Who am I? Psalm 139 gives a sublime answer

Who am I? Who are we? How can we even begin to navigate these questions?

I don’t know who needs to read these words, but I pray that they will reach many who are finding life distressing, overwhelming, and as though they are fighting a hopeless battle against despair.

This week I’ve been meditating on a prayer, Psalm 139. It is both poetry and prayer, communicating extraordinary truths about both God and us. It will be my privilege to teach Psalm 139  at Mentone Baptist Church on the first Sunday of 2023.  But I thought I would preempt this upcoming sermon and share some reflections on this Psalm of David here on the blog.

I am hearing so many stories of people struggling with mental health issues, men and women trying to understand questions about personal identity and worth, and families trying to keep everything together in the midst of financial hardship. 

Today, The Age headlined this story, ‘Mental health disorders increase among children as young as 18 months’. Yesterday, the media reported the dire situation facing families trying to access mental health care for their children.

There is also much anger and distrust being vented in society; much of it is justified, while some is misplaced. Far from communities becoming closer together, we are becoming more fractious.

Just as lurking behind the excitement and successes of the Football World Cup are terrible injustices and abuses, underneath the veneer of Australia’s prosperity are millions of Aussies feeling lost and searching for meaning and hope.

This is where Psalm 139 offers us insights into God and ourselves that are wonderful and necessary, poignant and so refreshing. My aim here isn’t to offer a detailed explanation of every word or sentence, but hopefully to say something of use that will encourage you the reader to ponder the words of Psalm 139 yourself, and even to share it with others.

The author of this prayer is David, the famous King of Israel. Despite his position ruling over a nation, he addresses God in a personal way. For David, God isn’t a remote or abstract Divine Being who is somewhere responsible for everything. He calls God, ‘Lord’, which is God’s special name given to his covenant people for them to address Him. To know God as Lord is to enjoy a personal connection and relationship with Him.

The Psalm consists of 4 stanzas. I’ll quote each stanza in turn, and offer a brief comment about each one. 

1. God knows us intimately

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

This is a message that’s worth us getting our heads around: We are not unknown to God. In fact, David recognises how the Lord knows him better than David knows himself. We all have someone idea about our deepest convictions, desires, fears, and joys. We have some ability to hide aspects of our personality and ambitions from others. We might even successfully block out aspects of hearts from our own consciousness. 

God however sees everything. He wouldn’t be much of a God if he doesn’t. David talks about how God peers into our minds and knows our thoughts. He knows what I’m going say before the words leave my tongue. This isn’t some spooky kind of trolling, but a picture of God who both understands us and who cares for us. For example, the metaphor in verse 5 of, ‘you lay your hand upon me, speaks of a gentleness and love that is active in God toward us. 

I love David’s reaction in verse 6.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

He isn’t just saying that this is an intellectual absurdity and therefore cannot be true. David’s point is,  ‘God, you blow my mind’.  God is above him in wisdom and comprehension. Einstein and Mozart are like simpletons, compared to the mind of God. This knowledge is formidable but not scary because this personal knowing is from the God who cares for us. This knowledge brings David comfort and assurance; God understands me.

2. We can’t hide from God.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”

12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Jonah famously tried to do a runner and escape God, as though we can outstride or out-think God. As David exclaims, where can we hide from the God who made the universe? In our bedroom? In the desert? Under the ocean? What if I close my mind to God and eat the key? 

Running away from God is futile and David knows it. As he considers the God of the Bible, he doesn’t want to remove God but instead rest in Him. Because God is truly God, we are safe in Him.

3. You made me

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.

These verses are replete with exquisite images that fill life with meaning and awe. Take for example, the stunning metaphor in verse 13, ‘God knitted us together in the womb.’

No wonder, David’s mind is again blown away, 

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!

18 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

These words are true not only for David but also for every human being. This testimony has profound meaning and implications for how we view other people and also ourselves. 

