Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cain and Abel: spiritual jealousy leads to murder

John writes these interesting lines:

We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you (1 John 3.12-13).

Cain's murder of Abel, according to John, took place out of a certain spiritual jealousy. Seeing his brother was a reminder of Cain's own rejection by God. Abel's sacrifice was accepted, but Cain's was not, and the presence of Abel in the world served nothing else for Cain except to remind him of this unfortunate fact. Out of a kind of spiritual jealousy, mixed perhaps with self-loathing and wounded pride, this hatred for his own brother turns Cain into the first murderer and fratricide.

But what is the connection with the church to whom John is writing? What's his point? It's this: in the same way, people in the world, when they see that you are different from them, that you are better than them, will hate you for it. And this hate, if they don't put any limits to it or deal with it in a healthier way, will turn into murder before long -- as Christians would experience.

This Cainish hate is born of spiritual jealousy. It thinks like this: Who does he think he is? He thinks he's so good, thinks he's better than me. Where does he get off? It is miserably oblivious, or perhaps to put it a different way, it is self-aware in a defective manner. Cain is reminded by Abel that he did wrong and that his sacrifice was not accepted by God. But rather than admit fault and repent, rather than taking responsibility for his own life, he determines the better course of action is to kill his brother, to erase forever from the face of the earth that reminder of Cain's own inadequacy.

Sin is deceptive and irrationally self-destructive in this way. Not only does Cain feel bad about being rejected, but now he carries the burden of having murdered his own brother. This is why Jesus paid so much attention to our emotions and our inner life in the sermon on the mount. Lust, if you do not keep watch over it, will translate into adultery, and you'll be  convinced at that time that adultery is the best course of action for you to take. Hatred and anger, too, if you do not keep watch, will translate into murder, and in the same way, you'll be convinced that you're doing the right thing.

John repeats this lesson when he says: All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them (v. 15). The person who harbors hate in his heart is setting herself up for damnation -- not because Christ wills to damn that person, but because she is orienting herself for willed exclusion from the kingdom of God. I agree with Joseph Ratzinger when he says: Christ inflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation (Eschatology, p. 205). Rather what happens is that a person who lives her life in persistent sin, through her own fault, becomes ill-disposed to live in the fellowship of God's kingdom. Certainly a person full that of spiritual jealousy that says, They're not so good!, cannot stand the company of the righteous!

So we have to keep a watch on ourselves, and beware of what sort of emotions are at work in us.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Hope in Godforsakenness

This being the twenty-second day of the year, it's time for a meditation on Ps 22. Incidentally, Ps 22 is particularly relevant to the theme and title of this blog. The title of this blog is obviously taken from Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, which contains many meditations on the experience of abandonment of Jesus on the cross. In fact, this is a blog de filio dei deo derelicto, a blog about the Son of God, abandoned by God.

The first verse of Ps 22 [21] in the Vulgate reads like this: Deus Deus meus quare dereliquisti me? My God, my God, why hast thou for saken me?

These are the words cited by Christ on the cross, as he is dying for the sins of the whole world. On the one hand, this is an expression of under abandonment by God. It's the cry of a person whose entire life had been characterized by a closeness and proximity to God in fellowship, only to end in the miserable godlessness and excruciating silence of an unjust public execution. This is certainly a cry with which anyone can relate who has felt herself abandoned by God in suffering.

At the same time, implicit in Christ's cry of abandonment is a note of hope. After all, Christ knew the psalms well, and he was particularly aware of how this particular psalm ends:

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
  my vows I will pay before those who fear him. ...
All the ends of the earth shall remember
  and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
  shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
  and he rules over the nations.

The servant who suffers such abandonment will not be forgotten forever: he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. And because of the miraculous deliverance which the Lord will accomplish for his servant, the whole world will be transformed and turned towards the LORD in worship. The salvation of the servant from death will be the reconciliation of the world with God.

