Monday, July 25, 2016

Trusting in the LORD

One theological question which comes up again and again in my life is that of the nature of divine providence. It is one of the theological-philosophical questions which I loved to discuss and ponder when I was doing my undergraduate degree at Arizona State, and it continues to fascinate me. It has its theoretical aspects which are charming and interesting, of course, but more than anything, I find myself concerned with this question because I have a hard time making choices. I don't know what I should do, how I should choose, and what direction I should take when going through life. Naturally in such a state, I look to God for guidance, and the question of divine providence becomes immediately relevant. Is God like an author who has written a book in which I am a character? Is he a guide, standing by, ready at any time to point me in the right direction if only I ask? Or does he stand back and give me freedom to make choices on my own -- more than that, does he want me to exercise my freedom and to try to blaze my own trail, within the appropriate limitations of his law of course?

In this respect I want to consider some lines and meditations drawn from Ps 25, which I read this morning. I start with the following verses:
Who are they that fear the Lord? He will teach them the way that they should choose (Ps 25:12).
One of the recurring themes of the psalm is the special relation of guidance which certain sorts of persons have with God. The opening petition expresses trust in God for the sake of one's well-being; the psalmist writes, O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame (v. 2). Implicit in the petition, it seems to me, is the recognition that the circumstances in which the psalmist finds himself are largely outside of his control. For that reason, he adopts an attitude of trust towards God, who presumably stands outside of them and above them in such a way as to be capable of making them favorable. God, in some way or other, is capable of resolving the problems of the psalmist so that he does not end up a laughingstock and a cause of amusement for his enemies.

The verse I quoted above suggests that this is a special relation which belongs to all those who adopt the proper attitude of fear, reverence, and trust towards God. At the same time, the psalmist is not naive, neither about his own state before the Lord nor about the experiences of those who do put their trust in the Lord. Notice what he says here:
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! (vv. 6-7)
It is interesting to me that he asks God to be mindful of his mercy and of his love on the grounds that they are of old, i.e. eternal. The thought of asking God to remember something that is as old as himself, more than that, that is a part of his very nature! These are the words of someone whose current confrontation and experience with God does not reflect the divine attributes of mercy and love. On the contrary, the repeated mention of the author's "enemies" suggests that things are not going well for him at all. And it is probable, too, that he sees his current conditions as in some way a payment or punishment for sins he had committed when he was younger.

(At this juncture I wonder if there is an implicit theology of mercy in this petition. He asks God to remember his mercy and love because they are of old. This is the cry of a person whose current experiences speak rather of justice and punishment, wrath even. But what sense could the cry have if wrath and justice and the rest are just as eternal as mercy and love, in other words, if they are on a par with these other, more favorable aspects of the divine character? Wrath and the such are temporary and hardly typical or even "natural" displays of who God is; otherwise, being "of old" like the others, the force of the petition is annulled.)

Those who trust in God, therefore, do not always and everywhere meet with favorable circumstances. At times, they have to remind God of his mercy and love. More than that, they recognize their own sinfulness. Consider the stark contrast of the following verses:
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great (vv. 10-11).
The psalmist's stark moralism leaves no room for sinners to take advantage of God's mercy. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, yes -- but for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. For sinners, it is right and meet for the Lord to respond with anger and with punishment, because that is what they deserve. And the psalmist has a sense, too, that in his own case, this is what is happening. Therefore, in the middle of his enemies' mocking, he prays: pardon my guilt, for it is great. This suggests to me that the first step towards righteousness is penitence: admitting you are wrong, recognizing your guilt, and throwing yourself on the mercy of God.

The psalmist, then, is a person who wants to trust in the Lord. He senses an implicit moral order in the world that has been organized by God: because of his sinfulness, he is now suffering appropriate consequences for his wrongdoing through the mediation of his enemies and the unfavorable circumstances which they've caused him. At the same time, he pleads to God to have mercy on him, to pardon his guilt, and to change the setting which at this point is beyond his control. What then is the implicit picture of divine providence in all of this?

God has arranged the world with a certain implicit moral order and structure, but not one in which justice and punishment are irreversible once they have been launched against some person. There exists the possibility of repentance, however, and in this act of repentance, there is an appeal to God who stands above this order and can make a favorable reversal. Guilt can be pardoned, enemies can be put to shame, and the one who trusts in the Lord can be brought a better place after the fact. This is not something that the human person accomplishes of herself, and in fact it would seem that the act of repentance means recognizing her own powerlessness to change her surroundings in a way that would prove better for her. The changes must be done by God, who stands above this created order and who can make things right. And this person who trusts in God is led by him and is not put to shame.

One of the perennial debates in my head concerns the attitude I ought to take in making important decisions. Do I seek guidance and a clear, unmistakable direction from the Lord? If not clear and unmistakable, at least some sort of strong direction? Or do I rather make a choice based on what I want, or what seems good to me, and hope for the best? The former option suggests I adopt a continual attitude of supplication and prayer, becoming an unassuming "follower" of God in every case. The latter option puts a bit more power in my own hands, and bids me to make good use of my free will in wisdom, without shirking the responsibility for my own life which God has given me by endowing me with freedom of the will. Which of these options seems better to jive with the attitude taken by the psalmist?

I am sure someone with a different personality than myself, with different tendencies and different impulses, can argue the contrary point, but my tendency is to fit the psalmist in the former category. He is one who chooses rather to act by the prior guidance of God, instead of blazing his own trail and doing what seems right to him. He wants to assume an attitude of trust before God, because for such people, God will teach them the way they should choose (v. 12). He recalls the sins of his youth which have landed him in the mess in which he currently finds himself. It is the hallmark of youth to act out of arrogance, thinking that we know better than we actually do, overconfident in our own judgment. I am still young and therefore still suffer from this treacherous malady. Now, in old age, having suffered and recognizing his own wrongdoings, the psalmist assumes instead a position of humility: Lord, I trust in you to set things right and to save me from these troubles; I trust in you to show me the right way, and I will follow what you set before me.

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