This is part of a syndicated series for Lent 2019 with Harvard’s Christian Journal Ichthus. Visit Ichthus at http://www.harvardichthus.org
By Allen Lai ’20. Allen is a junior in Quincy House concentrating in Chemistry and Physics.
Before reading this, please take the time to read all of Psalm 63. These are the words of one who truly longs for God, desires nothing more than the presence and love of God – a man after God’s own heart. As you read, please take the time to reflect on the images which the Psalmist uses to convey the intensity of his need for God, and also his description of his experience of the character of God. Also take note of the tenses of the verbs in the English translation, whether they are in present, past, or future tense.
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Would that every one of us longed for the presence of the Lord with the yearning of the Psalmist! Our souls were made for him, to be satisfied only in him. He is the fuel on which our spirits run, and it is due to the deceptions of sin and by the devil that causes us to forget this day by day. We need to abide in the presence of the living God more than we need sleep, food, and water.
Imagine for a moment how long you could live a healthy, happy life without sleep. Without food? Without water? I think very soon every reader can imagine him or herself becoming cranky, constantly thinking about his or her lack of that need, and at its logical extreme suffering some health problem that resulted from the lack of these things. It is an appalling sign of how sin has warped our desires and spiritual senses, therefore, that many of us can go so long without seeking the presence of the Lord, for our need for God is even more fundamental than our need for these things. Why can I so easily imagine myself feeling okay after having not prayed to the Lord for a week but not imagine myself alive without sleeping for a week? Why is it that I can go without reading the Word, of which Christ said man shall live by every word from the mouth of God, for a week without viscerally feeling the spiritual decay of my soul? In fact, the condition of our soul in the absence of God is just as much (or worse) spiritual death as when we deprive our physical bodies.
David felt the thirst for God in his soul. He recognized his soul was dry and weary, waterless if without the Lord. His flesh fainted for the living God, and he earnestly sought him in a manner befitting of one pursuing the King of kings. Where was the origin of his desire? It says in the following verse:
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
The Psalmist longed to see God the way that he did when he was in the sanctuary of God, worshipping with the congregation and what struck him there was the Lord’s power and glory. The title attached to the Psalm 63 identifies it as having been written while David was in the wilderness, presumably fleeing from his enemies. This makes his longing all the more poignant as he writes in the past tense, in exile from the covenantal congregational worship of God at his tabernacle. For David to say, O God, you are my God meant so much more than just a statement of his allegiance, as it made the claim that the LORD, the God whose presence dwelt around the tabernacle was still his God despite his physical separation from it. Do we value our access to the sanctuary in this way? And when we go to church services what do we see? Are we looking for God’s power and glory?
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips; when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wing I will sing for joy.
Here is a soul’s profound satisfaction in God. Note how it leads the Psalmist to praise, and joyfully desire to worship God all his days! Today there are many modern worship songs written that are almost indistinguishable from love songs. Though some of these songs are theologically questionable or imprecise, I think the satisfaction and emotional delight that other such songs express may be an appropriate attitude to have towards our relationship with our God. Here the Psalmist is describing a relationship that is inexpressible by prose alone – the intimacy of the relationship is such that he can write “your steadfast love is better than life … my soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,” phrasing that might be suited for speaking to a lover. Indeed, all romantic relationships, ultimately properly realized in marriage, are meant to point to our covenantal relationship with God, the engagement between God and his Bride the Church.
So here with the Psalmist let the saints declare,
Take the world, but give me Jesus,
All its joys are but a name;
But His love abideth ever,
Through eternal years the same.
All I need is You
All I need is You Lord
Is You Lord
I want to know You
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You more
I want to touch You
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more
What would it look like to pursue God in this way? First, desiring God like a lover would meant that we honor our commitments to him much more seriously than most of us probably currently do. Imagine if I had a girlfriend, and we planned to go on dates every weekend, but I was always ten minutes late every time. Making a significant other wait for a date is inexcusable, but how many of us do this with God? How many of us arrive to church ten minutes late every week (forgive me, O Lord!). And how much more serious is this if the person on the other end of the relationship is the Lord of the universe!
Or even more, how often do we pray? Just imagine if we spent the same amount of time that we would spend talking, texting, or thinking about a significant other talking to God! A Sunday School teacher of mine once compared the Bible to a very long love letter sent from a husband to his wife, on an extended journey. This letter was structured as a literary masterpiece conveying something important about himself to his wife. How sad would the husband be to find that his wife never gave it much thought, or never read all of it! If we read the Bible with the writer and his intention in mind, seeing Scripture as a beautiful work of art written by someone we trust and who we care a lot about, then I think this would change our attitude towards how we read the Word, and our willingness to listen and accept what it shows us about God and his laws for us.
