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On Being Known by God – Br. David Vryhof

Psalm 139:1-14

The spiritual journey is a journey towards God. It is a journey in which we discover that we are beloved children of God and in which we learn to live our lives grounded in that reality. The Scriptures are given to instruct and guide us along this path. This afternoon I’m going to lay aside the gospel text, which is normally the focus of our preaching, to reflect on what the psalm has to teach us about God and about our journey towards God. If you’d like to follow along, Psalm 139 is found on page 794 of the Book of Common Prayer.

The psalms, which are so central to monastic worship, are a collection of poetic reflections on God and on God’s relationship with human beings.  In them,

the psalmists rejoice in the mystery and wonder of creation,

they praise and adore God for all that God is and does,

they lament their sins and seek God’s mercy,

they rage at injustice and call on God to act on their behalf and on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

There is hardly a human emotion or experience that is not represented somewhere in the psalms.

It’s not hard to imagine how these psalms came to be written: they are the fruit of prayer that arises from the lived experience of the authors of the people among whom they live. In this psalm, Psalm 139, the psalmist is meditating on a vision of God as the righteous judge – the one who knows, searches and tests human hearts; the one from whom nothing and no one can remain hidden. He stands before such a God in awe and wonder. “How deep I find your thoughts, O God!” he exclaims. “How great is the sum of them!” (v.16) “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.” (v.5)

The psalmist reflects on three ways in which God has sought him and known him.

First, in verses 1 through 5, he acknowledges that God knows whatever he thinks and does. God observes his inmost thoughts as well as his outward actions. God knows every word that he speaks, every thought that he thinks, every movement that he makes.

Secondly, in verses 6 through 11, the psalmist acknowledges that God is present to him wherever he is. He imagines a variety of places to which he could flee – to the heavens, to death and the grave, to the “uttermost parts of the sea,” into the darkness of the night – but he knows that God will be present with him in each of these places. There is no hiding from God. There is no place where God is not present.

Finally, in verses 12-16, the psalmist acknowledges that God was present to him from the moment of his existence, “while [he] was being made in secret” and “yet unfinished in the womb” (v.14,15).

This, then, is the truth this psalm places before us:

1st. Whatever we think or say or do, God knows. Nothing escapes God’s notice.

2nd. Wherever we go in life, outwardly in our bodies or inwardly in our minds and hearts, God is present. There is no place where God is not present. God inhabits every place and time.

3rd. God has known us from the very beginning of our lives.

As we pray at the beginning of the Eucharist: “to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…” God knows everything about us – every thought we have had, every word we have spoken, every feeling we have felt, every thing we have done or left undone – and God has known this from the very beginning of our lives. Nothing is hidden from God.

Now for some of us this may not seem like good news. In fact, we may find the news that God is everywhere present, that God sees and knows all that we do and say, that God is aware of our feelings, thoughts and motives, to be downright terrifying! But this awareness will only frighten us if the only God we know is the God of wrath, the one who judges our words and actions, and rewards or punishes us according to what we deserve. Most of us have a lot to fear from that kind of God.

It is not a bad thing to have a healthy and serious respect for God. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” we are told in the book of Proverbs (9:10). We are often encouraged in the Scriptures to “fear God” – that is, to hold God in great awe, reverence and respect. i The “fear of God” may well prompt us to do good and to avoid evil.

But these words are written by a psalmist who also knows himself to be loved by God. And when this knowledge is present – when it has not only been understood in the mind but also planted in the heart – then the news of God’s omnipotence and omnipresence brings comfort and consolation rather than terror and fear.

When we know that God knows everything about us and loves us, then we can affirm those things which are strong and good in our lives. God sees them, knows them, and delights in them. But we can also face those areas of our lives of which we are ashamed – our sins, our weaknesses and failures, our tendency to hurt others and to turn away from God. We can face these things honestly because we know that God knows. And in spite of knowing all these things, God’s love for us persists. God never gives up on us. We can find great joy and comfort in knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Do you carry within you a guilty secret? Are you aware of grievous faults and nasty sins that lie buried in your past? Are you ashamed of things you have thought or said or done? God knows about them. And God loves you – unconditionally!

Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer of the last century, writes…

What can we say about God’s love? We can say that God’s love is unconditional. God does not say, “I love you, if…” There are no ifs in God’s heart. God’s love for us does not depend on what we do or say, on our looks or intelligence, on our success or popularity. God’s love for us existed before we were born and will exist after we have died. God’s love is from eternity to eternity and is not bound to any time-related events or circumstances. ii

Nouwen goes on to remind us that God’s unconditional love does not mean that God does not care what we do or say.

God’s love wouldn’t be real if God didn’t care. To love without condition does not mean to love without concern… We often confuse unconditional love with unconditional approval. God loves us without conditions but does not approve of every human behavior. God doesn’t approve of betrayal, violence, hatred, suspicion, and all other expressions of evil, because they all contradict the love God wants to instill in the human heart. Evil is the absence of God’s love. Evil does not belong to God.