Of course, the ending of this psalm is not visible on the horizon from v. 1. From the start, all the psalmist knows is stark abandonment and loneliness in suffering. But with the eyes of faith, so to speak, and in an act of prayer with faith, typical to the psalms, he declares his future to be a better one. And this prayer with faith is fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ.

This psalm gives us an example in our own most extreme suffering. Abandonment by God for the moment need not end that way; but God may work the moment's pain into a greater good with consequences far beyond what we can perceive or anticipate.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The heavens tell the glory of God

Today being the nineteenth day of the year, it is high time we meditated on some lines from Ps 19:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
  and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
  and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
  their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
  and their words to the end of the world.

The idea here is that the universe around us speaks in a wordless manner about the glory of God -- his majesty, his goodness, his power, his wisdom. This has been a favorite theme of philosophers throughout history, as they reflected upon the nature of the physical universe and the evidence it provides for the existence of a creator.

Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae writes about the rationality and intelligibility of the universe as a demonstration of its origins:

We consider that the rationality of the cosmos is a testimony to the fact that it is the product of a rational being, because rationality, as an aspect of reality ordered to being known, would be inexplicable apart from a conscious rationality which knows it from the moment of its creation or even from before its creation, and which knows it concomitantly with its preservation in existence. On the other hand, the cosmos itself would be meaningless along with its rationality if human reason were not also given so as to know it on the basis of its rationality (Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă, vol. 1, p. 10).

In other words, the idea is this: the rationality and intelligibility of the universe is a testament to its origins in a greater Intelligence or Rationality which created it. The fact that we can know the world, the fact that our categories of understanding can latch onto the things in the world so that we can have genuine known of them, speaks to the fact that the world was created by a Rational Intelligence in some ways similar to our own. There would be no explaining nor expecting the intelligibility of the world otherwise; after all, why should the world be capable of being known, if God did not exist? On other hand, the rationality of the universe would be utterly meaningless if human beings did not also exist in order to know it.

Thus, for Stăniloae, there is an order to this world we live in. The created order is rational and intelligible because it has its origins in the creative power of a Rational Mind, whereas it finds its fulfillment in being known and understood by rational human persons. Moreover, through the knowledge of the intelligible order, the human person likewise comes upon knowledge of its Creator, and thus comes into contact with God. In this way, the world becomes a medium for interpersonal dialog between God and human persons:

Thus, the world as object is just the medium for a dialog of thought and loving deeds between the supreme rational Person and rational human persons, just as between the latter themselves (Teologia, vol. 1, p. 21).

This is what David says in the psalm, too: the heavens and the rest speak about the glory of God, and invite the human person into fellowship with her Creator. Above everything, the meditation of the grandeur of God in light of his created order leads one to trust in him for everything:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
  be acceptable to you,
  O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

God alone, the Creator of absolutely everything that exists in this world, can be our hope and a source of stability and our savior in times of trouble.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Living life before God

Because today is the sixteenth day of the year, I am going to offer brief thoughts on the sixteenth psalm. Today's psalm concerns the devotion and dedication of the servant of the Lord. In a way, it is a portrait of the consciousness and thought of someone whose life is utterly surrendered to God in every way. The opening lines speak of the psalmist's total dependence upon God:

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the LORD, "You are my Lord;
  I have no good apart from you."

The ending of the psalm speaks to the confidence that the psalmist has in God's faithfulness, after all is said and done:

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
  my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
  or let your faithful one see the Pit.

Of course, Peter references this passage in his sermon on Pentecost: Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day (Acts 2.29). The true Faithful One who did not see the Pit, whose life was not given up to Sheol forever, is Jesus Christ. In light of this, it might be helpful to read Ps 16 as describing the inner life and devotion of Jesus to his Father.

We see the devotion of the psalmist in Christ's life as we read the gospels. Especially significant for me are these verses:

I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
  in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the LORD always before me;
  because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

The life of Christ is one of tireless devotion to God and service to other people. How is this possible? How can we begin to appropriate that example in our own lives? It seems to me the answer is found in these verses: to keep the LORD before our mind always, and to follow his counsel.

