Just some random thoughts on a Friday afternoon….. in preparation for Sunday.
I’m thinking about the 24th Psalm: “Who shall asscend to the hill of the Lord? And who can stand in his holy place? He that has clean hands, and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol, or swear by what is false.” This sounds like the search for integrity.
Clean hands: That’s the behavioral part of ethics. It recalls to mind those things that are prohibited in the behavioral portions of the Big Ten; murder, theft, adultery. While motivation is of utmost importance, behavior is here listed first. Good intentions are no excuse for careless actions. Short cuts lead to trouble. Over in the New Testament, an apostle says: “avoid every appearance of evil.” This can be carried too far, as some focus so much on appearance that the next, more necessary part, gets ignored; but at a bare minimum, a person of integrity should have, as is said, his “act” together.
Avoidance of obvious contamination, however, goes only a certain distance. Next comes the really hard part, a pure heart. These two go together. As Kierkegaard observed, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” His essay by that title goes on to demonstrate how it is that it is not possible to will one thing, unless that thing is “the good;” contrasting it with “double-mindedness,” recalling the admonition of St. James. Here is where our search becomes a search indeed. Who knows his own heart? Who can say that his or her own desires are, let’s say, completely unselfish? I can’t. That is, I can’t until I enlarge my vision, and begin to truly pray as we are taught: “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If the will of God is for peace, prosperity, and health to prevail, I am double-minded so long as I care for those things with regard to myself, but not for others; but also if I seek them for others while pretending that I don’t want them for myself. So my sense of my own need must expand to include all of my neighbors, even my enemies (as Jesus taught), and at the same time must acknowledge that I too am one of those whose need requires a divine action.
This leads us to the next thing: who does not lift his soul up to an idol. I’m thinking of an idol, in this instance, as anything partial, anything less than the good of the whole, as St Paul said, “worshiping and serving the creature more than the Creator” — even though we are to desire good things for every creature, none is to take on absolute significance. Idolatry, then, is treating what is secondary as if it were of first importance; and since we cannot see the full picture, nothing we can see or understand can be of first importance. Not myself, not my cause, not my family nor my country, least of all wealth or comfort, belongs in the place of the God who wills the best for me in relation to all of these. Always remembering that my current picture is partial, again as is said, “Now we see through a glass darkly,” can I truly value any of these good things rightly. So often we think that an idol must be something obviously false and wrong, to be forsaken utterly; whereas more often it is likely to be something good and even worthy of much attention, which nevertheless falsely takes the first place, ahead of all else, distorting our view of the rest of the world, never mind that of our Creator. Which leads us to the fourth matter in this progression:
“nor swear by what is false.” What is false is exactly this wrong relationship of God’s creatures to one another, when one or another takes absolute precedence. In my search for integrity I have to acknowledge that I, myself, some of the time, am what is false, in those instances where I have taken the smaller view, forgotten my neighbor, failed to see Christ in the one who is hungry or homeless or imprisoned— or simply when I have taken the easy road, pretending that actions in one arena do not have consequences somewhere else.
The Psalmist presumes that such people as he describes exist. If they do, these are the ones who never cease in their own search for integrity. They, he says, shall receive blessing from the Lord.