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Beauty and Ashes

by Tim O'Hearn

It is strange how changing one word or phrase in a sentence changes the whole meaning. For instance, a national Christian radio station which is “listener supported,” meaning a small percentage of listeners donate so that others can listen, advertises that they are proclaiming the message of Jesus “because of listeners like you.” Instead of “because of,” they probably mean “thanks to” or “as a result of.” Instead they make the (it is to be hoped) mistake of saying “because of.” That phrase implies motivation; it says that they are spreading the word in order to get donations from listeners, rather than out of love for Jesus. Either of the other phrases suggested would imply gratitude rather than motivation. In the same way, several songs played on that station use a phrase that sounds biblical, but in fact changes one word which changes the meaning.

The phrase in question is “beauty from ashes.” There are a couple of organizations to help victims of sex trafficking that call themselves “Beauty From Ashes,” even though their web sites put up the correct quotation. It is presumably from a passage in Isaiah 61:1-3.

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning.

The first two verses (not including “beauty for ashes”) were quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19 as referring to himself. Any time a Jew quotes a scripture, though, he is quoting the whole context.

Note that the passage in Isaiah says beauty for ashes, not beauty from ashes. Other reliable translations use the phrase “beauty instead of ashes.” This is also true about the phrases that follow that one.

What is the difference? Why make a big deal about it? The difference affects how you look at God, and what you expect from Him.

Saying that God will give you beauty from ashes gives a false view of God’s providence. It is the same false view that makes people use “all things work together for good to them that love God,” (Rom 8:28) to comfort one who is mourning a sudden death of a child or other loved one. It is a doctrine that says that God will necessarily take the evil in this world and turn it into good. It says that anything bad that happens (ashes) will be turned into something beautiful. God can do that, but generally He doesn’t work that way. Adam sinned. From that sin came all sorts of “ashes.” There is virtually no way in which one could say that God made beauty from the fall of mankind. “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” (Rom 8:22) Many a grieving person will testify that God does not make beauty out of their pain.

God does, however, replace the pain to a certain degree. As Isaiah says, He gives beauty instead of ashes, joy instead of mourning, and praise in place of heaviness. Evil happens; it is a result of sin. Sometimes God allows it because he does not control every aspect of life. People suffer as a result of other people’s sins. God does not take that suffering and magically turn it into something beautiful. Sometimes he does nothing about the suffering itself. Instead, he promises that:

Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)

When Jesus said that the passage in Isaiah was fulfilled in him, he was saying that the death he was to accomplish would replace ashes with beauty. We suffer in this world, but that suffering is temporary. This world will be replaced with a beautiful one. Beauty instead of ashes.