image by Aaron Burden from Unsplash
Psalm 51, in my Bible, is the only page that has a special fawn book tab sticker to mark it out. Partially because the moment I stuck it on I regretted it big time--I didn't realize how thin my Bible pages were, and they tore around the sticker edges if I wasn't careful turning the page. AbortMissionAbortMission--
But that's just standard characteristically bad decision making; Psalm 51is the psalm that became meaningful to me when I was seeking to be saved. Perhaps the first time that the Bible really 'spoke' to me, to use a trite phrase. When the aptness and timing almost frightened me. When I realized for the first time why reading the Bible is not like reading War and Peace or any other old thick book with tiny text.
I still remember a particularly low point, struggling with feeling depressed and hopeless because I was forced to accept that no matter how hard I tried, I could not make it through a single day without regret, without realizing I had acted selfishly or proudly; without anger and impatience--and the list goes on. During this time, crushed by the appalling proof of the limits of my self-control, of just how useless "trying harder" was, I found myself drawn more and more--not to the deep theological discussions and records of Jesus's life in the New Testament, or the multi-faceted stories of the Old Testament that I had always enjoyed as a child, but to the Psalms--that unassuming book somewhere in the middle which I had always passed by. David's intimately personal "I" and the honest, vulnerable expressions of his emotions--his frank, child-like joy in God, or his most wretched moments of guilt and self-doubt--were something that drew my own restless, unhappy heart.
David had always been one of my favourite characters. I tried my best to forget about that horrid incident in and as a result the preface to Psalm 51--"To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba"--kind of put me off the rest of the Psalm. For the first time, however, I remember looking past the shadow of that incident and feeling verse one hit me in the pit of the stomach; "Have mercy upon me, O God..."
In the 21st century vocabulary we don't speak like that. This was what my heart had been groaning wordlessly, and it felt almost like relief, hearing it articulated so honestly and simply for me. Yes. Mercy. Simply mercy--I had no excuses, no reasons, only a wracking yearning need to be lifted out of this swampy morass of guilt and self-doubt, even self-loathing, that I could see no way out of. With a small sighing sob I felt the smart of tears, and looked through them at the rest of the psalm, blinking.
Empathy. Catharsis. Comfort. Guidance.
But more importantly, hope.
I found those as I made my way slowly through the rest of Psalm 51. And each time I reread it, I find more things to carry away, to store up, picking up pearls that only add to the beauty and significance this particular psalm has for me.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Guilt, ever-present, forcing us to realize that something is wrong with us, something is wrong with this world, that we have a gaping hole, a desperate need of Someone greater than ourselves...
4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight--
That You may be found just when You speak,[a]
And blameless when You judge.
This always caught me unexpected--a reminder to see our sin in its full scope; as primarily an act of rebellion and rejection against God Himself.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
This is not the problem of isolated acts, isolated "bad decisions," moments of weakness, as we'd like to think--because we want to think that we can manage it, we are basically good despite these small flaws.
This is something intrinsic to our human condition, from our very conception; something that underlies our whole world.
And to change--to fix it--we need likewise a transformative change. Not a quick fix or a coverup, but from the inside, from our "inward parts". You need to change us. You need to plant truth and wisdom in the very core of our being, to transform us from the inside out. Our hearts, not just our external actions, need to be changed.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
The self-aware, cringing consciousness of guilt, of impurity--washed away. Cleansed, as thoroughly and simply and effectively as physical cleansing. The satisfaction of watching the dirt being blasted away, watching the cleanliness being restored. Free!
Free, and joyful.
No longer trapped inside the swampy morass, even though we might have broken a few bones in our fierce struggle to get out. Wounded and weak and still vulnerable, still raw from the struggle, perhaps; but rejoicing.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
The God of my salvation,
And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
And here you have the new convert's earnest prayer--for sanctification, for perseverance. With a vivid awareness of how much, how intensely you need God's presence. The power and guidance of the Spirit. In order to have a "clean heart"--to persevere--to have joy. And even--I found this point especially enlightening--to spread the Gospel. David prays, not simply to evangelize as a duty, but for God's abundant mercy and joy on him, which overflows into the most powerful and effective--and sincere--evangelism. Evangelism akin to praise.
