In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe.
So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror. Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer.
But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant.
Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.
When I was a teenager, I started skateboarding. Not only did I buy the best skateboard I could afford (with help from my parents), but I also bought a whole bunch of new clothes and a wallet with a chain that hung onto a belt loop. I reasoned that if I looked the part, I would eventually be able to do the part - It was my teenage brain’s version of “dress for success.”
For a little while it worked. The skateboard was an excellent vehicle to get places quickly. My walk to the bus stop every morning was about 20 minutes… On the skateboard, since it was downhill almost the entire way, I could do it in about 6. In order to facilitate the transport aspect of skateboarding, I had to at least learn how to ollie (jump the skateboard) - pretty quickly I was able to ollie two decks high (I don’t know if its still true, but back in the 90’s ollie height was marked by how many stacked skateboards you could clear – a skateboard board is also called a deck). At this point, I was starting to get kickflips and pop-shove-its, and was figuring out how to manual (balancing on the back two wheels while riding) for more than 10ft at a time.
This was the point at which I realized I was going to have to start to get bigger air and take bigger jumps if I wanted to advance further. My first attempt at this was rolling down a sidewalk and jumping a four set of concrete stairs. I rolled up quickly with plenty of speed, crouched down low to ollie high, leaped into the air… And crashed down on to the concrete with my skateboard shooting out from under me and my wrist jamming into the ground with all of my body weight behind it. Thankfully there were no broken bones, and the biggest bruise was probably to my pride; we also didn't wear helmets or wrist guards or knee pads back then, so it really could have been a lot worse. I know that now.
But that was also the end of my advancing in skateboarding. I stopped trying new tricks. I stopped learning new things. In part because I didn't have the love for the sport to push through the risk or the pain or the injury. Instead, I just used the skateboard as a mode of transportation and continued to dress the part. I may have looked like a skater, but I wasn't.
I don't think it is too far of a stretch to connect this experience with what the Psalmist is reflecting upon in the lives of the people of Israel in Psalm 78. Here is the people who were trying to figure out who they were. And who easily followed the fads and the trends of the nations around them. They are a people who say they believe something but do the opposite. Early on, they would be eager in their faith (vs. 34); But then they would return to sinning (vs. 32); God would send the consequences of their sin, whether it was in judgment or destruction and they would return, briefly. They would remember that God was their rock, that he was their Redeemer (vs. 35), but their words were little more than flattery – they lied to themselves and to God (vs. 36). They were not loyal to him, nor did they love him more than they loved something (or someone) else – the difficulty of learning obedience wasn’t worth it.
One writer summarizes, “They speak eloquently of their faith and exhibit much joy in believing. Yet their faith never lasts.” They looked the part. And they did the initial steps. And maybe at first they even wanted it. But it’s easy to move on when things seem good. They only remembered God when it got hard. Now, clearly, he used the hard things to bring them back to him – but also, God uses the hard things to help us see what (or who) we really love, who we really want to be.
If we really believe the object of our love, or the focus of our attention, or the recipient of our worship is worth it, we will endure through the hard learning.
Graciously, when it comes to relationship with God, it does not depend on my ability or my willingness to endure: “Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities… time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath.” (vs. 38) We can see this most profoundly in the man on the cross next to Jesus – who through only a simple profession of “This man has done nothing wrong… Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” hears Jesus say to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This man was a traitor to Rome – maybe a murderer and a terrorist – and Jesus grants him the glory of heaven. All because in that moment the anger and justice of God against sin wasn’t restrained – but it was borne by the Son of God, God himself.
Because of that moment, because of the victory of God won over sin and death by Jesus resurrection, because the same grace that held God back in the days of the psalmist and was offered to the other man beside Jesus on the cross, and is now granted to those of us who by faith believe, because of that mercy we are granted new life. We are born again by the Holy Spirit.
It’s not enough to just look the part. We get to jump.
Holy God, help me to not cheapen your grace by only looking the part, but to live out of the power of your Holy Spirit. Help me to remember you always, not just when things are hard. Help me to live for you, Lord Jesus, I pray. Amen!
 Tim Keller, Songs of Jesus, 187.