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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. 

Humble Confidence…

Humble Confidence…

I am a big fan of Mike Rowe and his podcast “The Way I Heard It.” Recently, he had two episodes that highlighted an important truth. We could use a little more humility and a little less certainty in our world. In episode 181 entitled “Off by Roughly Two Trillion” he recounts a time when he was narrating  a science program and he proclaimed with certainty there are over 200 billion galaxies in our universe. Two weeks later, he had to re-record that episode because new data had come out indicating the number was actually closer to two TRILLION galaxies. He was off by quite a bit, but he sounded equally certain in both recordings. A few weeks ago in episode 185, Mike Rowe proclaimed he was “Off by Roughly Two Trillion, AGAIN!” In this episode, he reveals that new, new data seems to indicate the figure of 200 billion is more likely correct. Again, with great certainty, he proclaims these “facts” to the world.

I remember interviewing at Christ Community for my job back in the year 2000. I had no idea where Kansas was on the map (don’t judge me, the weatherman stood in front of Kansas and I was never good at geography). During the interview I was introduced to several ideas and thoughts which drew me in. One of the ideas I heard from Pastor Tom which I could not shake was that of “humble confidence.” This was a phrase I had never heard before, and it not only struck me as profound, but it captivated me as a theological principle because of its rich meaning and broad application to real life.

I enjoyed, and am very grateful for my upbringing and how it molded me. I was blessed to attend a Christian liberal arts college where ideas were not spoon fed as “the way.” Rather, concepts that theologians have debated for centuries were presented fairly from all angles and we were taught to think and decide for ourselves where we landed in the debate and what we believed. In this kind of setting, I think I learned that the idea of certainty was something reserved for a very small number of ideas, especially when it came to theology. There are core beliefs that all orthodox Christians can agree upon, but entire denominations were formed over the disagreements people have had over the secondary issues we find throughout Scripture. So, while I had this basic understanding and held this viewpoint, I did not have a word to summarize this framework. When I heard “humble confidence” I was captivated. YES!

I can be humbly confident in my ideas, but I could be wrong. I am not certain about most things. This does not make these ideas or theological truths less meaningful or important, but when people far smarter than me can debate both sides with equal credibility, who am I to say my way is THE way?

What I loved was that Tom Nelson, who was really smart, was humble enough to say “I could be wrong.”

This year I have often asked myself where all the humble confidence has gone in our world. The opposite of humble confidence is certainty. One author I read recently equated certainty with the lack of humility and I think I agree. When I present myself as certain about something, I communicate I am right and you are wrong. I communicate “end of discussion.” In casual conversation as well as more formal communications coming from all sources, I get the sense of certainty rather than humble confidence. The way I see “x” is the right way to see it and, by implication, your way is wrong. I wonder if more civil dialogue would take place if  we would approach the table of conversation with the posture of “I could be wrong.” Would we be more “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19)?” Would we, as Saint Francis prayed, be more likely to “seek to understand rather than be understood”? 

I know I could use a strong dose of humble confidence in my life. What about you?

Giving and Receiving

Giving and Receiving

One of my biggest struggles around the holidays is deciding who I should buy gifts for. Of course I will purchase gifts for my family and close friends, but what about coworkers, neighbors, and friends who are not particularly close? Cynically, I find my gift giving calculus for those individuals on the fringe of my social circle depends on whether or not I expect them to give me something. If I believe they will, then I get them a present to save myself the embarrassment of having nothing to offer in return.

A few years ago, a coworker unexpectedly gave me a gift. In response, I insinuated that I had been planning on giving her a gift at the staff Christmas party the next day. That evening I searched my house for something I could give her and ended up regifting a bag of coffee my wife had received from her workplace. I was struck at how I would rather lie and scrabble to put together a lame, last minute gift than receive a gift with nothing to offer in return. In the end, although I had given a gift, I was anything but generous.

Have you had a similar experience? Do you ever struggle to simply receive from another person without the need to immediately reciprocate? This struggle seems to reveal a lack of trust in the other person or a sense of pride in myself. I either don’t believe that the gift is truly without strings attached, or I want to have earned the approval of the other person to be worthy of the gift. Giving to manipulate someone else or as a means to curry favor is not genuine generosity. This negative view of giving and receiving can restrict experiencing authentic relationships with others and even with God. I find that I can only give what I have received. As much as I might want to be a truly generous person, if I interpret others’ gifts through a grid of mistrust or pride and not let myself experience the generosity of another, I won’t be able to be authentically generous with those around me.

One story that always convicts me of my challenge to receive well is the story of Naaman’s healing from leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-19). In it, Naaman wants to give Elisha lavish riches in response to his healing, but Elisha would not accept a thing from him. As the commander of the army of Aram, Naaman must surely have known how reciprocity for political favors worked and so did not want to remain in Elisha’s debt. Moreover, as one of the richest and most important men in the kingdom, to receive a gift like this must have broken down his pride. The entire narrative seems to emphasize the humbling journey Naaman embarked on by listening to his servants, being healed in a simple manner (merely washing in the Jordan river), and then being unable to use his immense personal wealth to pay for the healing. This finally breaks through to Naaman when his final request to Elisha is granted. He receives a bag of dirt from Israel so that he might pray to the God of Israel while still kneeling on Israeli soil upon his return to Aram. The only acceptable response to this lavish gift of healing is worship and an ongoing relationship, not actions growing out of mistrust or pride.

