Beyond the Mystery is Mercy

We do not deify the mystery; we worship Him who in His wisdom surpasses all mysteries.

―Abraham Joshua Heschel

Scripture: 75.2-3

At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity. When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars.

Reflection: Beyond the Mystery is Mercy
By Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

The sense of the ineffable, the awareness of the grandeur and mystery of living, is shared by all men, and it is in the depth of such awareness that acts and thoughts of religion are full of meaning. The ideas of religion are an answer, when the mystery is a problem. When brought to the level of utilitarian thinking, when their meaning is taken literally as solutions to scientific problems, they are bound to be meaningless.

God’s power is not arbitrary. What is mysterious to us is eternally meaningful as seen by God. There are three attitudes toward [this] mystery: the fatalist, the positivist, and the Biblical.

To the fatalist, mystery is the supreme power controlling all reality. He believes that the world is controlled by an irrational, absolutely inscrutable and blind power that is devoid of either justice or purpose.

A tragic doom is hanging over the world, to which gods and men alike are subject, and the only attitude one may take is that of resignation. It is a view that is found in various forms and degrees in nearly all pagan religions, in many modern philosophies of history (history as a cycle of becoming and decay), as well as in popular thinking.

The positivist has a matter-of-fact orientation. To him the mystery does not exist; what is regarded as such is simply that which we do not know yet, but shall be able to explain some day. The logical positivist maintains that all assertions about the nature of reality or about a realm of values transcending the familiar world are meaningless and that, on the other hand, all meaningful questions are in principle answerable.

The awareness of mystery was common to all men of antiquity. It was the beginning of a new era when man was told that the mystery is not the ultimate; that not a demonic, blind force but a God of righteousness rules the world.

The theology of fate knows only a one-sided dependence upon the ultimate power. That power has neither concern for man nor need of him. History runs its course as a monologue. To Jewish religion, on the other hand, history is determined by the covenant: God is in need of man. The ultimate is not a law but a judge, not a power but a father.

*Excerpted and abridged from God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. —Psalm 96.12

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 31 (Listen – 5:52)
Psalm 75-76 (Listen – 2:33)

 

Prayer of a Dying King

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son!

―David

Scripture: Psalm 72.20

The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.

Reflection: Prayer of a Dying King
By Steven Dilla

The spectrum of David’s life is remarkable—from impoverished shepherd boy to king of his nation, from the security of God’s anointing to eking out each day as a political refugee. And here, in Psalm 72, we see his final song to God.

There are four themes worth noting in his concluding psalm: David’s longings for his son, kingdom, legacy, and God. Each word seems to be chosen as much with faith as with seasoned confidence:

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!

May they fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations!

May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.

It is here we see the completion of David’s spiritual transformation on earth. No longer does he simply sing of how things ought to be. Now David’s songs call forth a reality that shall be—even while fulling embracing the complexity and pain of what is.

This transformation, Walter Brueggemann argues, follows two transitions. The first is from a orientation around the principles of faith to the disorienting depths of seeing evil succeed against those principles in our world. In modern terms, this is the transition that happens when pain and suffering stretch us beyond the elementary answers and pleasantries of cultural faith.

It is impossible, Brueggemann writes, to return to the simplistic stage of orientation once life has fallen apart. The only two choices are to lose faith or grow into a new orientation—this second move brings a person to a more robust and nuanced way of understanding God and the world.

David’s weeping and longings in the Psalms, then, become the template for our own spiritual transformation—though transformation through pain is counter-cultural. Brueggemann concludes:

Where the worshipping community seriously articulates these two moves, it affirms an understanding of reality that knows that if we try to keep our lives we will lose them, and that when lost for the gospel, we will be given life. Such a practice of the Psalms cannot be taken for granted in our culture, but will be done only if there is resolved intentionality to live life in a more excellent way.

The Call to Prayer

Search for the LORD and his strength; continually seek his face. —Psalm 105.4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 28 (Listen – 3:51)
Psalm 72 (Listen – 2:21)

This Weekend’s Readings
Numbers 29 (Listen – 5:05) Psalm 73 (Listen – 2:56)
Numbers 30 (Listen – 2:20) Psalm 74 (Listen – 2:34)

 

Justice and Mercy

If you want to change the world, who do you begin with, yourself or others? I believe if we begin with ourselves and do the things that we need to do and become the best person we can be, we have a much better chance of changing the world for the better.

―Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Scripture: Psalm 71.4

Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man.

Reflection: Justice and Mercy
By Steven Dilla

“Gradually it was disclosed to me,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted, reflecting on his time as a prisoner in The Gulag Archipelago “that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”

It is not that Solzhenitsyn wanted to ignore injustice—nor did he extend some sort of blind forgiveness for the atrocities of the Bolsheviks. “It is unthinkable in the twentieth century to fail to distinguish between what constitutes an abominable atrocity that must be prosecuted and what constitutes that ‘past’ which ‘ought not to be stirred up.’”

