Tag Archives: God’s Will

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 3)

In Part 1 of this series, we worked through Psalm 139 in its entirety to follow and understand the flow and contours of the psalmist’s theology and prayers. In Part 2, we explored verses 13-16 in more depth to unpack the psalmist’s theology of his own development in the womb, as well as ways in which these verses might assist devout readers in thinking maturely about scientific perspectives on, and discoveries about, a human’s origins and development.

For this post, I am delighted and honored to share with you a guest article by a friend of mine, and a neonatal nurse practitioner, Sarah Bylsma. Sarah shares with us her perspective on Psalm 139:13-16, a perspective that occurs for her at the intersection of her Christian faith, her scientific training, and her professional involvement in caring for newborns, including experience working in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Sarah, I welcome your voice here, and at this moment offer you my sincerest thanks.

“Faith and Science in Neonatal Practice: A Reflection on Psalm 139”
By Sarah Bylsma

First, a little about me. I graduated with a B.A. in Biology from Lipscomb University in May 2005. I then went to Belmont University and graduated with a B.S. in Nursing in December 2006. In January 2007, I began working as a nurse in a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. While working full time as a nurse in the NICU, I attended graduate school at the University of Alabama Birmingham from 2009 to 2011. I obtained a M.S. in Nursing with a Neonatal specialty in May 2011. I have been board certified as a neonatal nurse practitioner since September 2011. I currently work full time as a neonatal nurse practitioner. I am also a full-time mom to three little ones ages 5 and under. I have been a Christian since 1990, with evolving beliefs as my worldview has changed, but never questioning the existence of our God.

As I read Psalms 139, the author seems to insinuate three things in verses 13-16: (1) that God is creator, (2) that life begins in utero, and (3) that God knew every detail of that life the moment it began.

I believe that God is creator of all things. My education and experience have shaped HOW I view God as creator, but they most certainly do not change the fact that He is behind the existence of all life.

As a scientist and medical professional, I know that human life forms from two human cells, the egg from the mother and the sperm from the father. Once the egg is fertilized by a single sperm cell, a zygote is formed. The zygote will undergo mitosis, a process a cell undergoes to form two new cells. DNA, our unique genetic code, is replicated in this process. It is here in mitosis, as the zygote grows and divides to become an embryo, that the development of human life can first go awry. Errors during mitosis can result in chromosomal errors ranging from too many / not enough chromosomes to extra / missing pieces of chromosomes — all of which can create a wide variety of syndromes, cancers, and death.

Often, when embryos are created from cells with abnormal chromosomes incompatible with life, a mother will miscarry. This raises a question about life and its beginning. Is an embryo with genetic information incompatible with an earthly life still a life? Conception had occurred and genetic information exists, but no life will be formed. With my scientific knowledge, I believe that life begins in utero, but not at conception. My reading of Psalm 139 does not dispute this. The author understands that life began in his mother’s womb, and the scripture does not explicitly state a time-frame. I believe you would be hard-pressed to find anyone working in neonatology that would dispute that life begins in utero.

God knowing every detail of each life the moment it begins is different than God choosing every detail for that life. This is because God gives us choices (free will). You may be asking questions like: How does that play into embryologic development? What about when the formation of life goes wrong? If God is creator, how can that go wrong? No one chooses how our babies are formed in utero, right?

God has given us free will, and that freedom to make our own choices can and does affect others. This includes the developing fetus. Sometimes these can have devastating effects on the fetus. As Daniel pointed out in Part 2, the psalmist clearly understood that the mother and father played a role in the human-making process. Their role is not just one of providing the cells to be fertilized, but also to create an environment in which proper development can occur. The psalmist describes being knit together in his mother’s womb. Choices help determine the kind of knitting that occurs.

Daniel has already discussed how the materials used in the knitting process affect the end result. Embryonic development and postnatal health is most certainly affected by the parents’ individual choices and environmental factors both before and while the mother is pregnant. Choices from our past can impact our bodies or the environment, which in turn impact embryonic development. The mother and father’s choices (both before and during pregnancy) on lifestyle, nutrition, drug use, sexual activity, etc., can alter fetal development. For example, sexually-transmitted diseases, particularly when acquired during pregnancy, can be especially harmful to a developing fetus.

It’s clear that bad choices can have an effect on development. But there are other choices that can impact it also, such as age at conception: older mothers have a higher chance of chromosomal errors. Sometimes we do not know why something goes wrong in the development process. There are many intricate steps involved in creating a human life, and thus many places for the process to go wrong. Research has shown us that unknown diseases, illness, hormones, and genetics can all impact a growing fetus. Despite all of the scientific advances, sometimes we do not know why the process goes amiss. Sometimes the process is going normally but gets interrupted, resulting in premature birth.

