IVP - Strangely Dim - The Anxious Bench and the Mercy Seat

February 26, 2010

The Anxious Bench and the Mercy Seat

More Strangely Dim reflections to aid your journey through Lent.

In the early nineteenth century, American evangelist Charles Finney would direct those considering faith in Christ to sit on a bench, where they would wait for personal ministry. He called it the "anxious seat." The practice became a focal point for the despisers of Finney's demonstrative revivalism, with Reformed theologian John Williamson Nevin delivering a scathing critique of the movement in his tract The Anxious Bench.

Because I'm not much of a historian, I came across this term only by reading Peter Heltzel's great Jesus and Justice and surfing quickly to Wikipedia. And because I'm a shameless hawker of Likewise Books, the mention of "bench" sent me shortly thereafter to Tamara Park's delightful travel memoir Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem, in which the benches of Italy, Bosnia, Syria and elsewhere serve as icons of encounter. It's an apt image, really: on benches we meet people who are vastly different from us and discover that the divine longing they feel, even if only unconsciously, is the same as our own. Or something like that.

Anyway, if there's any time of year that's custom-made for the anxious bench, it's probably during Lent. Not only because Lent coincides with the time we do our taxes--when we bite our nails in anticipation of how much we'll owe and whether we'll be audited--but also because Lent is dedicated to the anxiety of the pious.

During Lent we focus on our need for salvation, and we intentionally forget for a time that our salvation has already been procured. We begin the Lenten season by being reminded that we are "but dust," and we end it with shouts of "Crucify him, crucify him!" before turning off all the lights. During Lent we make ourselves uncomfortable in creative ways--going without things that bring us some delight or satisfaction, taking on practices that are unfamiliar and at times cumbersome. During Lent we engage in a kind of pious theater, setting aside whatever blessed assurance we carry with us throughout the year and considering what it would be like to not know that Sunday's coming, to live without the confidence that "Christ is risen, he is risen indeed."

In the temple of the Lord there's a relic that has always captured my imagination. The mercy seat sits atop the ark of the covenant and is occupied by God on the Day of Atonement. (Once again, my thanks to Wikipedia.) The New Testament takes up the image of the mercy seat as an icon of Christ's sacrifice; here the greater sacrifice was made, the atonement was made permanent. But the mercy seat offers its own anxiety: the atonement is a reminder that our relationship with God is uneven. He forgives, we fail; we beg for mercy, he grants us absolution. We bow, he sits. To remain in that dynamic perpetually seems to me more anxious than gracious.

Thank God, then, that the atonement is not the end of the story. The risen Christ actually appears impatient with his followers, who seem reluctant to move on from the cross: "Why are you crying? . . . Do not hold on to me . . . Stop doubting and believe . . . If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me" (John 20--21). The gospel isn't static, Jesus is reminding his followers. The gospel has legs. As the old blues song says, "When the Lord gets ready, you gotta move."

Benches--whether of the bus or park variety, or those that are marked by anxiety or mercy--are temporary settings. We sit for a while until the time comes to take up and move again. For Jesus, the mercy seat was a three-day tenure; on Easter he rises and walks, and bids us follow him. We weren't made to sit forever, whether in anxiety or grace; we were made not to sit but to live, and to move, and to have our being in him.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at February 26, 2010 10:06 AM Bookmark and Share

Comments are closed for this entry.

Get Email Updates

You'll get an email whenever a new entry is posted to Strangely Dim

Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

Subscribe to Feeds