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Psalm 119:137-144

You are righteous, Lord, and your laws are right. The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy.

My zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words. Your promises have been thoroughly tested, and your servant loves them.

Though I am lowly and despised, I do not forget your precepts. Your righteousness is everlasting and your law is true.

Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands give me delight. Your statutes are always righteous; give me understanding that I may live.

When I was in grade 10, I was invited to play up a level and join the senior/varsity volleyball team for my high school; one other guy from the junior team and I would primarily be bench players for the second half of the season – but we would practice three times a week with the senior team. That year our team qualified for the AAA provincial finals (OFSAA) and I was invited to travel with the team to the tournament. 

During that season, at one of our regular practices each week, our coach would focus on strength and endurance training. We would run drills and sprints and box jumps for two hours straight. Every practice was finished with “suicide drills” – where you run to a line on the gym floor, run back, and run again to further line, run back, and run again to a further still line. You do this until you are sprinting the entire length of the gym. If you finished in the bottom three you had to run extra laps of the gym and clean up the equipment afterwards. It was killer. It was exhausting. And we all hated it.

The amount of grumbling and grunting as we ran was long and loud. As one of the youngest and smallest on the team I was regularly in the bottom three, and I groaned and complained at the work along with everyone else. Especially after a long and hard practice we would say things like, “Why do we have to do suicide drills!? We’re already beat…”

But, our coach, Mr. Groot, had a plan and purpose – from our perspective on the court we couldn’t see it; our fatigue (and maybe even pain) was already too great to see past the present moment – all it felt like was a trial piled on a burden. Further to that, all of us were athletes, already in great shape; we really believed we didn’t need more (especially such over the top) exercise; we were good enough on our own.

I share this story as a bit of an analogy to Psalm 119 – not for the Psalmist (at least, not in the first place), but for the enemies of verse 39, “My zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words.” In the 21st century, increasingly post-Christian Canada, we find ourselves, perhaps most especially in our urban cultural centers on the west and in the east (think GVA & GTA & Montreal), in a time and place where the French anarchist maxim rings ever increasingly true: Ni Dieu ni maître (“No Gods No Masters,” an history and anthology of libertarian anarchist writings compiled by French libertarian-communist author Daniel Guérin in 1965).

Rooted deeply in this cultural moment is the self-affirming belief that people are generally good enough on their own and that we don’t need a “God” to impose a moral order on us. Further, people can be all too dismissive about the “harshness” of God’s rules and order for life. We live in a moment of the triumph of “my truth,” the necessary affirmation of expressive individualism, and the idea that one person can’t tell another how to identify or express their chosen, adopted, or felt identity.

In short, in today’s world, it is all too easy to ignore God’s words and precepts because our culture believes we’ve figured out a better, less oppressive, more tolerant and inclusive way. To borrow the technical framing of this shift from Carl Trueman, we’ve shifted from a “mimetic view of the world” – where meaning and purpose reflect the intents and purpose of the Creator because we are created in his image – to a “poietic one, where the onus for meaning lies with the human self as a constructive agent.”[1] When meaning and purpose come from within, created by each individual for his or her-self, any external imposition is necessarily oppressive. The idea that a transcendent God might have a more true and better understanding of who you are and who you should be does not compute in the modern social imaginary.

And so, not only do we forget his precepts – we hate them.

Further, any time someone tries to suggest another way of seeing and being in the world – even if it is done with all humility, gentleness, and respect, that person may be tarred and feathered as intolerant (at best) and bigoted (at worst). Ni Dieu ni maître, indeed… though perhaps we’ve just made ourselves god and “identity” our newest master?

Into such a context the Christian is called to mission. It isn’t hard to empathize with the psalmist when he writes, “My zeal wears me out…” 

And yet, like my high school volleyball coach, I believe God knows something about us that we don’t yet. In the moment we hated those drills – and we grumbled. But we did it. Coach called us to it, and so we did it – sometimes with more or less vigor, sometimes falling down, sometimes unable to finish well, but we got up and did it. Again and again. Week in and week out.

At that AAA OFSAA tournament, we played a 5-game set against the previous year’s champion team. The winner of the match would advance to the quarter finals. I remember it being some of the best volleyball I had ever seen. It was gritty and tough and a slog for every point. For all five games we went back and forth: a point for us, a point for them; two points for them, three for us. By the 3rd game, we were subbing players out to try and keep fresh legs on the court. By the 5th game we were physically exhausted – but it was also becoming clear that the other team was even more exhausted. Our coach called a time out somewhere in the middle of the game, pulled us all into the huddle, and said, “Alright boys, this is what those suicide drills were all about. Right here, right now, is why you pushed through your exhaustion all season long. Go out there and do it again. Push.”

We ended up winning that match 17-15. (Just to make sure you don’t hear this as Disney-type sports movie: we got utterly destroyed in three straight after that; maybe scoring 20 points over all three games combined.)

As Christians, we know zeal for God and obedience to him can be hard; we can empathize with the psalmist when he writes, “trouble and stress have come upon me.” (vs. 143) And yet, I believe God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, knows something about us that we forget: we are created to be like him and to live in relationship to him. Living in relationship to him will have an impact on how we live and what we live for – just like being in a serious, life defining, relationship with anyone does. Further, God being God, means he has a plan and purpose for how we live and what we live for; he has placed eternity in every human heart (Ecc. 3:11); we are made for God and “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[2] Meaning, obedience to God is living in the manner and direction that he has created you for. Since God’s design for our life is a reflection of his own character and attributes, submitting to him isn’t finally oppressive (even though it will be hard in this present darkness and as sin has pervasively impacted all of creation) – obedience to God is the only true form of freedom!  That is who you truly are and in this is true life found. “Your statutes are always righteous; give me understanding that I may live.” (vs. 144).

Finally, apart from God, obedience to God is ultimately impossible. “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:3-4) God, by the Holy Spirit, quickens your heart to live again for him. Clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27) we have received power from on high (Lk. 24:49), and now, he “makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” (HC, Q&A 1) “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15). In gratitude then, we profess “The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy.” (vs. 138)

Believing that… Believing him – we drill; let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Heb. 12:1)

Lord, my zeal to run wanes and I so easily forget the goodness of your design and purpose – especially as I am overwhelmed by trouble. The world around me tries to find a way forward in the dark, forgetting (or actively rejecting) who you are. Help me to live in such a way that draws me, and those around me, closer to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

[1] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 71. The word “mimetic” means to imitate – hence the connection to the human bearing the image of God; the word “poietic” comes from a word meaning “to make” – hence the idea that we are “free” to make our own identities.
[2] Augustine, Confessions, 1.i.