The Weaned Soul

Scripture: Psalm 131

Title: The weaned soul

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • Humility of heart
  • Contentment of soul
  • Conclusion – Hope

 

Introduction:

On the wall here we have three pictures

–         We have Doctor Who’s ‘Tardis’

–         The Wardrobe from the ‘Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’

–         And the suitcase from ‘Fantastic Beasts and where to find them’

 

Who can tell me what these three things share in common?  [Wait]

–         That’s right – they are all a lot bigger on the inside than they appear on the outside and they transport you to a different world

 

This morning we return to our series on the Songs of Ascents

–         These songs were probably sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made their way to the temple in Jerusalem

–         They are songs about drawing nearer to God

 

Our focus today is psalm 131

–         While this song appears quite small from the outside (only three verses long) – it is actually very spacious on the inside

–         Psalm 131 is like a gateway into a whole different realm

–         In this song the author, King David, touches on some pretty deep themes including humility of the heart, contentment of the soul and hope for the nation. From the New Revised Standard Version we read…

 

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,     my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things     too great and too marvellous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,     like a weaned child with its mother;     my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord     from this time on and forevermore.

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us

 

Humility:

I have in my hand a spirit level

–         This is a builder’s tool which shows whether something is level or not

–         If the floor or the wall or whatever it is you are measuring is straight and true then the bubble here will sit nicely between the two lines

–         But if it’s on an angle (if one part is lifted up or standing too proud) then the bubble will move outside the lines [1]

 

David begins psalm 131 by talking to the Lord about humility. He says…

–         O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high…

–         David is saying here that he is not proud – he is humble

 

Some people think that humility consists of being self-deprecating or having a low self-esteem or putting yourself down. It doesn’t.

–         Humility is about having a true and accurate estimation of yourself in relation to God and others

–         The person who is truly humble doesn’t think too highly of themselves nor too lowly of themselves – they are level headed in their perception

–         To be humble then is to be on the level, straight, true and honest

 

Now you might be thinking – isn’t David boasting when he says he’s not proud, doesn’t that undo his humility? (humility is a sort of a Catch 22 like that)

–         Well no. David isn’t boasting, he is simply stating the facts

–         He has got his spirit level out and everything is straight & true – nothing is lifted too high or sitting too proud

 

David says that his heart is not lifted up

–         What does he mean by his ‘heart’?

 

Contemporary western society tends to equate the heart to a person’s feelings or emotions

–         In the Bible though, the heart isn’t limited to a person’s feelings

–         Rather the heart is the seat of the will

–         In other words, the heart is where decisions are made

–         This means, what we say and do comes from the heart

–         Our personal values, the things that are important to us, the principles we live by all reside in the heart

–         The human heart is sort of like the parliament of the individual

–         The heart governs a person’s life

 

You sometimes hear people talking about ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’

–         What does that mean?

–         It means to let Jesus sit on the throne of your life,

–         Let him be Lord, let him be Prime Minister,

–         Give him executive authority, make Jesus your power of attorney

–         Let Christ inform and guide the decisions you make

 

When David says to the Lord, my heart is not lifted up (or not proud) he means something like: I don’t make decisions without you God

–         I am not wilfully disobedient

–         I don’t think that I know better than you Lord

–         I submit my will to your will

–         I give you, O God, power of attorney over my life

 

Now at this point some of you, who know David’s story, might be thinking…

–         ‘Really? Is that right David? What about Uriah and Bathsheba? How did God feature in those decisions?’

–         And that’s a fair point – David wasn’t perfect.

