Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Wasted Worries

Sometimes I think we moderns, especially in the West, are way too literal in our reading of scripture.

I’m not against literalism as a general principle, of course. “When the plain sense makes good sense, seek no other sense” is a solid hermeneutic. No, literalism of that type is just fine. The sort of nit-picking, fussy literalism I’m concerned about has more to do with the negative inferences the Western mindset often tends to draw from positive statements. It’s more about strange leaps of logic extrapolated from the text than about the text itself.

Eeyore Meets Puddleglum

Actually, not even all Westerners instinctively think this way. It’s a particular personality type, I suspect, that tends to concern itself with questions the rest of us are unlikely to ever consider. This is the person who reads a positive descriptor like “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and immediately thinks, “What, he didn’t love the rest of them?” He grieves for the “less-loved” eleven instead of celebrating with the one who seemed especially conscious of and grateful for the Lord’s affection. This type of preoccupation is relentlessly negative. Again, this is the person who reads “Lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s prayer, and immediately wonders if that’s the sort of thing God might be inclined to do in the event we fail to pray hard enough. He turns a daily affirmation of the Lord’s goodness into a great big theological problem the Lord probably never intended it to be. Instead of celebrating the good, he obsesses about the possibility of the worst occurring.

It’s like the woman who receives the new kitchen gadget for Christmas that she’s been talking about all year, and immediately becomes concerned her husband values her only for her prowess in the kitchen. If he had bought her a negligee instead, she’d conclude he only thinks of her as a sex object. If he had bought her a new Bible commentary, she’d worry about whether he views her as lacking spiritual insight.

People who think like this can find ways to be unhappy about nearly everything. They are Eeyore the donkey from Winnie-the-Pooh: “The sky has finally fallen. Always knew it would.” They are Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle: “Life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie.”

Thank goodness.

Faith and Fears

I’m not sure the ancient Hebrews ever bothered their minds with the kinds of questions people of this disposition ask themselves about the meaning of scripture. The language of the Lord’s prayer, for example, is typical of the way many Hebrew Psalms are structured. They veer from strong, affirmative, faith-based sentiments to statements that might give us pause if we stop to dissect them too fussily.

In Psalm 27, for example, David starts confidently (“The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”, “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear”, “He will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble”, “My head shall be lifted up”). But then he follows these expressions of faith with a variety of pleas for continued blessing (“Hide not your face from me”, “Turn not your servant away in anger”, “Cast me not off; forsake me not”).

Should we draw negative inferences from these latter statements? Has David’s faith failed, so that he wonders if his relationship with the God of Israel is actually in jeopardy? More importantly, can we imagine such statements in the mouth of the Lord Jesus, for whom the prophet David often speaks in the Psalms? Surely not, if we are to understand them as a genuine crisis of faith. But they are not. David finishes very strongly: “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

Well, amen to that.

Rhetoric and Reversal

But it makes me wonder if the expression of sentiments we might think theologically questionable in the Psalms and elsewhere have more to do with Hebrew literary style than with spiritual substance. Possibly they are intended rhetorically. If so, then “Hide not” really means “You will not hide”; “Turn not” means “You will not turn”; and “Cast me not” means “You will not cast”. Of course, sin is always a possibility in the life of a believer, but the one who has made the Lord the stronghold of his life should not imagine he will ever be let down, cast off or forsaken on the basis of an uncharacteristic error.

Such sentiments are wasted worries.

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