16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart--
These, O God, You will not despise.
And to balance that, David acknowledges that yet, all these things, all the things he promises to DO for God, they are not what is actually important. They do not earn him merit. That's not why he does them.
As John Piper said in Desiring God, our desire to be like God, to be righteous like God, should be our motivation--arising from our deep love and joy in Him; like a boy to whom the most intense, direct enjoyment of football would be to play the game himself, rather than simply watch others play.
Instead, how do we please Him?
With humility. With repentance. With faith in Him, not in ourselves.
18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
With burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
With that as our foundation, we are empowered to truly serve in the more common, concrete action-oriented understanding of the word. To change lives for the better, to nurture and bless and build up our communities and the people around us. To build the walls of our own Jerusalems, not because God is depending on us to get it done, but because we see ourselves as the instruments of His good pleasure, of His power. Without the pride, self-reliance, anxiety, and doubt that characterizes human achievements. With humility and purity in our personal lives as the foundation for these "sacrifices".
Those are the sacrifices of righteousness, the sacrifices that please You.
If we live day to day without joy, it's a good indicator that we have lost sight of Christ's redeeming work.
I heard that in a sermon a while ago, and it resonated strongly with me. As it would with anyone.
Lift up your heart, we sing in church. Lift up your voice, rejoice, again I say, rejoice! We all want to experience this life-changing, steadfast joy--no weak common emotion like happiness, mind you, but something deeper and fiercer and stronger, as the word choice conveys.
Is it a huge, impossible challenge for you to have a happy life, to find contentment in your everyday? For so many years I lived with the impression that happiness lay several boxes away. Friends. Success. Affirmation. Aesthetics. Comfort. Tick those boxes and you've completed the formula for happiness, no?
Even as Christians, we still tend to have the same mentality. To experience the "joy of the Lord" that Nehemiah 8:10 talks about is such a surreal, transient thing that we hardly dare talk about it, maybe dismiss it as "charismatic", (*cough Reformed background weakness cough*) assume that we're not 'holy' enough to have reached that stage of loving God, we've got to first improve our spiritual disciplines and kick those bad habits entirely and...
I think that when we've lost sight of this joy that we as Christians are entitled to have, it's because we've lost sight of Christ--in our focus on doing things for Him, we neglect to enjoy Him. Amid all the distractions of our busy lives, our faith soon gets reduced to another set of to-do's. Read the Bible more. Get devotions in every day. Reach out to others.
But we forget that we don't have to have ticked all these boxes--an impossible task, by the way, at least while we're here struggling through the gory process of sanctification--to enjoy Him. That His joy, peace, and love are tangible in our lives, are directly relevant to our lives, in the midst of all we haven't done, shouldn't have done.
I think that is possibly the biggest lesson I've learnt this year. When I stopped to reflect on the past year and consider how I'd grown spiritually, my first response was guilt and discouragement. In so many of the ways I'd determined to grow this year--pray more! have more courage to talk about Christ! be more patient and loving!--I'd failed. Not even failed to make progress; in some cases, actually regressed. And so I felt, on the heels of that realization, that no, I hadn't "grown spiritually" much this year.
But the next moment I reconsidered that conclusion. Though I didn't have any ticked boxes or graphs to show for it, I felt that wasn't entirely true. This year has been a difficult year for me, a year full of change and often weariness. Of realizations that one by one take a little bit of sparkle away from how you see the world, the future. But amidst all that struggling, all the failure, even, I felt as though one lesson had cleared through the mist--learning to see how the person of God relates directly to my life, learning to appreciate and understand the significance of God's attributes.
And that enabled me to experience for the first time a kind of durable, everyday joy--a taste of the "peace which surpasses all understanding;" (Philippians 4:7) of why we call Him the "God of all comfort." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
I think I won't do a good job explaining this, but I can only try.
