A prominent feature of the culture I live in is the demand that everyone must respect the “individualism” of everyone else. Pressure to affirm whatever anyone else wants affirmed about them has ballooned all over the news, social media, corporate policy, and even in churches. There’s an assumption built into this, which is that the sincere ability to love someone can be the result of someone else threatening us to do it. Exert enough legal, social, cultural, or even physical pressure and someone’s fundamental nature can be changed by coercion. The coal turns into a diamond.
Tomorrow is Sunday, so today we return to the Psalms of Ascent, a liturgy used in ancient Israel to prepare for worship at the annual festivals in Jerusalem. What does this have to do with the last paragraph? In Psalm 120, the first Psalm of Ascent, we read (post here) that no matter where we live, or where we come from, no matter our genealogy, we live among people with “lying lips” who can’t get along with each other. In Psalm 121, we are encouraged to find the answer outside of our current place:
“A Song of Ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.”
The Psalm asks us to take our eyes off of the world around us and look upward for our hope. Not just talk about the idea of it, but to actually do it. To turn off the outside world and its circumstances and seek God’s help. It takes effort because the idea that we can solve our own problems is so powerful. The fall of Adam and Eve was driven by a curiosity that there may be a better system than the one they already had. In a literally perfect society, they wanted something else. If we aren’t intentional about avoiding this trap, it’s easy to not realize we are in it.
We’re All Messed Up
I’ve written much about Tyler Joseph, the songwriter of the band twenty øne piløts, and his campaign to create music and stories that help people deal with mental illness. In an interview years ago, the interviewer criticized Tyler for calling himself “messed up.” Was Tyler being too hard on himself? This was Tyler’s response:
“I know I’m messed up. I think to myself I should be able to control myself. I look at a lamp and I decide that I’m going to stand up and not hit that lamp. Why can’t I make decisions like that about everything in life. I’m not going to get angry at my brother. I want to be the best brother. Why can’t I do what I want to do? That’s messed up. Something is broken in the way we live. It’s proof that something is not right.”
Tyler is explaining Romans 7:13-21, especially verses 15 and 21, but in a way that’s as plain as day to anyone being honest with themselves. Romans 7:15 and 21 say: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”
What if the problem with every person individually is that they are unable, no matter how much external pressure is put on them, to treat other individuals the way they should be treated? If true, it puts the first paragraph into an entirely different light.
In this exact moment as I write this, I’m being very careful not to spill my drink on my laptop. I have no desire to do anything violent to the couch I’m sitting on but just to enjoy having a place to sit. If I stop writing to check something on my phone, I make sure I put it down gently in a spot where it won’t fall off and hit the floor. But at the same time, I know I don’t always treat people with the same respect. I know if I’m interrupted in the middle of what I think is a great thought or phrase I could get irritated and rude. Not always, but I could. I know I could be a better son, husband, father, employee, and friend. So why don’t I?
Why do we treat our furniture better than our family, even in a culture that increasingly demands with all its strength that we prioritize every individual? Because we are broken in a way that no political or economic system, no culture or tradition, can fix. One may be better or worse than another, but none of them has the power to solve the real problem that we can’t consistently love people more than we love our furniture. We have to go somewhere else to find the answer.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”
As pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, the Israelites were telling a story by making the effort to move. A story that the towns they leave behind – no matter where they are coming from – don’t have the answer to their most important problems. On the long journey, they travelled in large groups and slowly, sometimes by foot. They probably had constant reminders of their own inability to treat the family they traveled with better than whatever furniture or baggage they brought along for the trip. While togetherness is sometimes uncomfortable, together we must lift up our eyes and look for the answer outside of everything we know.
We’re broken and can’t fix ourselves, but “The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life.” Take some time out of your week and each day to look up to the hills and seek Him. To set aside everything else. To focus on the LORD, because He alone loves us in the way we need to be loved and can help us love others the way they need to be loved. He won’t seek to break you to make you do it, but He Himself was broken to provide us a way.