Psalm 39 – Being Honest with God

I promised I would watch my steps
    so as not to sin with my tongue;
    promised to keep my mouth shut
    as long as the wicked were in my presence.
So I was completely quiet, silent.
    I kept my peace, but it did no good.
    My pain got worse.
My heart got hot inside me;
    while stewing over it, the fire burned.
Then I spoke out with my tongue:
    “Let me know my end, Lord.
    How many days do I have left?
    I want to know how brief my time is.”
You’ve made my days so short;
    my lifetime is like nothing in your eyes.
        Yes, a human life is nothing but a puff of air! Selah

Yes, people wander around like shadows;
    yes, they hustle and bustle, but pointlessly;
        they don’t even know who will get the wealth they’ve amassed.
So now, Lord, what should I be waiting for?
        My hope is set on you.
Deliver me from all my sins;
    don’t make me some foolish person’s joke.
I am completely silent; I won’t open my mouth
    because you have acted.
Get this plague of yours off me!
    I’m being destroyed by the blows from your fist.
You discipline people for their sin, punishing them;
    like a moth, you ruin what they treasure.
        Yes, a human life is just a puff of air! Selah

Hear my prayer, Lord!
    Listen closely to my cry for help!
Please don’t ignore my tears!
    I’m just a foreigner—
        an immigrant staying with you,
        just like all my ancestors were.
Look away from me
    so I can be happy again
    before I pass away and am gone. (Common English Bible)

God is big. The Lord is big enough to hear whatever is on our hearts. It really does no one any good to have pretense with God. The psalmist initially thought he had to hold back in speaking with God:  He was silent and held his peace with God. However, his distress grew worse.

The psalmist, David, finally opened up. He went on to speak openly and honestly to God, with flavorful expression, about what was really on his heart and mind.

Sometimes we may mistakenly believe we need to be guarded with God – that somehow we should treat the Lord of the universe like we do with other people – coy, hesitant, keeping a respectable distance in conversation.  Maybe that ought to occasionally happen with other people, but it is silly to approach God in such a manner. With God, we ought to be brutally honest about how we are really doing and how we are actually feeling. 

If we desire to move mountains and have God work powerfully in and through us, then we need to acknowledge and admit there is a mountain smack in front of our faces.

I’m quite sure God has heard it all from people in the long millennia of human existence. The Lord isn’t going to be surprised by any of our thoughts and words. So, why hide them? 

It may be a radical thought for some that we can say anything to God and express our deepest emotions to the Lord who desires to listen. God wants to help us journey in this pilgrimage of faith we are on. For that to happen, we must be up front about our current location and how we are doing.

Like everything in life, honesty is a skill to be developed and utilized. Being honest with ourselves and the Lord involves the following:

Acknowledging both the good and the bad.

Shying away from the shadowy places of our hearts will never resolve the icky-ness we may feel inside. Neither will peace come only by focusing on our screw-ups and bad traits. There is both bad and good within us all, and so, we need to hold them both together, recognizing the tension. The better we accept this reality, the sooner we can walk the path of faith with patience and confidence. Both prayers of confession and praise help us keep the good and the bad in mind.

Giving some time and space, daily, to reflect.

Debrief with yourself about your day or events within the day. What did you do well? What could you have improved? Is there anything you will do differently next time? How might you engraft this kind of reflection into your daily prayers?

Admitting your mistakes and when you need help.

Only a person who admits their mistakes can learn from them and correct them. This is a necessary part of spiritual growth and development. Faith cannot be properly formed if we don’t face up to our own reality. Blaming others only causes us to take the focus off our own needs. Failure and admitting need is to be human. Asking for assistance requires humility and courage – qualities we all possess if we will access them.

Paying attention to your emotions.

David, the psalmist, did it. He was aware of his emotions, acknowledged them, and expressed them to God. Our feelings are not some necessary evil. Rather, they are important to our faith and well-being. All emotions exist as signs for us to pay attention to something, whatever it is.

