“GIRD up your loins like a man” (Job 38.3) is a difficult verse now that concepts of masculinity are fraught with sensitivity. Things were simpler in Bible days. There are several words for “man” — just as English can say “chap”, “fellow”, and “guy”, as well as “man”. Here, the Hebrew word geber suggests strength, courage, and righteousness: these qualities make someone a “man”.
I once discovered that some students had no idea what “girding up your loins” meant. Loins, I explained, are the area of the body from waist to hip, a place of strength. Think of yourself wearing a long robe with a belt (the “gird” bit of “girdle”). You bend down, grasp the back hem, pull it through your legs, and tuck it into the belt at the front. Legs, instead of being swamped by material, are free to move, turn, and run. Girding is preparation for work or battle.
Back then, battle was a man’s job. To most of us, it is now an alien concept, but we still speak the language: we battle temptation, debt, disease. God has a battle of words with Job, challenging him, in an alpha-male sort of way. Perhaps this is God as people in Job’s time imagined him rather than as we believe that he is. If we get past the squaring-up, we find a divine decision to curb infinite power, and establish boundaries to make the world comprehensible instead of chaotic. This is not bluster: it is blessing.
Paul reminds us, in 2 Corinthians, that life for a Christian is still a battle. He returns to the idea repeatedly. Verses 4-8 contain a list that we may be tempted to skim over (“hardship, sufferings, peace, love”, yada yada yada), but it cloaks complexity. It begins with tough stuff: horrors that Christians can expect to endure, based on Paul’s own experience. But then it changes, without explanation.
In the Greek, Paul commends himself “in” each one of his sufferings; and the list continues, with no change, into “in” purity, knowledge, and the rest. Unlike the NIV, the NRSV obscures this, marking a shift which we feel should be there to flag up the change of subject: “by purity. . .” and so on. But that shift isn’t there.
What this suggests is two parallel aspects of Christian discipleship. On the one hand, we are “in” painful challenges, which take us to the limit of our endurance. Negative goodness, if you like: the resistance of cruelty; a refusal to meet force with force. On the other hand, we are “in” virtues and blessings that, if we live our faith aright, are as unavoidable as the sufferings. We do not strive to achieve them: we are already “in” them. This is positive goodness: immersion in all the favours that surround the true disciple.
The Gospel explores the difficult territory of our expectations of the saviour. Saviours are strong. They conform to a familiar type of masculinity. Every other movie seems to feature a saviour figure, powering through to victory, whatever the cost to himself (it usually is a he). Jesus does not behave like a hero, nor claim heroic status. All through Mark’s Gospel, he avoids it.
The conversation between him and the disciples in the boat shows a gap on both sides between expectation and reality. They are surprised that he is not aware of the danger that they are in; but then they are amazed because he has power over wind and waves. He questions why they are afraid, as they should have understood by now (have they “still” no faith?).
When the disciples got into the boat, “they took him with them . . . just as he was.” It seems like an unimportant aside; but anyone who has ever been moved by the hymn “Just as I am” will intuit that it may not be so. Mark reminds us that Jesus has been acting all day as an ordinary person — a teacher — who uses parables to express truth in a way that silences the “aha, but” of the enthusiastic logic-chopper. The crowd, hungry for teaching in a time when education was not free, saw and valued him thus.
His true identity, we were reminded earlier in chapter 4, is communicated only to the disciples. Confronted with their own mortality, they cry for help. And he provides it. But he is unsurprisingly surprised that they didn’t know that his help would always be there for them.