Friday, July 15, 2011

Secret Heart

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Psalm 51.6)

Singing Along

Every time I open the Psalms lately, I’m reminded David, Moses, Asaph, the sons of Korah, and other contributors are high-ranking, extremely popular figures—political and religious leaders whose legends precede them. Yet concern for their world, nation, and people drives them to reveal their deepest passions, conflicts, feelings, and aspirations. They cop to weaknesses and attitudes we would never confide to our dearest friends. They model humility by deflecting adoration and honor they receive with rhapsodies of praise for their Creator. At the other extreme, they manifest humanity by complaining to God when things go wrong and, in more than a few instances, accusing God of not caring how lonely, confused, and defeated they feel.

Not only do the psalmists put their inner thoughts in writing; they publish them as hymns for all to sing! Imagine a president or pope composing a comparably self-revealing lyric and sending it to a record producer with a note: “Do all you can to make this a huge hit. The world needs to hear this and sing about it.” Are you kidding? But that’s what the Psalms come down to: songs of highest praise and deepest despair by extravagantly brave people who risk comfort and reputation so those singing along with them can profit from their experience.

For Us

Psalm 51 is a huge hit—then and now—that comes with a preface identifying its producer, composer, and date: “For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David committed adultery with Bathsheba.” We don’t need this info to gather the poem’s writer is messed up; the lyrics tell it all. Still, the archivist wants us to know where the song originates so we can personalize its profound remorse and desperation as we sing.

David writes Psalm 51 during the worst days of the worst scandal of a scandalously checkered career. He’s gone wild with lust for his neighbor’s wife, broken two commandments (“Do not commit adultery,” and “Do not covet another’s wife”) by sleeping with her, and contrived to conceal his error by having her husband killed after Bathsheba tells him she’s pregnant. The whole affair—from David’s naughty peek at Bathsheba taking a bath to his abuse of power to commit murder by proxy and hide his wrongdoing—becomes public knowledge when God sends Nathan to pronounce judgment on the king. The prophet confirms Bathsheba is carrying a son. But joy at this news lasts no longer than it takes for Nathan to inform David the infant’s life will be taken to pay for his crime.

In a matter of minutes, David goes from having it all to losing everything dear to him—happy young wife, new son, adoring public, moral integrity, and, most important, favor with God. If he were alive today, his advisors would counsel him to release a statement acknowledging his bad behavior (without accepting blame or guilt) and lay low until the scandal blew over. David’s too big for such a tiny gesture, however. His loss becomes our gain when he reaches for his pen. As we sing Psalm 51, we recognize where David’s at, because we’ve been there too, and the palpable agony of his contrition steels our resolve never to go there again. It’s for us he composes and publishes his classic poem of repentance.

All That Other Stuff

David pleads with God, “Have mercy on me!” (v1) He begs God to cleanse him. (v2) He admits his sin is ever before him (v3) and the severity of God’s judgment is just. (v4-5) What he says next is most revealing: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (v6) David got his public persona—the image he constructed to win Israel’s confidence and pride in his leadership—and true identity as God’s handpicked surrogate confused. Popular perception he could do no wrong boomeranged. He began to trust what he projected, rather than what he knew, himself to be. He had no reservations about lusting after another’s wife and the subsequent sins that dominoed into a public relations disaster because he's a king and that’s what kings do. When they spy something they want, they use every means to get it. In his heart of hearts, David knew this was a lie. He understood that true kings are servants. They honor their calling to live honestly before their people and remain faithful to their Maker.

All that other stuff—bravado and meeting expectations and embracing stereotypes—is theatrics we attempt to hide behind even though God sees, knows, and desires us to be truthful about who we are. David was aware of this all along. Yet, in an unexpected moment of weakness, he set it aside. As we sometimes say of ruinously disgraced public figures, he started believing his press. And though we may not be lionized in the media, we might as well confess we're no less prone to permit wonderful things said of our public personae to go to our heads, too. Because we do.

