Is being saved about entering a ‘wide open space’?

Wide-open-spaceI have often heard it said that when God delivers us, he leads us from a sense of being trapped, hemmed in and confined to a sense of being in a ‘wide open space.’ I think I have probably said this myself in a talk or sermon on more than one occasion. I remember, many years ago, reading about it in relation to the story of Jacob and his meeting with Esau in Genesis 33; Jacob, who has relied on his wits all his life to get his own way—with other people and with God—finds himself at his wit’s end as he finally meets Esau again. But instead of judgement, he finds graciousness, and the graciousness of Esau he takes to be the graciousness of God, and he moves from the sense of being hemmed in by fear and dread to the open space of grace and peace.

This notion, of being in a tight spot or hemmed in and then experiencing God’s deliverance as a wide space, is evident at several points in the psalms. A good example is Ps 18:

3             I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
and I have been saved from my enemies.
4             The cords of death entangled me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
5             The cords of the grave coiled around me;
the snares of death confronted me.
17             He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.
19             He brought me out into a spacious place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me.

It is quite striking how many of the psalms are written around the theme of conflict with the writer’s enemies, how oppressed he has been, and how (usually) God has delivered him, either by an act of rescue or an act of judgement on the writer’s enemies.

Another explicit example of this metaphor comes in Ps 118.5:

When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord;
he brought me into a spacious place.

(Ps 118 is particularly important in the NT, vv 25 and 26 forming the background to the accounts of Palm Sunday, and v 22 being understood by Jesus and Peter as anticipation of Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish leaders.)

It is worth noting that salvation in these contexts is very tangible, and not very far removed from common uses of the term in everyday speech today—it is about deliverance from actual enemies who oppress us. It is used in this sense in Zechariah’s prophetic song of praise we call the Benedictus in Luke 1.68–79:

69             He has raised up a horn of salvation [or ‘mighty saviour’] for us
in the house of his servant David…
71             salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us— …
74             to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75                         in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

It only becomes a ‘religious’ term once we recognise that our true enemies are not the people that oppose us, but the threat of sin (ours as well as theirs) and death (1 Cor 15.26). Thus the angel commands Joseph to ‘give him the name Jesus [Yeshua, ‘God saves’] because he will save his people from their sins.’

This idea of salvation as a wide open space is appealing not just because of these examples in the OT, but because (like so many of the Bible’s metaphors) is engages us psychologically with such power. When we feel people or things are against us, we do have this sense of being strangled, or hemmed in, or in a tight space. We might even use these metaphors ourselves. And when the situation changes, we feel we can breathe again, that we are no longer constrained—we are free to roam the wide open spaces of God’s deliverance and grace.

The example I have used in the past comes from a journey that, at one point, I made quite often. On the M40, travelling from High Wycombe towards Oxford, after travelling on a plateau, you come through a final cutting as the road bears gently to the right. The bend hides the view that opens up before you (I think somewhere near Princes Risborough) of a wide open plain—and it offers a very striking contrast to the narrowness of the cutting as you emerge from it. No wonder this idea features in so many sermons.

But we need to pause a little, since I think there are three issues with this metaphor which might qualify its use.

The first is with language. It is often claimed that ‘The Hebrew for salvation is yasha, which means “to bring into a wide open space.”’ (Forgive, for a moment, the move from noun to verb). From Hebrew lexicons it is not very obvious that this is in fact the case. Take the abridged version of Brown, Driver and Briggs (BDB), a standard lexicon:

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 19.57.37

There are some hints that it used in this way from the additional comments:

(prop. placed in freedom) (prop. give width and breadth to, liberate),

but I would need to see some more convincing evidence before going with this as ‘the’ meaning of the word. The straightforward sense is to be rescued from (oppressive) enemies; this can certainly feel like we have moved into a wide open space, but that is not the word’s ‘meaning’. Perhaps it would be better to talk of salvation ‘sometimes being equated with…’ rather than ‘meaning…’ something.

