Well, it's five months later than 'the night before' (aniteb4.html)…
That's the update on me…Here's a couple of thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head/heart (since there is obviously a lot of empty space in there!) over the past few weeks…...........................................................................
One. As I have worked through Psalm 119 recently again in my morning "Devotions", I was more aware this time of the many prayers of the Psalmist to YHWH to "teach me your Word/Law/Statutes". There is a constant stream of such prayers: 'teach me', 'give me understanding', 'open my eyes', etc.
"Teach me" is a prayer made repeatedly by most of the 'chronic' Christians I know, but I found myself wondering how exactly the Psalmist expected the Lord to answer that prayer--and what specifically he felt he needed to learn. As I reflected on the first point, I asked myself what my experience of 'teach me' was like.
My immediate focus when I pray this, I think, is that I am asking for the 'eureka' experience of insight. I want to be able to study/read a passage in the text and (a) understand the content of the passage, but also (b) understand how the principle works, where to use it/not use it, what it teaches me about the heart of God, how it fits with the rest of the Word, etc. I seem to be interested in the implicative dimensions of the text (the 'so then, what…') and the coherence dimensions (the 'oh, this fits with that verse…'), in addition to the purely semantic content. The psychological aspect of this might be reflected in the Psalmist's prayer: "open my eyes that I might behold wondrous things from Thy law" (119. 17). The Law was 'wondrous' itself--what more was the Psalmist looking for?
At the reading level, it might be something like the first 'real' time I read the bible: I 'saw' (or imagined…smile) the connection between the three reinstatement questions of the Risen Jesus to Peter and the three denials of Peter. I 'saw' that when Jesus asked Peter 'do you love me?' (even with the different verb for love there) the third time, that this third repetition of the question 'must have' triggered in Peter's mind the grievous memory of the third denial of Jesus by Peter at the Arrest (and when Jesus turned at looked at Peter, Luke 22.61). My psychological experience of this was of an 'eureka' type--I 'saw' a strand in the fabric of history.
It is clear from the psalm that the author had a written text of the Law before him (or her), for the visual metaphors (seeing, eyes, etc) are more numerous than oral ones (hearing, ears, etc). 119 does not have a superscription, so it is anonymous. It is commonly ascribed to the post-exilic period, with allusions to (or semi-quotes from) Deut, Proverbs, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and is sometimes seen as being dependent on Psalm 19B (a Davidic psalm).
Getting back to the 'teach me' experience, in my own experience of this the 'teaching' generally involves so much more than simple 'disclosure' or 'unlocking some previously downloaded content' (smile). When I puzzle over a verse, and ask our Lord-- "what in the WORLD does THAT mean, Lord????"--the answer often only comes through subsequent study. There is generally (but not 'uniformly') a gap between the question and the answer, and many times the study does NOT produce the answer at first (or even ever). It is, after all, still God's action I am requesting…and discovery is not something automatic (as ANY researcher, student, and teacher can attest) nor something controlled totally by 'exposure to raw data'…
But a concept version of 'teach me' can very, very often also have a providence requirement. Some verses and entire themes of scripture have only become 'understood' by me upon providential experiences and observations. I have had to see some principle played out in front of my eyes before I enter the "So, THAT's what that was all about, eh Lord?" phase. Sometimes I have to learn a related fact for the 'un-learned' one to 'fall into place'. (Educational Psychologists and Learning Theorists study these factors professionally.)
And then there is the 'REALLY teach me this, Lord' type of learning…where I already KNOW some fact or some truth or some value, but I am having trouble applying it, or having trouble integrating it into my 'behavioral' worldview. Maybe, where the lesson is something I need to learn over and over and over again, unfortunately, for it to 'stick'…Lord knows I have plenty of these in my life (sigh)… People sometimes speak of the difference between 'head knowledge' and 'heart knowledge', but this would be a contrast between head-knowledge and hands-knowledge…I KNOW to do something, but don’t do/practice it…sounds like the book of James, eh?
