Willfulness versus Willingness
March 8, 2020  Psalm 40

A few years ago, I hiked up a long-lost trail in the hills north of Simi Valley.

The trail had been hidden for decades by thick tangles of chaparral until fires exposed a path that started in a valley, switch-backed its way up a steep hillside, navigated along the edge of a treacherous 300-foot ravine and ended at an abandoned mine.

The view from the top, about 1000 feet above the valley floor, was spectacular and it was fascinating to see all the old mining equipment – none of it touched since before World War II.

Friends who regularly hike this area say that they’d had no inkling of this abandoned mine, and that, until the fire exposed the path it would have been nearly impossible to have bushwhacked up the hill and to walk safely next (to) the near-vertical cliffs.

Looking back, I see how much of my life has been like bushwhacking uphill: forcing my way through obstacles oblivious to dangerous ravines … as I tried to impose my will on life.

We are two weeks into Lent, the season we devote to introspection and prayer so that we can clear the way to draw closer to God.

Speaking to a crowd in Athens, the Apostle Paul said,

Acts 17:27-28 “(We can) seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him,…”

But while God is closer than my breath, if I force my way through life, preoccupied with getting my way, imposing my will on everyone else, then I become disconnected from God.

Then my willfulness leaves me feeling like I’m always swimming upstream pushing against the current.

By the way, that is the definition of sin.

Sin is not bad behavior, per se.

Sin is being disconnected from God, my higher self, and my community.

That disconnection may lead to dysfunctional attitudes and destructive behaviors.

So, healing, forgiveness, and redemption are about reconnecting with God, self, and community.

And the same is true if I’m weighed down by fear
or shame or guilt or by people who’ve said I’m not good enough, smart enough, rich enough, slender enough, educated enough, or whatever enough.

We aren’t good multitaskers so I can’t simultaneously force my agenda on the world, replay my soundtrack of past hurts while staying attuned to what God may be saying.

Lent is about putting our personal willfulness on hold so we can listen for God.

So, looking back, it is not surprising that my most fruitful times have been when I stepped back from my anxieties and discerned the sometimes-hidden path that God had already laid out before me.

King David talks about waiting for God.

Psalm 40:1-2a   I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;

The NIV understates verse 1 as “I waited patiently” because the Hebrew doesn’t paint a picture of a man calmly twiddling his thumbs while sinking into the mire.

The Hebrew word here is qavah, which means “anxious waiting”.

Then, because of its syntactical structure, it might translate as “actively, anxiously awaiting, with every fiber of the being” for the Lord’s rescue.

That little insight into the Hebrew leads to two observations about these opening words.

First, David was facing a serious crisis.

David metaphorically describes his situation as if being in a cistern – which surely would be a slow death if he doesn’t get out.

Second, rather than panicking and trying to claw his way to the top, he calls upon God.

This is no quiet resignation; David is fully confident that in one way or another God will come to the rescue.

Like David, we’ve cried out to God – sometimes with confidence, sometimes with desperation.

Maybe it came after hearing the doctor’s diagnosis.

Maybe it was from grief so heavy that you didn’t know if you could get through another day.

Or maybe finances, addiction, or family conflict.

Maybe, like me, when bad news comes, your first instinct is to jump into action, get on top of the problem, make something – anything – happen.

But, sometimes, no matter how hard we try to bushwhack our way out, we seem to stay trapped.

Because I hang around hospitals, I overhear lots of conversations among people in crisis.

Like the woman talking on the phone about her husband after another round of tests had led to another dead end.

She was saying, “They’ve done everything they can.  I guess all we can do now is pray.”

Why is prayer our last resort rather than our first?

Charging into a crisis without prayer is like taking a gun and going “ready, shoot, aim.”

But truth be told, I often feel conflicted: At the same time I have faith, I also don’t want to passively wait for God to intervene.

I don’t want to turn into a victim of circumstances or the kind of person who just sits around waiting for a miracle that never comes.

In this culture we’re taught, “God helps those who help themselves.”

Anyone know what proverb that is?

Right … it is totally unbiblical; it is ascribed to Ben Franklin.

But isn’t that the sign of a doer and achiever?