As the artist is devoted to his/her work and as a composer imprints their own glory in the music, so each and every human being has intrinsic value, glory and worth. Monet’s Water Lilies were no mistake and Schumann’s Piano Concerto was no misstep or blunder. You are not a gaffe or error. You are not a waste. You are not insignificant. We are profoundly known and loved by our creator God. 

4. God, change me

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
    Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!

20 They speak of you with evil intent;
    your adversaries misuse your name.

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
    and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?

22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
    I count them my enemies.

I appreciate how these verses may make some of us cringe or feel a little uncomfortable. Aren’t we meant to forgive everyone? Should we not look for the best in people?  

There are a number of threads appearing in this final stanza, which are each true and somehow need to be held together despite apparent tensions or even contradictions with other parts of the Bible. 

  1. David is expressing to God how he is feeling as he reacts to enemies who are seeing his demise. 
  2. It’s okay to long for justice and for God to punish evil. We don’t want evil to win out in the end, but for wrongdoing to be punished, whether the perpetrators are individuals or corporations or institutions. Asking God to bring justice and to judge wickedness is an entirely right and good prayer. Christians may not stop at that point, for we also long for mercy and forgiveness, but we also believe in and trust in God who is righteous and who will hold the world account.
  3. David’s enemies were often political, whether rebels attempting to usurp his throne or competing nations who waged war against Israel.  David’s prayer reflects the system of government that existed and set the boundaries of God’s people at that particular time. This isn’t our situation today.  The Church isn’t a nation-state or system of government. As we discover in the New Testament, our King is the true David, Jesus Christ. When churches are oppressed, our answer isn’t to go to war or to hunt down assassins, but “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14) and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” Luke 6:27).   
  4. It is important to continue reading as the Psalm doesn’t end at verse 22, but with verses 23-24. David doesn’t end on a note of vengeance but with a plea for God to examine his (my) own heart.

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

It seems as though David’s aware that strong emotions can be misleading, and mixed up, and that he himself might have sin lurking about in his own life. David is praying, Lord is, sift through my prayer because you know what’s true and what’s not true, and where I’m right and where I’m wrong. You are able to do this because you know me well.  Where and if there’s anything offensive in me, lead away from it and to the way everlasting. 

David isn’t self-righteous or strident or judgmental. His prayer is, Lord, change me. This is of course a far cry from our cultural sermons which defines change as heterodox. Our prayers today are less, ‘Lord, change me, they are more often, ‘God affirm everything about me’. Our 21st Century prayers often finish at verse 22, judge my oppressors and justify me. 

No wonder our streets and suburbs are filling with growing vexation, anxiety, and melancholy. The burden we are placing on ourselves is too great. 

This Psalm can speak both of wonderment and of wrong. Wonderment in God who made us and wrong in what others do and even what I have done. Our culture can’t sustain this tension. The Bible is able to both speak of immense value and worth of every human being and also remind us of profound sinfulness. Any time when we hold onto one of these truths and not the other, we are only a short journey away from an identity crisis and social catastrophe. David was conscious of both and he found resolution and peace in the fact that hope isn’t found in himself, but in a God who can be trusted. 

The ultimate and final fulfilment of this Psalm is found in that little child born in Bethlehem whom millions around Australia will soon be singing about as Christmas approaches. 

The book of Hebrews reminds us,

“we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:9-11)

All children are a blessing

During last night’s debate between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese, a mother of a young autistic boy asked a question about funding,

“I have a four-year-old autistic son, we are grateful to receive funding under the NDIS. I have heard many stories from people having their funding cut under the current government, including my own. 

‘I’ve been told that to give my son the best future, I should vote Labor. Can you tell me what the future of the NDIS looks like under your government?”

Mr Morrison replied, “Jenny and I have been blessed. We’ve got two children who haven’t had to go through that.” 

Within a nanosecond, social media filled up with anger, and fair enough. Did Australia’s Prime Minister really say what we heard him say about children with disabilities?