When Christ was tempted in the desert, he responded to the challenges thrown his way by the Devil through the scriptures. Citing from Deuteronomy, he reminded himself of the direction and guidance which God gave his people in his law, and so was able to see things clearly in spite of the temptation. And in John, Christ says that I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak (John 12.49). In everything, he always is guided by the Father, and keeps the commandment and the love of the Father before his mind.  He says that the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing (5.20), and this is what keeps him going in everything.

As I have suggested implicitly in recent postings, much of our spiritual life comes down to our thought and our consciousness: what do we think, what do we believe, what is before our minds as we go throughout our day? This awareness will guide our actions and will shape our characters. That's why Paul speaks about being transformed through the renewing of our minds (Rom 12.2). We should think like the psalmist and Christ: I keep the LORD always before me.

Living our lives coram Deo, in the sight of God, with a consciousness of God in what we do, will form us and shape us into Christ.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Remaining in fellowship with the LORD

Today being the fifteenth day of the year, it is now time for a meditation drawing from the fifteenth psalm. This psalm opens with the question:

O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
  Who may dwell on your holy hill?

The inquiry concerns the conditions to be fulfilled by any person who wishes to remain in fellowship with God. Of course, we know that God is loving and gracious, and is willing to accept into his communion any person who repents of her sins, whatever they might be. But the question of the psalmist doesn't concern access to God but remaining: who may abide, who may dwell?

The answer he gives is an unambiguous ethical one:

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
  and speak the truth from their heart.

This is all to say that remaining in fellowship with the Lord is for those who live righteously. This is consistent with the themes we have discovered in previous psalms, according to which the Lord knows his faithful and looks kindly upon the righteous, but he opposes the wicked and they have no hope in him, so long as they remain wicked. To put it another way, our fellowship with God is broken by our serious sins.

Consider the examples the psalmist gives to describe this blameless person:

... who do not slander with their tongue,
  and do no evil to their friends,
  nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
  but who honor those who fear the LORD:
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
  and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

These characterize those whose fellowship with God is unbroken. On the other hand, a person who has done such things cannot expect to remain in good standing with the Lord, but instead must repent and confess her sins.

Especially worrisome to me is this line about honoring those who fear the LORD. If you are around Christians long enough, you will find that they do not often have nice things to say about each other. But the psalmist says those who may dwell on the holy hill of God are only those who honor persons who fear the LORD. What will I have to say for myself, when the Lord will ask me about all those times I spoke ill of other Christians? Of members of my own church? Of members of another church who feared the LORD and wanted to do his will, and I thought I knew they were all wrong? Lord forgive!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Evil and ignorance

It being the fourteenth day of the year, I'd like to offer a brief meditation on a line from the fourteenth psalm, which decries the wickedness of the vast majority of humankind:

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers 
  who eat up my people as they eat bread, 
  and do not call upon the LORD? (Ps 14.4)

Implicit in the psalmist's words is a particular conception of human agency. He seems to suggest that a person acts on the basis of what she knows and believes. At the same time, those persons who do what is evil must be acting out of ignorance of the truth. If they only had knowledge, the suggestion seems to be, they would not commit their evils against the people of God. 

How does this all work? In the history of philosophy, there has been a debate about the nature of human agency and choice. It centers around this question: is the intellect prior to the will, or is the will prior to the intellect? The camp that opts for the first alternative is called intellectualism, whereas the camp that opts for the latter is called voluntarism

On the intellectualist scheme, human agency is driven by a search after what is perceived to be good. In other words, people are going to make choices based on what they think is good or desirable, and how they judge it best to acquire those things. If people choose to do what is evil, it is because they are ignorant of what is truly good. They have false ideas about what is good. Thus evil and ignorance are closely connected. 

This seems to be the picture of agency implicit in the verse cited above: if these evildoers only had knowledge, they wouldn't commit violence against God's people; but as things stand, they are ignorant of the truth, and so they commit evil for which they will be punished. 

