Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Psalm 139 moves through three dimensions of time, reflecting on God's relationship with his creation across the past, present and future.
No one knows the heart or intention behind a created work of art better than the artist. The relationship between an artist and their work is holistic and intuitive. So it is with God, who created man in his own image at the Genesis of our world. God is omniscient. All knowing, all seeing, all wise.
People engage with art by imposing their own understanding upon the work. Walk around an exhibition, or listen to an author answer questions in an interview for a book launch, and you will hear historians, art enthusiasts, students and curious by-passers both question and marvel at the work with rivalling opinions. This reflects on all forms of art: pottery, embroidery, architecture, music, cinema, etc.
Yesterday I went to an exhibition at the Barbican and listened to the individuals around me whisper to one another. Art drew them into the act of wonder. What did this friend think about the placement of colour? Did they notice the small curve of a brush-stroke in the corner? How highly would they rate one work compared to another? A small pamphlet of the exhibition helped me place the work in its historic context. The careful collation of information and interpretation was a powerful tool for illumination and clarity. Walking around the rooms, I made assumptions about the artist based on her work, and in reverse, made assumptions about her work based on what I knew about the artist. Reading the pamphlet, I learned that the artist had been mistreated by people who had made incorrect assumptions and who misunderstood what her work sought to achieve. Interpretation had led to fickle and devastating consequences.
The Barbican exhibition made me question the nature of interpretation as it pertains to creation. This is what I have come to believe:
While the act of interpretation has the power to affect own's experience of a particular work of art, it cannot affect the art itself. Neither can it detract from the work as it was purposed by the artist. So it is in our relationship with God also. No one can belittle the purpose, value and meaning placed on us by the God who made us.
When I was a little girl, my father used to read me a fairytale called Punchinello. Punchinello is a clay being, created by the kind and mysterious Carpenter who lives on a mountain not far from the village where the Wemmicks (all the clay beings) spend their days marking one another with dots and stars. The Wemmicks give gold stars to those with skill, repute and popularity; grey dots for those without. The Wemmicks give Punchinello grey dots because he is weak and uncoordinated. Soon, Punchinello's whole, little wooden body is covered in them.
Then, one day, Punchinello meets a girl named Lucia. He is astonished to discover that none of the stickers –– no star, nor dot –– sticks to her. Punchinello asks why.
It's easy, Lucia replied, every day I go see Eli.
Lucia tells Punchinello that none of the stickers stick to her when she visits Eli the Carpenter, and so, Punchinello walks the long way up to Eli's mountain carpentry, caught between equal measures of curiosity and fear.
Eli calls Punchinello special. The word opposes Punchinello's perception of himself. For he had listened to the Wemmicks and believed them. As Punchinello spends time with Eli, the grey dots slowly begin to fall from his body. He visits Eli often. Over time, the stickers slide from his body and mind. So it is with Christians. We realise our truest, purest identity as children of God when we spend time in his presence.
In Psalm 139, David lifts his voice to God. "Search me and know me," he cries. With this declaration, David asks God to remove the stickers and dots that prevent him from understanding (and walking in) the power of divine sonship. Psalm 139 pulses with God's promise to remind us of who he is, and who we are in him.
Let's return to God as omniscient. Notice how David sings from the past: "My frame was not hidden from you. You saw my unformed body. You ordained the days of my life."
However, David does not linger in the past for long. In verse 2, David moves the song into present tense: "You are familiar with all my ways. You know when I sit and when I rise. You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my day and night. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and your hand is upon me. Where then, can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, you are there."
In verse 9, David focuses on the future: "If I settle on the far side of the sea, you hand will guide me. Your right hand will hold me fast."
This gentle rhythm – moving from past to present to future – reminds us that God is Alpha and Omega, beginning, middle and end. David begins Psalm 139 with "You have searched me," and closes with a mirroring prayer, "Search me and know me."
David knows that God already knows his heart. But, in Psalm 139, David makes the request for his own benefit. He comes before the Lord like Punchinello before the carpenter. And just as Eli reminded Punchinello of his value, David wants God to remind him that he is special because he was created by a loving and omniscient creator. In verse 23, David writes: "Search me, and know me God. Test me and know my anxious ways."
Seasons of examination and testing can make us question our worthiness and usefulness to God. But testing grows our character and resolve. In Psalm 139, David asks God to use examination and testing as a means for building resilience. He wants God to strengthen his faith so that the opinion of man does not belittle his confidence. He knows that God has the power to remove well-worn stickers and grey dots to reveal who he was created to be.
When we, like David, open our hearts to God, we find that his heart has always been opened to us. God opens our hearts to make room for his Holy Spirit to enter and dwell. The Holy Spirit reveals to us who God is and who we are in him. He prepares us for plans of hope by guiding us through times of testing.
It is normal to feel discouraged, vulnerable or afraid when we walk through suffering. Maybe you are in a season where, like Punchinello, you feel covered in dots. Be comforted by the words of apostle Paul:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete. Ask God for wisdom, for He gives generously to all. But when you ask, you must believe. Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. James 1:2.
In Romans 5, Paul writes:
Therefore, since we have been healed through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us grace. There is glory in your suffering, because suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope." Godly "hope will not disappoint, or put you to shame, because God has poured his love into your heart through the Holy Spirit.
Where Godly hope begins with trial, Godly growth begins with hope.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal surmised: "Human beings must be known to be loved. Divine beings must be loved to be known." We feel loved when we feel known. As creator, God knows how to love us the way we need to be loved. When He tests us, we feel the depth of his omniscience and grace. We learn who we are and who we can be when we realise that we have been wonderfully and fearfully made. When God tests us, we learn to trust that He has and will continue to equip us with the faith to remember who we are.
My friends, make it the intention of your heart to love God. Love God, and you will come to know him better. For it is in knowing him that we come to understand that who we are reflects the reason why we were made, which is, inherently, to love God with all our hearts, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30 - 31). It is also in loving God that we learn how to love others. Not with star stickers and dots, but with open arms and Godly thought. My friends, I pray that you find comfort in knowing that God knows you. His love does not waver nor rely on interpretation. Love God, and you will come to know yourself in new ways.
A relationship with God brings newness, a promise which was foretold by the prophet Isaiah and later re-visioned by the apostle John: "And he who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.' Also he said, 'Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'"
“And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”
The prophet Zephaniah writes to this newness or restoration in the passage below:
God will purify the lips of the peoples, that all may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder. On the day of restoration, you will not be put to shame for all that wrong you have done. The Lord, the King of Israel is with you. Never again will you fear harm. On the day of restoration, they will say to Jerusalem: 'Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will greatly delight in you, and in his love, He will rejoice over you with singing.
And so, my friends, to echo Paul's admonishment to the believers: "I appeal to you, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God [...]. Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God,' what is trustworthy and true. "Set your mind on things that are above, not earthly things. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you may have. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you sing with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." Let gratitude be the means by which we preserve through the testing of our hearts.