But, again, this kind of learning is also a subtle exercise in providence--God arranging and interacting with the stream of events of my life, in order to create a perceptual 'dialogue' between some pattern 'out there' in my experience and some 'unformed/unfinished pattern' of cognitive understanding in my head (this 'dialogical learning' is basically the thrust of much of Bernard Lonergan's work, btw). And repeated applications--with increasing 'volume', unfortunately--create the necessary 'weights' attached to the fact/theme.
But the bottom line is that our 'teach me' prayers are often answered in "directed research in the lab of life"--God's pedagogy is sure, but oh so subtle…
And what was the psalmist actually asking for? He/she had the Law in front of them--what did they want to 'see' in it, other than what was at the surface?
In a post-exilic community, with extra study in the "School of Hard Knocks", it might have meant my 'REALLY teach me' type of learning (so Israel would not have to experience ANOTHER dislocation for disobedience and covenant treachery), but the 'wondrous things from your Law' phrase leads me to doubt that. The 'wondrous things' aspect might correspond more closely to the 'behind the text' realities of the heart of God. One can easily read the command to forego 'exhaustive harvesting' of a field (in order to leave some 'gleanings' for the poor and destitute, Lev 19.9; 23.22; Deut 24.20ff) as a simple 'un-wondrous' command, and go about obeying it. Or one can ponder for a moment what that commandment implied about the heart of God, and how that glimpse of the heart of God might differ from the hearts of humans-in-high-power…One can easily and quickly be reduced to tears of worship and the trembling of an overwhelmed heart when one ponders what God must be like to issue such laws (constraints upon the elite, wealthy, well-off, and non-destitute) simply for the benefit of the needy, the bereaved, the unlovely, the unfortunate, the oppressed. The longer one reflects on the Law in this manner, the more forceful this feeling becomes…'wondrous things'--the heart of God, the depth of His integrity, the breadth of His compassion and love, the height of His loyalty to those in free relationship with Him.
Two. And there is a similar set of prayers for God to 'override the will': "let not sin rule over me", "don’t let me stray from your commandments", "turn my heart to your statutes", "direct my footsteps according to your word", etc.
I have been pondering the 'nature of the will' for decades now, and over the past few years have seen how really complicated the matter is. The 'will' shows up in the theological areas (especially the freedom/bondage of the will, in Calvinist-and-non controversies) as well in biblical ethics (e.g., the 'hardening of Pharaoh's heart', the 'giving them over to sins' of Romans 1). But too often in these discussions the will is viewed 'monolithically', as if the will were 'one thing', when in reality the will is more like a wind-storm, in which various 'currents' swirl and collide, blend and quiesce. When Pharoah can harden his own heart (using a choice to render certain future choices unlikely), when Paul can describe this fierce, military-metaphor-ed 'war' of the inner 'wills' (Gal 5), and when the Psalmist can choose to pray for God's 'structuring involvement' in future choices, you know we have to rethink the metaphysics of will.
But this too is part of our daily Christian experience. I pray daily--during morning prayers--something like this: "Please don’t let me embarrass the reputation of Your good heart today, Lord"…I ask for God to provide restraint-support for my choices. I don’t pray anymore (I used to, but God never seemed to honor that) for 'de-conscious control takeover' (as in the case of spirit-possession), but I ask instead for some ennobling of the good intentions within me, and the atrophy/weakening of the bad.
