How Psalm 40 Wrecked Me: '...I Am Not Able to Look Up'

A recent pastor's conference in New Jersey has inspired me to get back into verse memorization and really dive wholeheartedly into memorizing the Word, meditating on it "day and night," and feeding on it like the most delicious sandwich in the world. (More on that thought, and the pic to the right, in a moment.) Memorization pays rich dividends in that way. It's much easier to meditate on something, to turn it over and over again and learn its flavor, when it's already in your mind. You don't have to stop and open a book or a phone app. You can savor the words at any moment--while you're eating an authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwich from Jim's Steaks South Street in Philly, while you're standing in line to get on an airplane, or while you're walking down a long corridor in an airport wishing there was a people mover.

You can tell I traveled recently. (And, yes, that cheesesteak sandwich was the best I ever had. Jim's was established in 1937. It is a national treasure.)

Am I making you hungry yet?

Lately, I've been feeling that kind of hunger for the Word. It hasn't been out of religious obligation though.

Just pure desire.

During the trip home from Jersey I worked on Psalm 139. I am terribly slow at memorization, apparently. It took about six hours (the entire flight from Philly to San Francisco) to learn 14 verses. At that rate, it will take 9,721 hours to memorize the Bible. If I work on it three hours a day, it will take 27 years. No problem. (Right.) Though, to be fair, a flight isn't an ideal setting for memorization. The white noise tempts you to close your eyes and space out frequently. (And I did. I excel in spacing out.)

When I got back from Jersey, I set to work on Psalm 40 and came across this passage that immediately grabbed me by the throat:

My iniquities overtake me, so that I am not able to look up,
They are more than the hairs on my head,
Therefore, my heart fails me,
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me,
O Lord, make haste to help me.

These verses (12, 13) put in words the inward realities I hadn't been able to articulate at times--the inability to "look up," especially, and the sense of total heart failure on some unseen spiritual plane when all emotions and desires fall dead and turn as cold as a gravestone. That phrase caught my attention. It describes perfectly what happens: the spirit is so thoroughly crushed not even the beautiful stars in the sky tempt the eyes upward. The more I meditated on it by memory, the louder it spoke, the deeper it sank. You water a plant and watch the water vanish slowly, bead by bead, and disappear from the surface as it finds cracks and chutes in the soil and sinks to the roots below. So it is with the Word when you memorize it. The words sink down to places that haven't seen light for long years. They wrap around roots that grow with a wild, invisible longing in the dark, and the words give those midnight longings a voice.

So it is with the Holy Spirit. Deep in the recesses, He groans on our behalf with perfect words we never could have found.

If you ever reach a point in life where all of your shortcomings, mistakes, and foolish tendencies--and I mean the deep ones, the tectonic plates, not the petty little habits--suddenly become visible to you all at once in a staggering portrait of truthfulness, you will read the words in Psalm 40 and understand the weight and flavor, as bitter as they are, of every syllable. When it becomes so plain to you how crooked your heart is without emergency intervention from the Seed of Christ--the renegade Redeemer and good-hearted Burglar who steals past watchful dragons and plants Himself in your spirit--in those moments of sobering, rending revelation you will take these precious words from Psalm 40 and hold them as close as you can to your chest to keep them and guard them. Memorizing the words helps you in that task.

The truth is difficult: many people who seem to have it together often carry a secret anguish, some invisible universe of desire they have built in their hearts, knowingly or unknowingly. We keep it guarded and buried. At times the deep longing from that secret universe rushes to the surface from a buried aquifer and spills openly, nakedly, unrestrained into the outward universe. But then it is stopped just when it thinks it will have the freedom to roar like a river and wash over dry plains. It slams face-first into harsh, undeniable realities that seem, at times, to flaunt and tease you (and your predicament) with a strange, whimsical cruelty. Such things tear the secret inner life and leave a profound brokenness in the heart that no human word or embrace or touch could possibly mend. Why? It's simple: no person can reach that secret place in the heart--at least, not in the way God can. As I wrote in the upcoming book Shadowlands and Songs of Light, such seasons create a quarantine room in the spirit. No other soul can enter it.

And so we turn away from the world, don't we--from all the people in it, from ourselves, even, all our quiet daydreams and secret songs. Shame and failure overtake us, so we're not able to look up. Our flaws and failures seem to be "more than the hairs on our heads."

But then a different voice speaks, a secret whisper from another secret place, and this voice claims ownership of the dislocated, disembodied spirit that we've become--like a kind benefactor adopting an orphan--and this Benefactor speaks new words in the dark:

I have searched you and known you. I know your sitting down and your rising up. I understand your thoughts afar off. I comprehend your path and your lying down, and I am acquainted with all your ways. Not a word is on your tongue, but look, I already know it altogether. I have hedged you behind and before, and I cover you and hold you in the palm of My hand.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for you, I know. It is high. You cannot attain it. But I will not lose you. Where can you go from My Spirit? Or where can you flee from My presence? If you ascend to heaven, I am there. If you make your bed in hell, behold, I am there. If you take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there My hand shall lead you, and My right hand shall hold you. If you say, "Surely the darkness shall fall on me," even the night shall be light about you.
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from Me, but the night shines as day, and the darkness and the light are both alike to Me. For I formed your inward parts, and covered you in your mother's womb. If I could knit you in the womb, is it too hard for Me to mend your heart again, no matter how crushed and broken? Therefore, bring songs of praise and joy to Me, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

(Psalm 139:1-14, paraphrased)

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Kevin Ott is the author of Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey into Joy and Healing, which explores 18 beloved C. S. Lewis classics and 13 studio albums by U2 to explore what it means to experience true joy in the midst of sorrow and nurture a deep, quest-like longing for God. You can pre-order the book here. It releases Oct. 1, 2016 from BroadStreet Publishing. This is what Randy Phillips of the famous singing group Phillips, Craig & Dean says about Shadowlands:

U2 and CS Lewis!  What an amazing combination that guides the soul soaked in sorrow into a place of illuminated peace. Kevin Ott brilliantly takes a deep emotional dive that surfaces in the presence of Jesus.  I am so pleased to recommend this book to everyone who has known depression, suffering and sadness. Kevin so artfully combines his skill as a worship leader and inspirational speaker to help us understand the liminal space between brokenness and healing.

-Randy Phillips, Phillips, Craig & Dean

Click on image to view the book on Amazon. Pre-order now available.

Click on image to view the book on Amazon. Pre-order now available.