Eugene Peterson, in his A Long Obedience in the same Direction tells of the German 16th century legend of John Faustus. Faustus became impatient with the limitations placed on him in his study of law, medicine and theology. However much he learned, there was always something that was bigger than him: justice, the limits of healing, God. So he became skilled in magic, in order to defy the laws of physics and restrictions of morality. But to do so, he had to make a pact with the Devil. The devil permitted him to live for 24 years in a godlike way – having unlimited knowledge and every worldly pleasure, living without limits, being in control – but at the end of the 24 years came damnation. It is a story that has been told many times (in poetry and song)
In many ways the legend of Faustus is just a retelling of the story of the fall. Adam and Eve are offered the chance to ‘be like God’, but the way to become like God, they are told, is not to trust God but to disobey God. But it is a lie. When they do disobey God, they do not become like him, but are instead are cut off from him.
But it is also part of our everyday story. The world-voice, the me-voice tells us, “Live as if there is no God. Be your own God. Believe in yourself. Do what you like. Improve yourself by whatever means you can. Get ahead regardless of the price. Take care of yourself first. Reach for the skies and grab what you can”.
The problem is that it is a lie. We may for a time, for a moment, be able to live it. But nothing is free, and reality will catch up with us.
Psalm 131 is the God-voice. Or, more accurately, it is the words of someone who has listened to the God-voice.
1. Declaration of humility:
It begins with a declaration of humility:
Psalm 131:1, “My heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.”
When the Psalmist says, ‘My heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high’, I suggest that is about our relationship with God and with other people.
The Psalmist is saying, ‘I am not going to do a Faustus. I’m not going to try and become God – and I will treat God as God. I will listen to him, trust him and obey him. And I will not think more of myself and less of others than I should’.
It is about treating God as God, and it is about treating other people as if they matter. Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to ‘value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’.
It really is about humility. The arrogant person thinks that the world should rotate around them. The humble person begins to recognise that they are not the centre of the world.
And when the Psalmist says, ‘I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me’, he is saying ‘I recognise that there are many things that are beyond me’.
Job 42:3: ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
Deuteronomy 29:29 (the ultimate cop-out verse!): ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever, to observe all the words of this law.’
That does not mean we should not ask questions, but that we do need to be aware that maybe there are some questions that cannot be answered.
• Philosophical: What happened before ‘the beginning’? Who created God?
• Theological: How can Jesus be eternally God’s son? Divine sovereignty/human freewill
• Moral: Why is this wrong? (cf Adam and Eve in garden of Eden. Satan persuades them that to eat of the fruit is not wrong)
• Personal: Why did you allow suffering? or, more specifically, Why did they have to suffer? Why do I have to suffer?
When we begin to listen to the God voice, we are able to see that God is God, and that we are not God.
2. A declaration of contentment:
“I have calmed myself and quieted my ambitions. I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content”
It is a very strange illustration – a weaned child
You might have expected the Psalmist to say that they are like a child feeding at the breast of his or her mother. That, after all, is a picture of dependence.
But he talks about a weaned child (today weaning tends to happen after a child has reached 6 months. In the society we are talking about here, weaning would have happened at age 2 or 3). The weaning process (getting the baby off mum’s milk) is pretty traumatic when the baby is young. It can, I suspect, be even more traumatic when the child is older. They’re desperate for the milk, the closeness, the security. But they’ve got to grow up, they have to begin to become independent.
And so the picture here is of a child who has gone through the weaning process and has come out the other side. They are sitting on their mothers lap: calm, secure of her love, reassured by her presence, but also now someone in their own right, beginning to be independent.
I guess that it is what Paul in the New Testament means when he says, ‘I have learned to be content in all circumstances’.
Again, when the Psalmist talks about having ‘quieted his/her ambitions’, it is not talking about calming ourselves so that we have no ambitions. I hope that those of you who are younger have great ambitions. I also hope those of us who are older have ambitions. I was at a talk on children and their spirituality on Wednesday, and Helen Woodroffe was quoting from some children from our own diocese. One child said, ‘The problem with the old folk in our church is that they are always looking back to the past, never forward to the possibilities”.
Ambition is not wrong. What is wrong is unruly ambition, ambition that is unrealistic, that is directed in the wrong place. You are gifted a musician. Why not go for the choral scholarship? But do not make it your God, and recognise that he is ultimately in control. Make it your ambition to use your gifts in his service. That does not mean you need to become a vicar or a music director or a chorister in church. You may have the desire and the ability to be a doctor or teacher or actor or lawyer or astronaut or politician. Do what you can to the best of your ability. Seek to grow your gifts, and to use your gifts in the best way possible – to serve other people for the sake of Jesus. You don’t need to say that you are doing it for Jesus’ sake, but you know that is why you are doing it.
The world-voice says, ‘Be ambitious, and get on, become a celeb, because then you will be somebody’. The God-voice says, ‘You already are somebody. You are unique and special to me. I love you like a mother loves the child who is sitting on her lap. Nothing can separate you from my love, unless you choose to walk away from me. So you don’t need to be ambitious in order to prove yourself. Be ambitious instead to grow to your full potential, to use your gifts in the right way, in my service’.
And the Psalmist says, ‘in that lies contentment’.
3. It is a call to put our trust in God
“Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and for evermore”
Of course there will be times when we experience great success and joy, and times when we experience major disappointment and distress
David, to whom this Psalm is dedicated, experienced both. He killed Goliath, won many battles, and became a major celeb. He then spent years as a hunted fugitive. He became king, established a powerful kingdom, and then had to flee for his life following a palace coup by one of his sons. He regained his kingdom, but lost his son.
But through it all, most of the time, David put his trust in God.
And for all of us, there will be times of great success and times of great disappointment: We’re chosen for the main part in the school play; we’re ditched by a girlfriend; we win the election; we lose the election; a moment of madness destroys a dream; we’re promoted at work; we’re made redundant. We’re let down badly by friends; we fall in love; we feel physically on top of the world; we’re diagnosed with a potential killer disease.
But the call remains to put our trust in God.
Spurgeon said that this is “one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn”.
It is so easy to try and to do a Faustus – to seek to reject our limitations and to pretend to be God. That is the way to frustration and to death.
The opposite of that is to let God be God and to trust him.
There will be times when we don’t understand. There will be times when He seems distant, when we are sick with anxiety, or completely devoid of any emotion. But we hold on.
You will not remember it: the weaning process is very painful. But it is worth it.
God is there.
God is much much bigger than us
God does know, even if we don’t
God does love you.