This kind of grace that breaks down our pride and builds trust can be seen even more clearly through God’s gift of Jesus for our salvation. I like how starkly the New Living Translation puts it in Ephesians 2:8-10 “God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.” 

God’s acceptance of us because of Jesus is not a gift we can earn and take credit for, nor one that manipulates or coerces us. Recognizing this free gift for what it is fosters worship and an authentic relationship with God. Of course, as with any good friend, we will naturally want to give gifts back to God.

Experiencing this genuine generosity from God, that expects nothing in return, will naturally lead us to be the kind of people who give without such expectations. However, this must not be from a posture of pride or mistrust, but from intimacy and thankfulness. 

As we continue through another holiday season of presents and gifts, let us focus and reflect on the true gift of Jesus that we receive without needing to pay Him back. Let’s be comfortable with receiving gifts, even when we have nothing to offer in return. Allowing ourselves to be a recipient of authentic generosity may empower our own authentic generosity toward others.

It’s Ok to Be in Need

It’s Ok to Be in Need

Several months ago, back when our main association with the word Corona was a Mexican style lager, I was in a staff meeting during the lunch hour. Through a strange series of events, I did not have my lunch with me. Most people in the meeting were enjoying the fruits of their lack of negligence while I went without. I jokingly told the group that I would just eat off of Joseph’s plate who was sitting next to me. Truth be told, I really was not very hungry. But Joseph, another pastor on staff, graciously offered to share his lunch with me. It was very kind but I politely declined. Then Joseph said something to me that will not soon leave my memory.

“It’s ok to be in need.”

Joseph offered me a gift that day. And it was more than just half of his microwaved pork chop. It was the gift of sacrificing my pride in order to be the recipient of kindness. Like a ball bearing in a spray paint can, Joseph’s words rattled in my mind for several reasons. For starters, I was faced with the fact that I do struggle to receive help from people because I see it as a sign of weakness or deficiency within myself. But also, growing up as a child in a very low income home, I was reminded of the feelings of shame that came with living in a constant state of need.

I think being in need is difficult for us as humans in general. But the challenges are compounded in our western, and specifically midwestern, culture. Now I contend that there are noble and even biblical reasons for the discomfort of being in need. Perhaps we don’t want to be a burden to others (1 Thessalonians 4:12) or we want to strive to work hard to increase our own capacity to contribute (Ephesians 4:28).

But if we are honest with ourselves, our midwestern politeness can be used as a diversion to prevent us from embracing a place of humility and dependence. It can be a way to save face and avoid looking inadequate or perhaps inferior. 

This is absolutely a motivation at play in my life when I attempt to do things on my own without the assistance or even input of anyone else. Not only do I want to avoid feeling inferior, I want my name to be the only name on the credits of my work and accomplishments. The pernicious nature of the sins of pride and arrogance is precisely why being in need is not just ok, but also good for us. But if that isn’t convincing enough, then consider the example of Jesus.

The person who was in very nature God was Himself a man who lived in need of others. Jesus needed His mother to care for and raise Him as a child (Luke 2:7). Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman showed that He was in need of her to provide water for Him (John 4:7). We even see Jesus needing the financial support of several successful women who were committed to His mission (Luke 8:2-3). If Jesus was in need then it is ok for you and I to be in need.

So let me offer three final words about why it is ok to be in need and receive help from others.

  • Receive to love

When we are humble enough to show our need to others and let them care for us, we are actually showing love to them. We are giving them the gift of using their gifts to serve us. We all know the experience of being blessed by blessing others. Now this does have a shadow side to it where we may want to help others to make ourselves feel good or, God forbid, superior. But in my experience within the family of God, people genuinely want to help and serve others because they truly believe the words of our Lord Jesus, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

  • Receive to give

One of the best ways to grow in hospitality and generosity is to be the recipient of hospitality and generosity. If we only ever play the role of host and never of guest, then we will find ourselves being malformed in the area of compassion.

Only those who have suffered are able to truly be a comfort to the suffering. This is most powerfully seen in the gospel of grace. When we receive the love of God in the gospel through Christ, it compels us to be people of love and grace towards others (1 John 3:16).

  • Receive to worship

If we have a hard time being in need, then we will have a hard time being in worship. Because at the heart of what it means to worship God is to recognize our deep dependence upon Him.

Worship is not a mere spiritual experience. It is when we are profoundly awakened to and in awe of the reality of how great God is, and how great is our need for Him. When we are able to humble ourselves to receive from others, it is a way to prepare us to worship God. It is why the Psalmist describes our worship to God in this way.