God’s unconditional love means that God continues to love us even when we say and think evil things. God continues to wait for us as a loving parent waits for the return of a lost child. It is important for us to hold on to the truth that God never gives up loving us even when God is saddened by what we do. That truth will help us to return to God’s ever-present love. iii

This is the great mystery that St Paul describes in his letter to the Romans. Like the psalmist, he tries to imagine any number of things that might separate us from God:

“Who will separate us from the love of God?” he asks. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Savior. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)

Those who belong to God and know themselves to be loved unconditionally by God find here great confidence and freedom. There is nothing that God does not know. There is no place where God is not present. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. Ever.

i Some examples: Dt 10:20, Ps 22:23, Ps 33:8, Ps 103:13, Ec 12:13, Lk 12:5.

ii Nouwen, Henri J.M.; Bread for the Journey; (San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1997); entry for February 5.

iii Ibid, entry for February 6.

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9 Comments

  1. Jennifer on September 5, 2014 at 08:25

    A beautiful meditation, and some of the comments were just as heart-piercing (“the foggy bridge leading from knowing I am loved by God to living it …–what a perfect image!).

  2. Wendy Tuck on July 6, 2013 at 08:35

    I realize our image of God is greatly shaped by our parental figures… My image of God is that He knows my heart and thoughts- I don’t know them myself- much is hidden. And my sense of God is that God is very indifferent, an observant witness, but I am not aware of Gos’s presence, peace, or comfort. Love and God don’t mix, for me. I pray to be able to love God… The best I can offer is to be interested. Crazy, isn’t it? Although Paul writes nothing can separate us from the love of God, he mentions the external things. There are inner attitudes and beliefs that block the love of God with excruciating effectiveness.

  3. george miller on July 2, 2013 at 22:43

    in case it helps here’s a quote from leonard cohen—“everything has a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in”….does it seem to you that we need to admit some vulnerability to let God in?

  4. George Wiley on July 2, 2013 at 09:28

    Br. David’s last paragraph above, especially the last sentences, are what I call Paul’s gospel of radical grace. We can know this gospel to be true in our heads, but we need to keep hearing it to convince our hearts. Some great moments in the church’s story have come when somebody rediscovered Paul’s gospel — Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Karl Barth.

  5. DLa Rue on July 2, 2013 at 07:42

    I choreographed this reading, a while ago. The gestures for the “hidden” and opening part were predictable, perhaps–arms bent deeply into the space over the head, head and upper torso curved forward, then a burst of the arms and the torso released.

    But doing it, especially that burst of opening outwards, never got tiring, always felt good and true and celebratory. It’s harder to do while turning, or running, or leaping, and those were part of the movement, too.

    But it was the bursting open that was the most fun.

  6. Ruth West on December 10, 2012 at 11:19

    Thank you, Br. David, for this wonderful message of truth. Truly God is present everywhere, but when we lose sight of His presence, we need to
    call upon Him to make us aware. In the Sarum Primer of 1514: “God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in mine eyes and in my looking; God be in my mouth, and in my speaking; God be in my heart, and in my thinking; God be at mine end, and in my departing.” This is my prayer.

  7. elizabeth on September 4, 2012 at 16:28

    The foggy bridge leading from knowing I am loved by God to living like it feels like the humility and gratitude in Psalm 139. But to get across, to say I am marvelously made and mean it – ? If I do, I’m transported – looked at with a look that thinks I’m beautiful when I know better. To meet Christ’s eyes in mine like he didn’t get the memo, hasn’t heard. Then to find out actually he did get the memo and is still looking at me like that, I fall on my knees. I ask Christ to make me what he sees.

  8. Katherine Clark on September 4, 2012 at 10:53

    I loved this Meditation, Brother David. God’s love abiding is the joy of a life-time, and knowing this love makes us able to look inward and ask forgiveness of our God whose forgiveness is sure. I think to some extent I have always known this, and yet I knew it most surely because of an experience I had before a large Icon of Christ Pantocrater that Br. Curtis brought to DeKoven’s Advent Retreat, probably about 1995. He told us at the late afternoon Meditation that he had placed this Icon in the chapel (our meditations were in the Library) and invited us to go in whenever we wanted and simply sit in front of it. On the way to supper, I glanced in at the Icon and was dismayed. The face seemed aristocratic, removed. I decided to wait until late in the night before going in to sit before that presence. Sometime after midnight I returned to the chapel and took my place. The candles were pulsing, the air very still, the house enormously quiet. The eyes of the Icon seemed to be piercing through me, not accusing — but certainly not excusing. I heard myself ask outloud: “Jesus, dear Lord Jesus, who do you say that I am?” The answer seemed to fill my whole self, inescapable: You are my beloved child. And I knew that it was so, and not just for me, but for everyone. I sat there in tears, overwhelmed with this knowing, thankful beyond thought or saying.

    But the story isn’t over. The next year at the same late afternoon meditation, another Brother announced that he had brought an Icon and had set it in the chapel. Again we were invited to go in whenever we wanted to, and just sit before it. And again I was afraid to go in. I knew I had to wait until the whole house was asleep. That time when I went down to the chapel and took my place before the Icon, I timidly raised my eyes to meet those eyes that had seemed so knowing and so piercing. To my surprise, the Icon had changed — the eyes were wide and filled with compassion. The face that had seemed to me so aristocratic was now alive with love, embracing, tender. This was my second experience with an Icon, but I also know the truth of what I have read: Icons invite us in, we are not simply beholding, but entering. Thank you, thank you for this meditation!

    • Mino Sullivan on July 2, 2013 at 10:26

      Thank you for sharing the moving story about your experience with Icons. Your words inspired me to take my Icon off the wall and sit with it. Today it spoke to me of being blessed, of my love and need to study and learn from scripture as a path to abundant life in Christ. Well see what tomorrow brings.

      Blessings

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