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Searched and Known

 

Psalm 139

 

No one doubts the importance of knowledge. It’s important to know what a red traffic light means and what the poison label on a bottle means. Without such knowledge we cannot survive. It’s important to know whatever it is we are supposed to know to do our job. Without such knowledge we shall find ourselves without a livelihood. Everyone understands this. But what almost no one understands is that it is far more important, ultimately, to be known than it is to know. For our deepest-down identity and our innermost security it is far more important to be known than it is to know. Think of the child. A child grows up with an unassailable sense of who she is and an inner core of self-confidence not because she knows whatever it is that eight year-olds know; she grows up with self-confidence and security because she lives in a family where she is known. Her parents know her. Because they know her they cherish her; they do all manner of good to her. The child grows up without feeling neglected or abandoned or unwanted or useless. She grows up secure, resilient, confident, self-forgetfully helpful to others.

Unquestionably scripture says much about our knowing God. It even says that it is important for us to know God. But scripture says far more about God’s knowing us; it’s even more important that God knows us.   After all, to whatever extent I come to know God my knowledge of God will always be slight compared to God’s knowledge of me. And if my identity before God and my security in a turbulent, treacherous world depended on my knowledge of God, then so very much would be hanging by so slender a thread. What matters far more for me than my knowledge of God is God’s knowledge of me. The most significant truth concerning any of us is this: God knows us.

 

I: — In Psalm 139 the psalmist exults in God’s knowledge of him. “Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up…. Even before a word is on my tongue thou knowest it altogether.” The psalmist exults in God’s knowledge of him. And so he should.

We should too. You see, when the Bible says that God knows us it doesn’t mean that God is sniffing out negativities about us; it doesn’t mean that the cosmic “snoop” is spying on us. It means something entirely different: God prospers us, God protects us, God blesses us, God renders us useful servants. Listen to the prophet Nahum: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him”. When Nahum says that God knows those who look to him and trust him, he means that God protects and prospers and uses such people even when, especially when, troubles without number come upon them. Speaking through the prophet Hosea God says to the Israelite people, “It was I who knew you in the wilderness, it was I who knew you in the land of drought”. To say that God knew Israel in the wilderness is not to say that God became aware that they were in the wilderness, that he acquired information which he had previously lacked. “God knew them in the wilderness” means “God sustained them, encouraged them, nurtured them, prospered them when they were without resources themselves and the taunt of the nations”. God speaks to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you… I consecrated you, I appointed you a prophet to the nations”. God’s knowing Jeremiah makes him a prophet. The apostle Paul, himself a son of Israel , says two things in his first Corinthian letter about God’s knowing us. One, because God knows us, we can love God; God’s knowing us frees us to love him. Two, because God knows us, one day we shall know God in a manner akin to God’s knowing us now; God’s knowing us frees us to know him. We should never shrink from God’s searching us and knowing us. We should welcome it and exult in it. God’s knowing us can only prosper us.

 

We human beings are enormously complex and complicated at the same time that we are exceedingly frail and fragile. Let’s look first at our complexity. Think, for instance, of our tendency to rationalize. Now when I say “rationalize” I don’t mean “make excuses”. We make excuses after we have done something, make excuses to appease our conscience, and make excuses fully conscious of what we are doing and why.

Freud helped us to see, however, that rationalization is something else, for rationalization is entirely unconscious. And so far from being excuse-making after the fact, rationalization occurs before the deed; it launches the deed, precipitates it. It’s easy to be aware of what’s going on when we make excuses, since excuse-making is conscious and follows what we have found to prick our conscience. But it’s impossible to be aware of what’s going on when we are rationalizing, because the unconscious process deactivates our conscience and pushes us to proceed. Since you and I are rationalizing every day, do we know ourselves? profoundly know ourselves? How much of ourselves can we know?

Not only are we complex, complicated creatures, we are frail, fragile creatures as well. A germ so small that it can be seen only with the strongest microscope can crumble the champion weightlifter. An accidental nick in Norman Bethune’s finger ended the surgeon’s life in China . Since life is so very transitory, I shall have an identity eternally, I shall be “me” eternally, only as I am known to be “me” by the eternal one himself — for his knowing me makes me; that is, confers identity, even as his knowing me preserves “me” and honours me and exalts me.