From all this, we might infer the following practical lesson: we ought to reflect and examine ourselves, to see if we know the truth or not. The scriptures teach us that it is more blessed to give than to receive: do we really know that, or do we just repeat what we've heard? Can I say that I really know that truth, that it's as clear to me as the truth that I have certain rights, or that I ought not needlessly to harm others? Because of I do not see the truth of that teaching, if I don't experience it as knowledge, it will be hard for me to practice it. 

Whatever I might tell myself and others about what I believe, the truth comes out in my actions. Then I will really see what I know, and whether I have the knowledge that makes me into a follower of God or not. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The theological anthropology of The Revenant (2016)

I have recently watched The Revenant (2016), starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It is a fantastic movie about survival and revenge, based on the true story of a man named Hugh Glass. It is expertly made and contains the style and touch typical of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's movies. He did well last year with Birdman, and he did very well this year with Revenant.

There is a lot that could be said about the movie, but in this short posting, I want to focus specifically on the theological anthropology implicit in the film. There is a certain portrait that Inarritu paints of the human person, and it is worth noting. Some spoilers follow.

One of the most impressive aspects of Inarritu's film is the way in which human beings are simultaneously depicted as parts of nature and yet above it in some important ways. Naturally, because the film deals with the story of a lone man's survival in harsh and unfavorable natural conditions, an otherwise urban and unfamiliar audience is given a peek into what life in "the real world" is like, and what ordinary life was like for many people before the mass urbanization and colonization of the west. It's not a particularly welcoming environment: frigid temperatures, hostile animals, shelter is to be constructed only with great difficulty, and so on. We also see, however, that human beings are capable of manipulating the environment and making it suitable for their own ends. This is what Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae referred to as the "humanization" of nature: the natural order contains within it the raw materials and the ability to be transformed so as to be a suitable home for human beings, and in this way it is humanized.

In The Revenant, human beings are shown to be a part of the natural order: they need food and water and shelter to survive, same as every other sort of animal. But they are above it, in that they are capable of mastering it and manipulating it to their own ends in a way no other animal is. The humans have learned to manipulate fire and weaponry and tools in order to establish a safe place for themselves in which to live. Glass, for example, out of his knowledge of the natural order and its laws and characteristics, is able to cauterize his serious wounds from the bear attack by using gunpowder and lighting a fire using a flint. (The bear's wounds, on the other hand, proved to be its death, because she lacks this power to manipulate nature for her own survival.)

Another way in which human beings rise above the natural order, however, is through their moral sense. The human person has a sense of right and wrong, a sense of order and chaos, a sense of what is good and what is evil that can guide her actions in the world. She has a sense that living life merely as animals is not good enough. Though Glass shares with the bear a paternal (or maternal) instinct to protect his young, yet he also comes to realize that revenge is in God's hands, not his own. This is a lesson he learns from a Pawnee Indian, whose entire tribe had been slaughtered by Sioux. He tells Glass that revenge is in the Creator's hands, not in his own. What is especially fascinating about this is that the Pawnee Indian waxes theological with Glass while eating raw meat from the carcass of a buffalo. The image is positively savage: a frightening man squats over the open wound of a dead animal and eats flesh, blood soaking his hands and the bottom half of his face; yet this same dreadful sight believes in a Creator of the whole world, and a moral order that is maintained even if not at the time at which we would prefer. Glass and the Pawnee Indian demonstrate the magnificence of the human creature as a being who can rise above the level of other animals, and can penetrate into deeper mysterious about the greater purposes and order of the universe.

And yet if it is possible for nature to be humanized, it is also possible for humans to be "naturalized," which amounts to a devolution to the status of animals. The Pawnee Indian is lynched by a migrating group of French traders, who incidentally have kidnapped the daughter of the chief of a local Ree tribe. On the Pawnee's dead body hangs a sign which reads (in French): we are all savages. This is, of course, a reference to the habit of the Americans and French to refer to the Indians as savages. This usage is ironic, since the "savages" are in more or less every way similar to their "cultured" counterparts: they have complex familial relationships, they have profound theological convictions and an awareness of God's existence, they have a sense of right and wrong and affirm a moral order and structure which guides their actions, etc.