[BTW (loose association), this is one of the ways I pray for world leaders. My morning prayers have a section I call 'Sovereignty', and the prayers for world leaders/nations part of that starts something like this:
"Lord, I lift up our world leaders to you today and ask for your mercy upon them. Their job is incredibly difficult, with all the myriad of competing agendas being thrust upon them by their own human hearts--both good and bad, by their histories, by their situation, and by their constituencies. I pray that you protect them from the Malignancies--both from without, from within, and from alongside. I ask that you exalt and debase, bless every good intention today and atrophy every destructive one, pool the good voices and disperse the bad voices, and raise up voices and influences for true peace, community health, and sanity. Take up, Lord, the mantle of Romans 13 today and see through the leaders to the little people under them. Breathe peace and provision through the leaders, for the little folk in their land, for their own families and posterity, and for their own hearts. For the terrorists of the world, I ask mercy--I ask that you call some out for a testimony to Your love and forgiveness, that you divert the zeal and efforts of others into more constructive areas to actually help their people, that You "de-cleric-a-lize" them, and that you distract, dissipate, and divide the rest into ineffectiveness. I pray that we would also recognize the ugliness of the subtle forms of 'relationship treachery' in our own lives and our own behavior. I pray that you bless every movement toward constructive reform today…"]
At some level, it’s like I ask for freedom-for-good. I pray that my development will be 'constrained' toward increasing freedom(!), instead of being unconstrained and 'drifting' toward decreasing 'density' of life, value, love, authenticity, and focus. I will become either more 'real' and powerful, or become more 'shadowy' and inconsequential, almost like the image in The Great Divorce by Lewis, where the blades of grass in heaven are so incredibly dense/heavy, compared with the gossamer nature of the entirety of Hell.
Now, strictly speaking, this might not be talking about metaphysical 'will' at all--the 'heart' (in 'turn my heart to your statutes') is probably something much broader than 'isolated will'. It would include the mind, the predilections, habits, affective responses to moral dilemmas, etc. But our daily prayers for 'increased sanctification' certainly entails a request to God for more pure hearts, more obvious choices, and more spontaneous goodness.
Three . Interestingly, this segues into the area of Talion of Intent.
In the Hebrew Bible, lex talionis was the old 'eye for an eye' legislation. We have noted before on the Tank (several times) that this actually was a beneficent law, restricting punishment from being abusive or 'cruel and unusual'. It 'capped' the punishment to something more 'reasonable', and was intended to protect even the guilty. At the same time, it was supposed to create a 'punishment to fit the crime' stream of consequences (and example) for the community. Lesser crimes were not to be taken more seriously than they should, but serious crimes were not to be taken less seriously.
But one fascinating aspect of the law was its application to 'intended crimes'. Consider Deut 19.15ff:
"A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. 16 If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days, 18 and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, 19 then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this shall never again be committed among you. 21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." [NRSV]
This theme is also reflected in the countless references to 'let the evil fall into the pit which they dug for the innocent' prayers--the intention (having someone fall into the pit to their hurt) was the punishment (providentially executed, if the psalmist got his way) upon those who with purpose and planning tried to hurt others.
This is somewhat different than the 'natural consequences' principle, in which 'what you sow, you eventually reap' is the operative principle. 'Natural consequence' is a case of talion, and specific/particular 'application' or 'delay' or 'suppression' of those consequences can sometimes be a function of God's sovereign judgment/mercy/governance within time.
But these negative statements of this seems to suggest the symmetric opposite: that the intention to do good to others might be observed by our Lord and might form the basis of 'additional blessing' upon ourselves.
The natural consequence version of this has long been known to work: the more positive thoughts I think, the more positive a character I become. But here I am speaking of the 'outside judge' involvement of God, involving external effects. In the Deut passage, we had three parties: the perp, the would-have-been victim, and the judge (elders acting under the authority of God). In out beneficent case we have the same trio: the would-be-do-gooder, the would-have-been-beneficiary, and the judge (God).
Proverbs 11.27 has this expression: He who seeks good finds goodwill, and WBC comments: "This proverb seems to say that you get what you look for, whether for good or for evil.".