Secondly, it has often not been the experience of Christians that God has brought them into this sense of a ‘wide open space’ even though they have been ‘saved.’ A couple of years ago at New Wine, John Coles told the story of Horatio Spafford, who wrote the hymn ‘It is well with my soul’.

This hymn was written after traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his son at the age of 2 and the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer and had invested significantly in property in the area of Chicago that was extensively damaged by the great fire). His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873, at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. In a late change of plan, he sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sea vessel, the Loch Earn, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone …”. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.

This is hardly a ‘wide open space’, and it is interesting that the words of the hymn avoid this kind of imagery, and instead articulate hope in eschatological terms—anticipating ‘the day when my faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll; The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend.’

Thirdly, I was quite interested to find this idea of ‘salvation as a wide open space’ in a sermon online drawing on the work of the liberal theologian Marcus Borg. Salvation was not about waiting for some future event; it did not depend on our own lives or what we did; no, it was about enjoying the ‘wide open spaces’ of healing and life that God gives us now in Jesus. There was quite a strong sense that this ‘wide open space’ is one which is free from (perhaps petty, even ‘Pharisaic’) concern with regulations about holiness.

This is a rather stark contrast not only to all the language about future hope in the gospels and in Paul, but also to Jesus’ own depiction of what the ‘saved’ life looks like:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matt 7.13–14)

Echoes here of eyes of needles rather than wide open spaces. And it is fascinating to note that this is exactly the same dynamic we find in Ps 18—if we read to the end of the psalm. David is delivered into the wide open space, he says, because he has been walking the narrow path of obedience to God’s law. He does not find is constricting, but the path of life and freedom. We find similar paradoxes in Paul: he is ‘constrained by the love of Christ’ (2 Cor 5.14) and celebrates the ‘freedom for which Christ has set us free’ but longs we should use that freedom to walk only where the Spirit leads us (Gal 5.1, 16).

The moral here is that, when we use a metaphor from Scripture, and particularly such a compelling one, we need to attend carefully to the way that these metaphors are deployed—and whether they sit in tension with other images and ideas that hold them in tension.

But it also touches on a wider problem that we have in many parts of the church of the tension between grace and obligation. There is no limit to the kind of person to whom God offers his gracious invitation. Invitation is to forget self, take up the cross and follow him. The wide space of freedom means we can choose to walk the narrow path of obedience that Jesus walked and in which we follow.

(First published in a revised form in August 2016).

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14 thoughts on “Is being saved about entering a ‘wide open space’?”

  1. The wide open space is a concept and experience that has often felt resonant to me.

    Many years ago, I had a picture of a small child lost in a dark forest of trees and trying to find a way out. It was very vivid and there was a feeling of being lost and hemmed in.

    Then, with huge relief, the child found the edge of the dark forest, and spread down below her was a vast and open grassland meadow.

    The sun was shining and sparkling on the grass, and all suddenly down there, the child saw her father, and ran, ran, ran, down to the father who swept her up and lifted her into the sunshine, the light, the swing of tender embrace and protection.

    The feeling of openness in relationship to God has stayed with me for over 40 years.

    * * * * *

    When I was first ‘born again’ as the expression goes, I was very fundamentalist. I believed every letter of the Bible as fact. I lived a narrow lifestyle, and looking back, I can see my life narrowed down, instead of opening up. I disapproved of the world so much, I cut myself off in a kind of self-imposed piety, and I felt most Christians were failing to live in the kind of holiness I expected of them. The mentality of the ‘remnant’ kicked in, and of course I regarded myself as part of that remnant. It became a kind of bunker mentality. It led to a sort of repression of myself, and dogma crowded out natural love, spontaneous enjoyment, and relaxation. It was a phase of my life that had a lot of tension.

    When I look back at how my views gradually opened up, and I set aside that fundamentalist narrowness (without abandoning my love of God) it very strongly resonates with that open space mentality.

    We need to open the doors of our souls to the love of God. We need to let that love flood and flow through our lives. We also need to open up to our sexuality, our subconscious, our feelings, our fellow human beings… and not get to uptight and tense about it all.

