#4 of a Series of Reflections on Psalm 50 (51)
Lord have mercy!
We’ll hear those words today in all kinds of situations out of the mouths of believers and non-believers alike. It’s often blurted out when someone is exasperated, or utterly shocked when something happens to them or surprises them. It’s not always a statement about the Lord, or about mercy, at all.
David begins Psalm 50 with these same words, more or less – “Have mercy on me, O God!”
But for believers, these words are always to be at the center of our hearts. They are our spiritual starting line in the race of faith, when we begin to understand who we are and how we need God in our lives. The sentence has two parts, ‘Lord’ and ‘have mercy’ so we’ll approach the first in this discussion.
The NAME of the Lord
Christian life starts with speaking the name of the ‘Lord’. How we address the Lord is really important! When we blurt out ‘Lord have mercy’ in exasperation or even anger, the eternal Lord is usually far from our minds. It’s usually the opposite scenario where we’re overwhelmed by the here and now.
But the Lord Almighty commanded that His Name not be spoken ‘in vain’ (Ex. 20:7) Judaism’s reverence for the name of the Lord was so total, it was a fearful thing just to utter it. They would not even spell it as such[i], but use the letters YHWH to stand for Him and for His name, because in the Hebrew and Semitic way of thinking, one’s name signified the very essence of a person, his character, and even her life purpose. So, from the naming of ‘Eve’ by Adam in Gen. 2, to the naming of the sons of the Patriarchs, etc and ‘Emmanuel’ in the Book of Isaiah, this sense of the importance and reverence of any name was serious business. But to speak the name of the All-Holy and Unknowable God of All Creation was deemed beyond man’s capability, because of our utter unworthiness to even approach, let alone speak to the Divine. This ‘fear of the Lord’ is called in the scriptures the ‘beginning of Wisdom.’ (Prov. 9:10) God in His holiness, in this view, was utterly inaccessible and unapproachable.
Approach with the Fear of God
But for one who had a heart for the Lord, like David, he had come to know that he could approach God in all humility. As David begins this great psalm, he begins not with himself, but with the God who is the eternal Point of Reference of all that is and lives. This becomes, in this amazing moment of penance, David’s singular focus, to somehow dare to approach God in his sin! This he could do because he had approached God many times before – in other times and circumstances not so bitter. He could praise Him, thank Him as the psalms and scriptures attest, and ask for deliverance. But now could he approach God to receive forgiveness? It is a fearful thing to approach the Living God – let alone when we are clothed in sin! In fact, as we read in Genesis as well, our forefather Adam could not approach the Lord, but hid from him (physically, emotionally, spiritually). Faith then requires both humility and courage.
I suspect we may be comfortable chatting with God about our lives or lifting up concerns or the present or future state of things. This dialogue of what could be called ‘prayer’ sets a grounding and framework for a relationship with God that is personal – not just words from some book, but impacting what is here and now for us. But if you’re like me, God is probably wondering when I, in my prayers, will actually get around to what’s really going on in my life because the messy things like sin, rebellion, love for this world, hatred of others and other sinful thoughts and behaviors are not the stuff of a daily prayer chat. Rather, we find ourselves naked and asking ourselves whether, like David, we dare approach God with such things – knowing that they are utterly unworthy of Him.
Jesus opened the door to us in this matter, not only giving us the command to repent, but offering us a way to come to repentance before God – as Father. When Jesus prayed, He spoke to God as Father. When the apostles asked Him, ‘How should we pray?’ He said, “When you pray, say, ‘Father…’” (Mt.5).
So now, for us, the eternal, unknowable and All Powerful God is actually ‘Father’ and we are to approach Him as such! Now this is the good news and the bad news!
The good news of course is that God is indeed approachable to us, just as we read in the first week of Great Lent from Genesis, ehrn He walked in the garden with Adam, and looked for Adam even after He had sinned. He could have, in all righteousness, simply struck Adam down in His sin then and there and obliterated him from the Garden, the face of the earth, and the Cosmos in an instant. Perfect love did not permit this despite how seemingly ‘just[ii]’ it would have been.
But a Father does not do that to his children.
Instead, as Jesus repeats in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father patiently waits until the movements of life force the fallen son to come to his senses, and recognize the Truth for what it is – his rebellion in sin, his disregard for His Father, his squandering of the precious treasures entrusted to him, his chasing after this life pleasures, etc. And the son only need make the first step in returning so that the Father can reconcile him and restore him again.
The ‘Bad’ news is that, when we really recognize how we have sinned, it’s one thing to deal with them as past events, or ‘something to work on’. But when we realize that we have offended God our Father Who loves us so! It’s heartbreaking! Or as the holy Fathers would say, it is heart softening. (There will be more said about this a little later.)
