The geography of a soul

In the new year, I’ve been reading the Psalms each morning. I don’t have a program or reading plan. Some days I read 1 or 2. Some days, I read more.

Reading the Psalms — at least the early ones — is a bit like peaking inside the spiritual notebooks of David. You get his ups and his downs. In one Psalm he is full of confidence, and in another he is full of despair. I find myself wondering how I would respond to David if he were to come to me, as members of the church I serve do sometimes, and shared some of the thoughts and prayers that he has scribbled into his journal.

Psalm 26 was one that really stood out to me. You can go read it yourself, but here are a couple of key verses.

“Vindicate me, Lord, for I have led a blameless life. I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered. … I do not sit with the deceitful nor do I associate with hypocrites. I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence, and go about your altar, Lord.”

As a pastor, I’ve met this person before.

I’ve met the church member who has great confidence in his or her own virtue, and can point to the facts to back up their sense of righteousness. I’ve seen that armor of good works that church people often put on, a confidence in good deeds and clean living. I see it, and I wonder, as a pastor, how to get through to such people.

For we know that our own righteousness is not enough. Indeed, pride in how blameless we are is, in my experience, a deadly disease of the soul, but it is one particularly resistant to treatment or correction. It is much easier to bring the prodigal son to Christ than his self-righteous older brother.

In my reflection about how I would speak to David as pastor in his Psalm 26 moment, I am helped by continuing to read. The David of Psalm 26 is also the David of Psalm 30: “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm, but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” And he is the David of Psalm 25: “For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.”

I think, perhaps, the role of the pastor is not to try to talk people out of Psalm 26 moments. That sense of confidence and righteousness may be built on sand, but it is a glimmer of the real confidence found when our feet rest on the rock that cannot be moved. No, what the Psalms call me to do as a pastor is not to seek to puncture the pride of my Psalm 26ers. The world is going to do that on its own.

What I can do is try to give people the vocabulary to be able to name our failures as places where God has turned his face away, where our iniquity drives us to ask for mercy, and where we come to realize that the only thing we have to offer God is a broken spirit.

This is the slow work of preaching and sacrament, of teaching, and of pastoral care. I am certain I have a great deal still to learn about doing this well. David has been teaching me the spiritual geography of the human heart. I pray I am a good student for the sake of the kingdom.


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