    In my experience, this liberalising of how I read and understand the Bible, and how I journey with God, has widened and expanded my life, and also helped open up my capacity to love and (importantly) to be loved.

    The world does not come crashing down when we let go of fundamentalist dogma. That old mind-set used to hem me in. Now I realise that there is more importance in love and trust and relationship… and letting go to God whose strong arms enfold us… than in tight and narrow dogma, and all the textual nit-picking I used to do.

    In private prayer and relationship, I hope I have an austerity in my relationship with God and the way I try to be aware of people when they are hurting and in distress. Openness is not the same as selfish hedonism. But I also think, as Christians, we need to open up, relax, be generous of fallibility, kind and not judgmental.

    And of course, each of us fails to love enough. But I do really believe God wants us to know openness and relaxation in our relationship and lives. I think so much hinges on trust, combined with love.

    I’m sharing an experience here, not seeking to debate, so this is all you get from me on this page. The way of God is a narrow way, but it leads to wide open country, to the broad promised land, and the good estate, and the sharing of God’s love. That process needs to be lived out every day. It is the way of Christ and the heart of baptism.

  2. It is a freedom from slavery…to sin, a freedom to holiness, not to do as we want, but to do as we ought, in the grace of God, in his strength, to walk in the Spirit.
    I was unaware of the battle until I became born from above. Many friends have said the same thing about the awareness of the battle not being manifest until after conversion.

  3. Ian,
    This is from phone, as was the above. It seems to be locked in to a defunct email address.
    From home, I sometimes use. VPN, though email address ought to be the same, as far as my limited understanding goes.

  4. One verse from Isaiah that often resonates for me along these lines is:

    “Your eyes will see the King in his beauty, and view a land that stretches afar.” (Isaiah 33:17)

    The stunning beauty of the good estate. The land of peaceful dwelling place and undisturbed places of rest.

    Sometimes we may not see undisturbed rest before us, but God is within as well, and that land that stretches afar and that open country stretches deep inside our souls, if we seek the Holy One and open our hearts.

    “This is the land I promised,” as God said to Moses.

    Or as Balaam prophesied by the Spirit of God: “How beautiful are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like valleys they spread out, like gardens beside a river.”

    The beautiful country of God is within us and beyond us, a shining glory and a land of peace, spreading out in eternity, with the presence of God – and all God’s eternal household and homecoming.

    No wonder Jesus wept over Jerusalem. No wonder the love and compassion of God aches for release in our lives and our communities.

    God wants us to inhabit the open country of justice, beauty, peace. It is within us because God dwells in us. And God longs for us to open up, so God’s love can flow and reach and touch… the pitiful, the abandoned, and those who have no hope.

    It is a land of staggering beauty, even though like Christ, we are called to walk a dusty road. Even in prison, or constrained circumstances, we may gaze at ‘the King’ and know this land and promise.

    • God wants us to inhabit the open country of justice, beauty, peace. It is within us because God dwells in us.

      That makes no sense. How can we inhabit a country that is within us? What are we, Klein bottles?

      • There is a world within us as well as a world without us.

        When God shares consciousness and awareness with us, we find that the soul is a vast country.

        God and God’s country are not just ‘out there’. They are within us as well.

        When perfection comes, the country of God is both inside and outside the believer. There is no real distinction. That’s the nature of how God shares with us.

        This is the practice of contemplation.

        It’s not the only path to prayer, but many contemplatives get a sense of the soul’s vast capacity.

        Of course these are words, and words have limits.

        The important thing is the sovereign country of God is not just internal experience. The love of God yearns to break out and flow in the world where we find ourselves. And although we are flawed conduits for the grace of God, prayer can invade our daily lives, and in opening to God and to people we meet, this country becomes not just a ‘religious experience’ but a social dynamic between God and the world.

        ‘The Kingdom of God’ is among us.

        It’s a country within and without.

        Trying to be honest and fair, I’m not sure I’m communicating this to you, but you did ask me and I’ve done the best I can.

        By the way, I don’t know what Klein bottles are!