So we know that embryological development can go wrong, regardless of how it goes wrong. In my line of work, I see so many ways in which the development went awry or was interrupted. I don’t always know how it happened or why. It is our tendency to see these as abnormalities and imperfections, something to be feared and less-than-desired. How can God create a life like that? But I see God in these babies the most. I watch these babies grow and mature, and I know their lives still have purpose and meaning. I see God in that baby who is missing parts of his brain, who can still walk and talk and amaze healthcare professionals with his progress. I see God in that premature baby born 4 months too soon, who through medical advancement and technology is able to grow and develop into a perfectly healthy infant.

Occasionally I see babies that do survive but have severe lifelong and debilitating complications. Why does God allow these babies to survive? WE see these as imperfections, but to our God they are perfect, just like the rest of us. Their lives have purpose, even when we fail to see what that is. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s eyes.

Often I see these babies live and thrive, but sometimes, they don’t make it. Sometimes, they are simply born too early. Sometimes, their development was affected so greatly that life outside the womb isn’t possible. The complexities of human development sometimes allow life to persist in utero, but not after birth. Why does God allow these lives to exist throughout the duration of a pregnancy, but not long enough to have a life on earth? I have struggled with this question. I have shed many tears over the losses of a life gone too soon. I do not have the answers. Even while writing this, I have spent hours and hours thinking about it, trying to come up with an answer. Science can answer many questions about life, but sometimes…often…you just need to have faith and know that our God has a plan, even when we do not understand it.

Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 1)

Psalm 139 is magnificent. It is a work of art, a Hebrew poem. It is a work of theology, expressing what the author believes about God. It is work of prayer, talking directly to God and requesting God to act. The psalm is also helpful for framing the science / faith relationship: it speaks about an area of life that can be known (and is known) scientifically, an area of life that at the same time can be expressed artistically, theologically, and prayerfully. Psalm 139 can teach us how to think theologically and scientifically at the same time about the same dimension of life, and with fruitful results.

Psalm 139 can teach us how to think theologically and scientifically at the same time.

In Part 1 of this series, before getting into the science / faith dimensions of Psalm 139, we begin looking at the psalm as a whole, to get our bearings on its message. A quick note on authorship: when the heading says “Of David,” this may mean that David wrote it, but the original (Hebrew) words can also mean that the psalm is written by someone else who writes it “for David,” “in David’s style,” etc.

1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O LORD, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

The psalmist speaks directly to God, and thus is praying. The fact that this prayer, like so many psalm-prayers, is written down may itself be instructive to readers: is there benefit to writing prayers down? Does the act of writing have virtue for one’s prayer relationship with God? The psalmist addresses God as LORD: Yhwh in Hebrew, and Israel’s covenantal name for God.

The first six verses of the prayer could be summarized as saying, “God, you know everything about me”: what I am doing, when I am doing it, what I am thinking, what I am planning to say. “Such knowledge” is indeed “too wonderful” for the psalmist (139:6). I hear the psalmist saying this in appreciation and joy, but perhaps also in fear. God knows the psalmist’s good thoughts and bad thoughts. God knows what the psalmist is going to say, even if he is going to say something terrible to someone.

Even if God knows what the psalmist is thinking or is going to say or do, God does not force different thoughts, words, or actions. God protects the integrity of the psalmist’s ability to think, speak, and act, even if the psalmist does not think, speak, or act the way God himself would. There is held together in view here an all-knowing God and a free-willing and free-acting person. Is the coexistence of these two things a major reason for the psalmist’s wonder? Not that the psalmist has enough power to go anywhere and do anything — he finds himself bound within some limits by God (139:5) — but within the bounds of God’s permission, he can think, say, and do enough to influence and alter his (and God’s) world.

God protects the integrity of the psalmist’s ability to think, speak, and act, even if the psalmist does not think, speak, or act the way God himself would.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

This next set of verses might be summarized by saying, “God, you are everywhere I do go and could go.” Does the psalmist sometimes wish things were different? Why else would he talk of the (hypothetical?) possibility of fleeing God (139:7)? God is in the skies / heavens. He is in the realm of the dead (Sheol). He is there where dawn breaks in the east, and where the sun settles over the sea in the west (from the point of view of the psalmist in Israel). God is in those places leading and holding onto the psalmist. Furthermore, God’s ability to see in the dark is great if someone needs help or wants to be found, but if someone is trying to hide or flee, he or she is unable to do so.

