Season 12 - Week 3
“Psalm 139 - He surrounds me”
God knows EVERYTHING about us.
How doe that make you feel? We live in a world dominated by a strange paradox - one where social media allows us to create identities for ourselves which are filtered, selected, perfected. We’re encouraged to develop these spaces to such a degree that the divide between private and personal appears to break down - everything is shared - and we may even question how real or valuable an experience is if we do not share it.
Through the lockdowns that online ‘version’ of our identity became unusually dominant. The version of ourselves we saw in the little window on the zoom screen, the way we joined in with conversations when so much can be muted or hidden just off screen, the choices we had between what we did and didn’t reveal and our ability to cross time and space as our communities were no longer limited by our location.
Yet at the same time this apparent openness, this revealing of our identities in public, is in fact false. Our online identity is expressed in one way, carefully controlled spaces without the intimacy and immediacy of real life. And behind those can be something we’re much less comfortable to show - the ‘real’ me - the person I am when I am not in church, the version those who know me best see, or perhaps only those (un?!)lucky enough to live with me experience.
All this can create some challenges. Which is really ‘real’? Does it matter if different versions of my identity look or feel very different? What if people’s expectations and vulnerabilities influence the person I need to appear to be for them? Does it matter if the person people think I am isn’t who I actually feel I am underneath?
The challenge with identity is where it is rooted, how we ground ourselves in a culture so full of confusion, direction. Navigating our way through is like trying to pick your way across a fast flowing river hopping from stone to stone. It’s good to know the rocks we can depend upon and hold ourselves steady on when the flow threatens to sweep us up and carry us away.
So - this ‘open me’ is a reflection on that classic Psalm 139, drawing out some of the key ‘stepping stones’ it reminds us of - things upon which we can steady our understanding of ourselves.
Take a moment to re-read the psalm now - you’ve probably read it many times so why not read your usual version, then take a moment to read a different translation as well?
Then work through the following - take each one at a time and do linger on each. Ask God to speak to your heart about what this means for you - and look out for the things that resonate and leap out as you read. Recognise the voice of God in that, wanting to whisper to your soul about the wonder of who you really are.
1. God knows us.
I mean, really knows us. Kind of whether we like it or not - the Message puts it like this ‘I’m an open book to you!’ Now this can feel like anxiety provoking in a world where to be open and vulnerable can feel unwise. Surely it’s safer to keep some boundary in what is seen of ourselves - even with God? But it’s good to remember - God has a unique knowledge of us - and most uniquely, that is something we can relax into as a good thing!
Remember the story of the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well? Her life situation is probably not what she’d ideally like it to be, but Jesus knows her and reveals it to her. And after her encounter with him she runs and tells everyone “He told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:39). But notice something - her experience of this has not been negative or humiliating or alarming. In fact John tells us lots of people come to faith as a result of hearing how this amazing moment has changed her life - because in meeting with the God who truly knows her she also found the God who loves her, accepts her, celebrates and sings over her - even the bits she maybe wouldn’t have chosen to make visible in normal circumstances.
What would it mean to you to be truly known - and truly loved. To be able to rest totally secure that someone knew everything about you but accepted you and valued you in spite of it? That’s what God’s love for you does. Pause on that for a moment …
2. God’s got you covered
There’s a beautiful phrase in v5 that is intrinsically combined with this amazing intimacy we have with God. The NIV translation says that God ‘hems us in’ - others talk of how God’s love encircles us, or envelops us, or wraps around us - surrounding us, behind us and in fronts.
What that means in practice is this: God’s got you. So often we get caught up, don’t we - in the pain of the past, anxieties about the future or the frustration of the present? And the pandemic has made that an even bigger challenge with so much going on that has been and continues to be outside of our control. But God has all those things covered - as he surrounds us in his love, like when a parent wraps a little child just out of the bath in a massive warm bath towel. That is what God’s love does, warming you, drying you off from the deluge you’ve faced or might face tomorrow, surrounding you with intimacy and safety.
How often do we allow God those moments where we tangibly experience that love? It’s worth another pause on this stepping stone to take a moment in prayer and ponder this.