What’s more, we are complex and fragile at the same time. The person who always holds me spellbound in his discussion of the peculiar blend of human complexity and fragility is Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist whose work I read avidly. Everyone finds some kinds of neurological damage easy to understand: if someone has a screwdriver driven into his brain he doesn’t think as well or talk as well or walk as well as he used to. We readily understand that damage to different areas of the brain produces different kinds of impairment. But what about those stunningly bizarre mind-body interrelationships which Sacks describes? They defy understanding. One of Sacks’s patients displayed the jerky, convulsive, spastic movements typical of someone suffering from post-encephalitic parkinsonism. But when Sacks played music for her, he observed “the complete disappearance of all these obstructive-explosive phenomena and their replacement by an ease and flow of movement as Miss D., suddenly free from her automatisms, smilingly ‘conducted’ the music or rose and danced to it”.

Another woman, also neurologically damaged, had enormous difficulty walking alone. But if someone walked alongside her, without so much as touching her, she was able to walk perfectly. “When you walk with me”, she said to her walking-companion, “I feel in myself your own power of walking. I partake of the power and freedom you have. Without ever knowing it, you make me a great gift”.

Another patient, a man suffering from dementia (i.e., indisputably brain-damaged) was, said Sacks, “fluttery, restless, forever lost”, never at peace. The fellow could be “held” for a while by a mental challenge (e.g., a puzzle) but then he fell apart as soon as the mental challenge was taken away. He could also be “held” by contemplating art or music — or by taking part in the Roman Catholic service of the mass, after which he was at peace for a protracted period.

What is the precise relationship of mind to body? of mind and body to spirit? Nobody knows. We are dealing with uttermost complexity and fragility at the same time. Then what are we? Who are we? What is our end? God alone knows. But God knows. God knows us.

To say that God knows is to say much more than God understands or God is aware. To say that God knows us is to say that God has fashioned for us — the very wounded (Sacks’s patients) and the somewhat less wounded (you and me) — an identity which guarantees we shall not be overlooked or misplaced or set aside. To say that God knows us is to say that God will prosper us in whatever wilderness we find ourselves, even if the wilderness is going to feel like wilderness for as long as we are in it. To say that God knows is to say that while others may disdain those who are socially insignificant or intellectually ordinary or politically dismissable, God uses such people on behalf of that kingdom which cannot be shaken.

What is the psalmist’s attitude to this? Wonder. Amazement. Astonishment. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me” he cries; “it is high, I cannot attain it.” He means that he is grasped by this glorious truth without being able to fathom it fully. He means he is certain that God will ever prosper him even though right now he cannot conceive how.

 

II: — And then the psalmist exults in it all. “Just think”, he exclaims, “regardless of where I go, or think I might go, or try to go, I can never outstrip God’s knowledge of me”. As he revels in the God who enfolds him the psalmist asks two rhetorical questions: “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” Then he jubilantly shouts the answer to his own question: “Nowhere. I can’t depart from God’s Spirit; I can’t flee from God’s presence. And isn’t it wonderful that I can’t.” The psalmist reflects on the geometry of grace: “If I ascend to heaven (up, God’s abode, where all is life and light and love); if I make my bed in Sheol (down, the abode of the dead, where all is dark and dismal); if I take the wings of the morning (a common Hebrew expression meaning the east); if I dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea (the sea symbolized many things in Israel, and here it symbolizes the west, since the Mediterranean Sea was always west of Palestine) – up, down, east, west — THOU ART THERE”. In other words, the living God who knows us (which is to say, the loving God who prospers us) is the sphere, the atmosphere, the environment in which my life unfolds.   The God who is the atmosphere of our entire life is none other than the God whose love is as wide as the outstretched arms of his Son, whose patience is attested by his centuries-long faithfulness to Israel , whose truth is as constant as the constancy of his promises to us even in the face of our inconstancy before him.

There would be little point in saying that God is love unless we knew how much God loves, to what extent he loves, and whether he loves undeflectably. Paul tells us in his Roman letter that God has so loved us as to withhold nothing in his self-outpouring. If God has withheld nothing, then he cannot love us any more than he loves us at this moment. He loves us right now with nothing of himself held back, nothing of himself retained for self-preservation in case his love is not requited.

Although the psalmist lived centuries before Calvary , he was aware of all of this by anticipation. In Psalm 139 he maintains that God’s hand leads him, and God’s right hand holds him. Think of it: we are held by God’s right hand. For Hebrew people the left hand symbolizes judgement while the right hand symbolizes mercy and strength. To be held by God’s right hand is to be clasped by a mercy whose grip on us will never relent. In other words, our security rests not in the strength of our grip on him (our faith), but rather in the strength of his grip on us. Because God’s right hand is strength and mercy in equal measure, his grip on us will never be brutal, even as his mercy will never be ineffectual.

