In the first half of 2014 I made an extended Bible study as part of my devotional time with God, re-reading Psalm 119 – known to some Bibletriviaphiles as the longest chapter and Psalm in Scripture. I’ve always had a particular fondness to it, since the little red Hodder and Stoughton NIV I carried almost everyday at secondary school habitually fell open there, in the Psalms, and the second section, ‘How can a young man keep his way pure?’, spoke to me very directly.
But reading it again in the light of the path of my last two years, I’ve gained a great deal by doing more than silently thinking on it. Pray-reading has become part of my devotional discipline since May, so praying this Psalm aloud, speaking God’s truth back to Him, meant that it became more important as I gave it more power in me. (If you are unfamiliar with the discipline of pray-reading, you may know the lectio divina of the catholic tradition.) Around Christmas when I talked with my Dad, he also made a comment that Jesus, raised to know and love scripture, would have had the Psalms as his prayer and songbook – so to read them as he would have read them, letting David’s ‘I’ become directly prophetic of Jesus’ daily walk, puzzling and wondering on what gospel occasions he might have prayed these very words, reading them like this has also given them a real depth. If anything, the solemnity with which these prayers and poems were used by Jesus inspires me to treat them the same.
And at the same time I’ve experienced a re-awakening of my spiritual life, as God has brought about great changes in my life. Realising that my life’s greatest work will always be the fitting of myself for heaven – the sacrifice of my self to Jesus – the altering of my walk from a selfish one to a holy one – has meant I have discovered a new passion and insight for the wonderful work of sanctification that God works in us through the Holy Spirit. And in Psalm 119 I have found a step-by-step account of sanctification in the believer.
At the same time as studying and praying these words I have also been making real decisions about my life and acting upon them. The last year has seen my engagement to be married and my movement from employed work to self-employed work. In walking this way, Psalm 119 has been a direct guide to my thoughts and words.
To begin a brief overview of the Psalm, a word about revelation. I have learnt to distinguish between the knowledge that we can gain in our minds – the understanding of facts, causes, purposes and events that engages our intellect and our reason – from the deep understanding and knowledge that is born in the spirit. One is worldly, the other heavenly, one will pass, the other will remain forever. Intellectual understanding can lead to revelation – but it does not cause it – for revelation to the spirit of a believer is the gracious gift of God. Let me explain a little more: it is quite possible to know something to be true – for example, the promise of Jesus in Matthew 6 that our Father in heaven will provide for us – and yet to have no conviction of this and to fail to act upon it in any way so that your manner is different to those who have no faith. It is possible to understand that Jesus rose from the dead and do nothing about it – to intellectually think that this is the most reasonable reading of the evidence – and not to have it touch your heart or change the manner of your life. It is possible to know many things… But when a lesson sinks deep to touch your spirit, you must act on it – it is unbearable not to. So we see those who are moved to act in pity and love and give all their energy to charitable work when we who know that it is valuable do not. What is the difference between them and us? That their understanding is a spiritual understanding – that it is more than their head knowing that this is true, but their very being assents to it.
This then is real teaching, real education. This is also real growth. No-one – in this life – can bear all, and we need not feel guilty for not being touched or moved by those things that move others. But conviction within us can be a sign that our spirit longs to be involved – and that conviction is God’s greatest gift to us for daily guidance.
So when reading Scripture we are instructed not simply to look at it, think about it and apply it theoretically, but to actively invite revelation.
How can we do this? How can we overcome ourselves and make ourselves available to God – for in his mercy and grace, he is always willing to give?
Firstly we must ask – with words and actions. He may expect us to ‘prove’ that we are ready – which may actually consist of acting, physically, to replace the normally dominant mind with a more balanced internal hierarchy, in which the Spirit of God within us calls to God our Father. Personally, I aim for this rebalancing through the following spiritual disciplines: prayer walks, when in the country; prayer in tongues, when travelling, feeling short of time, in company, or wanting to include some daily act such as preparing food as part of my prayer; kneeling, bowing and lying down, when in congregation or in private, to express my awe and obedience particularly; singing, in almost all circumstances; dancing, in privacy and increasingly in congregation; pray-reading or lectio-divina, which is challenging but very valuable; making a sacrifice of time, money or something valuable to me by giving it away, less frequently than I should!
In general, the revelation I have received from the Psalm is this: obedience to God’s law, which we now understand in the new covenant, changes a person so as to bring about decisive action in them, which in turn leads to experience, often struggles and suffering as we overcome the remaining human nature and become less worldly, but these pains allow us to understand with our spirit and receive God’s revelation, which makes us more like Jesus, our perfect model, and makes us more dependent upon God’s Word, which we need to teach us the more we find the wisdom of the world will not suit our changed way of life, and also causes us to enjoy and desire God’s law with greater fervour, bringing about more obedience. To me, this is a beautifully clear teaching method that can never be completed in this life, only the speed of our travel upon the path changed, for once engaged, the effects upon us are indelible. It is the work of re-creation, of sanctification in its simplicity and beauty and starkness and severity. At times, God wishes to show us subtle things, at others, to confront us with harsh truths and necessary sacrifices. And his simple entry route for us is pure obedience – to believe in God and in the one he has sent.