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Topic: “David”

Doubt is Not a Christian Virtue

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

Reading through the Psalms is often an exercise in being confronted with how poorly I handle (and how poorly our culture in the American church at large handles) the trials we face. In Psalm 31, David is obviously depressed and also facing substantial external trials. There is no whitewashing the truth here in some attempt to buck-up-and-be-cheerful, no hiding behind a fake smile and pretending everything is okay. This has every bit of gritty, authentic ache in it that the most emo/hipster/authenticity-pursuing-cultural-stereotype-du-jour could ever want. David’s life at this particular juncture was, in a word, bad—and he made no bones about it.

Yet David’s response differs from the one we (people in the church under the age of 30 or so) glorify—differs profoundly. We rightly note that believers struggle with doubt sometimes, and also rightly note that condemning people for such struggles is unhelpful, to say the least. On the other hand, we have wrongly enshrined doubt as a virtue, wrestling as one of the cardinal goods of the Christian faith. The person who does not struggle with doubts or constantly wrestle with some part of his faith or another we usually assume is simply inauthentic. Deep down, we know, he or she really is a doubter, too.

David, I think, would find this nonsensical at best. Again, this Psalm is not lacking in authenticity; his real anguish bleeds through the page even in an English translation of Hebrew words written three thousand years ago. Doubt, though, is nowhere to be found. More importantly (for David and other Psalmists express their doubts in other verses), David’s struggles are not themselves the point of the piece. Rather, David paints a vivid picture of his need but also offers pleas for God to move—pleas grounded on his confidence in Yahweh’s righteousness and steadfast love.

To be sure, there is a place for real wrestling and for grappling with the doubts that do often beset us. Likewise, we should not pretend that we are not struggling when we are; saccharine greetings from people who are actually aching are a blight on Christian community. The question is not whether we struggle, or even whether we admit our struggles. It is whether we glorify the doubt and the struggle, rather than recognize them as painful, necessary means to the end of deeper, truer faith. No one could accuse David of hiding his struggles, but no one could think that he thought doubting inherently virtuous. Quite the contrary: David’s faith is exemplary1 here.

In the past few years, there have been times when I have wrestled with God. There are areas in which I struggle to understand Scripture’s teaching and submit wisely to it. Yet these times of wrestling and struggling are not a cause for pride. They are a marker of the extent to which I still need to be sanctified, so that my mind and my emotions will be more thoroughly submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We must stop prizing doubt and start prizing faith in our risen Savior—not by pretending that we do not doubt, but by recognizing that doubts and struggles are valuable only insofar as they are used of the Spirit to move us back toward the Father.

  1. Exemplary not only in the sense of being the best of its kind, but model and worthy of emulation. 

The Great and Humble God

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

He Saw Yahweh

In Genesis 18, Abraham has just finished following God’s instructions about circumcision. At 100 years old, he circumcised himself, along with his 13-year-old son and all his servants and the other members of his household, to obey this God who had called him from his homeland to a place where he would always be a sojourner, looking forward with hope to the homeland God had promised but which he himself would not inherit. (There is real obedience for you: embrace circumcision so that someone else will get the reward God promises…)

Then, sitting in the shade one hot afternoon, Abraham looks and sees Yahweh,1 standing there as a man he recognizes. At that point, this 100-year-old man (who, granted, lived to be 160 and therefore was probably like a man in his mid to late 50s physically) got up and ran to prepare a feast for his God. There are many interesting things in this passage, but most notable to me tonight was the way Yahweh came to Abraham and interacted with him throughout the passage. That is: he came as a man2 and ate with Abraham and spoke with him. Of course, he spoke prophetically about impossibilities that he was going to bring about; this condescension was not his ceasing to be God but his taking on a form so that Abraham could know him.

So here we have at once two concrete realities that continue to shape the reader’s expectations for what God will do in the future: the promise of a miraculous son born to bring about his promise, and Yahweh himself coming as a man to relate to his people.

