing body, Wound of Uzzah included.

This account begs the question: How does one participate in His real presence? How do we align? There is only one way, and the oxcart account shows it: humble, vulnerable, at times awkward steps of acknowledging Him. Clumsy attempts at confessing our sins. Homely obedience to what He has said. Removing pretensions. Putting away airs. Becoming a child (not childish, but maturely “small”). Coming to Him while we search the scriptures rather than just searching the scriptures only. Living life in a way that places no more than a light touch on the things of the world such that they are never the essential element of our endeavors. (“We use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them,” Apostle Paul says.)11

In the same way we are called to discern the oxcart account correctly, we are called to “discern the body correctly,” as Paul says when describing how we are to partake of Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. For, in both instances, the scriptures warn that failure to discern correctly may have fatal consequences.12 How do we discern correctly? We recognize that our first calling is to listen. This is the wellspring of our deeds. Then we accept that the Lord desires to live in us where head and heart meet, so we had best prepare Him room there. And He desires that we walk together with Him, work in tandem with Him, or, as gospel author Mark puts it in the Greek, “synergize” with Him.13 Our face must be so scandalously close to His that the friendship and the fear are perfectly mingled such that we cannot tell the one sense from the other any longer. Our closeness must be so complete that it is as if He becomes food and drink for us to partake of, and indeed He does. We have no life in Him otherwise.14

Consider how David’s response to Uzzah’s death in the oxcart account tutors us. Consider that the mandated way for Israel to carry the presence of the Lord — one might say, the scriptural or biblical way — is not to put the deadly ark farther away from His followers but rather much closer than an oxcart could ever do. Again, think about it: this same ark that hosts the light and consuming fire of God is supposed to be carried quite close to the faces of the carriers, for that is what bearing the ark on one’s shoulders with both hands does; it puts the head and heart directly before the Presence. Why? For love’s sake. For without love, we are nothing. Take to heart, therefore, that the Lord intends us to become not just something relevant and effective, but someone beautiful and adored — a more effective relevance by far. For then we are alive, for we realize we are known by God. And others catch our contagion. 

Listen to what the oxcart account commands us: we are not to permit vehicles of power to “shoulder” His presence — as wonderful as music and persuasive sermons and catalytic events and well-produced programs might be. No, we do not pressurize ourselves or our people through an exhausting apparatus at the expense of gentle friendship with the One whose “yoke is easy and burden light”15 — as appealing as it may be to amplify God-given burdens in the name of efficiency, persuasiveness, preservation, and relevance to how a philistine world views God.

Instead, we cultivate intimate friendship with Him. We carry the ark on our shoulders. Our faith is oxcart-free.

In light of the oxcart account, we do well to ask ourselves the question: Where have we built one? Where are we leaning on — or hiding behind — a man-made work of power, charisma, production order, persuasive speaking, and resources? Where is passion and purpose occluding the actual, essential thing: scandalously vulnerable acknowledgement of His real presence, His present presence, which can save and heal but which can also consume and judge? We cannot have the one without the other.

Until we acknowledge the oxcart in our lives — until we recognize the oxcart in our churches, movements, initiatives, and other agencies of passion and purpose — we will remain in a perpetual cycle of Uzzah’s Wound: the unnecessary death that comes from division, discouragement, and a debris field of failed relationships.

The prophet Isaiah writes, “You will be chastised by the judgment of your God and be glad by it.”16 Then, employing threshing-floor imagery, Isaiah takes pains to clarify that such judgment is carefully measured and not one-size-fits-all. Some sins require a “wagon wheel” to roll over them. Others a gentle “rod and staff.” But we, in our media-mob culture, do not care for that difference. We tar and feather those who sin against us in a digital instant. We do likewise to those who make honest mistakes, and we do not take the time to make the distinction. An “unfriend” will do for both.

But not the Lord. He employs just enough words and just enough “overwhelm” to present us with a fresh start in friendship with Him. Let each of us therefore seek the comfort of His rod and staff before we find ourselves steadying the oxcart we love to our own hurt. For the wagon wheel is near to overwhelming us, as is His holiness, and we may find ourselves burned by someone or something in order to clear us of the oxen and course-correct our steps.

Isaiah continues:

Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the word of his servant?
Let the one who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on their God.

