One autumn evening outside the Trader Joe’s, our four-year-old dropped to the ground, clutching her tiny chest. Weeks later, doctors ushered my husband and me into a stuffy little room to deliver a hopeless prognosis—a progressive, incurable heart and lung disease. It was like being dragged to the Grand Canyon and kicked off the edge, the wind knocked out of us before we even hit bottom.
Worse, the disease is so rare that the top-tier hospital near our home didn’t even treat it at the time. Another story of God’s miraculous providence led us across the snowy Midwest to New York City to find the one doctor we were told might be able to help. Yet, even as my husband and I promised our daughters that this adventure would include trips to the FAO Schwartz and the Central Park Zoo, we knew we were traveling through the Valley of the Shadow of Death—little girls in tow.
The week was grim, full of needles, echocardiograms, and endless tests. Grim until Dr. Barst walked in—a petite woman, wearing patent flats and narrow glasses. Gracious and brilliant, she spoke with calm confidence about new treatments that bought time for even newer, better treatments. Suddenly the grey handful of days we’d been given transformed into months—even years—full of hope and possibility. Simply put, Dr. Barst had spoken to us words of life, and in that moment, I could have wept and kissed her feet.
Another Woman Who Wept for Joy
And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment (Lk. 7:36-38).
When the “sinful woman” creeps up behind Jesus and intimately worships him, he explains to the detached, judgmental Pharisee that her actions flow from her understanding of how much she has been forgiven. Jesus tells him, “…her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk. 7:47). In other words, she is deep in the Valley of the Shadow, and she knows it. But while the Pharisee might have drawn more than fine lines between his sins and hers, they both were equally undeserving of God’s mercy.
There in my own shadowed valley, meeting with Dr. Barst, I didn’t resent my dependence nor minimize my need—standing there with my child’s life in the balance and nothing to offer but my insurance card. I didn’t recount the struggle to find her or how far we’d traveled—except maybe to demonstrate how worth the effort she was. The desperation of my situation, my total inadequacy to alter it, and her singular ability to help only inspired profound gratitude.
Returning home, we couldn’t stop sharing our good news. Family, friends, people in the supermarket checkout—pretty much anyone who crossed our paths got an effusive earful about the amazing Dr. Barst. Completely unabashed by our wholesale appreciation for this woman, we raved about her. And one day it occurred to me, why didn’t I talk about Jesus this way?
Sadly, the answer is found in the Pharisee Simon, in how appropriate he was, how much he likely thought he was doing for Jesus. He had, after all, invited Jesus to his house, served him a meal, and invited other guests. He undoubtedly engaged Jesus in conversation—one religious man to another. From the outside, it all looks plenty cordial. He was even circumspect in his condemnation of the woman and his disdain for Christ, basically keeping it to his private thoughts. But Jesus lays bare the stingy, self-satisfied heart of the matter: Simon didn’t realize what he needed saving from, and it literally kept him from seeing the Messiah.
Far from Falling at Jesus’s Feet
Like Simon, how often I am far from falling at Jesus’ feet—despite my sincere love! I suspect others sometimes similarly struggle.
Even when sharing the Good News, our praises are often careful, crafted not to offend. We look to swelling anthems, inspiring books, or more awe-inspiring liturgies to muster an emotion that, in fact, transcends otherwise helpful tools. It is a posture of the heart that David describes: “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name” (Psa. 103: 1).
True worship originates from the deep place that accurately grasps my plight: the utter hopelessness of my situation apart from Christ. True adoration understands his unique ability and loving willingness to rescue me. It’s not that I’ve never been shattered by my own sinfulness or floored by the magnificent love of God. But I am both heartbroken woman and pharisee with a cerebral religion, who sees myself as one who is doing things for Christ, even conflating it too easily with what it means to have a heart of love. Too often the cool, detached pharisee in me looks at the ledger and doesn’t believe the truth: apart from Jesus, I’m not merely walking through the Valley of the Shadow—I’ve set up camp in that dark chasm, hemmed in on every side.
On the short list of devastating experiences, losing a child certainly vies for top. I’d be lying if I said that fear isn’t a repeat visitor. But Christ has saved me from something far more monstrous than even the worst this world can throw my way. More confounding is the tremendous, painful cost to Jesus of saving me from my fate.
Yet, I don’t always live in the reality of that truth. If I did, I’d never shut up about him. I’d annoy friends and coworkers, ceaselessly recounting his goodness to me. My average voice would ring out in my average church, and my time and money would always be of little consideration compared to the privilege of participating in his work. My easy, extravagant praise for a doctor exposed a disparity that was convicting, to say the least.
The gumption of the unnamed “woman of the city” in Luke 7 strikes me, as she breaks into that dinner party to anoint the Lord with perfume. Uninvited and unwelcome, she is simultaneously full of humility and abandon, revealing a heart singularly consumed with love for her Savior and expressing it to the fullest. She’s the one with whom I want to identify. But how can I embody that all-encompassing devotion? In Psalm 103, David reveals the answer: he speaks truth to his own soul.
From Understanding to Gratitude
Worship originates from my “inmost being,” that deepest place that accurately knows the extent of my sin and equally loves to lie about how bad it really is. This is the place I have to get right. Again, the psalm instructs. Even as we must understand our sin, we aren’t called to dwell on it. The call to praise shifts immediately to a litany of God’s goodness, faithfulness, and power:
…forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy (Psa. 103:2-4).
Not surprisingly, the more I talked about and reflected on what Dr. Barst had done for my family, the greater my esteem of her grew. When I speak truth to my heart—and to others—about the true Savior who actually redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with love and compassion, my sometimes-stony inmost being softens with humble gratitude. My soul responds reflexively in praise for the creator of rock-star cardiologists and the preserver of days who, despite my sinful rebellion, forgives me. He alone sustains each beautiful breath of my children through every day ordained for them.
In the thirteen years since that awful diagnosis, countless times I’ve been left speechless by his goodness, except to agree with David,
Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name (Psa. 103:1)!