Praise the Lord!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
The Lord lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground.
Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
As I heard these words from the daily lectionary in our house morning prayers, my mind immediately shifted to a couple key issues I am often occupied with these days. The first is my ever-expanding understanding of God’s purposes with His creation, and the second is the role I am to play in participating in God’s purposes.
So, first things first. This Psalm stands among many other testaments to God’s care in the Scriptures. While the Psalms are prayers and not necessarily theologically correct or truthful to the purposes of God all the time, their poetry and artistic beauty illustrates the truth through a different method than simple statements.
Psalm 147 has become one of my favorites.
The Psalm begins with God’s intimate care for His people. He binds up the broken-hearted, lovingly cares for their wounds.
The Psalm progresses immediately to the big-picture; that this intimate God also created the stars, those massive heavenly bodies in this expansive universe. “Great is the Lord, and abundant in power.”
The Psalm swings back to the intimate, communicating God’s care for the downtrodden; He is aware of their circumstance, and is not ok with the status quo of oppression. This powerful God who created all things is not an American liberal in the sky; hating that things happen outside his plan, yet unwilling to do much more than wring his hands or carry a protest sign. This God will destroy the wicked; they will face consequences at some point. He is intolerant to wickedness, and working to bring healing and dignity.
Then the Psalm deals with the big picture and the intimate at the same time. He prepare rain, makes grass grow, gives food to His creation, not just creating but sustaining it. And this powerful God is not impressed foremost with the power and strength of His creation, whether it be the rippling muscles and raw power of the horse or the swiftness of the human runner. No, the Lord foremost takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. I find this distinction to be powerful to reflect on.
This God is all-powerful, wants us to aspire after and imitate His character, yet wants us to “know our place” as well. There is a great tension in the Scriptures on this point; we are to shape our world the way God wants, yet we are to do it as radically humble, non-violent, suffering-love people. God reserves the right to break the wicked, but we love them and give our lives for them unconditionally; even as we long for justice to be done. Spoken of negatively, we could say, “How hard this task is, and seemingly impossible!” Spoken of positively, we could say, “How worthy a goal to devote our lives to, how all-embracing and all-consuming a task!” To speak then of conversion as a one-time experience, or to use terminology like “got saved” as a past-tense event is to do a great disservice to the life of returning to God and being a responsible, joy-filled disciple of Jesus.
…and it is on this matter that I shift to the second issue I’m occupied with these days, which is the meaning our role as human beings to participate well in God’s creation. We touched on this point specifically in our house church gathering on Sunday, and God’s people run into this point nearly every time they gather, discuss, and consider questions of larger significance. It is the unacknowledged elephant in the room almost every gathering I’ve been a part of. Most times it’s expressed as this;
“God has a plan and a purpose for his creation that he will carry out, and it’s my responsibility to be ok with that, to stop striving and let myself be a part of God’s plan that He’s going to carry out anyways.” Does anyone else hear that basic message in their gatherings?
We human beings are good at striving; we strive for possessions, we strive for comfort, we strive for power, we strive for emotional highs (whether from drugs or experiences), we strive for intimacy yet strive for it elsewhere when it becomes inconvenient. Most of what human beings strive for is not a positive thing. It seems that persons aware of this problem often live in reaction to this, and propose that the solution is to cease striving and accept. To quit chafing at the bit and be content. And like all over-reactions, there is some truth in this; we should spend time accepting, seeking contentment, and resting. But what is the net result of the overreaction? A people are created who believe striving itself is bad, who think the utmost of spirituality is to submit, to embrace. I used to think this too, and with good reason. Religious leaders would highlight verses like the above in Psalm 147 that “(God’s) understanding is beyond measure” or Isaiah 55 and “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts,” or the book of Job, which is a testament to the limits of human understanding. The basic sense of the book is expressed in Job 40 and the interplay between God and Job,
The LORD said to Job:
“Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!”
Then Job answered the LORD :
“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.”
All of these Biblical passages are important. They remind us that we are not God, that we are not free to do whatever we wish, that the journey to healthy humanity begins with submission and obedience to a Being much more powerful than we who has sovereignty over our lives.
Yet the religious leaders of my life either outright lived in ignorance of passages with different variations or were aware of them and chose to mute their voice. In doing this, they removed them from my knowing unless I was willing to read and ask questions of the Scriptures myself, which I was not willing to do at that point.
But over time, I got to know passages like Genesis 18, where Abraham negotiates with God to respond in certain ways according to the actions of the people of Sodom. He does this by appealing to God’s righteous character that may be besmirched among humanity by their observing his devastating action. I got to know about characters like Elijah and Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel who, instead of simply ceasing to strive when in relationship with God, simply cast their striving in a different direction. They altered their goals and dreams to fit those of their Creator and found their world shifting around them; whether they found success or became unwanted persons because they didn’t fit in anymore with their old groups. I looked at the wider context of the above-quoted Isaiah passage and found that the teaching there is for the wicked and the evil to abandon their old thoughts and embrace new ones, worthy ones, and that abundant life would flow from such a commitment. So far from God wanting us to passively accept what we think are His ways, He wants to be invest the totality of who we are in something different.
And maybe the capstone of this much different perspective comes in Exodus 32 when Moses comes down off the mountain and observes that the people of Israel had grown impatient and begun worshiping a golden calf. The interplay between himself and God is interesting;
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ ”
Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”
It seems like when God’s creation lives in depraved rebellion, God (acting alone because no one will join Him) shoots a little loose from the hip, so to speak. God is more willing to use the destructive qualities He possesses to awaken his creation to the destructiveness of their ways. But when someone choose to join Him, not just becoming mindless obeyers but really entering into relationship with Him, God alters His ways to be more relational, more healing, more patient.
What I’m saying is this; It seems that God has built into his purposes that He will act in direct relationship with the human beings He has made in his image. When these humans forsake that calling and actively oppose Him, He will strike us down (whether in the short or long term). When these humans cease striving against Him, even if we become benign persons who see our primary role as persons who just nod at what happens and say, “That is God at work in ways I don’t understand,” God kind of prefers that, though the lack of an all-encompassing desire leads to lukewarmness (either with the person or succeeding generations). Passivity will be a midpoint from active rebellion to active obedience. But God’s highest purpose is that we would trade in our former, darkened, depraved strivings for new, enlightened, redeemed strivings. And that when we transcend striving against and benign obedience into active justice-seeking, He will reward our efforts by more actively working through us to redeem His creation.
What kind of spirituality is in your community? By and large, I think, most communities I know advocate the passive acceptance of “God’s will” as the proper sort of spirituality to seek after in this life. But I just don’t see passive acceptance of the ways things are to be the primary method of the righteous in the Bible. I see active pursuit of the true, the just, and the right. And that pathway involves agitating against the present order to transform it into its intended state.
And that pathway even includes questioning and cajoling God, which God not only doesn’t reject, but in fact embraces, appreciates, and acts in response to. He may need to punch us in the mouth from time to time when we get too uppity and forget who we are, but He loves the activity, the striving, the justice-seeking.
“The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.”
A worthy pursuit. This God has me in His grip, and is beginning to consume me, leading me to place every thought and action captive to the grand question of whether it fits the vision of His kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven.