Betrayed by Our Friends: The Psalmist’s Prayerful Approach to Healing a Polarized Community

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Betrayed by Our Friends: The Psalmist’s Prayerful Approach to Healing a Polarized Community

With the advent of globalization[1] coupled with multimedia resources and a plethora of varying belief systems and methods of establishing those creeds, how should we make sense of and interact with the divergent movements in society? Battle lines are drawn, opposing factions are equipped with the paraphernalia of ideologies and arms, and so-called enemies establish barriers that prevent any fruitful interaction.

This may seem like a somber and hyperbolic read of the world we live in. However, within and without the confines of religious bodies the tension is evident.

Tension, as described, is not exclusive to societal woes, but is strangely vibrant in the religious arena, as recent scrutiny of the church’s future demonstrates. What makes this intrachurch matrix more polarizing is the question of interpretation—not only of who is right and who is wrong, but of the emphasis that is put on certain texts as opposed to others. For instance, when thinking about an issue like theodicy,[2] if we read Job without hearing Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes in the conversation, it would be very easy to develop a one-sided understanding of any topic the book addresses.[3]

This one-sided frame of thinking gives rise to polarization. Who is interpreting correctly often becomes the main issue of debate. As important as that is, we need to be careful that we do not make interpretation a god. Ellen White’s classic The Great Controversy makes it clear that those who were faithful to God in their understanding of Scripture will be in the kingdom even though they did not have the whole picture. For them as for us, confidence in Christ and His truth as absolute is paramount, yet humility in our personal understandings of Scripture ought to color the canvas of our read on any issue.

Hope or Hopelessness in the Midst of Polarization?

How do we, in constructive ways, navigate the divergent terrain that can allow us, on the one hand, to have an overly optimistic and at times naïve notion of progress, which in a secular context posits a Promethean past,[4] or, on the other hand, to capitulate to the hopeless doldrums of despair and an unhealthy critical attitude about the church,[5] which borders on nihilism?[6] I ask this because reactions to various stances on hot-button issues in the church such as women’s ordination, worship styles, sexual preferences, and faith and science perspectives have led to the polarization of bodies of believers. Exchanges on these topics have led many down barren pathways where the covenantal nature of faith is being attacked as much as belief systems.

By “covenantal” I simply mean relational in a faith context. The New Testament writings exhibit a covenantal perspective when referring to fellow believers as “brothers,” implying that faith is not simply a matter of intellectual belief, but also of lived and shared experiences with one another in the Lord. Our covenantal relationship as believers is an aspect of the complex disagreements in the church that is often overlooked. It is to this issue that the rest of this devotional speaks.

The Source of Pain: Brothers at Odds

As Christians we face a common and wily foe who is constantly striving to make us veer off the road of a biblically grounded faith into apostasy on the one hand or un-Christlikeness (i.e., hardheartedness) on the other. Apostasy is usually considered to be an abandonment or renunciation of religious beliefs and practices. Un-Christlikeness is usually understood as a certain disposition toward others in the attitudinal and interpersonal realm. The question is: Have we isolated the two as if they are not interrelated and interdependent? Both apostasy and un-Christlikeness alike are modes of distorting to the world the heart and character of God.

betrayed_plain_crop2The Bible, I believe, is clear about and holistically coherent in what it teaches on origins, ethics, and sexuality. (I mention these because they encompass the hotly debated issues in the church.) What is often missed in the dialogue is that our articulated perceptions directly affect individuals in a covenantal context (Prov. 26:24–26). Unfortunately, what we relate to others and how we relate to others is often based on secular modes of interaction rather than biblical ones. For example, Satan does not have to get Christians into a club if he can tempt them to use their language like club-goers[7] and vice versa.

Psalm 55 paints a vivid and eye-opening picture of the source of some of the deep sting that these polarized perspectives represent, but often misconstrue. Here is a lament with imagery that tells of the collision of covenant bonds and ethical dilemmas. The narrative flow can be broken into several sections based on a commonality of thought:

  • vss. 1-3 (a prayer about despair),
  • vss. 4-8 (the experience of despair),
  • vss. 9-11 (a prayer for justice),
  • vss. 12-14 (betrayal of a friend),
  • vss. 15-18 (God’s vindication),
  • vss. 19-21 (betrayal of a covenant),
  • vss. 22-23 (a proclamation of trust).

The structure of the psalm itself addresses the tension noted earlier between despair and hope. This is a biblical model for learning to negotiate the two in a constructive way.

A Prayer about Despair

In the first section (vss. 1-3) David points out a crucial aspect of how we as believers ought to address any issue that is or can be divisive: prayer. With all the access that is available to share our thoughts through social media, sermons, and the like, there is a constant temptation to forget that understanding, transformation, and a humble perspective toward others must first be sought in prayer.