Mistaking Role for Reality

The David who loves God with his whole heart, his secret heart, is only happy if he’s aligned with God’s will and serving others. We know this from his story in 1 and 2 Samuel and even more so from his psalms. When everything God desires has his undivided attention, he’s cranking out anthems about God’s majesty and compassion. He’s mountain-high and untouchable. Let him get preoccupied with his role and it all goes to pieces. The genius behind “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Let Everything Praise the Lord!” shrivels into a pathetic has-been moaning his latest version of “The Nobody-Loves-Me-Everybody-Hates-Me Blues.” David’s out of sorts because he’s out of touch with truth in his inward being. The king-sized heart he displays isn’t the secret heart where he and God connect—where there’s no reason for pretense, as there he’s free to be the humble shepherd boy tucked inside the monarch’s outsized demeanor.

“Teach me wisdom in my secret heart,” David prays. If he lived today, he’d ask, “Help me keep it real.” Seeing the horrible sorrow and shame David suffers by mistaking role for reality should be plenty to caution us against the same error. People we love or try to love, those who love us or we want to love us pigeonhole us into clichéd, disingenuous roles. (We do likewise with them, by the way.) Yet allowing roles we’re assigned to displace the reality of our inner beings positions us to break God’s laws and forget who we are. The secret heart is a holy place. In it reside the treasures of identity and presence of the Creator Who shaped us and calls us to faithfulness and service. Falling into stereotypical behaviors or living up to arbitrary expectations severs our connection with the secret heart. Psalm 51 provides all the proof we need that unwisely ignoring our inner beings' authenticity takes us down a miserable road that often goes from having it all to losing everything dear to us, including our moral integrity and God’s favor.

Dear God, we may never sing like David. Our finest poetry may not compare to his feeblest effort. Yet, like him, we can’t escape being forced into roles that don’t true to our inner beings. Teach us wisdom in our secret hearts. Help us keep it real. Amen.

As David begs God's forgiveness for the foolish sins that pile into his worst scandal, he wisely asks God to help him keep it real. Psalm 51 is a lesson for us.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

After the Party's Over

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul? (Psalm 42.4-5)


Have you ever reached a place in your faith where an unexpected turn knocks you off your feet? I have. A devastating event sends us reeling—a cruel tragedy, disappointment, or discovery that deflates our grandest illusions. A hidden doubt steps from the shadows to throw us off-balance. Sometimes we’re not sure why we tumble. On Monday, faith lights our way. Tuesday dawns and, for no reason, we’re in a fog that saps our energy and purpose. The God Who was everywhere yesterday seems to have checked out. Prayer loses its lift, falling with a thud from our lips. We reach for the Word, but the Word doesn’t reach us. We resort to the spiritual equivalent of pulling a blanket over our heads, where unspoken misgivings and derisive comments from non-believers preempt what we want to hear—what we need to hear.

Unforeseen lurches into despair can intimidate us many times more than looming challenges that provide no option to trusting God’s grace and guidance. When the rug gets yanked from under us—whether or not we discern what triggers it—inability to break our fall can be debilitating. Plummeting from faith’s heights into doubt’s depths raises questions we’re unable to answer. Where is God? Isn’t God looking and listening? While concerns about God’s love and care churn, self-recrimination enters the mix. What’s wrong with us? Were we crazy to imagine living by faith would be any better than living by sight? Is it crazy to think God has abandoned us? Is the whole thing crazy?

Well, my brother and my sister, though it won't spare us sudden bouts of spiritual depression, we take consolation in realizing no believer is immune to bipolar faith syndrome (BFS). Sooner or later, every believer's high-flying faith bottoms out. We’re hardly the first nor are we hardly the last to be alarmed by this. When we don’t know what to say and it seems God won’t say, we turn to what those who’ve been in our shoes say. They’re not hard to find. Psalm 42, for instance, is a first-rate study of someone totally unnerved and nearly done in by a BFS episode.

The Downcast Soul

For undisclosed reasons, the psalmist has suffered a hard fall. He feels hopelessly lost and needlessly insulted. Presently subsisting on salty tears, he aches for a refreshing taste of God’s presence. “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God,” he writes. “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42.1,3) Isn’t that how it always seems to go? No sooner do we hit rock bottom than the no-help crowd rushes to jump into the pit with us and gloat, “I told you so!” Explaining this is what he's up against—like God doesn’t know—the poet essentially asks, “What am I supposed to say? This is as much about You as me!” (Like God doesn’t know that, either.)