For example. So many times I found myself repeatedly asking for forgiveness, for the same besetting sin, that even I got frustrated at myself, almost couldn't dare to imagine that God hadn't lost patience with me by now, that I hadn't made a mockery of Christ's atonement for me. Humanly speaking, there was no reason why not. I ran out of excuses. Forced to face, exhausted and speechless, the unpleasant fact that I just clung too tightly to sin.
And that was when I realized anew what GRACE and MERCY, those abstract, often dry terms which we use to describe God, actually meant. Their very real and direct application to my life--right now. Not only at the point of my conversion, but as a necessary and vital part of today, of what gave me hope, what encouraged me.
Our joy--as our hope, our peace, and so much more--is steadfast and strong because it does not depend on us. On our current mood or our current situation. It is based on Him, on Who He is; and that never changes, never fails us, is never less than we need.
This year, in different ways and over different stages, I've been realizing slowly just how significant each one of God's attributes are to me. A newfound appreciation and understanding of Who He is, and simultaneously who I am; and how He changes my life. I'd memorized in the Shorter Catechism Who God is:
God is spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
But what does that actually mean?
To put it more specifically--what does that mean for my life, today?
This coming year, no matter what it brings for you--pain, affirmation, loss, growth, change--may you answer that question for yourself.
We don't experience as much delight in Christ as we know we should and know we could.
We are so wrapped up in our struggles, our failures, our sins, that we've lost sight of delighting in God; we go to Him for forgiveness, for strength, for guidance--but joy?
If we're absolutely honest with ourselves, we know that the delight we experience in our lives is almost exclusively found elsewhere.
Happiness. When was the last time you felt happy, and why? What delights you and gives you joy?
If you're like me, you probably feel a small twinge of guilt as the answers pop up in your head.
Why is God so low down on the list?
Of course, this doesn't mean that we can't enjoy things that aren't explicitly about God. They are gifts from His hand and reflections of His goodness, and He means us to find delight in them.
The question is rather whether we see them as such. If they are truly gifts/reflections which are good in themselves--shouldn't the One Who created and gave them be even better?
Maurice Roberts wrote excellently on this:
“Ecstasy and delight are essential to the believer’s soul and they promote sanctification."
Whoa. I don't know about you, but reading that for the first time was a revelation. I had never seen ecstasy as 'essential' or 'promoting sanctification'--more as a kind of bonus (if you could get it.)
And as result I had never purposefully pursued it--just ambled along expecting it to drop down on me if convenient. Let me tell you that this is not a good method of achieving things, spiritual or otherwise. Glorifying God is an intentional pursuit.
Here's the most striking part of the whole passage: (in my opinion--but then I found all of it pretty amazingly jaw-dropping)
"We were not meant to live without spiritual exhilaration, and the Christian who goes for a long time without the experience of heart-warming will soon find himself tempted to have his emotions satisfied from earthly things and not as he ought, from the Spirit of God."
We need to seek our 'ecstasy' from the Source. I think we all agree on that. But the reason why we find it so hard is because we've settled for the easier, but second-rate (comparatively, shallow) ecstasy from earthly things.
"The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones…"
God made us to desire and enjoy ecstasy. Ecstasy in itself is one of His gifts. We were made to desire and pursue it--ultimately to find it in God. But too often our sin-tainted eyes get smeared over and we go groping after other things, things which seem sparkly and colorful and so much closer to our grasping hand than the golden glory of God.
"...The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go for any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savouring the felt comforts of a Saviour’s presence.
When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls will go in silent search of other lovers...
...By the enjoyment of the love of Christ in the heart of a believer we mean an experience of the “love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us” (Romans 5:5)…Because the Lord has made Himself accessible to us in the means of grace, it is our duty and privilege to seek this experience from Him in these means till we are made the joyful partakers of it.”
The Thought of God
We need to pursue ecstasy as Christians. Because God intended us to. Because it is hugely important in our spiritual growth or decline. Because it transforms us.
And simplest of all, because it is an aspect of our God.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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