Over the Waters

Coming after a series of prayerful Psalms, the 29th is a complete change in tone. Each of the Psalms preceding it are prayers for deliverance from evildoers and from Yahweh’s judgment on one’s own wickedness. Here, though, we have David calling on the heavenly host to ascribe to Yahweh all the glory he is due, and a crescendo of declarations of the power of Yahweh’s voice. This God of glory3 is over all, his voice thundering and shaking even the greatest things on this earth. He is worthy for the heavenly host to ascribe him glory and strength, to be worshipped in the splendor of holiness. He is enthroned in his temple; he sits as king forever.

And this is the God who walked with Abraham, who let Abraham challenge him and his judgments. The Judge of all the earth, whose powerful and majestic voice can cause an earthquake or strip the forest bare, has become one of us.

  1. This passage highlights one more reason why I prefer simply to use God’s self-revealed name: early on, Abraham calls him “lord,” but not “Lord,” which is simply confusing if you’re not paying close attention. 
  2. Apparently pre-incarnate Christ, semi- or pseudo-incarnate, which is curious, but not the point of the passage. 
  3. This relatively innocuous phrase, right in the middle of verse 3, has been one of the most important in my life. Five years ago, reading through the Psalms much as I am right now, the phrase leapt out at me, because I had no idea what it meant to describe Yahweh as the “God of glory.” A month later, my whole theological framework had been turned on its head, from the anthropocentric view that unfortunately characterizes too much evangelical theology, to a radically God-centered view that accords with the Scriptural picture of a God who is working all things for his own sake, and not because of us at all—though how greatly we benefit! 

Uncontainable Song

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

Psalm 28 is not complex poetry, though it is beautiful. David opens with a plea for mercy, asking Yahweh not to destroy him alongside the wicked. He spends some time describing the wicked men he has in mind—men who do evil, who are hypocrites toward their neighbors, who do not regard Yahweh’s works as they should. Then he praises Yahweh for answering that plea. It is not the propositional content in and of itself that gives the psalm its particular value; these ideas are found throughout the Psalms, as well as throughout Scripture. Rather, it is the particular way David put them together, and the particular response for which the psalm calls.

Poetry is designed not merely to communicate content but to move the heart.1 The fear of judgment is heavy in the first section. The second sequence paints a vivid picture of the men David has in mind. I described them above, but the poetry works far better on its own terms:

Do not drag me off with the wicked,
with the workers of evil,
who speak peace with their neighbors
while evil is in their hearts.
Give to them according to their work
and according to the evil of their deeds;
give to them according to the work of their hands;
render them their due reward.
Because they do not regard the works of the Lord
or the work of his hands,
he will tear them down and build them up no more.

David wants nothing to do with these kinds of people, and he wants very much not to be like them. He wants God to judge them, and he yearns not to be judged himself. So when he comes to the second half of the Psalm, we should feel the change. “Do not drag me off with the wicked… he will tear them down and build them up no more. / Blessed be Yahweh!” The sharp transition, the sudden turn from the fearful expectation of judgment toward praising Yahweh, should catch our attention and make us demand an answer.

David supplies us the answer, of course, in beautiful phrases:

For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped;
my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.

The Lord is the strength of his people;
he is the saving refuge of his anointed.

The plea David offered to begin has been answered. Our plea with David has been answered. Yahweh saves. But the response is not simply an acknowledgement of a fact: This is true. David’s response is exulting and singing. Exultation is elation and jubilation. This salvation warrants more than mere recitation of facts or even some degree of happiness. It deserves the kind of excited joy that comes bursting out of the heart in uncontainable song.

Yahweh saves. Hallelujah. Hallelujah!

  1. One of the reasons lots of evangelicals struggle with the Psalms: Americans are, by and large, no longer people are who read much poetry. For most evangelicals, the Psalms are it, in fact. Combine this with our already-strong tendency to treat the Scriptures as a source of propositions, and it’s no wonder we struggle to appreciate the Psalms as poetry.