What this seems to net out at is this: if my character develops (through 'spiritual exercises'…smile) to be one that is constantly in search of opportunities to help, to serve, to bless, to comfort, to encourage, to affirm, to honor, to uphold, to champion the needy, to speak up for the disadvantaged--then God will 'judge' (occasionally, and at in keeping with His patterns of working in my life at the time) this stream of intentions and will visit comfort, encouragement, affirmation, etc upon me. If I am constantly hoping to encourage others to trust the good-hearted Lord, then there will likely be some who do the same to me…[I personally have experienced this untold times on the Tank, when a 'stray' email pops up with a single sentence or single paragraph of encouragement…and my world of that no-doubt-cloudy day is brightened thereby…]
Needless to say, one cannot 'intend to do selfless acts' for the purpose of 'selfish gain' (!)--this is oxymoronic in the extreme…the old "I will bless you, so that I personally will be blessed" is serious self-deluded hypocrisy…So this principle is not something to 'claim' and 'exploit' (!), but rather another one of those facts of creation for which to be amazed at the wonder of our God. Another reason to trust His generous heart, to see the Parent who is always looking for the slightest 'excuse' to bless His children, to stand in non-terrified awe of a God who seeks to encourage our community peace, our community growth, our community joy and celebration.
Four. But there is ONE way in which I 'use' this
principle (or maybe a related one) in my experience.
Indeed, there is a delightfully paradoxical dance in this area: The more righteous (in the warm and godlike sense) one is, the more one's prayers are answered; AND the more one is righteous, the less one's prayers are for personal things and the MORE they are for increasing righteousness! Whenever I come across Psalm 37.4:
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
the more I realize my chief/only desires now (at least, 'increasingly') are to delight myself in the Lord in every step I take in life and thought…The desires of my heart are to know His beautiful heart more, to walk more as He walked, to love-to-death like He did, to celebrate and champion loyalty, compassion, forgiveness, and love; and to honor His 'desires of the Heart' to reach out in love to the needy-of-heart, to the captives, to the sorrowful, to the lost, to those discouraged, "cynic-ized", and exploited by false religion and counterfeit ideologies. Granted, I pray for other things--largely dictated by the need du jour which is part of the current pedagogical and/or sanctification task--but even these are fundamentally exercises in living as Jesus did. Jesus delighted in the work of the Father which He saw unfolding before His very eyes, in meeting the present needs of those who sought His touch.
Five. Completely unrelated to the above (rapid context switch here) is something I realized about praise. Giving praise (to God) is said to be distinct from giving thanks. Thanks is for what God does; Praise is for what God is like. [Of course, I give thanks to God for revealing to me over these decades what He is like, so the two notions do overlap.] God doesn’t 'need' praise from us--we have often discussed in the Tank the 'motivation' behind His delight in our praises and thanks, and how some folks interpret this negatively.
The more I reflect on the character/heart of God, and on His quiet, gentle, and gracious ways, the more I find myself in spontaneous praise. It starts with a clear moment of insight or realization of how some aspect of His beauty is manifest in some event, or some text of scripture, and then some wider implication of this insight 'dawns upon me'--and I am in awe, all of a sudden, of this truly "un-earthly" Beauty, of this perfect Grace, of this absolute Integrity, of this intention toward me that has not the slightest shadow of fickleness nor malice anywhere within a hyperzillion miles of it…I am at that point, "blown away" (in the vulgar tongue…smile), and my heart soars in transport of praise. I cannot help but articulate this to my Lord--and I am found in the act of 'praising God'. This is not some conscious 'spiritual exercise' of worship, but a spontaneous act, incited by the 'mere' knowledge of the revealed character of God.
In earlier days, though, I sorta wondered (along with some skeptics, obviously) whether the system wasn't simply 'built' to generate such praise to God. Along with those accustomed to being manipulated by authorities, I had a shadow of doubt as to whether God made me 'tiny', so that I would be 'dwarfed' by His 'bigness', and that praise would be more 'quantitatively' motivated, than qualitatively motivated. In other words, did God make a race of puppets (a la Blade Runner's Sebastian) so that our praise was an unconscious, 'biological' reflex function (like a cough or sneeze), rather than something requiring our holistic nature.
But a couple of weeks ago, some of this became a little clearer than it had been before (good grief, it only took 30 years!)…Praise was not a function of relative size, but a function of clarity of vision and coherence of values. I don't praise God more now (than ever before) because I am even more aware of how much "bigger" He is than me--I praise Him more because I see more clearly how transcendentally beautiful His character is. It’s a function of clarity of insight. The purer of heart I become, the better my understanding of His heart, and the more I am overjoyed by such beauty.
