An Ash Wednesday Meditation: “Incline our Hearts, O Lord…”

In Psalm 119:33-40, the Psalmist recognizes his complete dependency upon God to do for him what he cannot do for himself. This is nowhere more clearly stated than in v. 36, “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness.”

There are two things gleaned from this verse to consider on this Ash Wednesday, the day when we publicly declare our frailty and sin, as well as the hope of forgiveness that we have in the cross of Jesus Christ:

1)  In this verse there is a clear recognition of our sinful condition and corruption; that we are not naturally inclined to the things of God. David asks God to incline or bend his heart, which is not inclined to the law of God and not to leave him to his natural bent, which is to covetousness. (cf. Ps 141:4)

There are things towards which we are naturally inclined, but they are not the things of God. Paul’s depiction of the human condition in Romans 3 is hauntingly accurate; not only is there “no one righteous, no not one,” but there is “no one who understands or seeks after God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, no not one.” The Scripture is filled with examples of those who followed the natural inclinations of their hearts to covetousness at the expense of love and obedience to God:

  • Balaam whose desire for earthly gain caused him to rebel against the very strong warnings of God.
  • Ahab, whose desire for power blinded him to prophetic warnings and drove him to murderously possess what wasn’t his.
  • David, whose covetousness took the form of lust and brought sexual dysfunction into his family.
  • Achan, whose covetousness led him to steal and bring death to his family.
  • Judas, whose greed led him to betray our Lord Jesus and bring overwhelming guilt to himself.
  • Gehazi, whose greed led him to misuse his authority, lie to Elisha, and inherit Naaman’s leprosy.

This is why we believe (must believe) that God is sovereign in salvation and it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that anyone can overcome the inclinations of their own corrupt hearts and come to faith.

Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come unto me me unless my Father draw him.” (John 6); “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 16); “Unless a man is born again, he cannot perceive the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3) Also, in Acts 16 we read, “And the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.” (Acts 16)

And so, the Psalmist acknowledges the natural corruption and crookedness of his own heart and asks that he be bent in a God-ward direction. “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness.”  I think David put this request in another way when in deep repentance he cries out in Ps 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me.”

2) The second thing I glean from Ps 119:36 is that we need to be vigilant and pay close attention to the condition of our souls, even as believers. Paul warned the Ephesian Elders to “pay attention to yourselves and to your flock” and told Timothy to “pay attention to yourself and to your teaching.”

The reason is, once again, that even as believers (those for whom Christ died) we are still engaged in a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit; between the law of sin in our members and the law of our mind; between the things towards which we are naturally inclined and the things of God. St Augustine and Martin Luther both described our natural inclination as incurvatus in se, to be curved in upon ourselves. We are naturally drawn to those things which are a means to the end of satisfying and glorifying ourselves. SELF- the greatest enemy of the follower of Christ which is why we are told to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ. SELF- is the greatest enemy of the church; a failure to consider others above ourselves. SELF- the greatest enemy of relationships, especially marriage where I have learned that the opposite of love is not HATE, it is SELF!

There are a thousand forms of covetousness which flow out of our self-preoccupation and which dis-incline us to love and obey God:

“You cannot love God and mammon… you cannot serve two masters.” (Matt 6) “But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mk 4) “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Tim 6) “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me…” (2 Tim 4)

Summary:

And so, we must come to the place along with the Psalmist and daily ask God to bend our hearts to His testimonies so we might listen, turn our eyes away from worthless things, and to love our God with our whole heart. This is the way of repentance, not just for today, but every day it should be our constant prayer; that our hearts be bent towards God, towards love and good works, and away from the natural inclination to love ourselves. If we are not vigilant in this repentance, then the weeds will grow and will begin to choke out the very life of God from our souls and make us unfruitful.

I will lift up my hands into your commandments which I have loved. Open my eyes and I shall see, incline my heart and I shall desire, order my steps and I shall walk in the way of your commandments.

O Lord, be my God, and let there be no other before you. Grant me to worship you and serve you according to your commandments: with truth in my spirit, with reverence in my body, with the blessing upon my lips – both in private and in public…

Help me to overcome evil with good, to be free from the love of money, and to be content with what I have. Help me to speak the truth in love, to be desirous not to lust, or to walk after the lusts of my flesh.

O Lord, help me: To bruise the serpent’s head. To consider the end of my days. To cut off occasions to sin…To make a covenant with my eyes. To bring my body into subjection. To give myself to prayer. To come to repentance. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 (A Prayer by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, 1555-1628)

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