I’m pretty sure Scott Morrison misspoke. I don’t think Scott Morrison believes that children with disabilities are not a blessing. There is in some Pentecostal circles some pretty awful theology when it comes to understanding suffering but I suspect Morrison wasn’t mimicking those terrible and wrongful beliefs. Rather, I suspect he was trying to convey thankfulness for healthy children. Are parents not thankful for when our children are healthy and doing well? I assume this is the kind of thing Scott Morrison was thinking and meant to say. Nonetheless, his actual words were wrong and parents are understandably offended by them. 

As one Labor Senator said last night, 

“I found it really offending and quite shocking, and it is something that people who have a disability, children with autism, it is a kind of response they get all the time,” she said.

“That people are blessed not to have what they have when, in actual fact, every child is a blessing.

“Certainly my daughter enriches my life and my partner’s life every day”

I am reminded of how Jesus welcomed young children, despite his irritated disciples trying to move them away,

 “People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”

There is something profoundly good and human about a society that welcomes, protects, and provides for children. There is something beautiful about recognising the imago dei in others, especially in those who are different to ourselves in some way.

There is also an air of hypocrisy amidst today’s public outcry. Some of the very voices calling out Scott Morrison also support the killing of unborn children. Some who are angrily tweeting have actively legislated to legalise abortion, even up to birth. 

Thousands of children are aborted in Australia every year on account of them being diagnosed with a condition of some kind. Indeed, in some countries, certain disabilities are becoming rare because they are being wiped out in the womb. The shocking reality in Australia is that all children are a blessing, apart from those who are deemed unworthy of living. 

This is the grotesque outworking of the utilitarian ethics of Peter Singer and others. Professor Singer is renowned for his support of killing the disabled. In 2007, writing for the New York Times,  Peter Singer suggests that the life of a dog or cat has more value and ‘dignity’ than a human being with limited cognitive faculties. He even argued that an unborn child only has value insofar as they are wanted by their parents. In other words, the baby does not hold inherent worth but holds importance because of the value attached by others.

she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her“.

I hope this logic sounds abhorrent to you, but understand, that this is the ethical framework supported by our culture and by the law. 

I am still horrified by what a doctor once said to Susan and me. During the pregnancy of one of our children, we were having a checkup and the doctor informed us that our child might potentially carry an illness (and not a particularly serious one), and in light of that possibility did we want to continue with the pregnancy? 

If all children are a blessing, and indeed they are, why does our society legalise and even celebrate the destruction of so many of these little ones? 

The Psalmist shouts out what is true of all children, 

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” (Psalm 139)

It shouldn’t need saying, but all children are a blessing: the youngest and the oldest, those who are healthy and those who are ill, those who are strong and those needing special help. We thank God for them and we ask God for grace, strength, patience, and wisdom as we care for and nurture our children.

It is refreshing to see how a poorly expressed sentence by our Prime Minister has been turned into many words of affirmation toward children with disabilities and difficulties.  Love and reality press against the utilitarian and selfish individualism that so often captures sex and relationships and family today. Let us remember that all “children are a blessing and a gift from the Lord.” (Psalm 127:3 CEV)

Australians turning to the USA to find the ideal baby

Australian couples are turning to the United States to help them find the ideal child.

Among all the questions that Susan and I talked about and thought over as we considered having children, not once did we ask, ‘what coloured eyes would we prefer our children to have?’  Such contemplation would not find entry into the top 1000 questions that we asked ourselves about the children we hoped to have the privilege of raising and loving.

kelly-sikkema-692353-unsplash

An article published by the Herald Sun over the weekend revealed that hundreds of Australian couples are paying up to $20,000 for ‘designer babies’.   Australian couples are utilising the services made available at Fertility Clinics across the United States, to siphon out babies who don’t fit with their dream baby. Most common, parents are screening for gender, deciding whether they wish to have a girl or boy. There are also cases where parents are selecting their child’s eye colour; in fact, there is now an 18-month waiting list for this screening test.

Journalist Natasha Bita reported that “Controversially, it claims that Australian medicos are co-operating with the offshore clinic…The NHMRC yesterday warned it would be illegal for Australian doctors to co-­operate with foreign clinics offering selection for gender or eye colour.”