Contrary to common thoughts about the ethics of prayer in the Psalter, the pangs of brokenness with appeals of urgency illustrate the anxiety that David (and any person of faith) experiences (Pss 5:1-2; 17:1; 54:2; 61:1). His is not a cold, reserved, or stoic isolation of the emotions from the intellect. The whole person is engaged in expressing the heart’s frustration, and that frustration first stems from the silence of God (Pss 28:1; 35:22; 50:21; 109:1). Doesn’t God see the turmoil, the chaos, the defamation of His name and character? Where is God? All the psalmist hears is the clamor of the faithless.

For us the frustration seems unbearable as well. We may struggle with these same thoughts not only in a world dominated by secular thinking but also in a church that in some spaces seems to be losing its moorings on the Word of God. Here is irony. It is easy to assume that the biggest problem is what others are doing, but may our silent frustration be that God seems to just allow it to happen?

The Experience of Despair

David expresses (vss. 4-8) the physically debilitating nature and depth of anguish and fear by piling up synonyms for fear (“anguish … terrors … fear and trembling … horror”).[8] The palpitations are expressed vividly; his palms are sweaty and his breath is labored (cf. Isa 13:8, Jer 4:18). For him, a suitable option seems to be to take his leave and isolate himself in the most distant of ways from the battering forces of antagonism. The solitude sought here is even more apparent when contrasted with the city in the next section.

David’s desire to escape seems paradoxical coming from a hardened war veteran who experienced great victories in God’s name. This is the second lesson we can learn here: Experience equips none of us with emotional, spiritual, or physical immunity from the disagreements, subtle slights, accusations, or overt attacks on our person or beliefs. The temptation for us is to take flight to strongholds of polarity, only speaking with those who think like us about those who don’t. The question at hand is how we should interpret God’s silence and others’ aggressiveness.

Before moving forward, a brief word about understanding the prayers of the psalmists. When the Psalms are read, modern sensibilities often become uncomfortable with some of the language used. A large part of that misunderstanding rests on the nature of covenant and how this sets the tone for the prayers.[9] The undergirding covenantal principle of lex talionis (the “eye for an eye” law of appropriate retribution) is operative in those seemingly verbose outbursts. We need to keep in mind two things: 1) ethically, the psalmist lives with the principle that people should suffer for their offenses in a way that corresponds to the suffering that they have inflicted on others, and 2) the poetic nature of these prayers lends itself to hyperbolic speech or “heightened communication.” These psalms do not wish general bad things against a person, but desire a reciprocity that hopefully is instructive, as captured in that old adage, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling” (Prov 26:27).

A Prayer for Justice

Praying for God to intervene (vss. 9–11) is part and parcel of dealing with the confrontations we face in life. It is in essence an act of humility, because, as the psalmist says, “Who can discern his errors?” (Ps 19:12). Praying for justice is affirming God by “surrendering the last word to God.”[10] I have found in a few of my own interactions, unfortunately, that hasty judgments and critical attitudes barricaded opportunities for dialogue and prayer with others.

betrayed_plain_crop1In the Psalms, the topic that the psalmist prays about frequently is the agent of persecution. In this case (vs. 9), the cause of antagonism is speech. This is especially important when we consider the world of woe speech can cause (cf. Pss 39:1; 50:19; 140:3; James 3:5–10). From the wilderness the focus shifts to the city, the place of protection where at the gate justice is to be carried out. But where we expect justice, only “violence and strife” and “oppression and fraud” reside.

The Bible speaks about the power of speech and the moral qualities associated with it more often than we typically think. This holds a lesson for the persecutor and persecuted alike: by analogy, the mouth that (like a city) has the capacity to protect and strengthen often becomes a place where deception, anarchy, and injustice reigns. The psalmist prays for confusion (vs. 9; cf. Gen 11:1–9) because he knows that God will hold everyone accountable for the ways in which we speak of Him and others. Gossip and slander have far more reach in our day to destroy lives since in ideological battles we tend to use speech as a vehicle to transmit our thoughts.

Betrayal of a Friend

Now we come to the crux of the matter (vss. 12–14). What gives distress is not the expected aggression of the enemy, but the betrayal of the covenanted “friend.” Note the difference between modern notions of church membership and David’s notion of covenantal brotherhood. This is not a slight on the deep friendships that we experience today, but expressions of such dimensions of interconnectedness are not heard as much as may be needed in coloring notions of fellowship today.

