A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on July 17, 2011.
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
Who knows you better than anyone else? I asked that question one time in a Bible study and a man quickly responded, “My dog.” That got a good laugh out of everybody.
I know how the Psalmist would answer this question. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it” Psalm 139:1-6.
The Psalmist goes on to say, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand hold me fast” Psalm 139:7-10.
Aware of God’s loving presence, the poet concludes by writing, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” Psalm 139:23-4.
There is no shortage of ways to approach this passage. Like all poetry, it speaks in a variety of ways and provides us with many ideas to ponder.
As I did that very thing last week, this question surfaced. Why did the Psalmist ask God to search his heart? This is a bold request; some would even say intimidating and frightening. Most of us try to hide bad or embarrassing things from the important and powerful. We would rather impress them than be this transparent. Why didn’t the Psalmist do this? Why did he ask this of God?
Based upon this poem, which obviously came from his heart, he felt safe and comfortable in the presence of God. God was someone he could trust to do what was right and best, much the same way we trust a surgeon when we place our life in her skillful hands. I don’t sense any fear in this request, but relief.
The Psalmist was confident no one knew him better than God. The key word in Psalm 139 is “know.” A form of this word occurs seven times in this Psalm, a number indicating fullness or completion. The awareness that God knew everything about him served as the foundation for the petition at the conclusion of the poem. Who better to search his heart than the one who gave him life?
Who knows you better than anyone else? I would be willing to say this is the person whose advice you seek on your quest for self-discovery and guidance. It is the one with whom you share your inner-most thoughts, worries, fears, joys and sorrows. For the Psalmist, this was God.
The Psalmist also knew God loved him unconditionally. Discovering things in the Psalmist’s heart which were “offensive” would not cause God to abandon him. Just the opposite was true. Like a loving parent, God would never forsake him. God’s grace really was greater than his sin.
The Psalmist knew God would be honest with him. God loved him too much to do otherwise. This search would be thorough and candid, because nothing would be hidden from God.
Sometimes we think the loving thing to do is to tell people what they want to hear. No, this is not the loving thing to do, but the easy thing to do. True love doesn’t have cataracts. It sees clearly and shares what it sees, even if painful, for the purpose of redeeming and healing the offender.
It is apparent the Psalmist had been accused of doing something wrong. He felt he was innocent, however, and his enemies were out to destroy him. He was not willing, though, to be defensive and stand his ground without appealing to God. He knew God will be honest with him and tell him if he was ignoring disturbing things in his life. So, he asked God to search his heart for what he might have missed.
“My own eyes are not enough,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “I must see through the eyes of others.” Maybe Psalm 139 inspired him to write this.
There is another reason the Psalmist asked God to search his heart. He knew God would help him get rid of anything in his heart that should not be there, those things which were leading him down the wrong path, a dark and scary one. He was certain God would forgive him and help him to overcome even the toughest challenge.
Comedian Jerry Clower tells a humorous story about his wife and five children. Several neighbors were tarring their driveways and roofs, so a big vat of tar stood in the street near their home. In spite of the fact Jerry’s wife told their children not to go near that vat, all of them did. Their five-year-old child’s curiosity got the best of him and he came home covered in tar. According to Jerry, she looked at her son covered in tar from head to toe and exclaimed, “You know, it would be a lot easier to have another one than it would be to clean you up!”
Who cleaned you up when you got messy? Who forgave you and gave you a second chance, or a third or fourth? Who loved you unconditionally and stuck by your side when others abandoned you? Who told you the truth and set you free from the prison of deceit?
Who needs your help to rid their heart of things which are leading them down the wrong path? Is it a child, a grandchild, your mate, a friend, a neighbor, a church member or a co-worker? Do you love them enough to tell them the truth and see them through the changes they need to make? If you don’t, who does? Will you ask God to help you be that person?
Last week, we said goodbye to one of America’s most popular First Ladies, Betty Ford. She was known for her uncompromising honesty. She was the first celebrity to talk openly about breast cancer. Seven weeks after her husband became President, she had a mastectomy and refused to keep it a secret. Instead, she encouraged women to go for screenings and exams.
Perhaps Mrs. Ford is best known, however, for the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. This rehab center has helped thousands of alcoholics and drug addicts overcome their addictions and live productive lives.
Mrs. Ford, an alcoholic and prescription drug addict even in the White House, described the best and worst day of her life in an interview several years ago. She told about the night her family conducted an “intervention” and confronted her with her addictions. They told her the truth and offered to help her, which made all the difference in the world in her recovery. Without their assistance, she was confident she never would have overcome her crippling and life-threatening addictions.
Who needs your help to rid their hearts of things which are threatening them? Will you reach out to them?
On the other hand, whose help do you need in order to have a clean heart? Are you willing to ask for it? Will you be receptive to what they say or be defensive? Will you listen or turn away?
Fourth century philosopher and theologian, Augustine, coined the phrase “severe mercy” when describing God’s grace. What did he mean by this? He believed that seeing ourselves as we really are can be extraordinarily painful.
Weighing in on this, Clifford Williams wrote, “Much of what we do in life is designed, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, to obscure that seeing, for we desperately do not want to admit, even to ourselves, that we are guilty before God. Only when we place ourselves quietly and deliberately in front of God are the secret places in our hearts opened and the real motives of our behavior laid bare. Under this test, we discover the many ways in which we deceive ourselves. Yes, we will be hurt when we put ourselves alone in God’s presence, but the hurt will be healed by mercy.”
Will you let God’s mercy heal your broken heart?