It's not altogether qualitatively different from the feeling in one's heart when one weeps at a (good) ballet, or is overwhelmed by a music overture, or is 'blown away' by seeing an act of incredible compassion and goodness. Praise is a response to beauty, to purity, to 'images of divinity' in our midst. I have been amazed at glimpses of my friends' hearts at times, resembling the 'praise' that God will visit upon us in the future (Rom 2.29; 1 Cor 4.5; 1 Pet 1.7). It is, of course, extensively different with God, because His goodness/beauty is so intensive, pervasive, and intrinsic--it is WHO GOD IS. But it's not a function of 'bigness'--if God were 'small like us', but of the same Character, the response to that Heart would still be overwhelming…
In fact, in case you haven't beaten me there (smile), this is indeed the response to Jesus that grows in the believer's heart…As we get more and more glimpses of His heart through scripture and through our experience of Him in our walk, we grow in our awe of His character. And He 'looks human' in the Word. For all His deity, He manifests the heart of God more in human life and love and laughter…And we are amazed at such purity of purpose, such unvarying loyalty to us, such unclouded vision of true values and proper priorities in life. No wonder an older Peter can say: "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy" (1 Pet 1.8). This is not a 'large-ness' issue--it’s a largess issue…the generosity of His heart (to the point of His very life and reputation) is so complete and untainted…
And notice also that the Son praised the Father, for His tender goodness to the non-elite (Luke 10.21). It was not 'bigness', but beauty-toward-others that prompted Jesus' response. The fact that God will praise humans (see refs above) at some event in the future, shows that 'bigness' cannot be the issue! It is the quality of some act, of some heart, of some character that is seen, recognized, and appreciated in the act of praise. It is NOT automatic--it has to be 'earned' by a life-above.
And, strangely enough, it seems to be somewhat of a reflection on the praiseworthiness of the praise-or, too… Scripture sometimes describes the response of the "anti-peace party" to God's heart as one of rage, mistrust, and repudiation. They reject the knowledge of God. God's love for the poor is something to be de-valued. God's forbearance in judgment is something to be exploited for purposes of exploitation of others. God's valuation of internal goodness and other-centered self-restraint is rejected as being of no value. Their own anti-values seem to preclude them from valuing the heart of God as it should be. They cannot see God's love for harmony and community health as something worth supporting. They cannot praise God because their own hearts do not resonate to beauty, goodness, and integrity.
But this implies that the more one's heart becomes like God's heart (through the work of grace in one's life), the more one shares the same values with God. And, consequently, the more one can/will praise God for His character! (And, I might add, the more one will also praise others who manifest that same Character, and those same values.). This is, of course, has nothing to do with metaphysical 'bigness'. [BTW: In scripture, actually, experiences of God's 'bigness' generally produced terror and fear-of-immediate-death, not joyous praise. A knowledge of His 'bigness' can produce confidence in His ability to implement His good-hearted will, but this has as much to do with His wisdom as with His 'bigness' per se. One can be humbled radically by His bigness, but this humility can also be 'achieved' by reflection about the difference in love, goodness, and compassion between the Unique One and us.] This too is an indication that praise has to do with one beautiful heart recognizing another Beautiful Heart.
By the time I came out of this thinking, I was amazed at how 'wise' the design of God was…Any goodness in my heart recognizes and praises the goodness in God's heart, and in this process, my heart becomes MORE LIKE HIS (principle: we become like those we look up to---mentors and heroes). The more like His heart mine becomes, the more clearly I can see His heart ("we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is"--I John), and the more I will/can praise Him. The Spiral of Beauty continues and continues… the system was originally designed so that goodness bred goodness, and grace begot grace…and the New Creation--of the inward heart--works this way anew.
That's all for now…I've got to go edit some analysis slides on the z990 now…hopefully I can get back to some Tank writing in a couple of weeks.
Because of His heart,
May 18, 2003
The Christian ThinkTank...[https://www.Christianthinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)