I’m going to tell you an uncomfortable story.
When I was a kid, my father had a grocery store in South Philly. And like most convenience stores do today, he kept the candy on front-side of the cash register counter in order to boost sales.
Now, my favorite candy, out of all the choices he had on display, were those red, bite-sized Swedish fish. I could eat nothing but those for days and never get sick of them. I loved them so much that every time I walked past the register, I’d swipe a handful for myself.
My father, quite understandably, didn’t like that too much. The problem was that he had severe anger problems that often drove him to irrational fits of violent rage and sometimes even cruelty.
One particular day, he caught me stealing some Swedish fish and proceeded to blow his top. That time, his weapon of choice was a small wooden broom. But the beating I got wasn’t the worst of it. The worst part was after being disciplined, he picked me up, locked me in the store basement and turned the lights (whose switch was too high for me to reach) off.
When I was 4, I had a terrible fear of the dark. Being my father, he of course knew this. And when he saw how terrified I had become, he started using this as his main source of discipline to keep me in line.
At first, it was really terrible. I’d cry and cry until he opened the door, which of course made him even angrier…and even more hilarity would ensue.
But one day, I figured out how to turn this terrible situation into my advantage. After a while, my eyes would adjust to the dark, which allowed me to explore the basement. As it turns out, that’s where my dad stored his inventory of Swedish fish. After that, I never feared the basement. I knew I had a feast waiting for me down there.
The idea of Chutzpah
Our Jewish friends have a word for this idea: Chutzpah. The word “chutzpah” is normally thought of as a kind of clever audacity, with a heavy emphasis on audacity. One story commonly used to explain the basic concept goes like this: A man was once put on trial for murdering his parents. He argued that he deserved mercy because he was an orphan.
In this sense, ‘chutzpah’ has a negative connotation. But there is a more positive meaning as well.
This word actually appears in the Jewish Talmud. To those early rabbis, it was a concept designed to help empower disenfranchised people especially in face of heavy oppression or hopelessness.
In one of his commentaries, Craig Keener tells this story of Chutzpah that is recorded in the Talmud:
A man told his wife that he was going to divorce her and that she must then leave his house and return to her father. But out of consideration for her, he would let her take one thing from their life together that she cherished the most. So the final night before the divorce, she made him a lavish dinner with much wine. The man drank so much wine that he passed out. The women then put his unconscious body on a donkey, and took him to her father’s house. When he woke up, she exclaimed, “IT WAS YOU!! The thing I cherished the most from our life together WAS YOU!!!” 1
In its Talmudic form, Chutzpah is the idea that when faced with impossible disenfranchising odds, even one person, with nothing more than faithfulness and ingenuity, can advance God’s Kingdom and make a difference for good in the world. It is the idea that one person can miraculously overcome ‘what is’ by faithfully (and ingeniously) adhering to ‘what ought to be’ (ie Torah). It is the idea that a man can even argue with God Himself over the affairs of this world and if need be…win.2
And before anyone dismisses that last idea because Christian sensibilities say otherwise, I implore you to check out this sermon transcript on how Charles Spurgeon uses this idea in prayer. In this form, Judaic Chutzpah might be a bridge too far for Christians…but not by much. I thus beg you not to dismiss the idea too quickly.
Is Chutzpah Holy?
In this sense, Chutzpah is a strategy for navigating terribly troublesome or even oppressive situations, particularly when it’s some disenfranchising authority that is the source of your trouble.
If you look through Biblical history, you will find that the Jewish people are always being invaded by this kingdom here or enslaved by some other kingdom there.
How do you survive in such an oft-repeated scenario when you are charged by God to be His image? How can you resist and fight at such a disadvantage without losing your humanity?
And what you find in the Bible is that what came to be known as ‘Chutzpah’ was a powerful strategy, not only for coping, but even overcoming those troublesome times.
For example, In Exodus 1-2, there are 3 consecutive stories of chutzpah by women, in the form of socio/political resistance. The midwives, Moses’ mother, and the daughter of the Pharaoh all refused to obey the Pharaoh’s command to murder Hebrew children. In each instance, the bottom of the barrel, at great risk to themselves, armed only with ingenuity (“Hebrew women are robust!”) and a conviction of ‘what ought to be’ (Heb 11:23), stood up to the top of the barrel and won.
The Chutzpah of The Gospel
Being raised in an abusive household was bound to leave scars. About 10 years ago, I went to counseling for my anger problems. There were 2 questions in particular my counselor asked me that I found particularly penetrating. One was in the context of me telling him how I would use the theology of grace as a weapon to beat up “Pharisees” before they could hurt me with their legalism. My counselor Jason, in his most empathetic but non-accusatory voice asked me, “Do you use grace as a weapon?”
Wow…talk about convicting!
But the 2nd question is more relevant to our discussion and is thus what I want to end here with.
“Do you believe the gospel?”
When Jason asked me that question, a lot of things internally “clicked” for me. I’m sure that just like everyone else, I had (and still have) my days where I doubt God’s promises. But that day I was able to tell Jason in all sincerity that the answer was ‘yes’ and that my faith, however weak or flawed (ie wrongly wielded), was the reason why: 1) I was able to last this long without breaking down and 2) I was driven to go get counseling for behavior that clearly was out of line with it.
The reason I’m sharing this is because when I look back, I now realize that the gospel that kept me together for all of those years oozed Chutzpah.
Consider this: The very idea that our sins are forgiven and we are now completely loved, accepted and blessed by God is Chutzpah in and of itself. This is a big reason why many during Paul’s day would reject the gospel as foolishness. But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.
In the Ransom Theory of Atonement, the narrative is that Adam and Eve, who were the rightful heirs of the Kingdom had surrendered it to Satan. But in the end, God tricked Satan into believing that killing Jesus would decisively win victory for evil. And in some Oceans 11 type predestining, God caused Satan to draw all powers and principalities, both demonic and geo-political to collude against and ultimately kill Jesus.3 But in losing (ie dying) Jesus wins. This is some serious Chutzpah on God’s part.
One last Fictional story…
Lastly, there is this one fictional story that I used to tell in certain sermons. It’s a story I wrote about the final judgment in terms of how God will give justice to those who have been wronged on while living on the Earth. I’ve recently decided to suspend using the story in sermons until I can work out some theological flaws or unnecessary stumbling blocks that people might trip over. But for the purpose of our conversation, it works pretty well as an ending.
One day, there is going to be a great and final judgment day where all of are going to have to give an account before God of how we lived our lives. And if there is any justice that needs to be done, God will grant justice to those who have been wronged. In my case, I will bring a lawsuit against my father. I will recount every terrible detail of everything he has ever done to me. I will also testify about the fallout, and what terrible effects that years of living in his house later produced in my life. And then, I will demand justice.
And the Great Judge will motion to me and say, “There is your hammer, there is your wood. Have your justice.”
And with that, I will take my father, put his body against the plank, place the nails and hammer away. And with each hammering stroke, I will cry out, ‘Do you understand how much you hurt me…what you did to me…how much I hate you!?!?!’
And after it’s finished, I will look up. But instead of seeing my father who I’ve been hammering nails into, it is the Lord Jesus Christ, who takes away the sins of the world.
You see, shortly before he died, my father returned to church and was quite faithful at it. He also started reading his Bible regularly. His favorite book was Romans. I’m not sure how much he understood and such things are not definitive proof that one is truly saved.
But I have actual hope that he was. My father was Baptized and professed to believe in Christ. One is saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. Thus if it was genuine (ie a credible profession), it was enough.
And so when my father stands before the Lord at the final judgment, he will find that just like me, his sins were paid for and washed away. And the only thing that will be left of him is not the violent angry man who terrorized me for the first 2 decades of my life, but a man who loves his son…and a son who loves his father, worshipping God for eternity.
If that’s not Chutzpah…I don’t know what is.
See: Levenson, Jon D.. Creation and the Persistence of Evil (p. 149). See also: Feinstein, Rabbi Edward. The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters (ch 1:How to Argue with God and Win).
NT Wright, God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil see particularly 36:30