Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

September 2001
Too trivial for God?
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column PSALM 143 is a cry of help from David to God. Christians love to appropriate its verses and others like them for their own spiritual walks. Like verse 8: "Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul." Or verse 10: "Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground."

We want to take those pleas and promises and apply them to ourselves. But I am not God's one chosen and anointed king over all Israel, and I don't have enemies within my circle of colleagues who are literally plotting to kill me and take my place, nor are foreign powers conspiring against me. Much of the psalm does not literally apply to my condition – is it a mistake to read it as if the remedies do literally apply to me?

The psalmist would regard my life and circumstances as bliss compared to his own. He prays for God to lead him to some patch of level ground. By contrast, my life has been levelled, graded, paved, marked with roadsigns and lined with guard rails.

And yet, I do, fairly often, want to cry out to God that, even if for different reasons, "my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed" (verse 4). There are even times when I want to say with the Contemporary English Version "I have given up hope and I feel numb all over."

WHY DO I FEEL this way? I think sometimes: how dare I feel this way? What right have I to claim either these expressions of real danger and genuine anguish for my toy problems and petty fears? Terry Taylor of one of my favourite bands (Daniel Amos) writes: "Our trial is which car to buy... temptation is that extra dessert."

How outraged does God feel that we apply the psalmist's pleas for deliverance to such terrible situations as sitting in our cars in traffic jams on the way home from our holidays?

Can we apply such psalms to our lives?

I think we can and must. When I compare my problems to those of the early Christians or even to contemporary Christians in Indonesia or Afghanistan, it's sobering – like a slap in the face. But I mustn't get into the frame of mind that "their problems are the real ones and mine are only imaginary". For their problems are merely symptoms just as some of mine are – symptoms of the real evil and symptoms of the frustration to which the whole of creation (including the level and well-marked places) is genuinely subject.

As I contemplate my life in light of the psalm, I must identify my enemies, dangers and problems realistically. I must also, as the psalmist does, meditate on what God has done for me and be grateful. Are my problems real? If not, I should deal with that. If they are real, but just less dangerous or severe than David's, how much more easily can God overcome them.

ONE OF MY main problems is thinking of God in human terms... thinking that what he wants is to get us all above some spiritual poverty level. I shouldn't ask for help when there are people so much worse off than I. As if his resources were limited; as if he won't be able help folks who really need it if he's concentrating on me. Those are my limitations, not his, and good reasons why my prayers should concentrate on others and not just me. But we must have no doubt that he wants what is best for me as well as for others – what's best, not just some emergency room patch-up that will hold me while he deals with the more needy.

There are real problems with the glib appropriation of the promises of scripture for my own relatively trivial needs. The answer, I think, lies not in using scripture less in my life, but in spending more time seeing the parts of scripture that do apply to directly to me (such as "from whom much is given, much will be required") and more time acknowledging and addressing the real and greater needs of other people in other parts of the world.

Instead of spending time looking for answers to *our* problems in scripture, we should be looking for ways to become God's answers to other people's problems.

I may not be the chosen King of Israel, but I am – we are – chosen. My worries do not usually mean life and death for myself, much less jeopardize the future of God's chosen people, but they often are real manifestations of the same corruptions and frustrations to which creation is subject for now. As in Psalm 143:12: In your unfailing love for even me, silence my enemies; destroy all my foes; for I am your servant.

Whoops... did I say "servant"? Now what might that imply?

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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