Then, in verses 5-6, we get to the crux of his problem. The poet’s thoroughly unprepared for despondency and derision that inevitably surface after the party’s over, when the soaring ends with an abrupt and rapid descent. He can’t handle where he’s at because he won’t let go of where he was. “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul,” he says, his tone tinged with resentment that what he recalls couldn't last: “How I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” he asks, repeating the downcast soul reference in the next verse and the last (v11).

It’s an oddly revealing question that almost leads us into the same trap that snares the poet’s antagonists. We fight every impulse to fire back, “You can’t be serious! What gave you the idea life’s going to get out of the way of your happiness and peace of mind? You know why you're depressed and disturbed? Because it happens!” Before we launch our tirade, however, the poet disarms us by telling himself, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my Help and my God.” It’s the smartest thing to say—smarter than any presumably reasonable advice we might toss out, like encouraging him to look on the bright side (there isn’t one), remember the good times (that’s why he’s depressed), or hang in until better days arrive (they will, but who knows when). So we’re wise to quiet down and listen as the poet works all of this out.

Hope in God

Hope in God is the only antidote that lifts the downcast soul. Hope in God changes the conversation from “I did” to “I will.” Hope in God lets the last party go and reaches for the next one. Yet we should note activating hope after we bottom out often requires several tries to work. Once the poet settles on hope in God, the bargaining begins. He talks himself up [“By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the life of my God.” (v8)] And before his amazing faith-boost takes effect, he’s down again, asking why God’s forgotten him, why adversaries oppress him and belittle his faith.

The poet’s yo-yo behavior is common when battling BFS. Convincing ourselves to hope in God while coping with dismay is emotionally and intellectually taxing. The psalmist teaches us to keep at it until we’ve worn out our resistance to the only help we know. Psalm 42 ends with a poignant note we’ve heard in our own lives. Before finally giving up on logical conclusions so he can fully place his hope in God, the psalmist can't help asking one more time: Why am I so downcast and disturbed? There’s just no reasonable answer. It is what it is. So what will it be? “Hope in God” is the safest, sanest decision. The poet sighs as he picks himself up and looks ahead. “For I shall again praise Him, my help and my God.”

When faith hoists us to giddy heights where promise fills the sky and confidence swells underfoot, by all means we should relish the experience, celebrate God’s goodness, and invite everyone to join us. But we can’t get so high on faith that we’re unprepared when the party ends. Faith isn’t a party-all-the-time proposition. It’s just not. It’s a life of learning gained from highs and lows, ups and downs. After the party’s over, it’s time to let it go and deal with what’s in front of us so we can reach for what’s ahead. When we’re prepared to do that, hope we need to pull us back up comes more quickly and easily. We say to ourselves—and anyone nervy enough to kick us while we’re down—“We’re done with what we did. Hope in God fixes our focus on what we will do after this trial passes.”

O God of highs and lows, teach us to party responsibly when our faith is up so we’re fully prepared to hope in You when it bottoms out. Amen.

Faith isn’t a party-all-the-time proposition. It’s just not. It’s a life of learning gained from highs and lows, ups and downs.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on Him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10.12-13)


It’s a rich, incisive word nearly bankrupted by narrow use and careless imposition. How we employ and regard it is a prime indicator of doctrinal skew. Some place great store in “getting saved,” a euphemism most frequently heard in Evangelical and Fundamentalist circles. There, the term is concrete. Believers begin their faith journeys by asking God to save them. They cherish how and when they got saved as a singular, life-changing event. Reformed, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians are less apt to talk about “getting saved” than “salvation,” which they believe preexists one’s confession of faith in God’s infinite, eternal will to save. For them, salvation comes by acknowledging we are saved, rather than asking to be saved.

The purpose for this clumsy attempt to illustrate subtle distinctions between the two isn’t to delineate doctrines, but to point out how handily we turn “saved” into a needlessly loaded word. For every believer eager to tell the world he/she’s saved, there’s another who uses the term sparingly, if at all. And in the process of larding “saved” with theological notions and affinities, we’ve lost touch with why the Early Church finds the word so appealing. Since today’s New Testament reading revisits Paul’s powerful treatise on salvation (Romans 10.4-17), we should ask how “saved” figures into first-century Christian parlance. We may be surprised to find its original usage encompasses a lot more than our present one.