Brisbane geneticist Professor David Coman is right when he said, this is a case of “eugenics” and it is “grossly inappropriate in the Australian culture”.

The Oxford Dictionary defines eugenics as, “the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.”

What these “desirable heritable characteristics” are, will vary depending on the culture and the dominant moral narrative of the day. Eugenics has been advocated and practiced in many cultures, perhaps most infamously in Nazi Germany during the 1930s-40s. One difference today is the greater wealth of scientific knowledge made available to medical experts for identifying all kinds of details pertaining to an individual human being from its earliest moments of life in the womb (or petrie dish as it may be). Technology is a useful servant, and it can create greater destruction than the hammer of Thor. Too often, what is discerned as possible through science, soon afterward becomes a moral commitment; we can therefore let us do.

Thank God that many forms of eugenics are currently banned in Australia, and yet the door has already swung wide open as doctors test for all manner of ailments and give parents permission to keep or to kill, based on whether they wish to have a child with a potential illness. No doubt some parents use this information to help prepare them for parenthood, while others use diagnoses to determine whether they will keep the pregnancy or not.

What happens to those embryos who don’t fit the parents’ requirements, whether it is the ‘right’ gender or even the ‘right’ coloured eyes? Are these little ones given another chance or are they discarded into a rubbish bin, like we would with a piece of fruit that is past is best used by date?

Are children to be loved unconditionally or should they be viewed as a valuable commodity, selected and loved like the family pet. Should a parent’s love for their children be measured by gender or by disability or by how many fingers or toes are counted? Is a child to be more or less valued because of their DNA or potential chromosomal abnormality? Should we really take into account the colour of a baby’s eyes? Australian culture is drifting far from the worldview of Psalm 139.

“For you created my inmost being;

    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    your works are wonderful,

    I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you

    when I was made in the secret place,

    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;

    all the days ordained for me were written in your book

    before one of them came to be.”

Our society has moved a long way from holding fast to these ancient words, words which delight in the life of every image-bearer of God. It is liberating Psalm, for the dignity of each person is not contingent upon the value attributed by another person or social opinion, but by the fact of ontology.

Popular threads on social media and in the news will downplay the wonder of Psalm 139 and instead elevate the freedom of others to choose life or death. The practice is revealing uncomfortable truths that can’t be denied, despite clamorous noises trying to ignore and/or downplay:

  • The majority of babies aborted are girls
  • Babies diagnosed with possible physical abnormalities are many times more likely to be aborted than those without
  • In parts of America, such as New York State, the number of African-American babies being aborted is greater than those who are born.
  • Most late-term abortions are not performed because the baby’s or mother’s life is at risk.

Most of these examples are forms of eugenics. We may avoid the language due to its historical associations, but it is nonetheless the practice of controlling breeding in order to increase desired social outcomes.

Psalm 139  reveals a complex anthropology. For while the Psalmist glorifies God for the wonder of life in the womb, he also calls for God to intervene against those who shed blood. It is as though those who destroy human life are hypocrites, denying their own humanity as they refuse it in others.

“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.” (verses 19-22)

The Psalmist, however, does not end with this view of retribution but turns to his own situation and asks God to make known to him things that are unacceptable and unbecoming in his own life.

“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”. (verses 23-23)

The point is this, we are quick to judge nations around us for their discrimination and violence, but we are slow to acknowledge our own participation in the dehumanisation project. Instead, we have resolved to justifying ourselves in manipulating and even taking life. We allege that “it’s an act of mercy…the cost would be too great…the parents may not cope”.

Even we Christians who speak to the dignity of every human life, ever for us, especially us, we must ask of God, “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”. When this process of Divine examination begins, we remember that our own faults and offences are great, so hideous that they demanded a bloody cross to bring redemption and peace. In other words, the Psalmist’s anger, although justified, leads to personal reflection and repentance; not only damning culture but offering a better paradigm. With this in mind, Christians have something worth offering. Just as Christians once challenged the Roman practice of infanticide by quietly loving and saving the unwanted, let us consider how we can counter the growing and dreadful practice of eugenics.