I have a terrible habit of taking off my workout pants without untying the string. It’s dumb because I have to squeeze them off, which makes the knot tighter. For some reason, I can work them off, but I can’t work them back on. I have to untie the knot—now a million times tighter than before—before I can get the pants on. If I just did it right in the first place, I wouldn’t have this problem.
When you do it wrong, you have to undo the knot, before you can tie it properly. The principle applies in all of life. When you do the wrong thing, until God unties you, you can’t do the right thing. That’s what Isaiah, Israel’s prophet experienced.
In the Bible, in the book of Isaiah, in chapter 6, there is a story about the prophet Isaiah’s. He has a vision, like a dream while awake. But to Isaiah, it is an authentic experience. He transcended planes into the throne room of God. It’s an out of body experience, but in the experience, he has a body. He’s actually there.
Isaiah stood before a great throne. On the throne was the Lord, himself. His authority was so high, his dominion so vast, that the hem and tassels of his robe flowed down the platform, extending to the edges of the throne room and into every corner. There was no one place that his dominion did not touch. The hem of the Lord’s robe filled the temple.
Isaiah was in the presence of the Almighty—the creator, God. The Seraphim—a fiery one—was positioned above the Lord’s throne. “He had six wings. He covered his face with two, and with two, he covered his feet. With the other two wings, he flew. He cried out to the others preset, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Armies; the whole earth is full of His glory.’” The temple’s doorposts shook at the boom of the fiery Seraphim’s voice, and his presence filled the room with smoke.
This is the holiness of God envisioned. No extent of creation is hidden from God’s mighty hand. His glory fills the cosmos. There is nowhere that does not come under the Almighty’s authority—nothing in the spiritual places, nowhere in the universe, and nowhere on earth.
Isaiah stood before the throne in the highest court. Thoroughly shaken, Isaiah sighed, “Woe!” In English grammar, this is called onomatopoeia—a word that spells out a sound you make. Woe is the sound you make when you are most to be pitied. It is a cry out of pain, but not physical pain. It’s internal distress, the sound of ultimate suffering.
Isaiah realized that he was in the very presence of God. And God’s presence reminded him of his faults, imperfections, limitations, and sin. He lamented, “Woe to me. I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips. Indeed, my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Armies.”
God wrecked Isaiah. He’s done. In the presence of pure majesty, Isaiah realized how utterly small and insignificant he was. More so, Isaiah realized how completely useless he was as a sinful, limited, imperfect human. What did he have to offer the King as he stood before the throne?
How utterly insignificant are we before the pure majesty of the Almighty? What do we have to offer the King when we come before his throne?
“Woe to me, because I am undone!… Indeed, my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Armies.”
Isaiah said he was undone. Standing in the presence of God unraveled his being. Isaiah had an existential crisis. He knew who he wanted to be and who God designed him to be, and Isaiah wasn’t that man. He knew how God told him to live in the law, and he knew God created humans to reflect his being. And Isaiah knew he wasn’t that man. He was Isaiah; he was himself, but not the right version of himself—an imperfect, blurred version of the Isaiah God created.
That’s what the holiness of God does to us.
It’s supposed to move us to introspection. It should cause an existential crisis in our hearts so that we begin a journey of discovery to find out who we are. We’re supposed to pursue self-actualization. I am me, and you are you. But, I am not the best version of myself, and you are not the best version of you. We don’t rightly know ourselves, the way God knows us.
The way we talk about God’s work in us can seem like we can lose ourselves when we follow Jesus. Like I am supposed to be undone so that I can be remade like Jesus and in the process I lose my identity, my personality, my being. But, that’s not entirely right. It’s the sinful, imperfect, and limited part of me—the part my sin created—that is undone. Recreation isn’t Jesus instead of me. It’s me and Jesus instead of me and the world.
We have to be undone to become the best version of ourselves. And maybe you don’t feel like you’re all that bad. Like for Isaiah, Isaiah may have been able to stand in the presence of his people as a righteous and holy man. He looked a whole lot better than the average Israelite. But, wrapped in humanity, Isaiah still couldn’t stand in the presence of God. So, he cried out, ‘Woe, I am undone, I have seen the Lord of Armies.’
I like the translation, ‘undone.’ God didn’t make a mistake in how he created Isaiah. But, Isaiah—however righteous he was—was a man of unclean lips. That’s how he identified himself, no better than idolatrous Israel. He wrapped himself in a new identity that was not the identity God gave him at creation, and that was glaringly obvious to him when he saw the holiness of the Lord on his throne.
When Isaiah recognized the holiness of God, he understood his standing in the universe. In the book, The Beauty of Holiness author Michael Barret wrote,
For Isaiah, putting himself in the proper place was integral to serving God in His place.
When you see the holiness of God, you know the godlessness in yourself. When you confess the godlessness in yourself, you are finally in the right position to serve God. There’s an order to it. We see who God is. God enlightens who we are. Then we cry out, ‘Woe.’
Sometimes we don’t see it this way, though. Some Christians see themselves as independent contractors.
‘When God calls me out to the job site, I’ll do some work. If I mess up, I’ll have to deal with that—come out, clean up the mess, make it right—and then I’m okay again.’
That’s a works-based approach that doesn’t want to admit the imperfection of your humanity binds you.
Other Christians see themselves as unemployed and unemployable.
‘I’d serve God, but I have nothing to offer. I don’t have anything I can do.’
