What Psalm 131 Teaches Us About Humility and Rest

What Psalm 131 Teaches Us About Humility and Rest

My heart is not proud, Lord,

    my eyes are not haughty;

I do not concern myself with great matters

    or things too wonderful for me.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,

    I am like a weaned child with its mother;

    like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord

both now and forevermore.   Psalm 131:1-3 NIV


There is something about Psalm 131 that has spoken to me over the past few years. It’s a psalm for those Brennan Manning describes at the beginning of his book The Ragamuffin Gospel: “It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.” It’s a psalm for me.

Psalm 131 isn’t for the super spiritual…it’s a psalm that guides the Christians who need the help returning to a place of humility and rest in God over and over again. It’s also a psalm that reminds us to reorient all of our hopes and center them around a different kind of Hope. 

There are a total of 15 psalms of ascents, which were to be sung as the Israelites ascended or made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for annual festivals. Psalm 131, one of four psalms of ascents attributed to David himself, is the second shortest psalm in the book of Psalms. Here’s how David starts this tri-versed song:

Verse 1: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; 

When I first read this verse I was confused. It’s almost that David is proudly declaring that he’s not proud! Well, that’s in fact what the early church father Jerome thought; in essence, he figured David was proud of himself for being humble. The church fathers typically have lovely insights, but in this case, to be puffed up about one’s own humility is an oxymoron. You can’t be prideful about being humble; that’s just pride, too. 

I don’t think that’s what is happening here. David is not prideful about being humble. Instead, what David is doing is speaking to his own heart. He’s telling something to his soul, and at the same time, vocalizing it to God. Ultimately, he’s recognizing that his heart has adopted an inner posture of humility. 

This becomes more clear as David keeps going: “my eyes are not haughty.” This isn’t haughty like a hottie. Haughty means puffed up. Vain. Arrogance. David is really just saying, “I don’t look down upon others. I don’t feel the need to be better than others anymore. I don’t feel the need to compare myself to others to make myself feel better anymore. I don’t feel the need to compete for attention anymore.” David is putting words to an inner disposition. For whatever reason, whatever the circumstance, he’s been pushed out of a posture of pride and into a posture of humility. 

He goes on. “I do not concern myself with great matters…”

Great matters. When I think of great matters, I think of the big questions of life that we all have. Why does this happen and not this? Why does this person get cancer and this person doesn’t? Why does this person get promoted or get this chance, and this person doesn’t? Big questions. These questions take a toll on us because life is not fair. We can’t predict life, and therefore it befuddles us. We can’t come up with a reliable pattern. 

What David is saying here encompases the big theological questions, too. How is it that I can have a choice, and yet God holds me accountable for my choices? Nothing surprises God and at the same time everything is in His sovereign will…how can that possibly be? 

Christians have been studying these things intensely for hundreds of years, and so for some theological questions we have helpful answers. Simultaneously, what David is effectively saying is something very simple: “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have all the things figured out and you know what? I can’t. I can’t explain everything.”   

In the past few years of my life, I’ve resonated with this verse. Sometimes it’s a relief to not have to explain the world. Sometimes it’s a relief to not have to try to make sense of everything. Many times I have tried to make sense of everything to the point it just wears me out. But, I’ve gotten older and experienced more of life, I’ve come to realize that we really do live in a fractured world. It’s a broken world, and you know what? I don’t need to be perpetually surprised by that. 

David continues: “or things too wonderful for me.” This really means, “things beyond myself.” Things beyond yourself. 

Job says something very similar at the end of the book that carries his name. After everything happens, after all the hardship goes down, Job finds himself wanting to put God on trial for the things he has experienced. In a wild turn of events, God shows up to court, and He has some questions for Job. Job’s response to those questions goes like this: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me.

There is something in this verse about embracing our limitations. Can we embrace our limitations? Or is that shameful for us? 

In the United States, we aren’t comfortable with limitations. We are always supposed to take on more and do more….more is always better. We really like the passage, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We get tattoos of that one don’t we? How many people are getting tattoos of this verse in Psalm 131? 

Again, I’ve been put in situations when I’ve had to learn to understand that I have limitations: emotionally, physically, and even intellectually. I was always a really good student and I got into the number one ranked university when I graduated from high school. However, when I got to seminary, I remember sitting in a classroom with other graduate students and thinking that I was not the smartest person in the room and I couldn’t even pretend that I was. For whatever reason, I felt ashamed about that. Over time, I had to learn to ask myself an important question.  Can I embrace my limitations and actually be okay with them? 

Can you embrace your limitations? Are you constantly comparing yourself to those around you? Are you competing with your friends or coworkers? Are you looking on Instagram and Facebook, seeing the lives of some of your friends, and feeling jealous about their ability to travel or have the freedom they do? Can you embrace the limits of time you have in one day? 