Listening to the gut.

You and I can learn the difference between an impulsive reaction and an intuitive response. The gut level instinct we possess is our conscience giving us insight. Avoiding this important epistemic ally usually results in a lack of self-awareness and poor decision-making. However, listening to the spiritual whispers within can serve us well.

Reading a psalm every day.

The psalms are emotional. They are also, obviously, biblical. Therefore, emotions are godly. A daily regimen of reading at least one psalm out loud can have the effect of bringing our mind, spirit, and emotions into alignment so that they are not disparate parts inside us.

God of the Ages, you are above all and know all things. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears.  I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my forefathers. Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!  My hope is in you; without your abiding presence I am nothing. Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Acts 20:17-38 – A Ministry of Tears

Paul sent a message for the church leaders at Ephesus to come and meet with him. When they got there, he said:

You know everything I did during the time I was with you when I first came to Asia. Some of the Jews plotted against me and caused me a lot of sorrow and trouble. But I served the Lord and was humble. When I preached in public or taught in your homes, I didn’t hold back from telling anything that would help you. I told Jews and Gentiles to turn to God and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

I don’t know what will happen to me in Jerusalem, but I must obey God’s Spirit and go there.In every city I visit, I am told by the Holy Spirit that I will be put in jail and will be in trouble in Jerusalem. But I don’t care what happens to me, as long as I finish the work that the Lord Jesus gave me to do. And that work is to tell the good news about God’s great kindness.

I have gone from place to place, preaching to you about God’s kingdom, but now I know that none of you will ever see me again. I tell you today that I am no longer responsible for any of you! I have told you everything God wants you to know. Look after yourselves and everyone the Holy Spirit has placed in your care. Be like shepherds to God’s church. It is the flock that he bought with the blood of his own Son.

I know that after I am gone, others will come like fierce wolves to attack you. Some of your own people will tell lies to win over the Lord’s followers. Be on your guard! Remember how day and night for three years I kept warning you with tears in my eyes.

I now place you in God’s care. Remember the message about his great kindness! This message can help you and give you what belongs to you as God’s people. I have never wanted anyone’s money or clothes. You know how I have worked with my own hands to make a living for myself and my friends. By everything I did, I showed how you should work to help everyone who is weak. Remember that our Lord Jesus said, “More blessings come from giving than from receiving.”

After Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. Everyone cried and hugged and kissed him. They were especially sad because Paul had told them, “You will never see me again.” (Contemporary English Version)

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

Washington Irving

Apparently, real men do cry. 

When the manly Apostle Paul was headed for Jerusalem, he stopped in Ephesus on his way. Paul preached for hours to the church he had established there, and everyone understood this just might the last time they all saw each other. Paul remembered he had served the Lord among them and admonished each person with tears in his eyes. 

And when Paul departed from Ephesus for the last time, there were a great many tears both with him and the congregation.

Paul was faithful to declare all the will of God to the church. Whatever the people needed, he worked diligently to spiritually support them. The Ephesian church needed a good cry, a sort of emotional baptism to help cleanse and prepare them for life apart from their beloved founder.

So, Paul, never one to be afraid of his emotions, allowed his own tears to flow freely. Those tears were not ancillary to his ministry; they were an integral part of it.

One of the unfortunate philosophical hangovers of the Enlightenment project, with its sheer intellectual rationalism, is that over the past several centuries, we in the West have tended to view ourselves as brains on a stick. 

The thinking goes that if we clearly and objectively educate people, provide them the correct information, teach them sound doctrine and right behavior, that they will have everything they need and do the right thing. 

When you get to heaven, try telling that to Paul, and see where it gets you.

Any Christian tradition which excludes the vital element of emotions is a truncated spirituality. Even more, I would argue it is downright heretical. If we are devoted to emulating and following our Lord, then just as he wept, we will weep, too.

People everywhere desperately need some tears in order to connect with Jesus Christ. 

Perhaps we all need a good old fashioned cry today.

