Apologies if the content offends you but please bear with it, there is a serious point being made.
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
I was struck today by Francis Chan’s interpretation of this verse in his book “Crazy Love“, where he says:
Many people look at their lives and weigh their sins against their good deeds. But Isaiah 64.6 says.
“All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
Our good deeds can never outweigh our sins.
The literal interpretarion of “filthy rags” in this verse is “menstrual garments”… …But compared co God’s perfect holiness, that’s how our good deeds appear. God’s mercy is a fine, yet costly, gift. It cannot be earned. Our righteous acts, just like menstrual garments, certainly don’t help us deserve it.”
It’s a fairly even and conventional interpretation of the passage, which in principal, I have no real opposition to. However, I think that there is perhaps another layer which Francis Chan doesn’t explore, which may highlight something which I think this interpretation falls short of.
For ‘menstrual garments’, think ‘used sanitary towel’, which will probably disgust you and stop you reading, but hang on a moment (it gets worse before it gets better).
In Isaiah’s metaphor, Francis seems to suggest that our good deeds are distasteful and pretty pathetic, a poor effort and compared to God’s holiness; pretty disgusting.
I’m not sure I agree that the ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10) are ‘disgusting’ compared to God’s holiness. I wonder if, to completely embrace Isaiah’s metaphor, we ought to think about these ‘filthy rags’ more along the lines of ‘unfulfilled potential’.
What, after all is the product of a menstrual cycle, that ends up on the ‘menstrual garments’?
It is the unfertilised egg and unused uterine lining, the life-giving nutritional, protective layer that supports and nourishes the beginnings of miraculous new life.
Would it not be perhaps more apposite to think that the ‘good deeds’ we produce are a shadow of what is to come. Yes, they pale into insignificance next to God’s holiness, in the same way that menstruation pales into insignificance next to a newborn child. Does that make them disgusting or useless or distasteful?
I agree with Francis’ conclusion that our good deeds don’t make us deserve God’s mercy and also that our good deeds are useless if we are doing them to try and outweigh our sins, but I think that the means by which he comes to that conclusion is a minimalistic view which possibly encourages apathy more than action.
I live my life from God’s love, not for God’s love, meaning I do things as my way of saying ‘thank you’, living in appreciation of God’s love and grace, not so that I can obtain that love and grace, by the things I do. I am also fully aware that when Christ returns, not only will whatever happens be a big surprise for everybody, but what we do will be amazing and throw all our past lives into a shadow.
Once the fertilised egg of our faith implants into the ready and waiting uterine lining of God’s grace and love, the final birth of a completely ‘new creation’ at the transformation of ourselves (or resurrection if we have already died) when God’s kingdom is completely established on this earth, there will be no more ‘filthy rags’ of unfulfilled potential:
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power… …so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:24-28)
(Part 2 follows)