a review of Mark Belz's book A Journey to Wholeness: The Gospel according to Naaman's Slave Girl

Tucked away in the chronicles of the kings of Israel, is an astonishing story of a young girl, captured from her homeland by Aramean (Syrian) raiders. Her captor contracts a skin disease, and rather than curse him to die, this precious child bravely and lovingly suggests he visit the prophet in Israel. She's heard enough to know there's still a prophet in Israel, that the God of Israel works wonders. 

Over the past decade, this little story (found in 2 Kings 5) has captivated my attention as I've worked through the narrative, shaping into a middle grade novel told from the three servants' perspectives. When I saw Mark Belz had written on this story, a non-fiction biblical study of the Old Testament story as a foreshadowing of the Gospel, I was immediately intrigued. This story, according to the front matter of the book, has long held his attention too. 

Really profited reading these two books in tandem:
A Journey to Wholeness: The Gospel According to Naaman's Slave Girl, by Mark Belz (P&R 2015) , &
Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission, by Amy Simpson (IVP 2013).
After the resurrection, Jesus walked on the road of Emmaus and told the disciples Old Testament stories that point to the Gospel. That Jesus Himself directed their attention to the Old Testament should encourage us to look back at the Old Testament ourselves, expecting to see glimpses of the Gospel there too. We certainly see God's judgment and mercy intimately connected, we see His zeal for righteousness and yet His grace for those who acknowledge their need (both Jews and outsiders) all throughout the Bible.  

Mark Belz has an engaging style. He is personable and transparent: he has both a unique aptitude for illustration and application as well as a true humility that is utterly refreshing. The first chapter gives an overview of the story. The next nine work there way through the various characters and situations of the biblical text. And the last three chapters take us forward into the New Testament and on into our future hope. 

This is "a story about disease and healing, riches and poverty, unbelief and faith, smallness and greatness, slavery and freedom, weakness and strength, allies and enemies, slavery and freedom, lies and truth, worship and sacrilege, the common and the holy" (4) -- and how much of that is immediately relevant to our present age!? 

I appreciate Mark's faithfully coming back to the text, promoting the Word of God as "reliable [and] profitable" (1), and this particular portion as "a sliver of Jewish history," "a powerful example of the gospel of reconciliation" (4), and "a foreshadowing of the ... gospel" (5). 

So much of what we as humans long for in this sin-cursed, broken world is reconciliation. We want sin's reign to be ended. We want darkness to be overcome by light. We give our lives to fixing things, to making better, to helping those who are hurting. We're all touched by this. All of us. This story has the ministry of reconciliation as its theme. And it's beautiful! Full of grace!

Perhaps the most captivating character for me is the slave girl herself (the focus of chapter 3). In my novel, I call her Cassia, because she does not have a name in the narrative. Mark insightfully writes, "This tender soul was now far from her home, helpless, oppressed, maybe even abused" (23). When we look at the same part of the world in our present day, it is not so hard to imagine what this sweet young girl saw and experienced. "It's hard to imagine a crime more unfeeling and inexcusable than what these raiders inflicted on this little girl. By brute force they ripped her from her home, from her security, from those she loved and who loved her, away from those she depended on and trusted, and then pressed her into slave service far from home" (23). And yet, "astonishingly, this young girl was concerned for him [her captor, Naaman]" (27). She demonstrated love, joy, peace, faithfulness -- evidences of the Spirit of God working in her (28-32). 

And I love this: "She didn't go into the greater subjects that might have been discussed. What she knew, and what her master knew, was that he had leprosy and needed to be healed. Like Jesus, she spoke directly into his need" (34). Mark continues, "Giving a person in need a direct remedy specific to that need--not just a general expression of sympathy or a theological lecture--shows person concern and displays deep and true love for that person. It is an act that the hurting soul can understand and appreciate" (35). 

And more: "True compassion for another always involves real investment, and investment means risk" (35). Now that's a statement to mull over and work out its applications in our own lives. 

In the chapter on Gehazi and Elisha (chapter 9), after Gehazi has distorted the gospel to Naaman by seeking to gain personal advantage as a "carpetbagger" (104), Elisha confronts Gehazi. Mark points out, "God disciplines his own, yet his mercy has no limits" (107). There are certainly some enduring consequences to our own sin, but when we "confess sin, it is hard and liberating at the same time" (109). "When we confess our sin, ask God and those we have offended for pardon, and turn from the sin, we are consoled in knowing that neither the sin nor its consequences are the end of the story. We are not a prisoner of our sins, nor are we defined by them: 'for sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace' (Rom. 6:14). We do not look at Gehazi as the sinner-leper and think, 'Well, that's it. It's a shame, but that's how Gehazi turned out.' No, Gehazi hadn't turned out. Nor have we. The chastened sinner has a sure hope for change, growth, and God's rich blessing in his life" (112). And later in the biblical text, we do receive that hope that Gehazi, though likely left with scars from his leprosy, was at least able to interact in society and even to share the miracles of Elisha with the king (2 Kings 8). "Gehazi is a great encouragement to Christians. ... Repentant, disciplined, and forgiven sinners may have unsightly scars, but like Gehazi's, they are battle scars that bespeak victory. God still uses us" (117). 

The second to last chapter (chapter 12) speaks to many of the lessons God's been kneading into my own heart. Humility. Respect. Solidarity (or "togetherness"). These are deep, needed, healing, amazing! And He's still workin' on me.   

At the end of each chapter, Belz includes a handful of questions for further reflection. In addition to the benefit of just thinking through them personally, these would be great for working through this book in community, with a small group or Sunday school class.

Whether with a group or on your own, I highly recommend this book to you. It has a balm and a blessing in my own "journey to wholeness." And I have every confidence it will be the same for you on your journey. 


Multiplied grace and peace,
with love, 

michelle

What biblical narratives or gospel-focused books have been a blessing to you on your "journey to wholeness"? Leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you.  

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