Best Of A Reflection on Psalm 139

Being Known

Psalm 139 is a beautiful psalm, and it begins, "O Lord, you have searched me and known me" (NASB). The psalmist goes on to suggest that his entire life is intimately known to God, that he is, in some way, enveloped by God. Although the language of the entire psalm is poetic and the content is deep, what is most striking about this passage is that the very experience of being intimately known was an incredibly encouraging experience for this individual. Surely the psalmist, like the rest of us, had all sorts of vulnerabilities, sins to hide and gifts to stash away, yet the simple awareness that his creator could see right through him brought him a tremendous amount of comfort. I think there is something incredibly special and spiritually healthy about being transparent -that is to say, being open to being known.

It's no secret that people find it difficult to be open with others. Phrases such as "intimacy issues" get thrown around a lot in our culture, and professionals have connected these types of issues with all sorts of other problems in society. Science, however, is not the only facet of our culture that is aware of the problem. This issue is repetitively used in the entertainment industry. Sitcoms and other comedies often place their characters in uncomfortable social situations where transparency, often between men, is a humorous theme. We laugh because we understand exactly how awkward those experiences can be. Sadly, what modern entertainment does not communicate very well is that they are in fact missed spiritual opportunities.

Religion has always had something to say about our natural tendency to be closed off. For 2500 years the Buddhists and the Hindus have philosophically and psychologically been trying to point humanity to the notion that humans are interconnected, and the healthiest way to live is aware of and open to that fact. For this reason, compassion for all other living things has always been a central religious tenant in the East. Compassion, of course, literally means "to suffer with," and is an activity that requires a certain amount of intimacy, even if that intimacy is felt more than it is intellectually grasped. The religions of the Middle East also address the issue. Judaism, in particular, has maintained an intense focus on family, social life, and the theological notion of covenant that may be at least three to four thousand years old. Jewish theology and historical experience compels individuals to see themselves as part of an intimate community traveling through human history together. Generally speaking, open relationships with God and man, is one of the greatest goals of most all of the world's religions.

For those of us who claim to be Christian there is a very clear calling to intimacy and openness. Jesus prayed to his father, "I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in me through their word; that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me" (John 17:20-21). There are at least three very clear points in Jesus' prayer: 1) Christians are called to be one with each other, 2) Christians are called to be one with the Father and Son, and 3) the Father's chosen method of convincing the world of Jesus' validity rests in the human demonstration of these relationships. It would seem that Christians who are generally closed off are hardly "Christian" at all.

A central question is: "What sorts of things would a spiritually healthy Christian open himself up to?" What does Jesus' prayer look like in every day life? I believe that the scriptures point to several general types of intimate relationships that are the substance of spiritual health. I further believe that these relationships are frequently seen in individuals who have acquired deep spiritual lives which are evident throughout history.

Psalm 19 illustrates two of these relationships quite clearly. The entire psalm has two dominant themes. The first is the natural world, and the second is the "Law of the Lord." In his introduction the psalmist claims, "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge." As the psalmist continues he points out that nature, the weather patterns, the seasonal cycles, the heat and the cold, truly does reveal God to human beings. Although most Christians would agree with this, the pace of modern culture has so distracted the majority of the population that people have almost no real experience of nature itself. In an intellectual way Christians are happy to point out that there must be a God because of the complexity of the created order, yet the closest these individuals will get to that complexity is observing it in a documentary. But this simply cannot be the type of knowledge the psalmist is talking about. He suggests that for such intimate knowledge, "There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard." Relationship with nature is not an intellectual pursuit that can be described audibly or intellectually. It is an intimacy that comes from direct experience.

The second theme of Psalm 19 points us toward a relationship with the "Law of the Lord." The psalmist states, "The Law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart" (7-8). What could be spiritually more healthy than a rejoicing heart and a restored soul? But there is a difficulty for many of us in this passage. For the psalmist, certainly an ancient Hebrew, the "Law of the Lord" must imply the whole religion of his day. It was not simply the sacred texts (Law of Moses) and the scrolls they were written on as modern people imagine the "Law of the Lord" to be. It included the practice of the ethical laws as they related to other people, the sacrificial laws that governed correct behavior at the temple, and purification laws that governed personal behavior and rituals. What the psalmist is pointing to is the fact that his "religion" restored his soul.