But now, all you who light fires
    and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
go, walk in the light of your fires
    and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand:
    You will lie down in torment.17

Isaiah writes as the Spirit of Christ flows through him, but now let us look at Isaiah’s report in light of our Lord’s resurrection appearance on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where He surprises a disillusioned Peter by appearing to him, John, and five other disciples beside a charcoal fire of warm bread and fresh fish.18 It is as if he says: “Alright, I will let you run with your vision and values, for once you’ve powered through brownout and burnout until you black out, you may very well be open to My offer of a hot meal upon awakening. For I’ve been here beside you all along, patiently waiting for your process to play itself out. And now that it has, let’s talk. Come, have breakfast with me. Draw near on My side of the campfire, for I prefer to whisper. We are closer that way.”

Peter, whom Satan “sifted like wheat” by our Lord’s permission, fits the prophetic puzzle piece of David’s oxcart incident into the full picture when he says:

“The time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?”19

Can such truth about judgment be manipulated to ferment false guilt? Yes. Do people leverage the power of threatening divine judgment to control others? All the time. But once those rainless clouds have thundered their way across our lives and passed on, the fact remains that a storm cloud is coming with real lightning and real rain. We would do well to prepare for them. He is the Lord.

“This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom,” Isaiah encourages us.20 The Lord desires us to gather our harvest before the hail falls. He is not willing that any should perish or be divided one against another.

And yet, it is natural for a meditation on threshing and judgment to lead us to a broader topic, that of human suffering. For we all suffer, whether we have brought it upon ourselves through misguided intentions or not. And just look at Uzzah: he died not just because of his own actions, but because his leaders had made decisions that doomed him to death and the rest to shock and sorrow. But Kallistos Ware writes:

“The Son of God suffered ‘unto death,’ not that we might be exempt from suffering, but that our suffering might be like his. Christ offers us, not a way around suffering, but a way through it; not substitution, but saving companionship.”21

Let us therefore give earnest effort to discerning each oxcart in our lives, each appeal of power over love, each charm of efficiency over grace, each craving for preservation that wars — and wounds — against His way. Not the way of carrying Him at arm’s length, where we can safely hide behind the show, but the simple, vulnerable, homely walk of carrying our faith on our shoulders, where head and heart commune with Him; where hands are at the ready to respond with willing feet; where we see His face, and He ours, and the vivid mutual eye contact causes all else to blur into glory.

© Kurt Mähler

  1. Luke 22:31 (NASB1995)
  2. Baseball: a Ken Burns Documentary. “First Inning: Our Game.” Minutes 4:42 to 5:57. Part 1/3.  WCET, Cincinnati. September 18, 1994. LoveForLogos, Retrieved January 2023. Second only to the Peanuts cartoon series, nothing is a more elegant metaphysical microcosm of the human condition than American baseball.
  3. Matt 17:1-9. Mark 9:2-8. Luke 9:28-26.
  4. Psalm 27:4. Psalm 73:25. Luke 10:41-42.
  5. I Samuel 6:7-12 (ESV).
  6. 2 Kingdoms 6:6-8 in the Septuagint as translated for the Orthodox Study Bible (OSB), otherwise known as 2 Samuel 6 in the Hebrew scrolls. The shorthand for the Septuagint in footnotes is “LXX,” the Roman numeral for seventy, referring to the team of seventy translators.
  7. I Chronicles 15:13, LXX (OSB).
  8. Moses commanded a specific way to transport the ark: on the shoulders with poles. No oxen are present, not even a faint lowing. Exodus 25:14-15, Numbers 7:9 (ESV)
  9. Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11. 1 Timothy 2:4; 4:10. 1 Peter 3:9.
  10. 2 Samuel 6:22 (NKJV).
  11. I Corinthians 7:31 (NIV).
  12. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (ESV).
  13. Synergountos: “working together,” from which we derive the word “synergy.” Mark 16:20 (ESV).
  14. John 6:53 (ESV).
  15. Matthew 11:30 (NKJV).
  16. Isaiah 28:26, LXX (OSB).
  17. Isaiah 50:11-12 (NIV) and John 21.
  18. John 21:1-14 (NKJV). Note the difference between the empty nets of their all-night self effort and the full nets of simply listening to the Lord.
  19. I Peter 4:17 (NKJV).
  20. Isaiah 28:29 (RSVCE).
  21. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. The Orthodox Way. Page 115. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2018, previously published 1995.
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