Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 10

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‘Heth’

People and their perspectives change. Our favourite story characters are those whose names begin as synonyms of fear, or sorrow, or selfishness, but are transformed to become heartwarmingly brave, or joyful, or generous. Much Afraid, the main character in the somewhat obscure allegorical novel ‘Hind’s Feet on High Places’ embodies this type of character. She must travel with her unchosen companions Sorrow and Suffering, rejecting the insinuations of her daunting enemy Craven Fear, as she follows the call of the Shepherd. Eventually she receives her new name, Grace and Glory as do her companions, now renamed Joy and Peace. These are no euphemisms. Each transformation of character represents a complete shift in perspective. Each person becomes as unlike his or her earlier self as an awakening is from a dream.

In Heth, the eighth stanza of Psalm 119, something similar, perhaps even grander is happening. Centred in the middle of the stanza, the phrase “Though the wicked bind me with ropes…” gives us a picture of our natural lives. Conflict, tension, fear, perhaps even hatred and revenge are our natural reactions when we have any sense of bondage in life. This is why as children we each learned to use the word “No!” so powerfully. But the psalmist sees something astounding happening in his life when he invites God into it: everything becomes grace and glory.

“You are my portion, O LORD; I have promised to obey your words. / I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise. / I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. / I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. / Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. / At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. / I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. / The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:57-64).

Questions help us get to the heart of any exploration of God’s Word—help us focus on discovering what is going on. Three questions arise after reading this section of the psalm, questions about the psalmist, about God, and about us: What is happening here to the psalmist, in what way is God central to what is happening, and why is it relevant to us?

Firstly, we see the psalmist is speaking directly to God. It’s a prayer of sorts, a prayer in which the psalmist is reiterating a covenant in which he and God are involved. He reminds God of His promise (“to be gracious to me”), and he pairs it with his own promise back to God (“to obey your words…(to) consider my ways and (to) tur(n) my steps….(to) not forget your law”). We notice that the psalmist is not being mercenary here; he’s not saying, ‘Look here, God, I’ll obey your rules but in return you have to give me something.’ No, it’s very different than that. The psalmist is observing that God is the initiator of a relationship described by love: “The earth is filled with your love, O LORD;” the psalmist is doing nothing more nor less than responding to that love. It’s not the psalmist saying, ‘I’ve worked for you all these years, now I want my pay, my inheritance.’ Rather, he is affirming—as loving relationships do—‘It’s you that I love; not what you can do for me, just you.’ We hear that in the very first verse (“You are my portion, O LORD”).

Secondly, we see Jesus mirrored—or better yet hologrammed—into the psalm as the Great Psalmist Himself. Who more than Jesus considers the Father His portion, who commits Himself to obeying the Father’s will with such complete success? Who alone can truly say, “I have sought (the Father’s) face with all my heart”? And who is the greatest “friend to all who fear (God)”? Which leads us to our third consideration.

How is this all relevant to us? The psalmist has tried his best, but really, he couldn’t obey God as fully as he wanted to. The old sin nature was too ingrained in him to be as perfect a promise-keeper as he would have hoped. But Jesus is the perfect promise-keeper; He is the truly wholehearted One; He is the friend of sinners; His perfect sacrifice made the way to deal with our sin nature in a way that frees us to truly turn our hearts and steps toward following God’s heart and will and covenant with us. As Timothy Keller says, in Jesus we go from “fighting a war we cannot win to fighting a war we cannot lose.”

Only through Jesus can we find the transformation of our lives that renames us from Much Afraid (or Much Unreliable, or Much Hurt, or whatever other identity with which we have struggled) to Grace and Glory. God’s grace and glory works itself into and out through our lives in a way the psalmist could only imagine. Thank God we are on this side of Christ’s great redeeming work.

(Illustration Credit: Painting by Daniel Gerhartz)

CROSSROADS, Part 6

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ENDING TO BEGINNING

While it may sound strange, if we want a new beginning, we must first have an ending. “Because transition is a process by which people unplug from an old world and plug into a new world,” says author William Bridges in Managing Transitions, “we can say that transition starts with an ending and finishes with a beginning.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? If a wall of our house has become permeated with mildew, we must tear out the gyprock and replace it with new wall sheet before a fresh coat of paint will have any real lasting significance.

Our lives are no different. Being content with the status quo makes us want to hold onto our old lifestyle, even if it is harmful to us. But if we become aware that there is a gap between our present reality and a future we desire more, we will become willing to leave the past behind. We finally want to make an end of the old life.

“What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?” asks the apostle Paul. He’s trying to help us see the gap, to have a sense of urgency in leaving an old way of life that is killing us by degrees.

He’s presenting an early version of Bridges’ change management theory. He uses a different term for that first stage Bridges calls endings. Paul uses the word death, which paints a much bolder picture than the term ending, but it’s apt. The transition Paul describes is not insignificant.

“We died to sin;” he explains. He’s talking about the choice we each make to either stay as we are, living under our own set of rules that tell us we’re good enough as we are as long as we do such-and-such, or to accept the ending of that self-satisfied way of living. Paul specifically uses the terms died and death as literary devices to communicate a complete severing from an old way of life.

Paul’s advice to “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11) may be the single most concise guideline for the change that is happening in the mind of a person while God is working in the spirit of that same person. It is the deliberate choice to turn away from a lifestyle established apart from God. Regardless of the ‘freedom’ that lifestyle touts, Paul’s synopsis is that it is nothing less than “slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness.”

‘Slavery, indeed!’ we gasp. How can a self-determined lifestyle be slavery?

We are all slaves to something, he says. We all submit ourselves to one ideology or another whether we put a label on it or not. The point is not that we are, in effect, slaves, but rather determining to what we are bound. Are we slaves to something that will eventually destroy us, or to God who promises infinite benefit to us?

Bridges’ Transition Theory adds one piece of clarifying information. Between the ending and the new beginning there is a neutral zone, a place where we gradually, by increments, fully release the old way, explore what the new way will entail, and learn how to embody the new way of thinking and acting. This, I believe, is the zone of Christian living. It’s where we are in the process of learning to live out our God-centred beliefs. It’s where we make mistakes and need to remind ourselves we made an end of the old way, and focus again on the new way. Critics are quick to shout ‘hypocrite!’ but rather than hiding our weakness, we can simply agree. We fail – we address our inconsistencies – we get up off the ground and turn our eyes again to Jesus – and we move on. That is part of this crossroads that following Jesus entails. It’s humbling, yes. But it is the only way to real, lasting, transformational change.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Derek Harper)