        • It’s a country within and without

          It doesn’t matter how vast something is, if it’s inside me then I can’t inhabit — ie, be inside — it. ‘Inside’ doesn’t work that way. Well, maybe Dr Who can land his TARDIS inside itself. But when we’re not on the telly, if A is inside B then B can’t also be inside A. ‘Inside’ is not only not symmetric, it is transitive and acyclic.

          A Klein bottle is basically to three dimensions what a Möbius strip is to two, by the way.

          • I can inhabit my imagination and that’s inside me.

            I can inhabit my dreams, and they’re inside me.

            I can inhabit the ‘Kingdom of God’ which is both inside me and beyond me.

            But I’m happy to let go of this argument over words. Because the heart of our encounter with God, and inhabitation of God’s country, is way beyond words, and sometimes ‘not knowing’ is the beginning of wisdom. I don’t know all the answers. But I do know that the God who dwells within is trustworthy, faithful, and waiting for us to open the last doors, so we can meet one another in the secret place.

            Trust and love are so precious, and they open up where fear would close things down. They open us up, and life expands, and prospect is like an ever-widening horizon.

          • I can inhabit my imagination and that’s inside me.

            I can inhabit my dreams, and they’re inside me.

            No you can’t. Any more than you can pour out your heart. Those are all metaphors. So…

            I can inhabit the ‘Kingdom of God’ which is both inside me and beyond me.

            … this must be a metaphor as well, yes? So what is it a metaphor for?

            Because you can’t literally inhabit something which is inside you, any more than you can literally inhabit your dreams.

    • It sounds somewhat confused and conflated over what the Kingdom of God is and isn’t, a mixture of Gnosticism and New Age and or Eastern mysticism, with little regard to the sweep of Isaiah and the Kingdom- now -but- not- yet in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection and return of the LORD Jesus Christ, the new Heaven and earth, nor regard to the Justice of God, based on his Holiness versus our sin, – Love that is only ever HOLY-LOVE and a righteousness, the righteousness of God, and a beauty that is the Beauty of Holiness within (and that is) our Triune, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    • “Your eyes will see the King in his beauty, and view a land that stretches afar.” (Isaiah 33:17)

      Dear Susannah,

      That sounds lovely! However, when you read it in context, is it so lovely? To whom is the promise made, and to whom is it not made?

      The immediate context is one of impending judgement:

      10 ‘Now will I arise,’ says the Lord.
      ‘Now will I be exalted;
      now will I be lifted up.
      11 You conceive chaff,
      you give birth to straw;
      your breath is a fire that consumes you.
      12 The peoples will be burned to ashes;
      like cut thorn-bushes they will be set ablaze.’

      13 You who are far away, hear what I have done;
      you who are near, acknowledge my power!
      14 The sinners in Zion are terrified;
      trembling grips the godless:
      ‘Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?
      Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?’
      15 Those who walk righteously
      and speak what is right,
      who reject gain from extortion
      and keep their hands from accepting bribes,
      who stop their ears against plots of murder
      and shut their eyes against contemplating evil –
      16 they are the ones who will dwell on the heights,
      whose refuge will be the mountain fortress.
      Their bread will be supplied,
      and water will not fail them.

      17 Your eyes will see the king in his beauty
      and view a land that stretches afar.

      The historical context is also of the impending judgement on the people of Judah. They outwardly worshipped God, and gloried in being his people. Later they would exclaim ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’. But they had not lived according to the requirements of the covenant. In their lives they had not stood apart from the surrounding nations. So judgement came in the tragedy of exile.

      There was a remnant who were righteous and acted justly. They received the promise. It is not universal.

      • Yes indeed, David.
        And “the Holy One of Israel” is the main reference, title to God in the book of Isaiah (evidently 25 times).
        Then again, what is any of the OT doing in the liberal neo-Marcion canon or God revealed by God of the totallity of Bible? The Old Testament is not exactly “red letter” redactionism, any of it, nor largely susceptible to internal subjective interpretation.

  5. “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
    I once read somewhere – ‘the size of the road reflects the expected levels of traffic’ – terse!


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