A Perfect Mess
- Thursday, August 13, 2009
THE JOY OF DOING GOOD
In a recent research project on the source of happiness, psychologists found that “the more virtue-building activities people engaged in, the happier they said they were both on the day in question and on the following day.” But they noted with some surprise, “there was no relationship between pleasure-seeking and happiness.”3
My first tour of Israel ranks way up there on the “a few of my favorite things” list. The Mount of Beatitudes left me speechless. The Wailing Wall left me in tears. And the Garden Tomb left me giddy with gratitude. But the parched terrain of the Promised Land initially left me puzzled. I guess I’d always imagined Israel as a lush green landscape dotted with fluffy white sheep and bearded guys playing harps under big shade trees (largely due to the influence of flannel-graph lessons in Vacation Bible School). It took a few days after landing at the Tel Aviv airport for me to get used to the wind-swept panorama of thornbushes, rocks, and scruffy little acacia trees. As if I were using an Etch A Sketch, I had to shake the image of a garden from my mind and twist the dials to redraw Israel as a desert.
The reality of Israel’s arid topography is what makes the lush imagery in the next two verses so striking.
They love the LORD’s teachings,
and they think about those teachings day and night.
They are strong, like a tree planted by a river.
The tree produces fruit in season,
and its leaves don’t die.
Everything they do will succeed. Psalm 1:2–3, NCV
It’s unlikely this psalmist had ever seen a big tree unless it had been transplanted, which is a more accurate translation of the word “planted” in verse 3.4 As a matter of fact, quality lumber was such a scarcity in Israel (except for olive trees, which are more valuable for their oil than their timber) that Solomon actually had to arrange for cedar beams to be floated in from Lebanon when they were building the temple in Jerusalem.5
That’s why this arbor metaphor is an unmistakable reference to God’s blessing; only He could make a tree grow strong and tall in the sweltering heat and sandy soil of Israel. Only He could cultivate vegetation so perfectly that its leaves wouldn’t wither in a drought.
What this means for us is that whoever has been transplanted into God’s garden will flourish. And I really dig (pun intended) the psalmist’s use of the term “transplanted” here, because it implies that salvation is by grace, that because we can’t plant ourselves, God plucks us from the dark, sunless place where we’d been decaying and lovingly replants us in a perfect spot where we’re guaranteed to flourish. We will get bigger and more beautiful, to the point of actually bearing fruit, as we absorb the living water our Creator provides. Plus, when our roots are anchored in Him, even figurative droughts like critical in-laws or financial crises or cancer diagnoses won’t destroy us. The “leaves” of those loved by God don’t die. Our heavenly Father—who also happens to have a supernatural green thumb—promises to nourish and protect His saplings.
Before we go any further, you may be wondering about the assertion that “everything they do will succeed” at the end of verse 3, which at first glance seems about as truthful as the weight listed on my driver’s license until our government chose to omit that data (maybe because most people fudged on the amount). How can the psalmist label broken relationships or rebellious children or infertility or crippling depression a success? How can he sincerely sing, “Everything they do will succeed,” when all of God’s children experience failure of some kind or another? Has he been guzzling cough syrup, or is he just wearing overly optimistic blinders?
Neither. Because this promise of prosperity is preceded by the context “everything they do”—which in this passage is defined by spiritual obedience—“succeed” in verse 3 is in reference to walking closely with God.6 It’s essentially an Old Testament version of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
PSALMS: THE INSIDE STORY
Psalm 1 doesn’t have a formal title or author’s name, which puts it among the orphan psalms.
It doesn’t mean we’ll get everything we want exactly how and when we want it. And it sure doesn’t mean everything we do will be judged successful by human standards. What it means is that ultimately our sovereign Redeemer will work everything out for our good and His glory because we are His people and He loves us. It means being in a real, redemptive relationship with the Creator of the universe is the true measure of success.
THE FLEETING EXISTENCE OF EVIL
God-haters, by contrast, aren’t deep rooted or taken care of by a divine gardener; they’re more like tumbleweeds that roll across the ground, only to inevitably disintegrate in barbed wire:
But wicked people are not like that.
They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
Psalm 1:4, NCV
I recently had oral surgery because the root of an upper molar had fractured in half, leaving me with no option but to have the tooth yanked out of my head. My dentist advised me to get an implant as opposed to an old-fashioned partial or bridge. This means that after the gaping wound from the extraction heals, the surgeon will drill a titanium screw into my jawbone, then when it grafts sufficiently, she’ll affix a porcelain crown to the screw and—presto!—I’ll have a shiny new molar that, according to the brochure, will last over two hundred years. (I’m not sure why the longevity of the implant is considered a selling point since the rest of me will presumably be long gone by then.)
Of course none of this six-thousand-dollar procedure is covered by insurance, and the whole process takes about a year, but I was too loopy from laughing gas to stop and think about the consequences. The worst one being that in place of my trusty old tooth, I now have a “flipper” (common dental vernacular for the fake tooth patients wear prior to getting the actual implant). Furthermore, because this flipper clips on instead of being secured with adhesive, I have a gap between it and my gum that causes me to talk with a noticeable lisp. Believe me, this is a real bummer when you gab for a living!
My dentist told me the tooth trauma actually started with a substandard root canal I had in college, which left me with a compromised chomper that probably cracked when I fell headfirst off a ladder onto a concrete floor a few years ago. He also broke the news that I’ll likely need another implant in the near future. Like the hair color I was born with and the steel-trap memory I had in young adulthood, even my permanent teeth have proved to be temporary.
Verse 4 explains that the wicked won’t last either. Oh, they may have their season in the sun when it seems as if they’re sitting on top of the world. But their days are numbered.
It won’t be long before God yanks those who defy Him out of their abscessed existence. Their chance of survival matches that of a snowball in the Sahara!
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