“We’re looking for people with clean hands.” A friend recently told me this over lunch. No, he doesn’t work for a Christian organization. His company is however doing the right thing. Clean hands are critical for healthy companies as well as marriages. In fact, they help us make sense of Jesus’ most startling sayings.
Let’s face it. Most of us take our hands for granted since they’re, well, always at hand. But Christians who take the faith seriously ask why we even have hands. God has no literal hands. He has no body. He is Spirit. Why then do we inhabit a body? It turns out that in our bodies, including our hands, we reflect God’s image.
There are roughly 133 Bible verses highlighting the hand of God. As the Jews entered the Promised Land, Moses reminded them of “the mighty hand” of God that “brought you out” (Deut. 7:17). Hands are metaphors for power and protection. In Genesis One and Two, Adam and Eve are assured that their hands can touch everything, including the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is how they “have dominion” (1:26) and “make culture” (2:15). Hands are metaphors for having dominion, or authority.
The beauty of our hands got bollixed in the fall. Lucifer dupes Eve by twisting God’s words. Eve says they cannot eat or touch the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God never said they couldn’t touch the fruit. He only said that they couldn’t eat it. Adam and Eve take and eat. They fall. Their soul goes dark. Human hands reflect this reality. As the Bible goes forward, it distinguishes between the right and left hand. The left hand is associated with the Hebrew word for dark, depicting our fallen nature. The right is associated with the Hebrew word for stronger. It becomes a metaphor for goodness, or God’s power, protection, and authority.
When an individual turns to God, their hands become clean. But they’ve also stepped into a war between the old and new nature. Winning this war requires keeping the hands clean. For instance, David recognized God’s deliverance was due, in part, to “the cleanness of my hands” (2 Sam. 22:21). Job recognized God’s protection was due, in part, to having “clean hands” (Job 17:9). And when the psalmist asked who had authority to worship God, the answer included “he who has clean hands” (Ps. 24:3-4).
This handy bit of knowledge helps us make sense of Jesus’ most startling sayings. The first is “if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt. 5:30). Bible scholars assure us that Jesus is using hyperbole to get our attention. Mission accomplished. The point seems to be that if your right hand causes you to sin – the supposedly stronger one – something is gravely amiss. You might be headed for hell. This echoes Dallas Willard: “God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it.”1 Clean hands indicate whether you can stand eternity. If your hands are routinely in the cookie jar of sin, you might not be ready for marriage with God. In similar fashion, if a man or woman can’t keep their hands off other men and women – or porn – they’re not really ready for marriage.
Jesus’ second startling saying goes like this: “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Farmers must hold tight to a plow, looking straight ahead to produce straight furrows. They can’t be looking back or looking around. Jesus’ followers are supposed to be plowing “straight paths” for the kingdom (Mt. 3:3). If they’re looking to anyone or anything other than Jesus for a sense of power or protection, their hands are not holding tight to the plow. They’re double-minded. James said clean hands correct double-mindedness (James 4:8). Jesus is warning us that double-minded folk are not fit for the kingdom. It’s unlikely they would stand eternity, where everyone is singularly devoted to Jesus. That’s also why men and women who aren’t keeping themselves for their spouse aren’t really ready for marriage.
This challenge of keeping our hands clean becomes more acute in the Internet age with the proliferation of handheld devices. The world is at our fingertips. That’s not necessarily a problem, as two out of three Bible references to “the world” are positive (“for God so loved the world”). However, one-third of the references serve as warnings. “For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world” (I Jn. 2:16). In today’s world, lust and pride rear their ugly head in many ways, including porn, plagiarism, and a preoccupation with self (read: Facebook). Studies indicate these three afflictions are just as rife in the church as in the world. But with the proliferation of handheld devices, too many Christians assume these sins can be kept secret. They’re kidding themselves.
For years the National Religious Broadcasters invited the President of the United States to address their annual convention. In 1994, the NRB snubbed President Clinton to express their indignation over his moral transgressions. I was invited to the conference the following year. It was held in Nashville. The NRB filled every room of the Opryland Hotel. Toward the end of the week I happened upon the hotel manager. I joked about the NRB crowd and lost liquor sales. “Not a problem,” the manager said. The number of in-room porn movies rented that week exceeded any week of the year.
The Internet puts a great many good things within the reach of our hands. The proliferation of handheld devices is not necessarily a bad thing, but the faith community would be wise to take more seriously Jesus’ warnings regarding our hands. Christians ought to be more careful about what they put their hands to. The church is supposed to be the good hands people. Marriage is supposed to be made up of good hands people. And so are companies, which is why my friend is fortunate to work where he does.
1 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), p. 302.