Summer is almost here (for real this time) and I can’t wait. The school year is coming to a close and soon we’ll be traveling and adventuring the days away!
One of my favorite things about traveling is visiting historical sites. The old buildings and artifacts are cool, but mostly I am fascinated with the faces. Old photographs draw me in as I stare into a person’s eyes and wonder what life was like for them. I’d love to go back in time and ask them some questions: Were they satisfied with their life? What did they believe about God and their purpose? And most importantly, why weren’t any of them ever smiling? Was life really that hard?
In 2018, when a camera is held up to our faces, it’s almost instinct to “Say cheese!”. But when people in previous centuries posed for a portrait, curving their lips and showing their pearly whites was not their first reaction.
Since happiness is currently our culture’s highest aspiration, we prefer to be portrayed in photographs as cheerful. But in the past, a smile in a picture came across as goofy or even inappropriate. It was preferred, rather, that one appear dignified and noble.
Author Mark Twain was quoted saying, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.” Though today we capture our own image on a daily (or maybe more than daily) basis, having your photograph taken was once a rare – possibly once in a lifetime – experience. If this was the only portrait ever taken of you, it was important to represent yourself and your legacy well!
The people in old photographs aren’t the only people I have questions for, I also have some questions for David about Psalm 139. This beautiful song begins with 18 verses of admiration for God’s intricate work in creating human life (“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” v. 14). These words are foundational to what we believe about God’s intimate knowledge of human beings (“You are familiar with all my ways” v. 4) and to our understanding of the constant presence of His Spirit (“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” v. 7). The closing verses of the Psalm (v. 23-24) bring it home as David asks God to continue to deepen their relationship by searching and leading him.
But as I’ve used this Psalm in messages or studies over the years, I’ve had to say “Read Psalm 139:1-18 and 23-24” because verses 19-22 don’t seem to fit. After elaborating on the value of human life, David suddenly switches his tone and says this:
If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
What’s up with that? David, my friend, you could have done me a huge favor if you had just skipped this part!
As Christians we love to do what I do with Psalm 139 and skip the parts that make us uncomfortable. We know our sin is all forgiven, so it’s easy to lump it all together as one and believe it’s all taken care of as one. When we sense conviction from a pastor’s message, a fellow believer’s correction, or even a critic’s ounce-of-truth assessment, we prefer to skip over it, and put on our “Praise God! It’s all forgiven anyway!” smile for God and others.
But no one’s believing that cheese.
Believe it or not, David’s rant in Psalm 139:19-22 is a natural progression from the preceding verses. If the value of life is so great that God would “knit me together in my mother’s womb” (v. 13) and have “all the days ordained for me… written in your book before one of them came to be” (v. 16), then the “bloodthirsty” (those who would try to take that God-created life) are enemies of God. And if David was to be after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), then the “thoughts” of God were to become “precious” to him (v. 17), making the “bloodthirsty” his enemies, too.
Verses 23-24 are then the next step in that progression:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Not only were the “bloodthirsty,” who wanted to take a physical life, enemies of God, but the sin in David’s heart was just as dangerous. If David’s thoughts were going to be in line with God’s, he needed to accept that the sin in his own heart had the potential to be as “bloodthirsty” and life-threatening as those who were hunting him down. Aware of the deceitfulness of his own sin, David asked God for the wisdom to help him see it.
When I look at my children, I acknowledge that I would go to any length to protect their lives from harm – an enemy of theirs is an enemy of mine! But as a child of God, wonderfully woven together by His careful hand, would I go to the same lengths to protect myself from the sin that threatens me? Part of valuing myself as a creation is hating anything that tries to damage this creation.
Lumping my sin together as ‘all taken care of’ without asking God to search my heart and dissect that lump to reveal “any offensive way in me,” is like looking into God’s camera and giving Him a “silly, foolish smile”. Ignored sin can’t become hated sin and sin I’m not fully aware of can only become my enemy when I drop the cheese and allow Him to show it to me.
Speaking of my children, since the day they were born, I’ve been obsessed with taking photos of them. Getting all three of them to look at the camera and smile at the same time is a little easier now that they’re older, but it used to be nearly impossible. There were times when it took 20 or more attempts to get it right… and then I would end up using the first shot I took anyway! You know why? Because the longer they tried to hold their fake smiles, the cheesier they got.
We can’t fool an all-knowing God with our fake smiles, but the longer we hold them up, the more we fool ourselves. Putting on a happy face has become instinct in our social-media-driven culture, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of convincing ourselves that our sin is “all good”. But every day we have the opportunity to drop the cheese and ask God to be brutally honest by showing us an accurate portrait of our hearts:
God, I want my heart to align with Yours and in order for that to happen, I need to see my sin for what it really is. Search me today, point out any offensive way in me, and lead me in Your way everlasting. Amen.