Are we all savages? Is a human being any different than a bear, or a wolf, or a buffalo? It is noteworthy that the most villainous characters in the film are those who live their lives as if they were no better than other animals: survival and self-preservation are their highest goals, to be achieved at any cost. The heroes, on the other hand, those with whom we sympathize the most, are those who exhibit a capacity and to rise above the level of mere nature. Not only are they natural creatures, but they are also humans, which are per se above nature even if part of it as well.

Inarritu's film puts forth the human creature as a paradoxical demonstration that there is an order of reality beyond nature. Glass, the Pawnee Indian, the Ree chief -- all these demonstrate that the human creature is not simply one more piece of the natural order, determined to survive at any cost, caring for nothing more than self-preservation. Far from it. They demonstrate a sense and awareness of something higher, something more valuable, something more important. At the same time, they display certain continuities with nature: they fight, they eat, they sleep, they drink, they cling to life in the face of the threat of death, etc. If the human person turns her gaze towards nature and limits herself to that, then she truly becomes an animal and a villain -- like Fitzgerald. But this turn would be a waste of her potential and beneath her, when we can see clearly that she is capable of so much more.

Prayer with faith in the psalms

One of the most characteristic teachings of Christ in the New Testament is prayer with faith. The Lord teaches his disciples to pray with faith, with the expectation of receiving the things for which they've asked. He says, All things can be done for the one who believes (Mk 9.23), and, Whatever you ask got in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (11.24). This lesson was subsequently passed on to his disciples, as James shows (Jas 1.5-8). 

This was not something totally new, however. If anything, Jesus was passing onto his disciples the form of prayer characteristic of the psalms. There, too, we see prayers made with faith. Take Ps 13 as an example. It begins with a rather bleak description of the psalmist's conditions:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
  How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, 
  and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

The psalmist tells us that he has been forgotten by God—a miserable state of affairs, indeed. Moreover, this has been a reality for longer than the psalmist can withstand. His prayer is desperate and exhausted: how long, Lord? The stakes are high and the psalmist considers himself near death: 

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say "I have prevailed";
  my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 

In light of this, there seems no other plausible way to interpret the final verses except as a prayer with faith: 

But I trusted in your steadfast love; 
  my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 
I will sing to the LORD,
  because he has dealt bountifully with me. 

None of this is yet a reality for the psalmist, but he speaks as if it is. This is therefore a prayer with faith. It is an interpretive act that interprets one's circumstances and futures through the prism of one's trust in and relationship with God. The prayer of faith says, This is the way the world will be, because I trust in God and he cares for me. So the psalmist prays and expects that God will save him from his troubles, because he trusts in God's hesed, his steadfast love. 

So Christ teaches us to pray with faith, and this is not an invention of his. Rather, it is an eminently scriptural mode of prayer that draws from the practices of God's people stretching far back into antiquity. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

The world is for human persons

Today being the eighth day of the year, it is time for a meditation on the eighth psalm, which addresses the majesty of God's creation and especially the human person's special place within it. The psalm begins with an expression of wonder at the grandeur of God's creation:

O Lord, our Sovereign,
  how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The wondrous qualities of the created order speak to the majesty and greatness of God, its Creator. If we can be so amazed and marvel at the mysterious of existence in our world, how much more, then, ought we to marvel at the Intelligence that brought everything into existence! Indeed, Dumitru Stăniloae argues in Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă, vol. 1, that the rationality and intelligibility of the cosmos speaks to its origin in an Infinite Intelligence which brings it into existence.

The world has been created intelligible, so that it can be known and understood. On the other hand, this intelligibility of the world would be itself meaningless unless there were a creature capable of understanding it and coming to know it -- which is humanity. As Stăniloae argues, this (as well as other facts) demonstrate that the world has been created for the sake of humanity. The psalmist agrees with this judgment:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

It is the majesty of God, echoed in the magnificence of his created order, that makes humanity's special position so impressive. The human person is just a little bit lower than God himself -- humanity is made in the image and likeness of God, after all, a distinction no other creature can claim -- and has dominion and rule over everything else. Stăniloae describes it thus: the world was created for the human creature, and not the other way around; the world, consequently, has to be humanized, appropriated to human purposes, rather than the human person being assimilated into the world.