Is it true? Does it ring true within us? And if it rings true now, would it continue to ring true if adversity rained down upon us? I must offer you the testimony of two men, both now dead, whose work and witness have meant more to me than I can say. The two men are Martin Buber and Emil Fackenheim. Both are Jews, and therefore both are acquainted not only with that adversity which is the human lot, but also with the extraordinary adversity visited upon Jewish people since they are the ones the world prefers to hate. In addition, both men lived through the adversity for Jews, the Shoah. Both men are aware that life is a life-long engagement with the Holy One of Israel, even in the most unholy circumstances. Buber’s work I have read. Fackenheim I have spoken with dozens of times.

In 1938 Fackenheim was incarcerated in Sachsenhausen, a forced-labour camp. Not everyone in Sachsenhausen was Jewish; Gentiles who had opposed the Hitler regime or were suspect for any reason were there too. One such Gentile was the Rev. Ernst Tillich, nephew of the famous German theologian Paul Tillich (Uncle Paul had long since moved to the USA ). On Christmas eve Ernst Tillich seemed unusually depressed. Fackenheim asked him why. “It’s Christmas eve”, the young Lutheran minister said, “and Christmas eve is the biggest festivity in the Lutheran church-calendar. For days I have been thinking of what I should say in my Christmas eve sermon if I had a congregation. But I haven’t a congregation, and that’s why I am depressed”. “I’ll get you a congregation”, said Fackenheim, and off he went. He rounded up all the rabbinical students he could find and sat them down in front of Ernst Tillich. “Here we are, Ernst, on Christmas eve in Sachsenhausen. Now you tell us what you would tell a Lutheran congregation of the God whose strength and mercy operate at all times and in all places — including Sachsenhausen”. When the sermon had been delivered the peculiar congregation sat far into the night discussing it. In the providence of God the privilege of speaking with Fackenheim dozens of times has been one of the most extraordinary blessings of my life. For as often as I have spoken with him I have found him overwhelmingly authentic in his acquaintance with the right hand of that God whose presence cannot be fled.

III: — So overcome is the psalmist as he rejoices in God’s knowledge of him that he — does what? says what? “O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God… men who maliciously defy thee, who lift themselves up against thee for evil. Do I not hate them that hate thee? I hate them with perfect hatred.”

Before you turn off and accuse the psalmist of glorying in God’s mercy only to display a hardened heart himself, think; think back to what we have discussed here many times concerning the category of “enemies” in the psalms. Enemies, at bottom, are not those whom the psalmist doesn’t like or who do not like him. Enemies, at bottom, are those who oppose God. Enemies are those who endeavour to thwart God and work evil. “I hate them with perfect hatred” is the psalmist’s way of saying, “Just as you are uncompromisingly opposed to evil, O God, I am uncompromisingly opposed too. The people who wound you as they disdain your way and truth and mercy wound me too, for I share your pain”. “I hate them with perfect hatred” is the psalmist’s awkward way (to us Gentiles) of saying, “I am steadfastly loyal to you, O God, and I resist the workers of iniquity as surely as you resist them”. When he cries, “O that thou wouldst slay the wicked”, he is pleading with God to rout evil, dispel evil, end it. Is there any Spirit-quickened person who wants evil to flourish? The psalmist is not displaying a callous heart; he is displaying a sensitivity quickened by his intimate acquaintance with the Holy one who struggles with an unholy world.

And yet it is easy, entirely too easy, for you and me to recognize evil wherever it abounds “out there”, when all the while we are blind to more than a little evil “in here”. Did not Jesus himself insist it is easy to see the dust-speck in our neighbour’s eye while remaining unaware of the patio-plank in our own eye? Furthermore, in light of what I said earlier about rationalization, an unconscious mechanism which precipitates us toward sin, it is foolish for us to pretend that evil flourishes “out there” while there is no trace of it “in here”.

The psalmist was aware of it before we ever thought of it. Having stood at God’s side in God’s resistance to evil; having pleaded with God to rout evil and render impotent the workers of evil, the psalmist now wonders if he himself isn’t among those people he has asked God to deal with. And so he pleads, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. See if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting”.

When we ask God to know our hearts and know our thoughts we are not merely asking God to examine us and then tell us what the examination has turned up. We are pleading with him to correct us. Remember, for God to know us, according to the Hebrew bible, is for God to prosper us, help us, bless us; ultimately, for God to know us is for God to save us.   And therefore we can only pray that God will know us afresh — know us, prosper us, bless us, save us. For then we shall walk that way which is everlasting; that way, says Jesus, which leads to life just because it is life.

Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        July 2005