Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you offered God a deal? I’ve talked with many people who have. Middle-aged folks, who have never married but desperately wanted to, have confided that they made a deal with God, that if God would provide someone who would fall in love with them, they would do such-and-such. I know businesswomen who have made deals with God over a new job or a big sale. I’ve known spouses who have made deals with God if God will just keep their sin secret. I’ve known men who have made deals with God in relation to financial security. I’ve counseled patients who have already made a deal with God about surviving surgery. I’ve even made a few deals of my own concerning my children’s health or spiritual well-being.
Naturally, the results from these deals have been very mixed. Some felt that they made a good deal. They have given God the credit and fulfilled their vows. Others did not get what they bargained for and blamed God for their misery. Some felt that their results were mixed. When they got what they bargained for—or a portion of it—they gave God the credit. When they did not get what they asked for, they blamed themselves and concluded they would have been successful, “If I had only . . .”
I’ve heard and read theological critiques of each of these results. Some argue that thankfulness in light of blessings should be expected. The real theological question is: does God love only those who get what they bargain for? To the disappointed, the more spartan theologians ask, “Is God supposed to make our lives easy?” And to those who credit God for good things that come their way and blame themselves for the bad things that happen, theologians often observe that these folks are simply superstitious.
On this issue, everyone qualifies as a theologian. Some say that God determines everything. There are no accidents. Others conclude that God gave us minds so that we would make our own decisions, and we must live with the consequences. Some believe that God doesn’t intervene in history. Others believe God gives us what we want if we pray. Some believe God has a detailed plan for every life. Interestingly, these beliefs are not novel. In fact, each one of them may be found in one or more of the psalms.
Psalm 118 addresses the whole question in a beautiful way that throws light on the events of Palm Sunday. On that day, it seemed Jesus’ success was guaranteed—that God had uniquely blessed Jesus to be the promised Messiah. Jesus rides into Jerusalem in triumph. The psalmist would have understood Jesus’ supporters’ welcoming greetings. He wants God’s blessing too. In that way he is no different from Cain or Moses, Saul or David. The psalmist is like the disciples who long to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
In order to be successful, the psalmist asks for God’s help. Assuming that one’s goal, motivation, and plan are worthy, there’s nothing wrong with asking for such help. Jesus repeatedly asked God to help him—most notably in Gethsemane. The psalmist asks on the basis of God’s prior help. But the situation has changed. He feels chastised by God. Others have written him off. Why has God kept him alive? It is because he wants him in the camp of righteousness again. Perhaps he had come to believe that God would always bless him no matter what he did.
But the psalmist knows what God expects. He must return to the camp of the righteous. The Lord has provided a gate to the camp, but the psalmist (like all the righteous) must enter through it. Only then will God act.
So what should we conclude from this psalm? When we do our parts, God will respond. It isn’t a trade, but God will not help us until our goals and motives are right, and then only if we ask. It’s interesting how often those who have a good goal and proper motivation don’t ask for God’s help. The psalmist has the right idea. We should begin by rejoicing in what God has already given us, including life itself. We should have confidence that God will prevail. We should continue to trust that if we are on God’s side, we will prevail as well.
Does God guarantee success? Yes, but on God’s scale of success, not ours. This means that we may lose the game, our job, or someone we love, but we cannot lose God’s love. Peter had it right: “The goal of your faith is the salvation of your soul” (see 1 Peter 1:9).