3. You are an actual work of creative beauty.
Yes, you! Yeah, I know. That expression you always seem to be pulling when someone takes a photo. The way your voice sounds when you listen back to recordings of yourself. The things you wish were just a bit different - smaller, larger, neater … Your character flaws … Stuff you’ve messed up or that just really didn’t go well…
It isn’t always easy to see the beauty in ourselves. Our brains are biased to be negative - because spotting the things we DON’T want to repeat or advertise to others is generally more important. But did you know when God looks at you that’s not what He sees? Or that every single person in the world (hint: that includes you) is an example of His creative brilliance. In the beautifully poetic passion translation, v 15 says “when you created me in the secret place; carefully, skillfully you shaped me from nothing to something.” And the word used here to describe God’s shaping of us is a Hebrew term which refers to embroidery or weaving. Think about it. That weaving of plain thread into an amazing intricate pattern. A unique pattern, in your case. That is what you are.
So as we remind ourselves of this truth, especially in the moments it feels like it clashes with our experience of ourselves, it’s important to make space to overcome our own mind’s negative bias as we think about ourselves and who/what we are. Your mind will go all too easily to your bad points and flaws. What if we took some of Paul’s advice when he wrote this in Philippians 4:8 (the Message translation) “I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”
So can you do a moment to fill your minds with the best things about you? The beautiful, not the ugly? Things to praise not to curse? What are your good points? Where in your do other people see God? What are the things unique to you and your character and your experience that are shaping the way you bring God to the people and places you connect with? How does God’s creative embroidery look on you?
4. … But it aint finished yet!
We live in a world that loves tangible, solid truth and demonstrable fact. But the reality is that so much of who awe are as individuals is not ‘out there’, not visible, not fully known or expressed yet - as v15 says, some things remain secret, or not yet known . The last 18 months have taken us through times and experience none of us could possibly have foreseen - and those kinds of experiences can be unsettling. But God knows all the days ordained for us, and more than that, He knows who we are, the journey we have been on to get to where we are, but also the way that the things we are encountering and will encounter are shaping us and forming us.
Because the reality of our identity as people of God is that who we are is NOT stationary. We are in a process of change and growth as “the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” (2 Cor 3:18 NLT).
But sometimes changes to the way we see and understand ourselves are hard to get our head around. Has the pandemic brought out aspects of your personality or character in ways that have surprised you? Remember again - you may be more likely to think of things you didn’t handle well, or things that went wrong - but ask yourself - what did you manage really well? In what ways did you bring the things of God to the people around you during the different stages of the pandemic? You may want to look up the list of fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5 - which of those did you carry well, and when? Are there any you really need to work on and ask God to help you to grow?
5. God guides us
This psalm ends with what can feel at first read like a slightly alarming conclusion - asking God to search us and reveal our ‘anxious thoughts’ - which maybe your immediate response to is that you’d prefer them to remain a bit more private, inside your head!
But there’s two things we need to know as we end this psalm. Firstly - that ‘inner world’ - our thoughts and feelings, the ‘self talk’ that goes on inside our heads - matters to God. He cares how you feel - emotionally and personally as well as physically. And the invitation here could sound a bit intimidating if you missed the tone of utter compassion. So the psalm invites God in to see the things that are creating anxiety or preoccupying us - the things we have on our mind. And v26 talks - depending on your translation - about anything ‘offensive’ or ‘wrong’ in us - but the same Hebrew word used can also refer to pain. When we get things wrong God’s concern isn’t that of a kind of heavenly headmaster waiting to tell us off. It is that those things cause us pain. And He wants us to be free from that.
So the invitation is to a God of peace and love in, to know the things that disquiet or worry us - to allow God to see our pain and struggle. But the second important thing is the purpose. So often when we reflect on those things ourselves we treat ourselves harshly - beat ourselves up with what we see as our shortcomings. God’s desire though is that we experience ‘the life everlasting’ - literally this means the fullest possible experience of the journey or path God has for us. It is about flourishing - truly releasing the potential you have in you - life to the full - the amazing privilege of life lived with and through Him. And how do we find that? God guides us - and the Hebrew word here refers to the way you’d guide someone helpless or vulnerable - it is a kindly, hand holding, arm around the shoulder guide from someone looking after you.
Let’s end by reflecting on that. how do you view God’s guidance? A tutor or judge watching you in case you get things wrong? A spiritual sat nav delivering instructions and replanning your route when there are diversions? Or this beautiful, kindly, loving guide who appreciates maybe you haven’t got it all figured out yet - but who knows and loves you just as you are?
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
What would it mean to you to be truly known - and truly loved?
How often do we allow God those moments where we tangibly experience His love?
What are the things unique to you and your character and your experience that are shaping the way you bring God to the people and places you connect with?
Which of the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5 did you carry well, and when? Are there any you really need to work on and ask God to help you to grow?
How do you view God’s guidance?
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.
Christ shield me today
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.