A Look Without
By Anthony Casperson
It’s the low point of the story. Everything seems to be lost. The hero’s beaten and bloody, possibly only metaphorically. It looks like they’re about to give up.
But then… (Cue the triumphant music.)
The protagonist looks within themselves. Maybe it’s a pep talk. Or it could just be a face change to visually report the new outlook. But something causes them to not give up. And they rise above the issue with newfound strength. It was in them all along.
(And hopefully it won’t be lost by the next story, because having to overcome the same problems the exact same way is a pitfall of sequels. But don’t count on the storytellers being too creative.)
We cheer as the character hits this peak. There’s some idea in our minds that if they can do it, so can we. All we have to do is search within ourselves and we can find the strength to carry on too. Even though our problems likely aren’t on the scale of evil superhumans, conquering aliens, or dragons.
The idea that we can look within to find strength is so ingrained in our culture that you’re probably wondering what my point even is. Though, given my track record, you might have figured out that I’m going to speak to the point that this thought isn’t biblical. (There are plenty of other belief systems that hold this in their foundational writings, but the bible ain’t one.)
While there are several places I can point that speak to human fallenness and how every single one of us will fall short of the standard of God, I figured having a more positive direction for where to look would be more helpful for us.
But before I get to the passage that we’ll dive into, I want to make clear that just because I believe our best will eventually find a failing point where there’s nothing left inside, this does nothing to the value and worth of we image-bearers of God. We’re miserably failing beings, but we’re miserably failing beings worth dying for so that we can be restored in relationship with God. What we can do for God is nothing in comparison to what he did for us, if we choose to follow him.
With that being said, we can turn to Psalm 119:25-32 and see what the word of God says we should do when we’ve found ourselves at the human failing point.
All of Psalm 119, the whole 176 verses, is about the word, ways, and law of God. David writes about every aspect of life and how the precepts of God apply to it. He performs this artistically by highlighting each letter of the Hebrew alphabet as he goes along. Essentially taking the word of God through the ABCs of life. The first letter for each of the first eight verses is the first letter of the alphabet. The next eight verses all start with the second letter. And so we go.
In verses 25-32, which represent the fourth of Hebrew’s twenty-two-letter alphabet, David takes a look at the law of God and its relation to human beings when we are at the lowest of the low.
This section starts with the words, “My soul clings to the dust.” It already sounds pretty bad. But, that word for “cling” is also used in Genesis 2 where the bible describes the union of a man and woman in a God-honoring marital relationship. “A man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” In the Psalm, David speaks of his soul as clinging/cleaving to the dust. It’s as if his soul has become one with this place of sorrow.
And that dust truly is the epitome of sorrow. It’s the dust and ashes that ancient Israelite people covered themselves with and sat among when they grieved. A symbol of humanity’s return to the dust in death.
If that’s not enough for us to see that the psalmist speaks of that earth-shattering low point, then we can also look at verse 28 where David says that his soul weeps/melts in grief. He’s speaking of when a person is so full of sorrow it just leaks out of them. Unstoppable tears brought by grief.
The only other places in the bible that this word for weep/melt appears are in Job 16:20 and Ecclesiastes 10:18. And if you know anything about the general feeling of depression in those two books, you can probably catch the depths of that word.
So, David is definitely talking about that low point when everything seems lost. We’re at the end of our rope. And giving up sounds like the only option.
But what does the psalmist say that he’d do in those situations? (And by proxy tell us that we should do as well.) Is it to look within for internal strength? Is it to grit our teeth and push forward? Does he tell us that all we have to do is will it into the universe and then we’ll find it?
He doesn’t look within. He looks without. To God. To his word, his commands, his law. Again, it’s the point of Psalm 119 to apply God’s righteous ways to every aspect of our lives.
David calls God to restore life by his word. He focuses on the work of God, relying on external strength. The psalmist even goes so far as to call out to God for a new cleaving partner. In verse 31, he says his soul clings to God’s testimonies, or God’s warning reminders. These warnings aren’t viewed as negative things that keep a person from having fun, but rather something life-giving and good. A supportive partner.
Ultimately, the psalmist pleads with God to put all false ways far from him, as we see in verse 29. He doesn’t want false promises or the lies of other systems of belief to be in his mind when he’s in this low point. All he needs is the word of God. The laws, the commands, the precepts of the righteous and holy God.
Strength to overcome the lowest of the low doesn’t come from within us. We’re broken and marred images of God with tongues that deceive even ourselves. How could we ever place our hope only on what’s within us? We don’t have the creative power to will strength where there is none.
When we find ourselves in that low point, don’t look within. Look without. Toward God. The only one with strength and ability to actually help. Even if that help is more in line with being alongside us in our pain, than helping us out of the situation.
It’s far superior to anything we’ll scrounge to find inside ourselves.