August 17, 2009

“Your Arm’s too Short to Box With God”
by Pastor George Van Alstine

The Broadway gospel musical by this name, written and directed by Vinnette Carroll, opened in December of 1976 and had 429 performances before closing in 1978. The production received four Tony nominations, with Delores Hall winning as “Featured Actress (Musical).” There were two later revivals, also on Broadway, one in 1980 and the other in 1982.

I just love the picture that the musical’s title brings to my mind. Here’s a feisty, belligerent young rebel who’s so angry with a much bigger kid on the playground that he lashes out with his fists. But the bigger kid just holds him away with his much-longer arms, and all the punches fall far short. Our attempts to lash out at God are just as futile and impotent.

The musical’s author can’t take credit for this striking word picture. She borrowed it from an earlier and more famous writer. In 1927, James Weldon Johnson published a book of stylized poetic sermons under the title God’s Trombones. In it, he tried to recreate seven of the most powerful sermons he had heard in traditional Black churches.

One of the seven, entitled “The Prodigal Son,” is a retelling of the familiar parable of Jesus recorded in Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32). Before referring to the Bible text, Johnson expresses the father’s warning in these words:

“Young man —
Young man —
Your arm’s too short to box with God.”

It took the prodigal son considerable time and a number of false starts to realize just how short his arm was. In the end, all he could reach were the corn husks next to him in the pig sty.

James Weldon Johnson certainly came up with a creative and effective image, but I don’t think it was even original with him. I think it’s likely that he had discovered an interesting parallel in the writings of a much-earlier poet, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:

“See, the Lord’s hand is not shortened to save . . .
His own arm brought him victory.”
(Isaiah 59:1, 16)

I suspect Johnson saw the contrast between God, whose arm is never too short, and his puny rebellious children who swing in futility with their pathetically short arms.

The wonderful thing a defeated spiritual boxer discovers is that God does not use his long arms to deliver the final knockout blow, but rather to wrap the short-armed rebel in his loving embrace:

“While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)