Weep over lost persons locked in a prison of guilt and shame who need deliverance and new life.  

Shed some tears over believers floundering in their faith, mistakenly believing they must keep a stiff upper lip and eschew their grief and sadness.

Bawl and let your eyes be red in missing those friends and mentors who have died in faith, leaving a massive spiritual hole in our hearts.

And cry over a broken world that has not experienced the grace of God. Indeed, slow down enough to feel the pain, sit with your emotions, and find the mercy of God.

Gracious God, you have created us all in your image and likeness. Help us so to connect with your own emotional constellation that none of us will be stifled in faith but will go on to maturity in Christ with your whole church. Amen.

Acts 17:16-31 – How to Effectively Communicate

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are deeply religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So, you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (New International Version)

“Focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging,”

Marshall Rosenberg

The city of Athens was a major intellectual center in the ancient world. Ideas, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, and debate were standard fare amongst the citizens. At the time of the Apostle Paul’s arrival in the city, Greece knew next to nothing about Christianity. Paul’s response to what he saw and felt, dictated what he did and said; it was both wise and deeply impactful to the people of Athens. It’s almost akin to a seminar in how to communicate with folks who believe and live very differently than ourselves.

Observation

Paul entered the city and made a simple observation: Athens is full of idols. Out of all the observations Paul could have made, this one would not likely be made by most people visiting the city. Athens was a glorious place with its unparalleled architecture. The Acropolis and the Agora were resplendent with the arts and democracy.

For all its physical beauty and brilliance, the one thing Paul homed-in on was the idols. This would have struck many folks as odd – something like focusing on the dog collar instead of the dog. Yet, Paul was using more than his physical eyes – his spiritual sight was making a big observation – that Athens was very much a religious place.

Feeling

The Apostle felt upset and distressed. Paul was disturbed down deep in his gut with the spiritual state of this renowned city-state. The sheer volume of idols and the practice of idolatry created an overwhelming sense of both pity and anger.

Paul handled his emotions well. By freely acknowledging them, he was then able to choose his response. Had he not done so, it is likely Paul might have just gone on some frustrating tirade, thereby never truly connecting relationally with the people. There’s nothing wrong with being irritated or exasperated; its what we do with those feelings which are important.

Need

It is our emotions, not our thoughts, which move us to act. Paul knew why he was feeling disturbed and decided not to stuff those feelings but step out and address the great need he was observing. He decided to meet the Athenians on their turf and on their level by reasoning with them every day in the great buildings and open spaces of the city.

While in Athens, it seems Paul understandably utilized the Socratic method of dialogue – involving questions and answers. Its impressive that throughout the Acts of the Apostles, Paul demonstrated a deft ability to communicate and connect with a broad range of people.

Appeal

Paul wasn’t interacting and dialoging just for the fun of it; he wanted to make an appeal, a request to seriously consider the Christian good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection as a viable philosophy of life. He made his appeal with Jews, Greeks, and passers-by, as well as philosophers.

Since the massive intellect of Paul could handle any reasoned debate, he was invited to the Areopagus, which was the place where the best-of-the-best carried-on their discussions.

Paul’s address to them was incredibly cogent and well-reasoned – finding common ground from which to debate and maintaining outward grace amidst his inward disturbance.

Conclusion

The late British exegete, John R.W. Stott, reflected on today’s New Testament lesson and gave us words which are still relevant:

“Why is it that, in spite of the great needs and opportunities of our day, the church slumbers peacefully on, and that so many Christians are deaf to Christ’s commission, and dumb with tongues-tied in testimony? The major reason is this: We do not speak as Paul spoke because we do not feel as Paul felt. We have never had his indignation. Divine jealousy has not stirred within us. We constantly pray, ‘Hallowed be Thy Name,’ yet we do not seem to mean it… Paul saw people created in the image and likeness of God giving to idols the homage which was due to God alone… and he was deeply pained by it.”

John R.W. Stott

May the good news be so pressed into our minds, hearts, and guts that what comes out of us is deep compassion, wise dialogue, and effective ministry for the sake of our Lord. Amen.