–         We don’t know exactly when David wrote psalm 131

–         It could have been before the debacle with Uriah and Bathsheba or it might have been after that, when David had repented

–         We can be fairly confident he didn’t write it during that time

 

In any case we are told that David was a man after God’s own heart

–         Meaning that, generally speaking, David pursued God’s will

–         He went after what God wanted in most situations

 

Returning to verse 1 – David goes on to say to the Lord:

–         …my eyes are not raised too high

–         If a person’s heart is where decisions come from then a person’s eyes relate to perception

–         It’s like David is saying: I don’t look down on others

–         I don’t think of myself as better than other people

–         I don’t even compare myself to them

–         And I don’t see my desires as being more important than anyone else’s

 

Sometimes we can be bitterly disappointed when we don’t get what we want, especially if someone else does get what we want

–         That’s my seat, I always sit there

–         I was looking forward to that last piece of cake and someone beat me to it

–         I really wanted to be selected for the Lion’s tour of NZ but Warren Gatling didn’t pick me

–         Or, I wanted to sleep in but the kids woke me up early

–         These are frivolous examples of course but you get the point:

–         The truly humble person knows that it’s not realistic to expect to always get what you want

–         Humility is the awareness that we are not the centre of the universe – the world doesn’t revolve around us

 

The second half of verse 1 continues this theme of humility

–         I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.

 

Here David appears to be saying, I accept my limits – in particular the limits of my understanding and the limits of my ability

–         Humility means accepting that we don’t know everything and learning to live with mystery, which can be more difficult for some than others

 

Science is able to explain many things about the physical universe but not everything

–         In 1953 Albert Einstein wrote a letter in response to one of his critics

–         In the letter he says…

 

“Dear Mr. Moffat, our situation is the following. We are standing in front of a closed box which we cannot open, and we try hard to discover what is and is not in it.” [2] (The closed box Einstein was referring to is the universe)

 

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?

–         What happens to something when it enters a black hole in space?

–         Who built Stonehenge?

–         Is there intelligent life on other planets?

 

We could go on but I don’t mean to side track your thinking or occupy your mind with things too great and marvellous

–         If we are this limited in our understanding of the physical universe how much more limited are we when it comes to understanding God?

–         Humility means accepting the limits of what we know and learning to live with mystery

 

Humility of heart is perhaps the most important of all the virtues

–         It’s a bit like the soil out of which the other virtues grow

–         Like the virtue of contentment – which we read about in verse 2…

 

Contentment:

But [instead of occupying my time and thoughts with things too great and marvellous for me – instead of comparing myself with others and instead of lifting what I want above what God wants]

–         I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

 

David has talked about the heart, the eyes and the mind

–         Now he talks about his soul

–         What is the human soul?

 

Well, describing the soul is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle – you can’t really define the soul in one pithy sentence or reduce it to a formula

–         The best we can do is describe the soul in pieces and then admit that we don’t have all the pieces – there are limits to our understanding here

 

The soul is different from the heart and the spirit

–         The heart is where values are held and decisions are made – like the parliament of the individual

–         And the human spirit is our capacity to connect or relate with God and others – sort of like wifi or cell-phone coverage

–         While our soul is the life force which animates us and connects the various aspects of our self

 

If the term ‘life force’ is too Star Wars sounding for you then you might prefer Dallas Willard’s metaphor, where he compares the soul to an inner stream, which refreshes, nourishes and gives strength to every other element of our life [3]

–         Just as a river gives life to the land it passes through, so too our soul gives life to our body, our mind, our heart and our spirit

–         Normally we can see a river or a stream but the stream of our soul is underground, it is hidden deep beneath the surface

–         In fact the soul is the deepest level of life and power in the human being

 

Expanding on Dallas’ metaphor we could say that if the soul is a stream of water, then God is the source (or the well-spring) of the soul

–         While the human spirit is the channel (or the conduit) through which the water of our soul flows

 

The thing that convinces me most that we have a soul is death

–         Whenever I see a dead body it’s obvious to me that the soul has departed

–         Looking at a corpse is quite different from looking at someone sleeping

–         Death has a certain pallor – a kind of greyness

–         A dead body is missing something more than just a heart beat

–         It’s missing the soul – it’s missing the stream of its life force

 

Returning to psalm 131 – David says he has calmed and quieted his soul

–         What does it mean then to quieten your soul?