Life can be tough, we will get discouraged, but God didn’t make us to be wimps.

But when I rush into things, I often compound my mess.

So, where’s the balance?

On the one hand, David was a man of action – a warrior, a ruler, a shepherd boy who acquired vast wealth – and yet he was called “a man after God’s own heart.”

Through a life that included many arrogant mistakes David, eventually, learned humility.

Psalm 40:4   Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust who does not look to the proud,

David knew his proverbs:

Proverbs 16:18 First pride, then the crash—
the bigger the ego, the harder the fall.

We aren’t in this life alone.

God and I are co-creating my life.

This is why I end most of our services saying, “No matter what comes your way the week – joys, hardships, setbacks – remember to stop, pause and ask, God, what are You up to in this situation, and how can I get on board?”

I want all of us to have that phrase front and center in our thoughts … so I repeat it often.

I was speaking with Shirley the other day
about all the changes and challenges
she has faced over the past decade.

About 15-years ago came the realization that she needed out of the accounting field, that it was draining her … she could not be her authentic self there any longer.

Rather than making any rash decisions, she began with prayer.

She asked, What’s up with this, God? Where are you leading me?

Then she turned to counseling, coaching, talking with people she trusts.

After lots of introspection that (delete that) she began to uncover a new vision of herself as a life coach.

Then she spent several years in preparation, checking in with God and refining what that might look like.

And along the way, unexpected doors opened.

Connections with important people were made.

Opportunities came out of the blue.

Very early on, she was asked to be co-moderator of our church during a challenging time in our history – and through that she was given invaluable lessons of leadership that she would need later.

And when her family faced health crises and extreme financial pressures, she was able to stay centered and trusting because of her time of growing intimacy with Spirit.

Now when she talks about those experiences, including during workshop(s) with high-level managers and executives, she shares how slowly and reliably things fall into place when you’re on the right track.

She’s learned to sense when she’s on course because it feels like she’s flowing with the Spirit.

Looking back at Psalm 40, next David celebrates the deliverance he received.

Psalm 40:2b-3 He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.

Let me ask you a question: How would your response to life be if you knew that God would be there like that for you?

I shared with some of you recently that a few Wednesdays ago I had a personal event that I was really looking forward to but then I learned from Pastor Eugene from the Cross Culture Church of a pastors’ lunch that was launching a new way for churches to support children and families in need.

Understand that there are tons of pastor lunches unveiling this program and that program – so there is nothing unusual about being invited to something like this.

But something kept nudging me that I should attend this one, leaving me feeling deeply conflicted.

I deserve time of my own – especially one I had planned for, but I did feel the nudge of the Holy Spirit.

So, I asked the question I pose to you – what is God up to in my indecision, – and when I did, I felt a very clear direction to go to the lunch.

The first hour seemed to have little of interest to me, and so I kind of berated myself for going – was this a real Spirit nudge or just my obsessiveness about working?

But then someone spoke of something called CarePortal –and just like that, I knew that was why I was told to attend.

You’ll learn more about CarePortal in a few weeks, but suffice it to say that it is a direct and practical way that small churches can help a local family in immediate and practical ways.

King David admits that he did not always listen for God, so God had to intervene because God had plans for him and needed him to hear.

Psalm 40:6b Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
but my ears you have

Why would God pierce David’s ears?

I did a little word study and learned that the Hebrew word for pierced is karita and it literally means to dig or to bore.

The Canaanites would take a block of wood, carve it into the form of a deity and then paint a face on it.

Although they worshipped them, these wooden sculptures could not hear or help in any way.

If we don’t listen for God, then like the Canaanite figurines, we are only “blockheads.”

I confess that sometimes I just go through the motions of listening for God.

Like the husband reading the newspaper at the breakfast table nodding at his wife but not hearing a thing she said.

The season of Lent has gotten a bad rap.

It’s not all dark, dreary and depressing.

It’s not 40-days of dragging all our sins to the cross.

It is about putting down our newspaper and unloading our baggage so that we can see, hear, and feel how God is present for us.

Lent is about lightening our load to get free to live the meaningful, abundant life God has planned for you and for me.