Tuesday afternoon, December 12, 2006. As I sorted through my mail, I came across a small handwritten envelope. Although I did not recognize the name on the return address, I had a hunch it was probably related to the death of my 16-year-old daughter Mindy, who had drowned nearly five months earlier.
Unable to find a local job, Mindy had decided to spend the summer helping to take care of her great-grandmother, who lived with Mindy’s aunt three hours north of us. Mindy was excited about the opportunity. But, like most parents, my wife and I were a little nervous since it would be Mindy’s first extended stay away from home.
A few days after Mindy left, I flew to Turkey for an international Bible conference. I did not like being so far away from my family, but I thought everything would be all right. Unfortunately, that was not the case. A parent’s worst nightmare turned into a reality for me when an early morning knock on my door brought the horrible news that Mindy had been in an accident. I was to come home immediately.
After church, Mindy had gone with the church youth group for an afternoon trip to the river. After seeing a girl float across to the other side of the river, Mindy and her friend decided to do the same. The girls did not realize, however, that the current was strong in the middle of the river, and that just around the bend was a long stretch of severe rapids. So instead of quickly crossing to the other bank, they floated across leisurely. Before they knew it, they found themselves caught in the current. They screamed for help, but it was too late. Another girl dived in to save them, but she never made it out of the rapids alive. The girl my daughter was with actually made it through the rapids and walked away with only a few scratches. My daughter was not so fortunate.
My life was shattered. How could God let something like that happen? If one girl escaped, why did my daughter and the girl who tried to save her, die? God could certainly have saved all three girls. Where was He when my daughter needed Him most?
Shortly after the accident, I wrote an article recounting my spiritual struggle with God as I desperately tried to race home from Turkey (“My Journey With Jairus,” Adventist Review, November 23, 2006). In response to the article, I received several emails from people who identified with my pain and wanted to let my family know they cared. So, as I opened the handwritten envelope, I assumed it was probably a similar note of encouragement.
I was right. Well, at least partly.
The letter—saddened, but . . .
The opening line confirmed that the letter was indeed related to my article about Mindy’s death. “Dear Pastor Cosaert,” it began. “We were very saddened and impressed with your story of Mindy . . .” But the second sentence began with the word however. I immediately sensed this letter was not what I expected. My hands began to quiver and a strange array of emotions began to well up within me as I read and re-read the letter.
Dear Pastor Cosaert,
We were very saddened and impressed with your story of Mindy in the Review. However, both my husband and I have a deep concern.
When we were raising our children we strongly emphasized Isaiah 58:13, 14 for direction for truly honoring the Sabbath. Floating or swimming seems more like one’s own pleasure. We have seen a friend’s son die while water-skiing on Lake Shasta; and another son at La Sierra who went snow-skiing on Sabbath, had an accident and was left a paraplegic. What is that pleasure worth?
Just what does “doing thine own pleasure” involve? We think we should give strong attention to these verses. And to teach our children the import of honoring God’s Sabbath. We wonder if you stress that to your students and family.
As older parents, it is very distressing to see the compromises to the world that many younger parents are making, rather than standing firm to God’s principles. Our prayer is for you to give much thought and prayer to this text. Cordially . . .
I couldn’t believe what I read. I felt that someone had taken my fragile heart that still hurt with so much pain and crushed it again. At a time when I was struggling to hold on to my faith in a loving God in the midst of such a tragedy, a fellow Christian, someone who did not know my family, had felt compelled to write me a letter not to express sympathy but condemnation. In disbelief, I read through the letter several times, hoping that my eyes had somehow played a trick on me. But the only thing my eyes had missed was what was printed on the stationery just below the person’s signature: “Have a great day!”
I was so hurt. My initial response was to tear the letter to pieces. But I didn’t. Instead, I decided to keep it. And I am glad I did. Were the author’s comments intended to be mean-spirited? I don’t know, but I hope not. What I do know is that the author was very serious about the subject. Was it insensitive? Definitely! But was the author right in what was said? Was the author’s use of Isaiah 58 accurate? Did God really punish my daughter for deciding to go in to the river on a Sabbath afternoon? As painful as the letter was for me to consider, I decided to examine Isaiah 58:13. What I discovered in the process surprised me.
Sabbath and our own “pleasure”
Isaiah 58:13, 14 states,
“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,
From doing your pleasure on My holy day,
And call the Sabbath a delight,
The holy day of the Lord honorable,
And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,
Nor finding your own pleasure,
Nor speaking your own words,
Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord” (NKJV).
Isaiah 58:13, 14 is a powerful statement about the importance of the Sabbath. Isaiah portrays the Sabbath as a sacred institution—so sacred that we should be careful not to trample on it with our feet as if it were no different than any other day. At the same time, however, the passage is ambiguous. We should refrain, it says, from doing our own “pleasure” on that day. What does pleasure mean?
As a young person, I grew up with the idea that not “doing your pleasure” meant you could not do anything fun. My parents would come home from church and take a long nap, while my brother and I were not allowed to do much of anything except sleep, sit around, or go on a walk. We got the idea that the test of determining what one should or should not do on the Sabbath was, if you enjoy it, do not do it. Having now been in the church for several years, I know that this verse has certainly been the source of much finger-pointing.