There’s relief and joy found in embracing who we are, how God has gifted us, where He has placed us, and what He has given us. All of those are bound with some limitations…and there’s a recognition here that these limitations are actually good.

David has learned to choose this posture of rest, and he says it like this: “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”

He carries on in the second verse: “I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” 

I’ve never had a child (shocker…I’m a 30 year old man living in a one bedroom apartment in River Market). But from what I know about it, weaning is a long, painful process. Weaning is basically teaching the child that their mom isn’t just a giant milk machine, which can result in the child just crying and crying incessantly. But it’s a process that ends in the calm, resignation of the weaned child and its mother. So the image we are supposed to get here is the image of an exhausted, calmed, trusting child, resting on its mother’s chest. 

Here’s the jump. In our dependence on God, we tend to see Him as a giant milk machine in the sky. Sometimes we say oh God I just wish you’d do this. Just change this for me. If only you’d make X happen, then I’d be ok. I think at times those prayers are totally fine. But there also comes a point in our lives where God says to us:

“You know that thing that I’ve given you before, well I’m not going to give it to you anymore. It’s time to grow up. You have to learn to let go of that. Why? Because I want something even better for you. I want you to want me for me. I don’t want you to want me only for the stuff I give you.” 

This maturation process is always difficult. There are times my prayer life has looked like crying, complaining, and just a lot of frustration. These times, painful and long as they can be, always end up with me in calm resignation. I once again find myself resting in the arms of my Father. 

What David is getting at here is a bit of what I think St John of the Cross writes about in The Dark Night of the Soul. The dark night of the soul is a period that feels like abandonment but is actually a progression into the fellowship of God. This is a part of what it looks like to mature as Christians. When God doesn’t meet our immediate need in the way we want, or our plan A doesn’t work out, we are challenged to learn a new kind of dependence and hope. 

The journey of the Christian faith always comes back to hope, and our psalm ends with a call to hope, too. 

“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” 

For David, hope is only found in one place. In the Lord. There is a hope that will never fail us. Our plans will fail us. Our jobs. Our friends. Our own bodies. But there’s one place that we can put our hope that will never fail us. 

We have limitations, but there is One who doesn’t have limitations. We try to make sense of the world and can’t, but there is One in whom and for whom all makes sense. We are the ones who struggle with self-centeredness, pride, self-pity, and all that comes with trying to do things completely on our own, but there is One, who is always waiting for us to return and rest our heads on His chest. 

Friends, our hope is in the Lord. David reminds himself, and the people of God not to forget where real hope lies. 

“O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” 

Where’s your hope? Do you need rest? There’s Someone eagerly waiting for you to rest your head on His chest. He’s always there, and He always beckons you to himself. 

Understanding Our Metamodern Moment

Understanding Our Metamodern Moment

Maybe you are familiar with the terms modernism and postmodernism…or at least you’ve heard them before. But how about the term ‘metamodernism’? Have you ever heard someone describe the cultural moment we live in as ‘metamodern’? Probably not…but it’s time we wrap our minds around this fairly new terminology. Let’s start by refamiliarizing ourselves with modernism and postmodernism:


The modernist era – late 19th and early 20th centuries – was a movement that, in terms of religion, was largely defined by the idea that science and reason had overtaken faith. It’s almost like modernism was saying we know too much and we’ve learned too much to believe in religion anymore. The famous Nietzsche quote represents this era well: “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Nietzsche meant that we have progressed with science and reason to the extent that we have killed off any thought of the divine being real. 


For quite some time philosophers, sociologists, historians, theologians, and artists have agreed that we moved beyond modernism and we have been living in a postmodern moment (starting in the mid-twentieth century). 

Postmodernism claims that conflict in the world surrounds the common theme that there are many people who claim absolute truth in many ways. Because these people know the ‘truth,’ they try to enforce this knowledge on others. Knowledge is used as power, and thus ‘truth claims’ are used as forms of control. Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism and is ultimately defined by its cynicism. When cynicism dominates, everything is relative. Ever heard the phrase, “I just have to live my truth?” That’s a product of postmodern thinking.

In a postmodernist framework there is complete suspicion of any ultimate truth claim. A large reason why living missionally as a Christian is difficult in the postmodern era is that people are very suspicious of the gospel, which is the Truth claim of all truth claims. 

A taste of postmodernism’s interaction with the Christian faith is illustrated well in the exchange between Jesus and Pilate in the gospel of John: 


“Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38)


Postmodernism offers the predominant idea that there isn’t really any ultimate truth. It leaves us grasping for something concrete, yet never really finding it. It ultimately leaves us yearning for more, but at the same time, it asks the question: what use is there in yearning? 