What We’re Saved For

We impulsively vest salvation with implied threat. We assume we’re saved from somethingrescuedand what we suppose that is can easily become a crippling distraction. Hell, of course, is the first thing that comes to mind. Then there’s also our need to be saved from sin’s detrimental effects in this life. Scripture undeniably, though not exclusively, places salvation in these contexts. Limiting it to divine rescue, however, drastically shortchanges the Early Church’s concept of “saved,” dulling our sense of why it’s so widely used while “redeemed,” “reconciled,” “delivered,” and other alternatives are reserved for specific discussions. The Apostles use the verb as we do now, embracing all its nuances to convey the magnificence of God’s grace. Yes, to be saved is to be rescued. But it’s also to be held, salvaged, repaired, restored, preserved, chosen, recovered, and relieved. This shifts the focus from what we’re saved from to what we’re saved for.

Early New Testament manuscripts contain 33 derivations from the Greek root, sózó, which literally translates as “to heal; to be made whole.” Jesus consistently uses the term after curing the diseased and disabled, saying, “Your faith has healed you.” His connection of faith and wholeness establishes Christianity’s operating principle. We believe and are made whole. Above all else, that’s what salvation is for: to make us whole. It accomplishes all that saving can possibly do. It holds us safe and secure. It salvages what disobedience and doubt have ruined. It repairs what’s broken and restores what’s depleted. It preserves us in times of trouble and despair. It chooses us despite our faults and frailty. It recovers what we’ve willfully squandered or unwillingly surrendered to harmful people and influences. It relieves us of fear and worry. And ultimately it rescues us from the powers and penalties of sin. Ultimately. The highway to Heaven is long and treacherous. No believer travels it without incident. That’s why it’s essential we recognize being saved is also about being healed and whole now.

To Everyone in Its Entirety

Time and again the disciples hear Jesus say, “Your faith has saved you.” They have no doubt: salvation is wholeness. After watching it happen and seeing the price Jesus paid so anyone who believes can be made whole, they would be profoundly disturbed by how many of us trivialize being saved as little more than a get-out-of-Hell-free card. The Apostles perpetually talk about salvation so we’ll grasp the unequaled provision and grace God withholds from no one. Confining it to rescue from eternal wrath or corseting it with manmade requirements is like trying to pour the sea into a thimble. It’s too great for such small-mindedness.

At the heart of his discussion Paul writes, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on Him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” (Romans 10.12-13) Wholeness is indiscriminately offered to every human on the planet. To ensure his readers realize “all” means all, Paul cites the prophet Joel (“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”). But he turns it inside out to underscore the inexhaustible depth and breadth of salvation’s inclusion. The Word spoken by Joel is initially given to Jews suffering the aftermath of plague and famine. Its message is God is faithful to you, the “chosen people,” and will honor salvation’s promises. Because Jesus died and rose again for the salvation of the world, however, the promise is now given to everyone in its entirety. Who you are, where you come from, and how much you do or don’t know are irrelevant. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus that Jesus is Lord,” Paul writes in verse 9, “and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Could it be any simpler?

Uncompromised Response

No doubt the Romans greet Paul’s Salvation 101 lesson with the same incredulity that vexes us when faith gets in the mix. It’s not that simple. We’re replete with more doubts and deficits than one person’s faith can offset. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to accept salvation on our terms, according to how much belief we possess? Isn’t partially whole (whatever that means) better than nothing? If we only have faith to believe God saves us from eternal torment, why not settle for that? Anticipating this, Paul says faith isn’t a quantifiable reserve. It’s an uncompromised response. “So faith comes by what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (v17)

In John 6.63, Jesus says, “The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (Emphasis added.) Every word Jesus speaks brings wholeness. We believe Him when He says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10.10) Wholeness, fullness, wellness—salvation in its entirety—these topics never grow tiresome to Jesus. He came to give us full life, now and forever. We trust Him completely or not at all. We embrace salvation fully or not at all. Just as there’s no such thing as almost healed, there’s no such thing as not enough faith, because belief is measured by integrity, not size. Wholeness comes by wholly investing our belief in everything Jesus says. Wholeness is what being saved is for.

O God, we’re awestruck by Your inexhaustible love and the generosity of Your grace. Unleash our faith so we may wholly invest our trust in Christ as Lord of all. Continually remind us You measure faith by integrity, not size, and You welcome all of us, without exception, to experience salvation in its entirety. Make us whole. Amen.