Text: Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
We have traditionally framed the spiritual search as humanity’s search for God. We come to church to seek God. We go on pilgrimages to places like Cuba, Nicaragua, Tbilisi, and Zimbabwe in search of the Holy. We march and attend rallies for social justice issues like the death penalty, marriage and racial equality, anti-war, economic and environmental justice hoping to find, in the midst of our activism, a little piece of the sacred. We volunteer in ministries with the homeless, handing out bag lunches to those who are hungry. We give of our time to tutor children who are struggling in school. We bag food as a way to do our part to stop world hunger. In part, we participate in these ministries of service to others as a way to connect with and search out God. We pray—however we understand prayer—willing our souls to find God. We read spiritual books, study sacred writings, seek out spiritual guides, and engage in all kinds of spiritual practices longing to know God and to be known by God. In the end, it seems we are created with an innate longing to know, to connect with, and search out that which is holy and sacred.
Like so many of you, I have spent most of my youth and adult life searching for God. Even as a child, I can remember longing to feel God’s presence. In those early years, I thought that my best chance of encountering God was at church, so I made sure I was there as much as possible. I know better now. When I look back over my life, it seems that my searching often intensified when facing life transitions or in times of crisis. I imagine that is true for most of us. Significant life changes, like losing a loved one or questioning one’s purpose in life or realizing that things are not what we thought they were, are ripe moments for searching out God. Possibly, though, my search for God has never been more deliberate than now. In this time in our history when there is so much uncertainty and change—when what we know about how things work in the world appears to be shifting daily—the search for God seems to be heightened for me, and indeed for all people of faith.
Many books have been written about humanity’s search for God. One of the classics is Abraham Heschel’s Man’s Quest for God. First published in 1954, it is still in print today. In his book, Heschel, the great Jewish theologian, explores humanity’s search for God focusing primarily on prayer, but including other spiritual practices in which people have engaged throughout history in their search for God. As I said, it is a classic. And any serious theology student would know this book. What they may not know is that one year after he wrote Man’s Quest for God, Heschel published another book bearing the title God in Search of Man, in which he argued his view that we can consider God to be in search of humanity. Instead of focusing on the human pursuit of God, in this later text Heschel suggests that the spiritual journey becomes the activity, the place and way human beings respond to God’s initiative to search us out.
It is this idea, God’s searching for us, not our searching for God, which the Psalmist writes about in Psalm 139.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such comforting and reassuring words. They express beautifully what our soul longs for—to be known and found by God, to be held in the hand of God. It seems that is one of our deepest longings, and the anticipation of being found and being known comforts us deeply…right up until the point where we actually are known and found by God. Once that knowing is upon us, we are, at best, ambivalent about being known—especially by God. There is no judgment in that for me. I know, like you, both the comfort and the discomfort of being known. The comfort lies in having someone know what matters to you and what you like—how you like your eggs cooked, what music you like, what book to buy you on your birthday, what hurts, and what you dream about. The discomfort lies in having someone who knows those dark places that reside in every soul—the truth about how you really feel about some part of you that you don’t like, your destructive anger or apathy, your addiction, your lonely thoughts. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” It can be discomforting to be known in those dark places. And it makes sense to me that when the Psalmist realized just how intimately God knew him, he wanted to flee—to heaven, to hell, anywhere—just to get away from being known so fully.
The Psalmist’s expression of wanting to flee may be the most powerful words of Psalm 139. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall hold me fast.” Paul Tillich suggests, in a sermon he wrote on Psalm 139, that fleeing to heaven means seeking a place of perfection and truth, of justice and peace, a place of [humanity’s] own making where God is not wanted. He goes on to suggest that fleeing to Sheol means fleeing to death in order to escape the Divine demands. He writes, “I am convinced that there is not one amongst us who has not at some time desired to be liberated from the burden of his existence by stepping out of it.” And in these timeless words, he continues, “The modern way to flee from God is to rush ahead and ahead, as quickly as the beams before the sunrise, to conquer more and more space in every direction, in every humanly possible way, to be always active, to be always planning, and to be always preparing.”
We might ask ourselves: When have I tried to flee into a heaven of my own making? When have I sought some sort of death rather than face the challenges of life? When have I sought travel, adventure, movement as a means of escaping from my life? These are not questions of judgment. These are the questions of those who want to be found by God and who, at the same time, want to flee God’s presence. I don’t know about you, but I know that dance well.
If your assumption has been that God is a good mystery and our human task is to seek God, pursue God, and to try to find God, read again Psalm 139. The assertion that sometimes human beings flee from God and that God actually pursues and follows human beings may be a new way of thinking about God. For sure, this God is a very different God from the much safer and predictable deity who sits in isolated splendor waiting for us to seek and pursue and find. This God, who the Psalmist gives witness to, is a God who takes the initiative in the divine-human encounter and actually comes after us. Tillich concludes with Psalm 139:
There is grace in life. Otherwise we could not live. The eyes of the Witness we cannot stand are also the eyes of One of infinite wisdom and supporting benevolence. The centre of being in which our own centre is involved is the source of the gracious beauty which we encounter again and again in the stars and mountains, in flowers and animals, in children and mature personalities.
Reading Psalm 139, I can feel the discomfort of being known so intimately—of being searched out by God—found in even those dark places where I would rather hide and not be known. But the greater feeling I have when reading Psalm 139 is the overwhelming benevolence of a God who is ever-present, pursuing and finding me. I can feel anew my own soul’s readiness to side with a God who knows my innermost thoughts, my lying down and my rising up, against my own desire to flee from this exposing Presence.
I can still remember the first time I heard Mahan Siler say that God is a God who woos us, who searches us out, and who finds us. I wasn’t sure then that I believed him. I was still operating on the theological assumption that the spiritual journey is solely about humanity’s search for God. Today I am more inclined to believe Mahan’s words, as well as those of the Psalmists.
If your life is so full—full of job and family and complicated relationships, professional demands and tight schedules—consider the ancient wisdom contained in these words:
You know when I sit down and when I rise up,
You discern my thoughts from afar.
And the next time you find yourself believing that everything would be okay if only you could be a little better, work a little harder, earn it a little more, you might find comforting the words:
If I ascend to heaven, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall hold me fast.
And tonight, or tomorrow night, when you fall exhausted into bed, you might meditate on these words:
You search out my path and my lying down.
And if your life can only be describes as hellish: if nothing is working, if it all seems tragically empty and lonely; if there is no light on the horizon—no promise, no hope—hear these words:
If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast…
for even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Remember this: You are not alone in your search for God. God is searching for you.