In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline. In a brief reading of Psalm 66 it’s easy to get distracted by the overarching theme of praise and we might start to think the spiritual journey is linear: a straight line of praising God. The psalmist declares that all the world ought to be offering constant adoration to God for the great deeds He has done. The journey of this particular Psalm, however, is much more arduous than a simple praise chorus could express. Reading of severe trials and suffering interspersed with sacrificial offerings and adoration, we must take note of the invitation of Psalm 66 to a life of communion with God through the process of spiritual discipline.
According to the author of this Psalm, we must raise glad exultations to God for He has done marvelous things. “But what are these great deeds?” one could ask. “Why should I give praise to this God?” In the first portion of the Psalm, we read depictions of how the entire world is already lifting a chorus of praise to God for they observe the works of their Creator. “All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name” (Psalm 66:4). The people of Israel know the deeds of God in the way He parted the Red Sea and led them across dry land as they escaped brutal slavery in Egypt. Time and again this God of theirs executed justice in the ways He protected his people from rebellious nations. Surely for these acts alone He deserves praise.
The call to praise God becomes a bit convoluted as we move to the central verses in this Psalm. Verses 8 and 9 beckon us to bless God because “he has kept us among the living” (NRSV) and “he has preserved us” (NIV). This language of preservation make me think of the to meticulous storage techniques involved in canning fruits or vegetables. It’s essential to follow the recipe precisely and to time the heating process perfectly in order to keep the lids sealed and the foods stored safely (and deliciously) for later use. Here in the Psalm the use of the word “preservation” in conjunction with the reference to human life points towards the fullness of life to which God is inviting us. As his people we have intrinsic value and we find our purpose in the work of his kingdom. Thus we are worth protecting and preserving with the utmost care.
This detailed work of preservation is extended in the way in which God does not “let our feet slip” (verse 9). The Lord keeps a careful eye on his loved ones, being sure our feet are firmly planted on the path before us. In my role as a mother, I share a similar watchfulness over my young daughter on the playground (Stoneco, Vienna, St Mary’s). I sit back and allow her freedom to explore and exert her independence. Up and down she climbs, my attentive gaze always following her. My stomach churns as she creeps close to an edge, but I cheer when she wisely decides to take another route. The moment her foot begins to slip, however, I spring into action and catch her, keeping her from injury. The Lord does the same for us, his sons and daughters.
That sounds well and good, yet we find ourselves reading the words of verses 10 through 12 with shock and frustration, jolted out of our loving image of God.
10 For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
Here we find the psalmist reflecting on the afflictions the Lord has brought his people through. In the Message paraphrase, verse 12 says “He has road-tested us inside and out, took us to hell and back.” Not only does it seem we have been deliberately put through the flames of refinement, but we were led into a trap and intentionally burdened. In these verses we find ourselves moved from a place of praising God for the way He led His people out of slavery, to lamenting the way God’s own hand directed us back to prison. “Why would God allow these painful trials and tribulations to face the children He supposedly loves?” we could ask.
The process of spiritual transformation happens in the fire or the rough waters, the darkest times of our journey. Our tendency is to run from pain and ask God to keep us from ever experiencing difficulty. The great surprise of the spiritual life is not that it is free from burden or challenge, but rather that we find ourselves nearest to God’s heart in those moments. When we read the psalmist’s metaphorical description of trials as the refining process of silver, we must examine the greater purpose of this pain. In the refinement process the goal is not to alter the silver, but to bring it to a more pure version of itself. Spiritually speaking, our own journeys toward God are not to lead us further away from who we are today, but toward a more holistic – more sanctified – a more Christ-in-me – version of ourselves.
In his book Things Hidden, Richard Rohr say, “Religion is largely populated by people afraid of hell; spirituality begins to make sense to those who have been through hell, that is, who have drunk deeply of life’s difficulties.” (Rohr, 100). This summary of the Christian spiritual formation process is an invitation to embrace the pain of life as a way of communing with God. Psalm 66:12b alters our perspective of the turbulent times when we see the welcomed conjunction “yet” changing the scenery. “yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” Suddenly we realize our Good Shepherd has not kept us in the pain for no purpose, but has led us toward a “spacious place” of freedom and abundance. Our hearts can be at rest in this place of “green pastures and quiet waters” as its put in Psalm 23, and we begin to recount the ways God has been faithful through the trials.
If our spiritual journey will take us deeper into the heart of God in the midst of hardship and affliction, we must have a plan in place to endure these times and deliberately call our attention to the presence of God with us. Psalm 66 is a hymn of discipline. Kevin and I are celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary this Wednesday and I can’t help but think of how perfectly our wedding vows suit this Psalm. We are called to praise God in times of plenty and in times of want, in joy and in sorrow. In order to praise God in the midst of darkness we must live disciplined lives, using the tools of spiritual discipline to place ourselves before God and ask that our eyes be opened to his grace.
The ways in which we cultivate a life whose soul-soil is ready to receive the difficult work of the Holy Spirit is through faithful love and obedience to God. Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” We express our love for God by intentionally being present to Him and noticing his presence with us. In this Psalm alone, multiple spiritual disciplines are laid out as examples to us. First we practice the discipline of celebration, being deliberate in our praise of God for all of the goodness we have already experienced. By practicing the discipline of contemplation, where we stop and pause (as seen in the “selahs” of this Psalm), meditating on the character of God or on his good works. This discipline of the mind helps us to notice more readily the ways God is being gracious to us in the midst of our present circumstances. In verse 13-15 the psalmist writes:
13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
We can commit to bringing elaborate sacrificial offerings into God’s house even when we find ourselves facing hardship. This turns our hearts to generosity and allows us to better receive the generosity of God. We read the guttural cries of the psalmist in verse 17 when he says 17 I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue;” we too can commune with God in honest prayer through the suffering. God listens to our prayers and responds, and verse 18 indicates our prayers are most effective when we have practiced the discipline of confession. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Being blameless and righteous when we come before God is an important starting point to all of our prayers and humbly ushers us into the transforming work of the Spirit.
The final steps in our rhythm of spiritual formation is to declare the great things God has done to all who will hear. Verse 5 says, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals” while verse 16 echoes this by declaring, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.” As we experience the saving work of God and his gentle presence with us as we endure difficulties, we must tell everyone who will listen the story of God. God’s invitation is for all people to be with him, communing with him and joining in his creative work in the world. Our role is to notice his presence with us in the fiery times or in the times of spacious safety and to glorify his good name always, beckoning others to experience this great grace.
The road of spiritual formation is winding, not linear, being led by the Spirit of God as we place ourselves in a posture of receptivity to his work. By practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, contemplation, celebration, confession, and generosity, we are better able to respond to the work God is doing in our lives. Through his work we become more like Him as our impurities are washed away refining our character, drawing out the image of God already stamped on our souls.