*Above picture: ruins of the Greek Acropolis in Athens where the Apostle Paul addressed the Areopagus.

Psalm 35:1-10 – Tell It Like It Is

O Lord, oppose those who oppose me.
    Fight those who fight against me.
Put on your armor, and take up your shield.
    Prepare for battle, and come to my aid.
Lift up your spear and javelin
    against those who pursue me.
Let me hear you say,
    “I will give you victory!”
Bring shame and disgrace on those trying to kill me;
    turn them back and humiliate those who want to harm me.
Blow them away like chaff in the wind—
    a wind sent by the angel of the Lord.
Make their path dark and slippery,
    with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.
I did them no wrong, but they laid a trap for me.
    I did them no wrong, but they dug a pit to catch me.
So let sudden ruin come upon them!
    Let them be caught in the trap they set for me!
    Let them be destroyed in the pit they dug for me.

Then I will rejoice in the Lord.
    I will be glad because he rescues me.
With every bone in my body I will praise him:
    “Lord, who can compare with you?
Who else rescues the helpless from the strong?
    Who else protects the helpless and poor from those who rob them?” (NLT)

Sometimes, you must tell it like it is. There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face and dealing with people who gossip, slander, and try to get their way. There is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.

Psalm 35 is a classic prayer in the category called “imprecatory psalms.” The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people. Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.  In fact, there are eighteen such imprecatory psalms which make a clear petition for God to turn the evil back on the people who inflict it (or try to) on others.

The imprecatory Psalms are prayers, calling upon God to remedy those injustices which neither we as individuals, nor the state, are competent to remedy.

J.A. Motyer

I am a believer in making simple observations about the biblical text. So, here are a few things to observe about this psalm, along with all the imprecatory psalms of David:

1. David asked God to deal with the evil behavior of powerful people.

Unlike most of us, David went through a time in life when there were powerful people literally trying to hunt him down and take his life.  As much as we might speculate whether David wanted to take matters into his own hands, the fact remains that he did not do so. Instead, David relied on God to execute judgment.

2. David did not hold his feelings back in describing exactly what he wanted God to do.

There is nothing sanitized about imprecatory psalms. They are as raw and real as it gets. David was understandably upset. He had done nothing wrong, yet he was being chased like an animal. David said it plainly to God: attack the attackers; hunt them like they have hunted; get the angels involved; give them the disaster they try tried to dish out; and let them fall into their own pit. Whatever you might think about how a proper pious person ought to pray, imprecatory curses are likely not your first thought. But here they are, out there for us to read in the Holy Bible.

3. The psalms are the prayer book of the church.

That includes the imprecatory psalms. Yes, they ought to be prayed by us right along with psalms of praise, psalms of thanksgiving, and psalms for public singing. I want you to think a radical thought:

We ought to include imprecatory prayers in our regular rhythms, routines, and rituals of prayer.

Evil will not have the last word. God opposes the proud and the arrogant who step on others to get their way.  But he gives grace to the humble, that is, to those who look for Divine justice and righteousness; are open about their feelings of hurt and upsetedness; and lift-up biblical imprecatory prayers.

Consider also that Christ taught us to pray that we would be delivered from evil:

Don’t let us yield to temptation but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:13, NLT)

St. Paul informed us that evil will indeed be turned back onto the wicked:

God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well… He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed… With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, NIV)

Ultimately, there are dark spiritual forces behind every evil intent and every wicked machination on this earth:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NRSV)

And in the end, along with David and the imprecatory psalms, we leave all judgment to the proper Judge:

Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”  (Romans 12:19, MSG)

Saving God, you protect the helpless from those in power and save the poor and needy who cry out to you.  Mighty God, turn back on those with slanderous tongues, gossiping words, and sinful actions the evil they intend to inflict on others.  Let them fall into a deep black hole for which they cannot get out and harm anyone again, through King Jesus, our Savior, in the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.