Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Give Me Understanding (Psalm 119:33-40)

Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees;
then I will keep them to the end.
Give me understanding, and I will keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,
so that you may be feared.
Take away the disgrace I dread,
for your laws are good.
How I long for your precepts!
Preserve my life in your righteousness.
Psalm 119:33-40

I think the key verse for me in this stanza is, "Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart" (verse 34). It makes me think of our church's parenting Sunday School class and the oft-repeated key verse, Proverbs 23:23 - "Buy truth, and do not sell it;   buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding." 

This idea of understanding as the utmost good is one we would do well to embed as deeply as possible in our psyches. In Proverbs, understanding (or, the trio of wisdom-discipline-understanding) is the pathway to the good life; it is the "cause" in the "cause-effect" relationship of good choices and good consequences. In this psalm, "understanding" seems to acquire a bit of nuance in which it entails not only cognitive awareness, but also heart commitment. Not as in, "Yes, mom, I understand that you are telling me to brush my teeth," but rather as in, "God, I understand who You are and what You are trying to accomplish, and I believe in that because You are good and right ... and as a natural consequence, of course I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart."

Economists speak of the "rational self interest" that they like to suppose governs the actions of homo sapiens. (Economists clearly haven't spent much time around two-year-olds, or teenagers, or pregnant women, or, well, people in general.) If a Christian were like a good economist and always acted in his or her rational self-interest, we would always and only keep God's law and obey it with all our hearts. Because if we had true understanding, we would see that this is what is best for us, both now and in the immediate future and in the long-term earthly future and for eternity. We would easily forgo short-term "pleasures" for long-term gain. Just today, Zach Nielsen reminded readers of that classic CS Lewis quote, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us."

Is this the sort of understanding of which the psalmist speaks?

When I am asking for understanding, the rest of this stanza falls into place: I will find delight in the path of God's commands; my heart will be focused on God and my eyes will naturally turn away from worthless things; I will see God's law as good, life-giving and life-saving.

Teach me, O God, to follow your decrees... I pray this over and over for myself and for my children.

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