Good enough to be saved?
“Remember the psalms were written by the people to God. These are the thoughts of a human about God, not the word of God spoken to humanity.”
My Sunday school class had gathered down the street from our church at the local coffee shop where we meet each week, and we had just read Psalm 18. In this text, the writer cries out to God and God responds immediately and decisively. Divine deliverance occurs on account of the psalmist’s exceptionality. The enemies of the psalmist are called out, and God is offered eternal and everlasting praise (which, as it turns out, is actually short term and temporary, but at least the thought was good).
I explained to my millennial friends that the psalmist, not of the smartphone generation, would not have been able to pen a reflection immediately. This psalm was written in retrospect, not as a play by play. We reread the verses in an attempt to determine what the psalmist had experienced.
“Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. … He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire. The Lord also thundered in the heavens, … and he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings …” (from Psalm 18:7-14 NRSV).
“It sounds like a volcanic eruption.”
“Or an earthquake.”
“Maybe a hurricane.”
We continued guessing, recalling harrowing weather events and occasions when we believed that God plucked us out of harm’s way just in the nick of time as God seems to have done here for the psalmist.
“Imagine your son in a thunderstorm,” I said to the only parents in the group. We pictured their three-and-a-half-year-old crying out for help.
“You’d go right to him, wouldn’t you?”
They nodded at me, then at each other, smiling that parental way you do when you think of your children.
“And when you did that, would he think something like, ‘I’m such a good boy that mommy and daddy always save me!’”
We all laughed, knowing full well that the salvation would have nothing to do with the child and everything to do with the parents. The child’s behavior would be irrelevant. The parallel to the text was obvious: verses 19-24 extol the psalmist’s virtues as if these human accomplishments prompted God’s divine action. The psalmist thought that whole thing through and it added up: “I’m such a good person that God always saves me!”
Too often, we read these texts and forget that the psalms represent a human (perhaps even toddler-like) response to God. We apply the psalmist’s miscalculated formula to our own lives, trying to be good enough to be saved. What a tragic misunderstanding of God’s word! The good news of the gospel is that we can never be good enough (and likewise, we can never be bad enough) to affect the way God loves us. Because, praise God, it is not about us. It’s about God who loves us completely and without exception.