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The story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 is one of the most delightful, masterful, and intriguing in the Old Testament. It was also mentioned by Jesus, and it got him into trouble (Luke 4:27).
There is a moment in the middle of the story that caught my attention recently. It comes in verses 18 and 19, after Naaman has been healed, having humbled himself and dipped in the Jordan River.
Having vowed that the God of Israel is now his God, and asking to take a batch of Israeli soil back to Damascus for an altar, it would seem Naaman has come full circle. But he has one last request: “May the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count” (2 Kings 5:19).
What? Bow down to Rimmon after declaring allegiance to the God of Israel? Does he think that the Lord God is just another local god to be pandered to?
And why does Naaman make such a request? Is he embarrassed by his new religious commitment? Is he afraid he will lose his high-ranking post if he doesn’t accompany the King of Aram to the temple of Rimmon, or if he does, is he afraid that the King of Aram will be angry if he refuses to bow to the local god?
We expect Elisha to give him some much-need instruction on the the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” But no, Elisha simply says, “Go in peace.” In other words, “Yeah, that’s a problem; you will have to work that out.”
In fact, as the story continues, Elisha is a lot harder on his servant Gehazi for secretly getting some money from the departing Naaman than he is on Naaman’s incipient idolatry.
What’s going on here?
I think it helps for us to think about our own circumstances. None of us are probably thinking about bowing down in some pagan temple, but lots of us face the same kinds of issues Naaman faced.
The world is filled with false gods to whom we are tempted to bow our heads every day. What kinds of bowing and bending might we be willing to do to protect our jobs or status or reputation? How often do we bow to the gods of fashion, success, sex, or money when we know deep in our hearts what discipleship to Jesus Christ means? When have we experienced the inconvenience or embarrassment of acknowledging our faith in God and hidden it away?
Elisha doesn’t give Naaman any clear direction. He simply says, “Go in peace.” It’s a word of grace. It’s a word that says to Naaman, God will guide you, and if you do mess things up, if you do find yourself turning red-faced with shame as you bow in the Temple of Rimmon, you’re covered, but you will have to figure out what to do about it.
It’s not an excuse to sin. it’s a sign that, like lung-diseased people, we all need to carry around that tank of the oxygen of grace to get us through life. We will all fail, and we will need the grace of God to get up again, and set out feet on the path of faith and obedience.
But there’s something else in Elisha’s simple “Go in peace.” It’s the acknowledgement that life is filled with big and little moral decisions about which it’s hard to know what to do. When is it time to say my own marriage is over? When do I confront my friends about their racist attitudes? Should I attend that same-sex wedding my friend invited me to? How much can I overlook the shady business practices of the company I work for even though I’m not directly responsible for them? Often our choices are not between good and bad, right and wrong, but better or worse.
Only you can decide. Sometimes you will be right and sometimes wrong. And sometimes you won’t know which. Elisha says, “Go in peace.” Life is not easy; you’re not perfect. The life of faith is full of stumbles and even disastrous falls, but the God of Israel is the God of all grace, the God of all kinds of tax collectors, prostitutes, and self-righteous Pharisees.
The biggest pitfall in the Christian life is not that we will sin, but that, in sinning, we will refuse the grace of God and go on our prideful way. The peace Elisha promises is the peace of God, the peace of forgiveness, the peace that will surround us throughout the long, hazardous, complicated journey of life.