Many years ago, when Eastern was still Tabor, the college campus was in the rustic surrounds of Ringwood and dinosaurs roamed the earth I had an encounter with a student that would change my spiritual life.
Levi* was a Jewish Rabbi who had experienced a miraculous encounter with Jesus and become a Messianic Jew. Even in a city the size of Melbourne he quickly became a cause célèbre among the Christian community and an object of scrutiny by the Jewish community. He decided he wanted to learn more about this new-found Jesus and enrolled in a Christology class at Tabor. He was an enquiring and thoughtful student.
One day he came to see me in my office. After the usual chitchat about family, life and study he got to the point of his visit. He explained that he wanted to understand what “just God” meant. Eager to help, I launched into a lengthy exposition of the just nature of God. I came at it from every possible angle – systematic theology, biblical theology, biblical exegesis of key verses, church history and missional perspectives. Even I was impressed by the breadth of information – no one could fail to be convinced by my presentation of the justice of God.
Sitting back, perhaps feeling ever so slightly smug at my role in educating this man, I waited for Levi to indicate his understanding and deep satisfaction with my discourse. To my shock, he smiled and informed me that I had not understood his question. Exercising some humility, I asked him to tell me exactly what his question was and decided, this time, to listen carefully to what he said.
Levi asked “Cheryl, what do Christians mean when they are praying to God and they use the word just?” Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I probed for some more information “Give me an example”. “Well” he answered “Everyone always prays ‘Please God, just do this, just do that’”. “And” he continued in a somewhat astonished tone, “they are not little things! They pray for God to just heal cancer or just perform a miracle”. He looked at me earnestly, “Tell, me, what is the meaning of this just? Is it a special Christian word?”
Reassuring Levi that just was not a magical Christian word that guaranteed God’s action, I was able to send him away happy in the knowledge that his prayers were being heard even if he didn’t use “Christianese” to express himself.
But Levi’s ‘outsider’ insight opened my eyes and ears. When I next met with people to pray, I noticed how often prayers began with ‘Dear God, we just ask….’ And soon it seemed like every time someone prayed I heard ‘just’ scattered through the requests to God. And not only requests, we were also ‘just’ thanking him for his blessings.
Before long, I could not use that word in my prayer life – I was continually reminded of the enormity of what I was asking or who I was addressing – and ‘just’ just seemed too banal, diminishing and trite. Levi had done me a great spiritual service in alerting me to the lack of respect and awe that a little word can indicate.
This is not to condemn anyone who habitually uses ‘just’ in their prayers. I think, for almost all it is simply a speech habit and Christian colloquialism and is done without thought. But, thanks to Levi, I am very careful not to use this word. Pedantic, maybe, but it comes from a desire to never be guilty of trivializing what connection with the Almighty Creator means in prayer.
Thanks, Levi, for an innocent question that sparked spiritual change in my life.
*Not his real name.
Dr Cheryl McCallum
Principal of Eastern College Australia