Verses 7-12 thus seem to assert what is sometimes called God’s “omnipresence,” God’s everywhere-ness. God’s omnipresence is at least being asserted in relation to the psalmist: “Where can I go…. If I ascend…. If I take the wings of the morning….” As interpreters, if we can extend the psalmist’s claim for himself to claim that God is present everywhere for everyone and everything, then there might be serious implications of this belief.

For instance, God is present where good is being done, but he is also present where bad is being done, even if he doesn’t stop evil from happening. God is present in places where people recover from illness, and places where they do not. God is present where animals successfully feed (see Psalm 104:27-28), but also where they go hungry (Psalm 104:29). God is present where life begins (Psalm 104:30), but also where life ends (see Psalm 104:29). These are just some of the dimensions of what it means to pray to God in praise of his omnipresence.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them — they are more than the sand;
I come to the end — I am still with you.

This section might be summarized as saying: “God, you brought me into existence and knew how long I would live (and what I would do each day?).” This will be a key section of the psalm for upcoming posts in this series. For now, let us observe that the psalmist credits God with making him, with bringing him into existence. God formed his insides (139:13a). God put him together in his mother’s womb (139:13b). The psalmist looks at himself, reflects on himself, and sees a work of wonder (139:14). Surely, “the depths of the earth” (139:15b) is a metaphor for the way in which a baby’s body takes shape out of plain sight of those who otherwise watch a mother’s abdomen grow larger during pregnancy. There was a wondrous hiddenness to this process for the psalmist.

Clearly, the psalmist is caught up, enraptured, in thinking about the action and presence of God. At the same time, we can surely ask, Did the psalmist not believe that his mother and father made him? Did he think that “God making him” meant that his parents did not make him? Or is it possible that God made the psalmist by the very act of a man and woman making the psalmist? In other words, is it possible that (1) God making something and (2) people making something through a natural act are two different ways of talking about the same thing?

Is it possible that (1) God making something and (2) people making something through a natural act are two different ways of talking about the same thing?

In my experience, the next section can strike readers as rather jarring. It can seem so out of tune with the rest of the psalm. See how the words strike you:

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me —
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

Did this prayer jar you? We went from wonder-stricken praise of a God who knows everything about the psalmist, who is everywhere the psalmist might go, and who made the psalmist from conception, to a prayer that God would kill. Did the psalmist have a mood swing, an uninvited interruption of his worship? Or is this prayer for God’s vengeance deeply consonant with the rest of his prayer? Is a prayer for God’s vengeance part and parcel of wonder-saturated praise?

Clearly, the psalmist is distressed to see in his world people living in opposition to God’s ways. No doubt, there were people in his Israel who lived in opposition to God’s ways — a real tragedy, given God’s goal to bless the world through him and his people (Genesis 12:1-3), the goal for Israel to be God’s kingdom of priests and holy nation (Exodus 19:6). If the covenant people are broken, what hope has the rest of the world? I think the clue to understanding the connection between this dual prayer of praise and prayer for vengeance comes in the next verses.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Do you hear what the psalmist is doing? He asks God to search him on the inside. The God who knows everything about the psalmist (139:1-6), who is everywhere the psalmist could go (139:7-12), and who brought the psalmist into existence (139:13-18) is being asked to examine that psalmist for bad thoughts and motives, precisely because the psalmist wants God to examine other people and to destroy those whom God finds wicked and in opposition to God’s will and goals in the world.

The God who knows everything about the psalmist (139:1-6) surely has the capacity to know everything about other people, including people who damage God’s world. The God who is present everywhere the psalmist could go (139:7-12) is surely present wherever evil is being done. The God who brought the psalmist into existence (139:13-18) surely brought all other people into existence, including those who oppose God’s will and ways in the world; yes, they are his creations, too. Even so, the wonder-stricken psalmist feels compelled and emboldened to pray that God would destroy his creations that harm his other creations. The psalmist is asking (and advising?) God to manage the world in which he already knows everything about everyone, is everywhere with everyone, and has brought (and will bring) everyone into existence.

One departing question, then, is this: When God searches the psalmist on the inside, what will he find? Will he find the psalmist as pure and evil-free as the psalmist seems to expect? Or might God have a rebuttal in store? After all, the psalmist has just made the case for how well God knows him. Perhaps God knows him better — the good, the bad, and the ugly — than he knows himself.

Continued in “Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically (Part 2).”

Discontent with God

A sermon from Luke 14:1,7-14 and Jeremiah 2:4-13 (preached on August 28, 2016).