Is the humanization of the world a bad thing? Not per se: after all, human beings are created to care for the earth, not to suck it dry. Stăniloae notes that the human person, being a part of the world, cannot exist apart from it. The human person needs the world in order to exist herself. This means that we cannot simply destroy the earth, depleting it of its resources. That is not the purpose or goal of God's creating us or giving us dominion over the earth. Rather, our rule over the earth ought to demonstrate and manifest that same benevolence and goodness which God himself showed in the creation -- making everything in its proper place, seeing that everything is good, and commanding only that living creatures go forth, multiply, and flourish.

The earth was made for human creatures, but the human creature cannot exist apart from the earth. Consequently, we have to take care of it. The worries about climate change and pollution are hardly the hobby horses of "libruls" whose concerns and commitments are misguided or misdirected. Rather it is grounded in the fact that God has created the human person to have dominion over the world. This dominion is not a foolish and abusive one, as all the poor kings of Israel reigned in their time, but one that imitates the benevolent, caring, humble reign of God and Christ: a reign that is willing to sacrifice itself out of concern for the good of its subjects.

Only if human beings care for the earth and actualize this potential for humanization in a good way can the psalmist really say: O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! A scorched and destroyed and depleted earth, no longer hospitable to the humans for whom it was created, and that through their own fault, does not speak at all of God's majesty.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The moral order of the universe

On today, the seventh day of the year, a meditation on the seventh psalm.

One of things I've noticed, as I've been reading through the psalms, is that they presuppose a certain understanding of the moral structure of the universe. First of all, there is God, who is judge over the earth, and who can be petitioned to enact justice, to protect victims, and so on. He maintains the moral order, and the threat of punishment functions as a motivation for upright living. Then there are people themselves, some of whom are righteous and others of whom are wicked. The former have a favorable relationship with God, whereas the latter do not.

In Ps 7, we find David petitioning God for protection from his enemies. His principal reason for which God should protect him is this: judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me (v. 8). David is even willing to put his life on the line in defense of his own righteousness:

O Lord my God, if I have done this,
  if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
  or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
  trample my life to the ground,
  and lay my soul in the dust (vv. 3-5).

Of course, the entire psalm is a petition to God to save him, so he doesn't imagine that this will actually take place. Rather, he is confident that God will see things clearly: David is in the right, and his enemies are in the wrong; therefore God must side with David.

As for the wicked, God himself will ensure that justice is met:

If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
  he has bent and strung his bow;
he has prepared his deadly weapons,
  making his arrows fiery shafts.
See how they conceive evil,
  and are pregnant with mischief,
  and bring forth lies.
They make a pit, digging it out,
  and fall into the hole that they have made.
Their  mischief returns upon their own heads,
  and on their own heads their violence descends (vv. 12-16).

Yet, this confidence in the justice of God masks the real situation. David wouldn't have needed to write this psalm and put together this petition, if things were obviously going to be taken care of. The fact of the petition itself demonstrates that reality needed to be interpreted: when it seemed otherwise to him, David needed to be sure that things were not spiraling wildly out of control; he needed to reaffirm his conviction that the Lord rules over the earth, and therefore we can count on justice.

In other words, the psalm's theological assertions are an act of faith. David, out of his trust for God in a situation that seems to suggest otherwise, maintains with faithfulness that God will take care of the righteous in a world seemingly run by the wicked. So he ends his prayer with faith with thanksgiving:

I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
  and sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High (v. 17).

Probably Christ learned about prayer with faith by reading the psalms. The psalms regularly end their songs with the convinced, faithful consolation that the Lord will hear their prayer and that things will be made right. Though the circumstances of the psalmist never suggested it, yet out of their relationship with God, my God, the psalmists were convinced that they could trust God to grant them what they asked.

