A Song of Ascents.
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.
-Psalm 121, ESV
Eugene Peterson’s gloss on the first verse of Psalm 121 has profoundly changed the way I read the trajectory of this psalm, and makes it ever more fitting for this season of Lent. Peterson points out, “During the time this psalm was written and sung Palestine was overrun with popular pagan worship. Much of this religion was practiced on hilltops. Shrines were set up, groves of trees were planted, sacred prostitutes both male and female were provided persons were lured to the shrines to engage in acts of worship that would enhance the fertility of the land, would make you feel good, would protect you from evil” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 36).
Now read the opening verses again:
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2).
Profoundly, with this gloss, Psalm 121 becomes a statement of repentance, and of trust in turning from idols to serve the living God. The psalm becomes a statement of trust in God’s providence and faithfulness. What are the idols calling from the hills in my life?
This is my first year truly trying to give up something for Lent, although in the past I have viewed the season as a time for more focused prayer and fasting. This year, I tried to give up all the things that might have been my “idols on the hills”, the things I would run to instead of God to take care of my stresses and needs: eating snacks after dinner, sugary drinks, and electronic entertainment (news sites, sports websites, manga websites). These things became a means for me to try to regain a sense of control over my life, and manage my desire to be the master of my own life.
This first week of Lent has been incredibly challenging. I think I’ve already slipped in my commitments in most of these days, and my attempts to restart and try again have been so humbling, as I begin to see my past dependence on these things in my daily life. Simultaneously, each act of “fasting” from these otherwise good things, created for our proper use, has been a small act of trust, and lifting up my eyes to the LORD my keeper.
For example, I have chosen to give up mindlessly scrolling through news sites, which has taken away from my focus in prayer in the morning. This is a small act of trusting that God will continue to hold the world in his hands, even if I’m not up-to-date on what’s going on in it. I have chosen to give up manga, which has been a source of entertainment and enjoyment. But this is a small act of trusting that the undistracted time I have to spend with God in prayer or in his Word or with his people is worth so much more than what pleasures.
Some may recoil at the idea of denying pleasures to oneself. Isn’t that legalism? Didn’t God create everything for our good, and we ought to give thanks to him for everything? But if indeed I chose to refrain from these things merely as an exercise of the will or religious piety, then it would be self-flagellation and meaningless. Colossians 2:23 warns us against a manner of adherence to regulations on the grounds that “these have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh”. But proper penance and conversion is never about ourselves and our exertion, but on turning ourselves over to the will of God in our lives. Yes, today’s passage from Romans reminds us, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law”, and “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:21,28). It is not our works through which we obtain the righteousness of God, but by faith.
But Lent is about a continual turning to God, and Christians have practiced abstinence for centuries in recognition that sometimes we may need to empty our hands before God can fill them up. In this season of Lent, let us consider this truth as the motivation for our reflection: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). We all have a need to seek God and his grace. Yet he keeps us is faithful. When we empty our hands of our idols on which we looked to, the world does not suddenly spiral out of control – instead, in surrender we experience the peace from knowing that the LORD is our keeper, from all evil and in all our ways, from this time forth and forevermore. In this season of Lent, let us place our trust in him, for our salvation and the redemption of our lives so that they might more and more reflect Christ.
Allen Lai ’20 is a senior in Quincy House studying Chemistry and Physics.