Sit in the lowliest spot at someone’s wedding banquet (Lk 14:7-11), and when you throw your own banquet, invite those whom societies invariably treat lowly (14:12-14). Jesus teaches these behaviors at a meal in a Pharisee’s house. Now, the fact that he accepts the invitation of a Pharisee may be a lesson itself. It is also a Sabbath, a commanded day of rest from work. And yet, en route to the meal, Jesus performs an act of work, healing a man whose worth to on-lookers ranked lower than that of an ox. Of course, no one would say it that way. But words have a way of polishing a shine onto our injustices. In Jesus’ situation, how can people who will rescue an ox and ignore a human go on to prepare a feast for humans who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind?

Is Jesus just a prophet of table etiquette?—the first century’s very own—though very Jewish and male—Emily Post? If Jesus wishes to teach about meals and manners and move on, I suppose that is fine. But what if Jesus is challenging people’s deepest prejudices and most socially acceptable injustices? What if Jesus is unmasking widespread evils that are accepted and perpetuated by even the most religious members of Israel in his society?

To admit that Jesus is right is to admit defeat, to confess that God’s Teaching has not, after all, accomplished as much in our lives as we would like to have thought. Perhaps we are not so familiar with God. Then again, perhaps we are perfectly familiar with God, but secretly and begrudgingly dislike what he tries to accomplish in our lives and in our world. Perhaps he is not the God we want him to be. Perhaps we have exchanged him for a god made in our image, a god whom we try to fashion closely enough to the real thing to console our guilty, idolatrous consciences.

Perhaps we are perfectly familiar with God, but secretly and begrudgingly dislike what he tries to accomplish in our lives and in our world.

Amid people’s pantheons of pious idols, then and now, Jesus lives and teaches—he embodies—the true God. This is, of course, the doctrine of the Incarnation: the word of God has become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1:1,14). It is interesting, then, that, centuries prior, a word of God came to the prophet Jeremiah accusing Jeremiah’s audience of exchanging the God of Israel for other gods. I can imagine modern Christians reading Jeremiah’s message with some confusion and pity: confusion at why the kings and people of Judah would exchange their God for an idol, and pity that they did not know any better. The true God had delivered Israel from Egypt, had fed and preserved them through years in wilderness, and had brought them into a land of plentiful fruits and good things (Jer 2:6-7). How could that generation find things wrong with God? How could they go after worthless things and defile God’s land (Jer 2:4,7)? How could several hundred years in the land find Jeremiah’s contemporaries in the same rut they were in with Moses? Why do people keep going after other gods?

The word of God to Jeremiah did not come in a vacuum. Though we do not know the specific prompt for the message of Jeremiah 2, the beginning of the book indicates that Jeremiah served as a prophet at a time of great national and international uncertainty for the kingdom of Judah. Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, which included most of Israel’s tribes and land settlements, had fallen to, and been radically reconfigured by, the Assyrian Empire. The late-600s BC saw the waning of Assyria’s power and the competing growth of Babylon’s. Judah had managed an anxious independence from Assyria, and worked to maneuver protection against Babylon’s encroachments. To bring it closer to the issue at hand, a foreign power with its foreign gods threatened Judah’s power, Judah’s independence, and, so it would seem, Judah’s God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and conquest.

Is it really too unrelatable, then, for a fearful, threatened king and people to question the role of their God in a changing international landscape? for these people to seek help in other gods, gods who had been worshiped in Canaan longer than Israel’s God, gods who might want to protect this land from Babylon? Maybe this is what people do when they start to suspect that their God may not have their priorities as his own. Maybe they try to force the issue, to get out in front of God to show him the way the world needs to be. Maybe they change gods (Jer 2:10-11) because they cannot be content with obedience to God’s commandments, even in mundane daily relations, when foreign powers they fear stand knocking at their door.

Maybe this is what people do when they start to suspect that their God may not have their priorities as his own.

Moses’ Israel—and sometimes Moses himself—was often discontent with God. Jeremiah’s Israel—the kings and inhabitants of Judah—manifested similar discontent with God. Jesus’ Israel—the Jews scattered abroad, but especially those inhabiting Roman-controlled Galilee and Judea—likewise found themselves discontent with God. Why doesn’t he free us from the Romans and put a son of David on the throne? Why doesn’t he establish his kingdom? And why does this Jesus insist that humility and hospitality to the marginalized have something to do with that kingdom? What kind of God does this Jesus believe in? What kind of God does Jesus think he is revealing to us? These moral teachings could make humanity nicer, but these teachings surely cannot be what is most important to God. We can be kind, compassionate, and just to each other, and let God work on the bigger things.

These moral teachings could make humanity nicer, but these teachings surely cannot be what is most important to God.

Do we really believe that God comes to us in people who have nothing, who are crippled, who cannot walk, or who cannot see? Do we really believe that God comes to us when we spread a feast for those who cannot repay us? And are we content with such a God?