Psalm 50:14–15
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (ESV)

It is not easy being in need. But if we are to be a people who are shaped by the gospel and who live as a family united by Christ, then we must embrace the goodness of being in need. And the sooner we do, the more we can function as a caring family.

We know that times are tough and needs are increasing in this season. If you or someone you know is in need and are facing challenges right now, we want to know about it so that we can love and care for one another as family. We have a needs request form on our website that we would encourage you to fill out. By doing so you are loving us by letting us love you. That is what family does. 

Advocating for the Unborn

Advocating for the Unborn

Recently my wife Liz and I attended the Advice and Aid banquet celebrating 30 years of coming alongside women who find themselves in the often-difficult realities of an unplanned pregnancy. For many years Christ Community has linked arms with Advice and Aid, and we continue to look for ways we, as a local church community, can be more involved and supportive in our advocacy of the unborn.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Pope Francis compared elective abortion justified by prenatal fetal maladies to Nazi eugenics. Pope Francis made the point that today we are doing the same thing the Nazis did although our destruction of the unborn is “practiced with white gloves.” (WSJ, June 18, 2018)

I am grateful for the courage and moral clarity of Pope Francis and I only wish more spiritual leaders would speak out in our troubled times. Although I have spoken out many times before on the matter of abortion, I want to again make it crystal clear where I stand and where Christ Community stands when it come to the destruction of the unborn.

I believe legalized elective abortion on demand is the most grievous injustice of our time, both in its unconscionable evil, as well as its massive scope. The numbers of the unborn that have and continue to be destroyed through legalized elective abortion is staggering. Somewhere around 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since 1973. The landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision has unleashed an unimaginable holocaust of human destruction.

Behind much of the current cultural and political polarization lurks a wide and fundamental divide between those who assert “reproductive rights” of women and those who assert the “right to life” of the unborn. Many “pro-choice” advocates say they want abortions legal yet rare, but the inconvenient truth is the abortion holocaust continues to be driven by a relentless government lobby and a highly profitable death industry.

As followers of Jesus, one of our most compelling stewardships is to seek justice and to care for and protect the most vulnerable among us. While we must up our game in confronting other grievous injustices in our time, we must also keep in mind the most vulnerable human beings are those in the womb.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is erected on a faulty legal, scientific, and a moral foundation. In a recent Christianity Today article, Matt Reynolds lays bear the judicial malpractice of Roe v. Wade:

Taking the life of an unborn child is a sin against God and man. Roe, by contrast, is an offense against America’s democratic order, a renegade ruling utterly untethered from the text, logic, structure or history of the Constitution it purports to enforce. Supporters and opponents of abortion ought to find it equally indefensible.” (Christianity Today, October 2018, p. 28)

The legal architects of Roe v. Wade discovered a right to privacy as well as created an arbitrary determinate of personhood around the idea of fetal viability. The arbitrary line of fetal viability established in 1973 has been scientifically debunked as fetal viability is now seen much earlier in human development. Clearly, on scientific and moral grounds, the most compelling line of personhood is conception, not viability.

And even if there was a question as to when human personhood begins, with so much on the line, would we not be wise to err on the side of caution? Abortion on demand has provided a legalized mirage of a bankrupt situational morality. Let’s be clear, just because a human court deems something legal, does not mean it is morally right in God’s eyes. Clearly, this was the case for America’s dark history of racism where humans of African descent were legally deemed less than persons.

The Holy Scriptures remind us that every human person is made in the image of God and has intrinsic worth and value. The Bible points to God’s sovereign involvement in our lives even before we are born. In Psalm 139, we read David’s words of rapturous wonder,

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Bible’s advocacy of the unborn is anything but silent or clouded. Yet the moral confusion, obfuscation, and willful blindness of our cultural moment in regard to abortion is glaringly seen when, on the one hand the medical community pulls out all the medical stops to save a wanted premature baby, and on the other hand is performing a surgical abortion snuffing out the life of an unwanted baby.

In the midst of so much moral confusion, it is my prayer that we might, both as individuals and as a faith community, have moral clarity, compassion, and courage. So how should we respond to the ongoing holocaust of the unborn? How might we be Christlike advocates of the unborn?

  • First, we need to have moral clarity and conviction that elective abortion on demand is wrong and unjust.
  • Second, we need to pray for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens to change and for the end of the legalized slaughter of the unborn.
  • Third, we need to look for ways we can care and support women who have had abortions, as well as those who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion recovery services, adoption services, and organizations like Advice and Aid need our prayerful and generous financial support.
  • Fourth, we need to consider ways we can work through legal and political processes to change abortion laws and to seek the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
  • Fifth, for some, advocacy of the unborn will mean lawful protest.

May I also encourage you to make it a priority to see the recently released movie, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. This movie is not easy to see, but it captures the barbaric horror of abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell, and I pray it serves to awaken a nation to the white-gloves holocaust that continues unabated.

With humility and hope, may we heed the timeless words of the prophet Micah, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.