An integrated life in a disintegrating world

How I live and how I worship need to be the same. I need to be the same me when I’m praying as when I’m playing. If there are two Petes, I’m in trouble.

But we humans are good at what’s called compartmentalization. It’s when we divide up our lives and put each part in its own box, only opening it in certain circumstances. Now, there’s something emotionally necessary about this — I can’t let the deaths and traumas I face during my shifts at the hospital take over the rest of my life, so I need to be able to box up the associated emotions and deal with them appropriately — but we become too accomplished at it and end up making disastrous divisions in our souls, in our lives.

Too often we create a God Box and compartmentalize our worship so that it stays in our church buildings, nicely squared away on Sunday mornings. Or we might have a larger box that includes our devotional times or listening to praise music in the car.

There’s a place for boxes in our lives, but not when it comes to God. If anything, God is the context in which our lives take place, not a condiment added to our lives to spice them up.

The best life is an integrated life. God interwoven, not sidelined.

Easily our best tool for integrating our lives is prayer. Praying brings God into all of our lives, brings all of our lives into the Presence of God. Prayer busts the boundaries or at least pokes holes in them.

And our best tool for learning to live this prayerful, boundary busted life is the Psalms. In the Psalms we come across prayers the yearn for this integrated life: “Give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name” (Ps. 86:11). Among these psalms is Psalm 34 which moves from worship to wisdom, forging an essential connection between the two, establishing a natural progression from our praise to the details of our ordinary lives.

The context for Psalm 34, according to the superscription, is this: “Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.”

The insane life is a divided, disconnected life. It’s a life where reality itself gets put in a box and a person’s perceptions replace reality. But those David wasn’t actually insane at the time, his years of living among the Philistines after being on the run from Saul exposed a hole in his lived theology. Like most of those living around him, David had been viewing Yahweh as a regional deity, limited to a particular plot of soil, and not as God of all creation. He tips his hand on this in a conversation with Saul as he prepares to leave the land of Israel, saying that leaving the land would be to exit Yahweh’s presence and require him to worship other gods (see 1 Samuel 26:19-20). While this is different from our typical theological mistakes, it exhibits a similar boxing up of God into one place and not another.

A divided life is a life divided among competing gods, even if we wouldn’t name these competing gods as David and his contemporaries did.

While the Scriptures do not say so explicitly, my reading makes me believe that David’s experience among the Philistines broadened and deepened this theology, because he experienced the presence of the Lord even there. Though he expected to depart from the Presence, I believe he continued to find his prayers answered and his soul engaged by his God. I believe this is the origin of his declarations in numerous psalms of Yahweh being the God of all nations. He had experienced this box-breaking reality first hand.

Psalm 34 continues the box breaking.

It starts out with two verses of personal praise and adds a third verse calling others to join him in worship.

I will extol the LORD at all times;
    his praise will always be on my lips.
I will glory in the LORD;
    let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the LORD with me;
    let us exalt his name together.

The next four verses pick up on that me-us progression by two times making reference to a personal bad situation and God’s salvation from it followed by a generalization of God’s saving abilities.

I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
    he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
    their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
    he saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
    and he delivers them.

Then comes the key central verse of the psalm. It engages two senses — tasting and seeing — that aren’t expected when dealing with an invisible God. But the point is that the goodness of God extends to the everyday details of our lives, the things we can taste and see.

Even our everyday, animal senses have something to do with God.

Taste and see that the LORD is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

This launches the rest of the psalm which has now moved from worship to wisdom, from prayer to practice.

The God we sing to is the God who infiltrates every aspect of our lives and changes them by changing us in the midst of them.

The term fear of the LORD dominates this transition from worship to wisdom and we’re reminded of the Proverbs assertion that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Ps. 111:10).

Fear the LORD, you his holy people,
    for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
    but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
Come, my children, listen to me;
    I will teach you the fear of the LORD.

The fear of the LORD isn’t being afraid of God. As the matched phrases of the psalm suggest, fearing God is seeking him. It’s looking for him in the details of our lives. It’s searching after him and his ways. It’s considering him in every circumstance. It’s opening up the boxes of our lives so that God may mess with whatever is inside of them, no matter what it is.

The fear of the Lord describes the integrated life, the fully integrated life. No part of our lives left out. No part of God left out. All of God and all of us fully engaged.

David emphasizes how engaged God is by focusing on his attentiveness, both to the righteous and those who do evil. The bodiless God is pictured as having eyes, ears, and face trained on humanity, paying attention to us.

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous,
    and his ears are attentive to their cry;
but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil,
    to blot out their name from the earth.

David then lists a series of things God does on our behalf. He is attentive. He hears. He delivers. He is close. He saves. He protects. Yes, God is fully engaged with those who are engaged with him. On the other hand, he doesn’t have to do a lot with those who live as if he doesn’t exist, since “Evil will slay the wicked” (v. 21).

What’s interesting about the psalm, too, is that along with a few others, it is an acrostic poem. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters and each of the 22 verses starts with a different letter, beginning with aleph and ending with taw. This makes for a fairly rigid structure in poetry, but it gives a sense of completeness. Nothing is left out. Every single letter is accounted for. All the parts of our life are included.

The all-inclusive nature of this psalm helps ensure that all of me is included, too. The worshiping me and the everyday life me — it’s all there. There aren’t two Petes. Just one. Just me before God in this world. With God, worship and wisdom come together to shape a whole life.