The Hebrew word translated as “pleasure” is chephetz.1 This word occurs 38 times in the Old Testament and can refer to a variety of things based on its context. It is used to describe land or words of “delight” (Eccles. 12:10; Mal. 3:12). It is used of the righteous person who “delights” in the law of the Lord (Ps. 1:2). It is also used in relation to something a person would like to have (“Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired” [1 Kings 10:13]).2
Since context is so important for understanding the specific meaning of pleasure or delight, it is helpful to note that the same word Isaiah used in chapter 58, verse 13, is also used in verse 3. Isaiah writes, “ ‘Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.’ ” Where English poetry builds on the repetition of similar sounding words or word endings at the end of a line, Hebrew poetry builds on the repetition of similar ideas in parallel lines. An example of this can be seen in Isaiah 58:1 where the idea of “ ‘cry[ing] aloud’ ” parallels “ ‘lift[ing] up your voice like a trumpet,’ ” and “ ‘transgression’ ” parallels “ ‘sins.’ ” The parallel concept in verse 3 between pleasure and the oppression of workers indicates that in Isaiah’s mind “pleasure” doesn’t simply refer to something enjoyable but has more of a business sense. In fact, the English Standard Version lists “business” as an alternate translation of the word pleasure in Isaiah 58. In this context, the use of the word pleasure in Isaiah 58:13 refers to the social oppression and injustice described in other prophetic books such as Amos.
In a world driven by economic growth and the accumulation of wealth, Isaiah 58:13 has an important message for us today. The Sabbath reminds us that there is more to life than just personal profit. The Sabbath reminds us of our roots—a day for growing in faith and renewing relationships between family and friends. To apply the passage to a Sabbath afternoon outing in nature certainly seems to be taking Isaiah 58:13 out of context.
While understanding the specific way Isaiah used “pleasure” in chapter 58 is important, we also need to look at the larger literary context of the entire chapter.
The heart-centered context
Isaiah 58 divides into three main sections: verses 1–5, 6–12, and 13, 14. In the first section, God calls Israel to account for her transgressions. Israel, however, feigns surprise, insisting that she observes fast days. The problem, God says, is not Israel’s actions, but her heart. Israel’s religious experience had become merely a collection of rituals. Her heart was no longer in it. Rather than grasping the spiritual meaning that was symbolized in the outward expressions of her faith, she was simply going through the motions.
Then in verses 6–12, God vividly describes, in an artistically breathtaking fashion, that true religion stems from the heart, and is to be expressed in the way grace is extended to others. Indeed, Isaiah’s description of loosing the bonds of wickedness, sharing bread with the hungry, and removing the yokes of oppression aptly summarizes the ministry of Jesus. And, in the heart of this description is verse 9, where God states that the one thing that should be absent from true religion is finger-pointing.
Seen in this light, it is clear that Isaiah 58 is not law centered, but heart centered. While the Sabbath is mentioned, it is mentioned in the context of genuine worship rooted in the heart. When verse 13 is isolated from this context, it is easy to lose the entire meaning of what the passage is really about.
A law-centered religion gets us so wrapped up in ourselves that our vision of others becomes distorted. Instead of seeing others through the compassionate eyes of Jesus, we only see the outside—whether they measure up to our standards of behavior or not.
A broken commandment or an affirmation of hope?
In the letter I received, all that the writer could see in the story of my daughter’s death was what they thought was a broken commandment. Somehow they were blind to the hopes and dreams of a 16-year-old girl, which were tragically snatched away in a moment’s time, and blind to a broken family that will never be the same. What has become of us if all we can see are broken commandments?
My point in sharing the letter I received is not to solicit condemnation of its author. No, that would be just as equally un-Christian. I share the letter because it is a reminder that we are often more like the author than we think. While we would probably never say it so directly in a letter, if we are honest, we have thought and acted in the same judgmental way ourselves.
At a Friday vespers service a few weeks before Mindy’s death, as part of an offering appeal for needy students, a young college-age girl was invited forward to share the difference Christian education had made in her life. I did not catch her name, and it would not have mattered at the time. All I could see was her wildly colored pink hair. I was shocked. I immediately thought to myself, Surely, there has to be a better representative. My conscience quickly began to reprove me for judging her by her appearance. I felt even guiltier after hearing how Christ had changed her life. Abused as a child, a Christian family had adopted her, and through their love she had discovered how much God loved her too. My eyes had led me astray. I had seen her hair, not her heart.
It was only later, however, that I fully realized how misguided my original thoughts had been. Shortly after my daughter’s death, I learned that the heroic girl who had given her life in the attempt to save my precious daughter was none other than that girl with the pink hair. I had judged her by her outward appearance, when in reality, she was far more like Jesus than I could have ever imagined, for she was willing to lay down her life to try to save another—my daughter.
The loss of a loved one, especially a child, certainly poses one of the greatest challenges to one’s faith in a loving God. But that is not the only difficulty. Just as challenging is the way we, as Christians, treat one another. Life in this world is full of pain. As followers of Jesus, we certainly can do a lot to make those situations easier by encouraging the wounded, rather than condemning them. We simply do not know what God is doing in the heart of a person— regardless of what we might think of his or her actions.
I was encouraged when I recently learned that earlier on the day Mindy died she had stood up at church and told her class how much she loved Jesus and how she wanted to serve Him forever. While we don’t fully understand why things happen like they do on this planet, we are confident that the day Mindy needed Jesus most was not that day she drowned. No, the day Mindy will need Jesus most is resurrection morning, and on that day He will be there for her—and for all of us. May that day come soon!
1. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:310.
2. Unless otherwise noted, scriptures are from the English Standard Version.