This is true for us, also: following this biblical example, we ought to pray that God work justice in the world -- if we can be convinced, of course, that we are in the right; otherwise, we ought to pray for forgiveness. And we ought to pray with faith and conviction that God will answer us, even if circumstances suggest otherwise.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The delight of the heart

Ps 5 contains the following verse:

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
  evil will not sojourn with you (v. 4).

The question I consider now is this: where do I find my delight? How does my emotional and sentimental life match up with that of God? This might tell us a lot about how far along we have come in the spiritual life.

The psalmist tells us that God has no delight in wickedness. He doesn't find anything particularly pleasing or happy about evil -- whether it be adultery, or lying, or murder, or hating another, etc. Consequently, when Paul tells us that we are to change into new persons, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.24), we understand that this has to affect our inner life as well. Our sentiments and our desires and our feelings have to change, so that we assume a total likeness to God. This means we no longer find any delight in wickedness.

This is a fine spiritual test if ever there was one: what is your reaction to the way of life that people in the world celebrate? Of course, the number of persons who find some kind of delight in violent abuse of others is relatively small. But the kind of milder wickedness of the average person is not any less dangerous. A life of unrestrained pleasure-seeking is spiritually deadening as well, And how do we think and feel about that sort of life?

The person whose only goal in life is to enjoy himself cannot have any progress in the spiritual life. Faithfulness to God above everything is the defining characteristic of the spiritually mature person -- even when it costs him dearly. Christ was faithful to God unto death, and so were all the martyrs and all the saints. The psalmist himself shows such faithfulness in the desperation of his call:

Give ear to my words, O Lord,
  give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,
  my King and my God,
  for to you I pray (vv. 1-2).

These are the words of a heart which has grown weary of life, the prayer of a person whose struggles have reached a culminating point. This person has chosen faithfulness and vulnerable dependence on God over the advantages and ease of a life of wickedness. If your only goal is to enjoy yourself, however, it will be very difficult (if not impossible) to stick out such difficult times, clinging to God.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The LORD has set apart the faithful for himself

Inasmuch as it is the fourth day of the year, I thought it would be well to meditate on some verse from the fourth psalm. (I have no idea how far into the year I will be going with this!)

These lines in particular stuck out to me:

But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself;
  the LORD hears when I call to him (Ps 4.3).

In the Old Testament scheme of things, there are real distinctions between persons as regards their moral states. Of course, it is true that no one is without sin. Yet numerous texts also presuppose a real difference between the righteous and the wicked, those faithful to YHWH and those who set themselves against God. This text in particular notes that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself. What does that mean?

I understand it as follows. Those who are faithful to the LORD have a relationship with him which the faithless do not. In various passages in the Old Testament, this relationship is one of protection, of special access to God, and of favor and hope in times of trouble. Those persons who are faithful to the LORD can cry out to him when things get rough, and they can have faith and trust that he will hear him.

But the wicked are not so (Ps 1.4). Their relationship is a precarious one, as their lives are in danger if they do not repent and turn from evil. God opposes those who live in evil -- who murder, who steal, who destroy households, who try to take advantage of the poor, and so on -- and they cannot anticipate a good end to their life, if they should not repent. Therefore he gives people his Law, so that they can know right from wrong, and how to live justly.

What kind of a person are you? What kind of a person am I? It is up to me to decide this. Though we are born in sin, which the Old Testament does not deny, yet it equally places upon every person the call and the responsibility to abandon sin and to pursue righteousness: Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it (Ps 34.14). The New Testament puts even greater weight on this teaching by its doctrine of judgment and resurrection: because life does not end at the grave but continues on into eternity through the resurrection, it is always and everywhere of utmost importance that we live aright. Because as Christ said, the resurrection will be different for each person: those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5.29).

This might seem too extreme for some persons, even unfair. But I agree with Joseph Ratzinger when he says: Human life is fully serious (Eschatology, p. 216). That is what the doctrines of the judgment and resurrection teach us: that life is serious business, and we do well to take it seriously.