Many people today are weary of the term "religion," and seem to prefer the pursuit of "spirituality" alone. The term "religion," however, simply comes from a Latin root word that means "to tie, fasten, or restrain," and it means this in a conscientious sense. The idea is that "religion" is repetitive behavior that is supposed to make people meticulously aware of their conscience, which in turn allows them to live in a proper way. This is why the psalmist is so content with his religion. Most people who believe they are living in the proper way are, in a spiritual sense, happier people. The challenge for modern Christians is to be open to religious environments. For those of us who would complain that Church is boring, theologically confused, or scientifically ignorant, it still remains a workhorse for spirituality and can truly be an incredible framework for the restoration of our souls.

Returning to John 17 and Jesus' prayer, the most obvious relationships that create a healthy spiritual life are human relationships and relationship with God. As far as the former is concerned, on the surface it would appear as if most people are in a tremendous amount of relationships with other people. The majority of modern individuals are busy at work or school anywhere from forty to sixty hours a week, roughly at least one third of their lifetime. But those two places are hardly enriched with openness and intimate knowledge, which require a tremendous amount of qualitative communication.

One of my favorite statements about the nature of qualitative communication was made by an Irish poet who was asked what it was like to experience the beauty of God in daily life. He replied,

"One way, and I think this is a really lovely way, [is to ask yourself a question]. And the question is: 'When is the last time that you had a great conversation?' a conversation which wasn't just two intersecting monologues, which is what passes for conversation a lot in this culture. But when did you have a great conversation in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew. That you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost and a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you on to a different plane.... a conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterwards ... I've had some of them recently, and it's just absolutely amazing, as we would say at home, they are food and drink for the soul, you know?"  [1]

If I were honest, I would admit that I am not sure if I have had a conversation recently that was "food and drink for the soul." Culture has become inundated with social networks, cell phones, and emails, all intended to connect individuals, but instead has created a sort of watered down version of friendship. Current communication is industrial, fast, efficient, and cheap, and most folks would be hard pressed to remember even one conversation that served their soul in this way.

Our communication problem renders Jesus' commandment to his disciples, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:39), a nearly impossible task. We refuse to spend more energy communicating, and the forth coming generations will not even know how. Even if they want to love someone the way they know they would desire to be loved, they will not be equipped with enough experience to do so, or a long enough attention span to begin to touch the issues in a deep, personal way. Honest, open communication, whatever it may look like in the moment, must be safeguarded by modern Christians.

Finally, a brief word about intimacy with God: "O Lord you have searched me and known me." All the other relationships in my life, nature, religion, and friendship, must culminate in and serve as indicators of knowing and being known by God. Depending on who is asked the question, the process of knowing God can seem complex, practically and intellectually, but it is most simply understood when it is viewed in light of the other three. An intimate relationship with God can spring from the awe and inspiration experienced in nature, the restraint and self control preached by religion, and the deep affection and selfless relationship of true friendship. In all three cases the famous statement made by John the Baptist before he was executed applies, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Nature, religion, and friendship should, in a positive sense, make us feel small. They are excellent preparation and paths for the experience of a God that is infinite love. Our ego must begin to shrink in order for us to experience Him. That is certainly why the psalmist's experience of God was not just deep, but so enveloping that it seemed as if he was transparent before God, completely seen and known. He had the distinct feeling of being "closed in behind and before" (5), like a drop of water in the ocean.

There are many reasons why humans remain closed off to the most significant experiences in life, why they refuse to be transparent. Among those reasons pride always stands at the front, followed closely by time limitations. Transparency, however, dissolves pride and allows frailty and fault to be seen, and our time must simply be reprioritized. Whether we are aware of it or not, I think we all crave the peace and satisfaction that follow from intimacy with God. In our worst moments, we would love to be able to join the psalmist and proclaim with confidence, "If I say surely the darkness will overtake me, and the light around me will be night, even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to you... lead me in [this] everlasting way" (11-23).

[1] Krista Tippet, "The Inner Landscape of Beauty", Interview with John O'Donahue, 2008.

Josh Fraley   # September 12, 2012 : COMMENTS ( 1 )