Yet even if it were prosecuted, Solzhenitsyn knew, eliminating evil involved far more than tamping down its expression in the modern world:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

How similar we find the voice of the Psalms—crying out for God’s justice, pleading for God’s mercy. In Scripture we not only hear the psalmists cry out for God’s vengeance, but we see God exact his anger toward evil.

And yet, in a stunning response to our cry for mercy, God directs his anger toward himself. The wine of justice is pressed from the fruit of mercy. Anything less might satisfy our desire for retribution, but leave us longing for the hope and grace we need for this day.

Solzhenitsyn, like the Scriptures, charges us to move forward—to speak up—and to cry out for the justice our world needs:

In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future.

When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons

Blessed are they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

—Matthew 5.6

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 27 (Listen – 3:08)
Psalm 70-71 (Listen – 3:29)

 

Guilt and Forgiveness

It is certain that one can speak of one’s own innocence in a self-righteous manner, but do we not realize that one can also pray the most humble confession of sin very self-righteously?

―Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Scripture: Psalm 69.13

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.

Reflection: Guilt and Forgiveness
By Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

There are fewer prayers for the forgiveness of sins in the Psalter than we expect. Most psalms presuppose complete certainty of the forgiveness of sins. That may surprise us. But even in the New Testament the same thing is true. Christian prayer is diminished and endangered when it revolves exclusively around the forgiveness of sins. There is such a thing as confidently leaving sin behind for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Christians have something to say not only about their guilt, but also something equally important about their innocence and righteousness. To have faith as a Christian means that, through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, the Christian has become entirely innocent and righteous in God’s eyes—that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And to pray as a Christian means to hold fast to this innocence and righteousness in which Christians share, and for which they appeal to God’s Word and give God thanks.

Alongside objective innocence, which can of course never be really objective because the fact of the grace of God likewise always meets us personally, there can then stand in such a psalm the personal confession of guilt. This is again only a sign that I really embrace God’s cause. I can then ask even in the same breath: “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people.”

It is a thoroughly unbiblical and destructive idea that we can never suffer innocently as long as some kind of fault still remains in us. Neither the Old nor the New Testament makes such a judgment. If we are persecuted for the sake of God’s cause, then we suffer innocently, and that means we suffer with God. That we really are with God and, therefore, really innocent is demonstrated precisely in this, that we pray for the forgiveness of our sins.

But we are innocent not only in relation to the enemies of God, but also before God, for we are now seen united with God’s cause, into which it is precisely God who has drawn us, and God forgives us our sins.

*Excerpt from Prayerbook of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons

How sweet are your words to my taste! they are sweeter than honey to my mouth. —Psalm 119.103

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 26 (Listen – 7:47)
Psalm 69 (Listen – 4:04)

 

In the Face of Unanswered Prayer

Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts.

―Elisabeth Elliot

Scripture: Psalm 66.19

But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.

Reflection: In the Face of Unanswered Prayer
By Steven Dilla

Disobedience can fracture our relationship with God in such a way that he will not answer our prayers. David acknowledges this just prior to talking about answered prayer, “If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”

Yet obedience doesn’t earn answered prayer. If this were the case Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane would have been vastly different.

Jesus obeyed every letter of God’s law with exacting precision and still faced unanswered prayer. “Remove this cup from me” he begged with such intensity the blood vessels under his skin ruptured mixing blood with sweat and tears. Yet the Father had other plans.

Christ would have known this—for, as Hebrews says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He faced greater battles than we face, yet he was perfect where we fail.

Christ not only prayed to have the cup of the crucifixion and God’s rejection taken from him, he also prayed, “Your will be done.” This is the prayer of a fully surrendered man—a man fully and sacrificially committed to the Father.

Unanswered prayer reveals whether our heart truly trusts God. In this way prayer is different from thinking about God. “To the thinker, God is an object. To one who prays, God is the subject,” observes Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.

What we receive in prayer is greater than any request we can make. In this way no prayer goes unanswered because all prayer deepens our relationship with God—something worth far more than anything we could imagine.

As for the particulars of our prayers, which are God’s joy to fulfill, “God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows,” says Timothy Keller.

Our intimacy with God is deepened through prayer—which is what we need most. Trust becomes the foundation we stand on when our prayers are unanswered. Our satisfaction in God makes him the object of our rejoicing when our prayers are answered.

Prayer: The Request for Presence

Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; I have said to the Lord, “You are my Lord, my good above all other.” —Psalm 16.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 24 (Listen – 3:37)
Psalm 66-67 (Listen – 2:43)

 

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