–         Well, sitting still in silence, is a helpful start but it’s not usually enough by itself – our mind can be racing even if our tongue is still

–         We quieten our soul by abandoning outcomes to God

–         By not seeking to manipulate the end result

–         Not seeking to make ourselves look good in the eyes of others

–         Not seeking success or fame or superiority

–         Embracing the truth that we (on our own) don’t have the resources to make things turn out right

–         The soul settles down and finds its level when we let go of our reputation and simply trust God with the outcome

 

Dallas Willard compares the soul to an inner stream

–         Like any metaphor though it has its limits, it’s just one piece to the puzzle

–         King David provides another piece, comparing his soul to a weaned child with its mother – The poetry in this verse is profound

 

To say the soul is like a child indicates that the soul is not static or fixed but is dynamic, changing and growing, developing and learning

–         Furthermore it seems David is implying that God is the mother of his soul

–         We normally hear God described as a Father but sometimes the Bible associates God with motherhood

–         This is entirely appropriate – God cannot be contained by our narrow human categories

–         In any case, David appears to be saying that his soul feels a close bond with God – like a mother and child

 

The aspect that is underlined most strongly though is that David’s soul is like a weaned child

–         (He says ‘weaned child’ twice, which is significant in such a short poem)

–         To be weaned is to become accustomed to managing without something which we were previously dependent on

–         In the case of a mother and a baby, the child becomes accustomed to food other than it’s mother’s milk

–         So the child stops drinking its mother’s milk and starts eating solid food

–         It’s not that milk is bad – it is good for a time – but as the child grows it needs more substantial nourishment

 

A baby cries when it is hungry so the mother will feed it

–         A weaned child doesn’t cry though – a weaned child knows it will be fed and waits for mum to prepare the meal

 

How does God feed the soul?

–         God feeds the soul with meaning

–         When something is meaningful it is worthwhile – it has a point to it, a purpose that is satisfying

–         Meaning answers the ‘why’ questions of life & death

–         We often find meaning in stories – that’s why the Bible is full of stories – they feed our soul, they help us to make sense of our lives and our losses

 

Ultimately God is the one who gives meaning to our lives

–         The thing is, we often have to wait for that meaning to be revealed

 

Abraham couldn’t see the meaning of his wealth when he had no children to pass it on to – he waited many years for God to fulfil his promise

–         But his wait was not in vain

 

I imagine Joseph struggled to see the meaning of his life when he was sold into slavery by his brothers and then later sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit

–         But God used Joseph to save millions from starvation

 

Moses probably didn’t see much meaning in his life as a shepherd caring for sheep in the desert for 40 years, especially after being raised in a palace

–         But God used Moses to save the Israelites from slavery

 

The disciples struggled to see the meaning in Jesus’ death on the cross

–         At the time it may have seemed to them like they had wasted the last 3 years of their lives

–         Little did they know the cross was part of God’s plan to redeem creation

 

You may be finding it hard to locate the meaning in your life at the moment

–         Perhaps your job seems pointless or maybe you don’t have a job

–         Perhaps you were once very involved in church work or missions but now you feel like God has forgotten you

–         Maybe you have suffered a terrible loss and the grief is overwhelming

–         Hang in there – you never know when God will reveal the meaning

 

John of the Cross was a 16th Century Carmelite monk who didn’t really understand the meaning of his life’s work at the time

–         Through his thinking and writing John was among those who tried to lead a reform of the Catholic church during the 1500’s

–         John was arrested by those he was trying to help and during his confinement he wrote what became a classic, The Dark Night of the Soul

–         I don’t expect he ever imagined God would use his writing to help millions in the centuries that followed

 

Let me read you some excerpts from his book – John speaks directly to this process of God weaning the Christian soul…

 

After a soul has been converted by God, that soul is nurtured and caressed by the [Holy] Spirit. Like a loving mother, God cares for and comforts the infant soul by feeding it spiritual milk. Such souls will find great delight in this stage. They will begin praying with great urgency and perseverance; they will engage in all kinds of religious activities because of the joy they experience in them.