David did not have the benefit of the Gospel of Jesus to give him the sense when he finally came to his senses that he could actually reach out to God. This is at the crux of the story for each of us – when the chips are down can we, will we, and do we actually turn to God in a way that is not ‘in vain’ but in faith? Those who do the former will only find exasperation amplified, even anger, as we read in the scriptures about people like Cain and Judas Iscariot. When they sinned they had nowhere to go. They were unable – in their critical moment – to turn to God as their Lord as David could, and I believe, ultimately, Adam could. When we cannot turn to God in such a moment we are spiritually lost. The demons soon swarm in, and convince us that our anger at God is justified, and we can become utterly lost spiritually, like Cain and Judas. So many people feel emotionally empty and defeated, because they too have only their own feelings confronting them and overwhelming them with their own self-defeating self-talk, leading to depression and even suicidal thoughts. In such a terrible place we need to look beyond our selves – and cry out to that true God, who is Somewhere, to hear us.[iii]
The words of Jesus to the Apostolic Church after His Resurrection were, “Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 19:13) Is this not the Good News? We can call upon the name of the Lord, that it as spoken from our lips, can be heard and that we, like Adam and David can come out from our hiding and darkness to receive healing, purification and a restored relationship with God as Father?
St. Marks’ Gospel speaks a parallel word from Jesus Himself,
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.6 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Here the Lord refers to the need to approach God in faith and receive Baptism (of repentance). But it goes further speaking another possibility – those who won’t repent and call upon the name of the Lord, won’t be saved. They will find no salvation, because they distance themselves from the Lord and without Him there is No One who can save them. They have not learned, nor been taught, to call upon the Name of the Lord.
Now this points to another spiritual reality and responsibility. If we have learned from our forebears to call upon the name of the Lord, so as to be saved from our sins, then it behooves us to teach others to call upon the name of the Lord. This is the Church’s role[iv] – no other religion or place on earth is in a place or position to bring salvation of Jesus and the awareness of the possibility of God as Father – it is the privilege of the Church to introduce the children of God to their Father. The Church teaches us with the words of Jesus to come to our Father, that He might “forgive us our trespasses (offenses)” We can call upon our God directly, and as the introduction to the Our Father in the Divine Liturgy vividly says,
And make us worthy O Master, that we may dare call upon You, our Heavenly God, as Father, and to say…’Our Father…’”…
So here is this amazing irony, that the sinners recognize two things – first that they are utterly unworthy to approach God, yet by faith they are compelled inwardly to nonetheless with fear and faith so approach God as Father.”
This is the recipe for repentance and redemption, which comes not from any sense of ourselves that somehow we are worthy of anything good (as like David our sins reveal) but that nevertheless we can so approach God, as Lord and Father, and that He is one Who will deal with us with great mercy, as a Father always does.
David knew this, so his prayer of repentance could so begin.
The Not so Good News?
I mentioned above that being able to call God our Father also had it’s ‘down’ side? What could that possibly be? Well it’s a downer, only in so much that it makes it harder in some ways, to say ‘Father, I have sinned’ rather than Eternal God of the Cosmos I am a sinner. When God is personal, even Father, the emotional sadness of penance has an even deeper reach in our heart. This is the case with our sins when we realize the love of God in our hearts. It’s why the saints were so profoundly penitential – because they realized how much our sins were an offense to our loving Father, even unbearably so. Likewise when we realize the personal aspects of our personal sins – that the effect our loved ones deeply and intimately, makes our repentance so much harder – really. I think this is one of the reasons why some people live in denial – simply because the thought of having so offended someone they love is unbearable. How much more so for our All-loving Father. But the Lord Himself gives us the grace to so approach Him – as the Father was known by the Prodigal Son as One who was full of forgiveness and could be approached.
So the not-so-good news is, of course, good news. Our hearts are capable of deep love, hence we are capable of deep repentance. +
[i] Of the several names for the Lord in Hebrew, Yahweh was used, essentially meaning ‘I am Who Am”
[ii] The Old Testament notions of justice, and all human limited perceptions of justice pale in comparison to the justice of God. It is beyond us and there is no contradiction between His justice and mercy.
[iii] The Orthodox Church sings Psalm 140 daily at vespers, beginning with these words, “Lord, I have cried to you hear me, He me O Lord.” These words ‘inhaled’ daily help us to instinctively turn to the Lord in our need.
[iv] To fulfill His command in Mk. 16 and as St. Paul was doing by example to the Roman Church in Rom 10 above.