Between Defiance and Despair
I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.
Quietude. Calm. Collected. Consistency. These are not the buzzwords of our culture of revolution. If they make it on to the radar, it is as unwanted intruders. To use one’s voice is a virtue; to remain silent, a vice. To be calm is thought to be apathetic at best, implicit in the power status quo at worst. And who can remain collected and consistent in their actions when the minute by minute news cycle throws information our way like an out of control pitching machine? No, better just to start swinging. We need voices, change agents, action… revolution!
Whatever one thinks about the restlessness of our age—we are finally arousing from our WASP-induced slumber and pushing for progress; or, we know something is not right but haven’t a clue as to what it is or how to go about addressing it; or, somewhere in-between—it is indicative of a deep and growing anxiety. This, of course, is understandable. There is much to be anxious about. Understandable, but not ideal. Contrast this with Psalm 131:
(1) My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not lifted up;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
(2) But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
(3) Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
This psalm is beautiful in its simplicity. And yet, its simplicity ought not to be confused with shallowness. It is wonderfully deep in its analysis of the human condition. The psalm turns on a contrast between verse one and verses two and three: a contrast between the haughty heart and the quieted soul. An intriguing contrast at first glance, I suppose; but the logic of the contrast is not readily apparent. Why is trust in God the antidote to pride? And why is it that hope is cultivated only in a heart that is resting in God? Perhaps, then, we can tease out the flow of thought from resisting pride to exercising trust to cultivating hope.
From Pride to Anxiety
One of the devices Hebrew poetry often uses is tracing patterns of development (famously in Psalm 1:1, for example). That device is used here, in Psalm 131:1, to great effect. First, the heart is lifted up in pride. Following after the way of the devil, who was prideful from the beginning, the heart is taken with the notion —offered to us in a thousand different ways— ‘you will be like God’. The thought is tantalizing. After all, we do know what the world needs.
Once that notion seems acceptable to us—and, mind you, humans are especially adept at making so monstrous a thought acceptable to themselves—the eyes are lifted up. That is, we set lofty goals and aim to achieve very high things indeed. If we’re going to be like God, we had better set ourselves some god-like goals. Sometimes, of course, those goals turn on sly and devious motives. We try to manipulate others or circumstances so as to give ourselves the sense of control. We try to hide our faults, even from ourselves, to as to maintain the illusion that we really are quite morally above (even if, admittedly, only relatively speaking).
Sometimes, however, those goals are motivated by good intentions. There are big problems in the world that require big solutions. And so we set our goal to “fix” the refugee crisis in Syria, or starvation in Somalia, or racial and gender discrimination in the world. But whether devilish or decent, these kinds of goals are always dubious. They remain wholly out of the reach of single individuals. We are human, not God.
And this brings us to the the third step in this development. Taken by a heart of pride and spurred on by lofty goals, we set ourselves to action; we “occupy ourselves with things too great and marvelous” for us. After all, if we are going to be like God, we had better start doing some god-like things.
And now, perhaps, the contrast of this development with the quietude of verse two begins to make more sense. It is precisely because the things we have set off to do are too wonderful, too marvelous, too great for us that we find our action ultimately impotent. The circumstances of life simply do not bend to our will. For all the motivation and desire, the ability and power, the creativity and ingenuity that God has truly given us as humans, we still find ourselves having to confess with Isaiah: “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers , the flower fades…” (Isa. 40:7,8). Along with us, fades our misty notions of being ‘like God’.
The pride railway, then, charts its course through uplifted eyes and inept action until it reaches its final stop on Anxiety Way. Getting off at that station, there are basically two directions one can go. To the right one follows the path of despair, where inaction and negation of personal responsibility are the outcome. To the left, one walks the path of defiance, where, in a rage against impotence, one’s scattered and frantic actions lead to further anger and embitterment.
Better not to get on that train.
From Humility to Hope
The depiction in verse two of a “calm and quieted” soul is especially poignant in the imagery of the newly weaned child at its mother’s bosom. The child no longer snuggles up to the mother simply for what it can get from the mother. Rather, the child is simply delighting in the mother’s presence. In a word, that is where the child rests.
So also the psalmist professes that he rests in God’s presence. Rather than the independence of the prideful—going off to do ‘my own thing’ to ‘make of myself what I want’, to accomplish ‘my will’—there is close, loving dependence of the Psalmist upon his God. From this place of dependence, of rest in the sovereignty of God. That is, the psalmist trusts in the Lord, and in that state of faith, he has found calm and tranquility.
From this settled position of resting in God, we are encouraged to “hope in the LORD” (v. 3). Hope is not unbridled optimism; nor is it defiance of present circumstances. The former, rooted in either ignorance or self-deception, cannot engender appropriate action in the world because it fails to see the world as it really is. The latter, though it recognizes well the ills of the world, cannot generate consistency of action because it is always reactionary.
Hope is better characterized as a particular disposition and shape of action. Particular, because it itself comes to us in the particular form of the gospel of God. A disposition, because hope is a work of God at the level of our nature. It’s not our ‘mind over matter’ or ‘more information’ to correct for ignorance. No, like faith, God must work hope in us by working in us a new nature.
Having begun that good work in us, we find that our hope is not an attempt to calm ourselves, endlessly repeating to ourselves, ‘everything will work out in the end.’ No, our hope is the assurance that God is the Lord of history, and the Lord of our history. This hope has a Trinitarian shape in the New Testament. Our God of hope (Rom. 15:13) reveals to us the hope of Christ (1 Tim. 1:1; Titus 2:13) by means of his Spirit, who ministers this hope even in the midst of our turbulent lives (Rom. 8:14-16). This revelation of our hope emboldens and steadies us (2 Cor. 3:12; Heb. 6;19), not for inactivity, but precisely for action.
“Hopeful Christian action is action which is both realistic and unafraid of its own limits. Incapacity and limitation do not inhibit, because Jesus Christ has understated for our future. And so the Christian agent, hoping in him, is relieved of final responsibility and called instead to steadfastness, alertness and expectancy.” (Webster, 214)
In hope we fully understand our own limits and incapacities. We know that we are not God. And here we see again the underlying logic of Psalm 131. Just as pride fuels anxiety, so also humility stands as the root of hope. And what is humility but love for God. As Augustine pointed out so long ago, the Bible teaches that there are really two loves basic to all of human life: love of God and love of self. The disorder of these loves—pride— is love of ourselves to the denial of God. The proper order of these loves for humans—humility— is really love of God, even to the denial of ourselves.
Notice, then, that this psalm explicates those three great Christian virtues that Paul spoke of: Faith, Hope, and Love. He has not lifted himself up in pride, but regards himself humbly as one who loves God (v.1); He rests, trusts—has faith—in God (v. 2); and so he encourages those under him to follow his lead and hope in the Lord. The haughty heart to uplifted eyes to hubris action (and inevitable downfall) development becomes the humble heart to attentive eyes to service action (in the manner of Christ) development.
Fortified in these virtues and resting prayerfully in the presences of God, the Christian goes out into the world to act as salt and light to bland and darkened generation.