Privacy is a hot topic these days. Facebook is now doing more invasive snooping on our on-line activities so they can send me more ads for adult diapers! Wonderful! People justifiably worry about Big Brother/NSA knowing all manner of information about where we go, who we talk to and what we ate for dinner. The thought police from 1984 have arrived, just 30 years late.
But these are not new concerns. Listen to these words from 3000 years ago: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”
That’s from Psalm 139:2-5, a great companion piece for the Genesis 28 text that is also in the lectionary for this July 20 where Jacob is reminded at Bethel that when it comes to God, you can run but you can’t hide. The Psalm takes that wisdom to cosmic proportions: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (vs. 8-10)
Just as our modern technology that gives us 24/7 access to information, news, weather radar, directions and contact with family and friends is both good news and bad news, we can take God’s omnipresence and omniscience (which simply means God is everywhere and knows everything) as either a threat or a promise – it all depends on how clear your conscience is and your understanding of the nature of God. The words of Ps. 139:7 look the same, “Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is “absolutely nowhere,” but the intonation of those words sounds 180 degrees different when uttered by someone who lives in mortal fear of a God of wrath and judgment as opposed to someone who knows and trusts the unconditional love of a merciful Lord and Savior.
We sometimes draw a false dichotomy between the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Abba Father God of Jesus to explain the difference in those responses. The truth is that both reactions run throughout Judeo-Christian scriptures and theology because fallible human beings always have reason to fear God’s judgment and long for God’s mercy simultaneously. The lectionary texts for July 20 illustrate that rich diversity beautifully. The alternative Psalm for July 20 describes the “New Testament” God (“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Ps. 86:15), while it’s the Gospel lesson for this day that sounds a loud warning against unrepentant sin ( “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Mt. 13:41-42).
No matter how much we wish it were so, life is not a simple dualism between grace and judgment. It is a delicate both/and balance between obedience and forgiveness. Grace is not cheap. It comes with a cross-shaped price tag, and even Jesus knew the awful feeling of wondering if the Psalmist got it wrong. Maybe there are places in “the dark night of the soul” (title of famous poem by St. John of the Cross) where not even the God of creation can go! Quoting another Psalm (22:1) Jesus laments through the agony of crucifixion, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). We’ve all felt that way at some time(s) in our lives if we dare to admit it.
Many years ago I heard a conversation between my in-laws, Bill and May Newman, who at that time had been married 40-plus years. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but they were reminiscing about their dating days. This was long before bucket seats and seat belts changed the way young couples rode in cars. In those days women would scoot over next to their dates in the front seat of the car to snuggle while he drove semi-dangerously with one arm. May teasingly asked Bill, “Why don’t we sit close like that anymore?” He wryly replied, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”
When we feel discouraged and abandoned, like a motherless/fatherless child, remember God’s not the one who moved. God is still everywhere. The Psalmist says we can’t even shake God if we go to the depths of Sheol – that’s Hebrew for Hell. Of all the places one would not expect to find God, hell has to be near the top of the list. I personally don’t believe Hell is a physical place, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real or that we have not all been there. Hell is anywhere or any time that we feel cut off from the presence of God, and when that happens desperation sets in; and that is very dangerous because desperate people often do desperate things they would not normally do.
When the Hebrews felt abandoned in the wilderness because Moses was on Mt. Sinai longer than they expected, they built a golden calf and worshipped it (Exodus 32:1-4). When we are afraid and think God’s not watching, that’s a dangerous combination. Under that pressure we may mistreat other people to pursue the false security of wealth or fame. We may try to escape from our anxiety in mind-numbing use of drugs, booze, sex or some other addiction du jour.
That is why we so desperately need to hear the words of Psalm 139 not as a threat by a privacy-invading deity looking for dirt to hold against us. If we stop reading the Psalm too soon that might be the way we feel and be tempted to move away from God or even try to take over the driver’s seat. The same is true of the Jesus story. It doesn’t end on Good Friday, and it doesn’t end with “My God why have you forsaken me!” Keep reading to the end. Like a great novel, God’s salvation history must be pursued to the surprise ending. Luke tells us that Jesus’ great lament was not the final word from the cross. Luke (23:46) records these words of faithful surrender and peace, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”
To face life and death with that kind of confidence in God’s protection means giving up our idolatrous notions of self-sufficient individualism and privacy. The lectionary lesson omits the bloodier and more self-serving attempts to justify our own worthiness in Psalm 139 (vss. 13-22); but it ends on a realistic note of humility that reminds us how easy and how hard it is to accept God’s persistent presence in our lives. The final verses say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
God has not moved. God has not abandoned us, no matter how good or bad our lives may be right now. God is ready, willing and able to guide us, but our God is not a God of coercion. The guidance is free, but it comes with one catch – in order to receive it we have to surrender our pride and privacy and be willing to humbly invite God to know us in total transparency.