If we thought of the Lord as a significant other, then I think we would pay much more attention to his commandments, not out of duty but out of love. To give a related example, if I had a lifestyle choice that continually bothered my best friends, even if it were difficult, I would seriously try to change it out of love for my friends. This would be because I cared about our friendship more than I wanted that something for myself. Also, even if sometimes the way that they convey their annoyance was sometimes strong, I would contextualize that in our friendship and would not be offended by it. Similarly, when the Bible gives commands, if we recognize the Lord as our Bridegroom who is omniscient and is concerned for our wellbeing, it becomes much easier to obey out of love, and defer to his greater knowledge in trust that the Lord has our best in mind.
There is one more aspect of common Christian behavior that I think would need to be rethinked if we loved God as much we do our earthly loves. If we had a person who we greatly admired, we would tend to speak about that person all the time – what they did, what they liked, etc. But somehow it becomes hard to do this for God, and people are often hesitant and afraid to speak about Christ (although there are admittedly differences, particularly in how God is perceived)! I often find myself justifying subtler methods of evangelism, while continuing to talk about earthly topics I enjoy with much more zeal than I speak of the all-loving, living Creator God. Charles Spurgeon in his commentary on Psalm 63 in Treasury of David says this:
“Is it possible that any man should love another and not commend him, nor speak of him? … And can it stand with love for Christ, yet seldom or never to speak of him nor of his love, never to commend him unto others, that they may fall in love with him also? … I tell you, it will be one main reason why you desire to live, that you may make the Lord Jesus known to your children, friends, acquaintance, that so in the ages to come his name might ring, and his memorial might be of sweet odor, from generation to generation.”
Today, the perception of Christian doctrines regarding desire might primarily bring to mind those prohibiting certain illicit manifestations of desires. However, rather than emphasizing the suppression of sinful desires, Christianity has taught being filled by greater, heavenly desires. Jonathan Edwards in his sermon “Spiritual Appetites Need No Bounds”:
“And with respect to those [spiritual] appetites, self-denial has nothing to do; but here they may give themselves an unbounded liberty … There is no such thing as inordinateness in holy affections; there is no such thing as excess in longings after the discoveries of the beauty of Christ Jesus, greater degrees of holiness, or the enjoyment of communion with God. Men may be as covetous as they please (if I may so speak) after spiritual riches, as eager as they please to heap up treasure in heaven, as ambitious as they pleasure of spiritual and eternal honor and glory, and as voluptuous as they please with respect to spiritual pleasure. Persons neither need nor ought to keep those inclinations and desires from increasing to any degree whatsoever, and there cannot be a too frequent or too powerful exercise of them … By all means, endeavor to raise and to obtain satisfaction for holy inclinations; delight yourselves in the Lord … One would think you should not need urging to indulge your appetites and to enjoy your pleasures. Carnal men, by all the argument that can be used, can scarcely be restrained from indulging their carnal appetites. ‘Tis a shame that the saints should need a great many arguments to move them to promote their spiritual appetites … Endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by keeping yourself out of the way of [sinful] allurement … but we ought to take all opportunities to lay ourselves in the way of enticement with respect to our gracious inclinations.”
(cited from the Sex and Spirituality Manual by Nick Nowalk, p.129)
C.S. Lewis writes in his essay The Weight of Glory,
“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
And in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
The Lord himself is a little bewildered by our ineffective and foolish attempts to satisfy our desires by mere earthly things. Isaiah 55 says,
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David” (verses 1-3).
In other words, the same steadfast love that David spoke of in Psalm 63 God also offers to every one of us! God sent his Son Jesus into the world as the bread of life. As Moses once said that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), so Jesus is The Word (John 1:1), who said of himself, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Today, we have the realization of that which David could only hope and long for – let us delight unashamedly and fully in Christ, O my brothers and sisters!
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; they shall be given over to the power of the sword; they shall be a portion for jackals. But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exalt, for the mouth of liars will be stopped.
Here the Psalmist returns to using the present tense. Except for the first verse, in which he earnestly sought and thirsted for God, and in the sixth, in which he remembers the Lord upon his bed, all the content of this psalm has been either recalling the faithfulness of God in the past (verses two and seven) or looking towards the future. This too serves as a model for us – today we can long to seek Christ earnestly, remember him from when we rise to when we sleep, and cling to the Lord. And the Lord responds immediately: of all the promises to us, the one that he makes in the present tense is that his right hand upholds us. The Lord our God is with us wherever we go (Joshua 1:9).
Because of what he knows about God’s character and what he has done in the past, David can declare his solid hope. So too, today, we can look in the past at Christ’s death and resurrection, and remember the Lord in all of our ways, and seek him with all our heart. As we do so, he promises that he will make our paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6), and that we will find him (Jeremiah 29:13).
Lord, would you come and make yourself known to me, and come so that your presence satisfies me more than any earthly desire ever could. Lord, I want to desire you more than riches or power, success or fame, to know or be known by another. Help me to long for you as the Psalmist did, and to seek you and love with you with all my heart all the days of my life. I confess that your steadfast love is better than life: come fill me with your love so that I can fill others. Help me to seek you with all my heart, acknowledge and trust you in all my ways, and cling to you as my heart’s one desire. Amen.