That’s not a wrong place to be as long as you understand you aren’t supposed to stay there. It’s a humble position, for sure. But…
God knows humans are weak. That’s why God’s Spirit helps us in our weakness (Romans 8:26).
In fact, God’s power is made evident in our lives when he expresses his power through our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Before his vision, Isaiah was self-empowered. He knew what he was capable of. He had some skills. But standing in the presence of God, Isaiah became aware of how small he was compared to the Almighty.
When Isaiah confessed his weakness, the Seraphim came down from his position. He approached the altar of the Lord, where a fire was burning. The Seraphim grabbed a lump of hot coal with a pair of tongs. Being a fiery one, he took the coal in his hand, approached Isaiah—still writhing in fear and woe, flat on his face before the throne—and pressed the coal into Isaiah’s lips.
I’d say it burned like hell, but it must have burned like heaven. It wasn’t the sting of judgment but the sting of purification. The man of unclean lips was made clean. The one who once spoke falsehoods was now empowered to speak the truth. The Seraphim declared, “This has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away, and your sin removed.”
Isaiah’s prayer of confession, ‘I am undone, a man of unclean lips,’ resulted in his being remade or redone. See, the Lord knew Isaiah’s weakness, unworthiness, and imperfection. Isaiah’s defect wasn’t a problem God couldn’t overcome. The problem was that Isaiah didn’t see his weakness, didn’t acknowledge it. But when Isaiah saw the Lord, Isaiah saw deep into himself. And when Isaiah acknowledged who he was, God made gave him new lips. And with his new lips, now God would work through him.
See, it’s not per se sinfulness that keeps us from God; it’s arrogance. It’s not our imperfection that keeps us from God’s presence; it’s our refusal to acknowledge what we have done with our own lives. We weave webs of half-truths, untruths, and outright lies about who we are. “I’m not so bad.” “Other’s are worse.” Isaiah probably justified his sin because he was more righteous than the idolators in Israel. The Pharisees scoffed at Jesus because he ate with taxpayers and sinners as if they were more righteous than him!
Who are we to say we are better because our sin is less than others? And how much less are we when we stand in the presence of the Almighty?
Isaiah prayed, ‘I am undone, a man of unclean lips.’ He was purified, and then he heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Who will I send? And who will go for us?”
Upon hearing these words, Isaiah’s entire demeanor changed. Instead of, “I’m a man with unclean lips,” he confidently exclaimed, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
We need God to undo us before he will ‘do us’ again. We need God to wreck us before he remakes us. He won’t make you new until he makes you desolate. And that’s what makes this prayer of Isaiah so powerful.
God designed you to be the image of Jesus, to reflect and represent the holiness and righteousness of the Almighty. Instead, we walk in our ways, we build our own lives, and we follow in patterns of sin and rebellion. When we come to know Jesus, we need to be undone before we can be made new. God has to wreck you like Isaiah. You need to see the gravity of your sin before you can stand in the presence of God.
A Christian isn’t someone who tries to live a better life or be a better person. A Christian is someone who has been undone, wrecked; then is purified and made new.
The beauty, for us, is this. Jesus is on the throne, and the coal is in the alter. The Lord Jesus is waiting for you to come into the presence of the Almighty, to bow low, even trembling before him, sighing like Isaiah, “Woe is me. I am undone!”
But these aren’t magic words.
Woe is a sigh of lament you can’t hold back when you realize the gravity of your condition.
Woe is the feeling you get in your gut when you’ve been on the freeway for an hour, and it occurs to you that you’ve been driving in the wrong direction.
More so, it is a pain you feel in your gut when you realize you have been heading in the wrong direction for a decade, for two decades, for three decades, or more, and the exasperation is so great, the pressure upon your heart so immense, breath is forced from your lips, and you sigh, “Woe to me. I am undone.”
“Therefore,” the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy…” God won’t make you new until you have been undone. Let’s pray, and let’s get undone like Isaiah so that we will receive mercy.
This is how we pray with Isaiah.
- We come before the throne with Woe in our hearts. You might need to get in the scriptures to read about the holiness of God. Or, the angels looked at the earth and saw the marks of God’s glory all over it. How majestic is the God who made the earth and all that is in it? Reflect, even in prayer, on God’s holiness. Pray with the Seraphim, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is Jesus, the Lord of Armies.’ Tell God where you see his holiness in the scriptures and the world as you reflect. Do this until you feel so small, you experience woe.
- Then pray with Isaiah, “Woe is me. I am undone.” Notice, Isaiah specifically confessed his sins. He admitted that he had unclean lips—his words were not a reflection of his heart. What are your sins? What makes you unclean? Confess your sins to God and be specific.
- Acknowledge the purification with thanks. In Romans 6:17-18, the Apostle Paul encourages us to give thanks to God because we used to be slaves to sin, but God has set us free, making us slaves of righteousness. That’s what God did for Isaiah when the Seraphim purified his lips with the burning coal. You, too, if you belong to Christ, have been purified, set free from sin so that you can honor God. Thank him for every way that you have experienced this freedom. Thank God for every way you have been made new.
- Finally, Isaiah prayed, “Lord, send me.” Woe leads to purification and purification into sending. God sent Isaiah home to his own people. God sends others elsewhere. Where does God send you? Pray, ‘Lord, send me,’ and listen. He will send you to do his work. Where will you go? Who will you go to? What will you go to do? Ask, listen, and when God speaks, thank him for his calling and obey.