Here is a different kind of question: Does postmodernism have the final word in our cultural moment? I’m convinced it does not. 


Since the early to mid-nineties, artists, particularly in literary spheres, began to recognize that something else beyond postmodernism was afoot. They sensed that artists were moving and gesturing beyond the dominant postmodernist framework. 


The ‘New Sincerity’ movement in the late eighties and early nineties started to break away from traditional postmodernism. One of the authors on the forefront of this movement was the prolific author David Foster Wallace. In the early 1990’s, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay, E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction, where he articulated this shift: 


The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles…The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.” 


Wallace suggests this new thing, movement, terrain…or whatever it is…is post-postmodern. The ‘new rebels’ gesture to an oscillation between irony and sincerity, between cynicism and hope, between apathy and nostalgia, and between relativism and truth. 


This ‘thing’ is not just a back and forth between these two eras…the oscillation requires something new simply because there’s a dialogue of the two with each other and not a simple one-way, singular rejection of postmodernism to modernism. Something new is formed, and whatever this new movement is, it transcends beyond what we have known thus far. This thing has now been labeled as an entirely new era known as metamodernism. 


Metamodernism is as global and as big as modernism and postmodernism. It encompasses philosophy, social science, politics, and more. That means just like modernism and postmodernism, it’s difficult to encompass in a blog. It’s better that I try to illustrate it for you with another example from a recent work of literature. 


Here’s an excerpt from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s famed work, My Struggle. The final segment of his three thousand six hundred page novel was published in 2011. His novel won over twenty international awards, and the Guardian called it “the most significant literary enterprise of our lifetime.” The New York Times called his writing “arrestingly beautiful.” Here’s a brief excerpt, where Knausgaard’s main character (himself) is wrestling with the Christian faith:


“... when I read the writings of Christian mysticism or the Church Fathers, pervaded as they are with the rapture of religious excitement, I find myself confronted by something utterly alien to me, which does not occur at all in my life or in the world around me, other than the occasional glimpse offered by TV into some ecstatic religious movement… the kinds of experience that were once the most important of all, meditations on God and the divine, holy rituals and cults, visions and raptures occurring in lives wholly devoted to God and the divine mystery, this resolve to seek meaning, this fervor, with all its spectra of intuitions, moods, and emotions, is no longer sought or, if it is, then only on the peripheries of society, outside our field of vision, perhaps occasionally evoked in respect to some odd and obsolete phenomenon in TV entertainment: So, you’re a monk? What’s it like not having sex? When we closed the door on religion, we closed the door on something inside ourselves as well. Not only did the holy vanish from our lives, all the powerful emotions associated with it vanished too. The idea of the sublime is a faint echo of our experience of the holy, without the mystery. The yearning and the melancholy expressed in romantic art is a yearning back to this, a mourning of loss.


Knausgaard is grappling… but can you recognize with what or with whom? In this quote, Knausgaard embodies a metamodern framework: he’s cynical and yet sees both sincerity and hope in faith. He’s noticing the apathy of his world toward faith, and yet for some reason, at the same time, he’s nostalgic for faith. Knausgaard believes in relativism, but he’s not satisfied with it, he yearns for truth. We see the oscillation. 


A characteristic of metamodernism is a willingness to engage something that might carry with it a truth claim. Knausgaard is yearning for more than postmodernism and suggests he is open to more.


Here’s where I think it gets concrete for us: people in our world are yearning for more. People in the west are skeptical of religion, and yet paradoxically, in fact are often very open to it. People feel like something was lost when we did away with religion in the eras of modernism and postmodernism.


As I live my life in downtown Kansas City, engaging many different kinds of people from different walks of life within my sphere of influence, many are often skeptical of faith but they aren’t opposed to it. Most commonly, people are very intrigued about my vocation as a pastor and my journey of faith into the pastorate. The notion of being a person of faith draws them in. It’s almost as though there’s a desire pointing them beyond the apathy they’ve known into a place where sincerity and hope lives. 


Here’s the question we are left with: how do Christians – how do we – live on mission in this kind of metamodern cultural moment? How does the church live on mission in a world that is suspicious of Christianity and yet paradoxically very open to faith? 


What metamodernism engages that postmodernism doesn’t are things like hope, real actual hope, and the potential for truth claims to actually be, well… true. Within metamodernism there’s a resurgence of sincerity in chasing after truth, while still not forfeiting all that was learned from postmodernism. Metamodernism is the great yearning for authenticity and real truth at the same time.


I don’t know all the answers on how to navigate this complex reality. But – in a very metamodern type of way – I think this new era should give Christians hope. Metamodernism tells us that there are fresh ears open to the gospel and eager to hear what it has to say. Maybe we’ll have the confidence to share it.