But there will come a time when God will bid them to grow deeper. He will remove the previous consolation from the soul in order to teach it virtue and prevent it from developing vice…

They will enter the dark night of the soul and find all of these things removed. They will have the pleasure taken away so that the soul may be purified. For a soul will never grow until it is able to let go of the tight grasp it has on God…

When their delight [in spiritual milk] comes to an end, these persons are very anxious and frustrated just as an infant is angry when it is taken away from its mother’s breast…

Let it suffice to say, then, that God perceives the imperfections within us, and because of his love for us, urges us to grow up. His love is not content to leave us in our weakness, and for this reason he takes us into a dark night. He weans us from all of the pleasures by giving us dry times and inward darkness. [4]   

 

David’s soul had been feeding on spiritual milk – but God weaned him off milk in order to help David grow up (spiritually)

–         David’s soul had been through the dark night – a time of disorientation and dryness where his usual devotional routines (like writing and singing worship songs for example) had lost all their pleasure

–         But now the dark night has done its work and David’s soul is content

–         He doesn’t cry out to God every time something doesn’t go his way

–         His prayer time isn’t a long shopping list detailing all his needs & wants or worries & fears

–         He knows that God understands his needs and he trusts God to provide

–         David has abandoned the outcome to God

–         His soul has found contentment with the Lord

 

Now some of you will have been through the weaning process we call the dark night of the soul and you will know exactly what David and John of the Cross are talking about

–         Others of you wouldn’t have faced the dark night yet – that’s okay

–         If you haven’t faced the dark night, know that it’s coming

–         And when it does come – don’t panic

–         Be calm, be still, quieten your soul – abandon the outcome to God

–         When your soul is being weaned by God you may feel like you are losing your faith – you’re not

 

Hang on through the dark night – God is bringing you to the next stage of faith in him, where you will be less anxious to know all the answers and better able to accept His will, even when His will is unpleasant or delays your satisfaction

 

Conclusion – Hope:

David finishes his song by addressing the nation…

–         O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

 

Hope has to do with believing something good is coming in the future

–         Hope is a form of meaning more substantial than milk

–         The bread of hope feeds our soul in the present

–         Hope sustains our soul with joy and energy

 

God has weaned David off spiritual milk and is now feeding him the bread of hope – David (the king) wants to share this bread of hope with his people

 

We are currently in the season of Easter, as we wait for Pentecost

–         For Jesus’ first disciples Easter was a time of weaning

–         There was Easter Saturday of course when Jesus was dead and the disciples were confused and grief stricken

–         (A very acute dose of the dark night of the soul)

–         But the time between Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost was also a time of weaning

–         Previously the disciples had access to Jesus 24-7

–         He was present with them physically all the time – like a mother with a small child

–         But after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension the disciples’ way of relating with Jesus had to change

–         Jesus was no longer present with them physically

–         The disciples had to go through this weaning process in order to grow up in the faith

 

Jesus didn’t abandon them altogether though

–         Jesus gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit and the bread of hope

–         He promised them he would return one day in glory to make all things right – this is our hope too

 

https://soundcloud.com/tawabaptist/30-april-2017-weaning-the-soul

[1] The inspiration for this illustration comes from Josh Moody’s book, ‘Journey to Joy’, page 137

[2] http://discovermagazine.com/2004/sep/einsteins-grand-quest

[3] You can read more about Dallas Willard’s thoughts on the soul in his book, ‘Renovation of the Heart’, pages 169-181.

[4] From Richard Foster and James Smith’s book, ‘Devotional Classics’, page 33-36.

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