To David, covenanted bonds involve four aspects that need to inform our intrachurch dialogues:

  1. My equal: In personhood, pedigree (whether social or vocational) carries no weight. Openness and vulnerability are here emphasized.
  2. A close friend: The implication of a loving familial relationship points to cultivated interactions.
  3. My confidant: The deepest of ways to know a person speaks against isolationist criticism from afar. Bonds in brotherhood resist detached analyses.
  4. Spiritual communion: Close relationships, not simply similar belief systems, preserve religious identity.

While it is unclear the exact circumstances of the disintegration of such a covenantal bond, what is expressed later is informative as well as instructional.

God’s Vindication

What sets the tone for how David understands the issues and tension he faces is the justice of God (vss. 15-18). In a curious switch, the singular in the previous verses describing the antagonist now moves to the plural, which may indicate that the call for justice is not specifically directed at the “friend,” but at the wicked in general, with whom the betrayer affiliates by taking up their spirit. This observation sits well with the perspective in Psalm 1 that the two paths of life both have their end.

David doesn’t see himself as removed from the possibility of doing evil (Ps 7:4–6), and within the context of continually praying for justice he also prays for his own salvation—a recognition that the same remedy is needed for him and his antagonists.

Betrayal of a Covenant

David does not see his “enemies” as those who just disagree with his view of things (vss. 19-21). He makes it clear that the problem is their relationship to God (“they … do not fear God,” “my companion stretched out his hand against his friends,” “he violated his covenant”). The problem is covenantal, as is the remedy. The method of tension is speech; smooth words are problematic when war rages in the heart. The ability to articulate an issue well is no evidence of the heart’s condition. Wherever we find ourselves on any issue, our relationship with God becomes a central concern.

A Proclamation of Trust

Finally, the matter is left to God (vss. 22-23). When we have shared our faith authentically, tried to persuade our brothers and sisters to a better way, and made clear the evidences from the Word of God, we must leave the outcome to God. Of course, we live in a society where educational institutions, hospitals, churches, etc., must be faithful to their biblical mandate and act in ways to preserve that fidelity to God. What I am talking about is that God is responsible for the ultimate outcomes of our decisions. We should do everything we can to reconcile those out of the way, and if any of us choose not to be reconciled, well, we will have to talk to God about that one day.

Humility and Care in a Conflict

The most complex aspect of approaching any issue is understanding the position we ourselves are coming from. The myth of an Archimedean or “above on a perch” view of any issue as a disinterested observer is alive and well in the debate style of argumentation. Do we find this example in the Bible? I find none. The only One who can claim that right evidenced the most care. We always look to Jesus as our Example in all things, while at the same time trusting His grace, which reaches into places and in ways our minds, intentions, and words cannot comprehend. His is the ultimate expression of covenantal care, intercession, and objective perspective.

We need a corrective in many debates: we need to rectify the spirit in which we interact in intra-family disputes. I fear at times when the writings of Ellen White are read the reader may assume her words express a faultfinding or condemnatory spirit and use her writings to express their feelings as if those two dispositions are the same. Over the years I have come to see Ellen White as someone who took no joy in making people feel bad, loved Jesus supremely, wanted to see others come to a deeper faith in Him, and was humbled in the light of her divinely guided mission (see Early Writings, p. 19-22). If we exhibited more of this spirit in word and deed, maybe those with whom we find ourselves in tension would be more open to hear what we have to share.

Psalm 55 points out an element that will help us: a prayerful spirit. First, we should pray that our motives are surrendered and subject to Christ’s Spirit in our reading and observations (that includes practicing sound hermeneutics in our use of the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy writings). Second, we should keep a covenantal view of life with God central in all our goals. Our supreme desire should be to see our brothers and sisters grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior.

______

Notes:

[1] Globalization is the process of international integration arising from the interchange of worldviews, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture.

[2] Here defined as the justice of God and the problem of evil.

[3] I understand these books similarly to how the Synoptic gospels are understood: different perspectives on a central figure—or in this case, image—that are not at all antithetical.

[4] Something akin to a primitive awakening of creativity, an evolutionary worldview of progress.

[5] I’m here making a distinction between criticism that is neither constructive nor restorative and leads to cynicism, versus evaluating the life of faith as described in Scripture through prayer and fellowship.

[6] While it may be too harsh to equate a negative disposition toward the church with nihilism, the temptation all too often seems irresistible.

[7] One of the sins most often condemned in Psalms is the misuse of tongue (Pss 10:3; 31:18; 109:2-3). Of course, we all need to remember that Jesus said people can do heinous acts in the name of God (John 16:2).

[8] Scripture quotations are from the ESV.

[9] A helpful book on covenantal ethics in prayer is Gordon Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).

[10] Erich Zenger, God of Vengeance?: Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 79.

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.