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.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.