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Healthy community: how we can get along better — Psalms 15 and 24

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Healthy community: how we can get along better — Psalms 15 and 24

Relationships are easy, yes?

Uh, no, relationships are not easy. Healthy community is a pipe-dream.

Imagine you are looking for someone to share a flat with, or to lodge in your house — or you are looking to lodge somewhere. What would be on your list of requirements and wishes?

And what would be show-stoppers?

What might you hope to sneak in without the landlord knowing? A pet snake? A 1950’s motorbike you are renovating? Your drum set?

How about a house-share with God??!!

Imagine God has put an advert on Facebook or on SpareRoom.co.uk

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Looking for housemates

“Three friends with large property — looking for housemates. We three are creative, joyful, loving, adventurous, all-knowing, all-powerful and so on.”

Psalm 15 is just such an advert!

Psalm 15 is a prayer of King David written about 3,000 years ago.

It starts with two questions about who can be in God’s house:

1 LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent?

Who may live on your holy mountain? (NIV-UK)

The questions assume an invitation has been received — an invitation to go live in God’s house — an invitation to come into healthy community with God.

As often in Hebrew poetry we find two lines that mean something almost the same. The lines form a couplet that amplifies and contrasts.

David wishes for two dimensions of healthy community in God’s family:

(1) The tent and (2) the mountain:

  • The tent speaks to us of enjoying the closeness of God as our Father in a small living room with a fire crackling in the hearth and the smell of cinnamon as some tea-cakes are toasting on a fork.
  • The mountain speaks to us of enjoying the closeness of God as our Almighty Lord, King of the Universe, ruling from his holy mountain and making plans to rescue trafficked children and enslaved women, to bring justice to the poor and needy, and to bring forgiveness to the murderer and abuser and addict, and to cause the whole cosmos to be renewed.

So what sort of housemates is the Father looking for?

Or let’s ask

  • What can we get through the door if we go to lodge with God?
  • How do we get fridge rights in the house of God?

Psalm 15:2-5 tells us what we can get through the door…

The one whose way of life is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbour,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
but honours those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things
will never be shaken. (NIV-UK)

Oh dear. The answer to the question ‘What sort of person can dwell with God?’ is demanding. It seems that God is a picky housemate …

It’s not that you need any education or intelligence. You do not need to be famous or successful. And, actually, it’s better if you are NOT rich.

…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:24

The entrance door is very small!

So how do you rate your chances of getting through?

How do you measure against what the Psalm lays out?

I would have expected a religious answer demanding ritual cleanness and compliance:

  • Keep the Sabbath
  • Complete all the required ritual sacrifices at the annual feasts
  • OR, about how it is important to hunger and thirst for the Lord — which it is.

Instead, in Psalm 15 David points to issues of our horizontal relationship with each other rather than any issues in our vertical relationship with God the Father.

Health community matters to God – a lot.

You get the same in the Gospels, when Jesus was asked by a rich young man how he could have eternal life — see Matthew 19:17b-19:

If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.’

18 ‘Which ones?’ he enquired.

Jesus replied, ‘“You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honour your father and mother,” and “love your neighbour as yourself.”’

Curious… Why is the emphasis on these horizontal behaviours, on healthy community?

The Apostle John argues that a big deception for people of faith is to think that we can love God while we hate people.

In the US, some States have “Concealed carry laws.”

The truth is that every single one of us carries a lethal weapon from the moment we wake up. We carry it to work, to church, today and every day; it’s a very powerful weapon. What is it?

Our tongues

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Telling lies about others
is as harmful as hitting them with an axe,
wounding them with a sword,
or shooting them with a sharp arrow. (Proverbs 25:18 NLT)

The Psalms — which are the worship book of the Bible — repeatedly address the horizontal rather than the vertical. The Psalms are about how we use our tongues not only towards God, but also towards each other… to build up or pull down healthy community.

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James chapter 3 is the New Testament passage most concerned with the tongue. Commenting on James 3 Calvin wrote:

“Now if we want to observe what this text contains, we need to consider a higher principle, that is to consider why God created our tongues and why he gave us speech, the reason being that we might be able to communicate with each other. Now what is the purpose of human communication if it isn’t our mutual support and charity? Consequently, it is essential for us to learn to bridle our tongues to the extent that the union which God commands us may constantly be nurtured as much as possible.” (Sermons, 216, quoted by Hauerwas/Willimon in The Truth About God, p.119)

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James Emery White wrote this wisdom about community ethics that serve healthy community:

“One of the great myths of relational life is that community is something found. In this fairy tale, community is simply out there – somewhere – waiting to be discovered like Prince Charming finding Cinderella. All you have to do is find the right person, join the right group, get the right job, or become involved with the right church. It’s kind of an “Over the Rainbow” thing; it’s not here, so it must be “over” there.

“Which is why so many people — and you’ve seen them, and probably flirted with it yourself — go from relationship to relationship, city to city, job to job, church to church, looking for the community that they think is just around the corner if they could only find the right people and the right place. The idea is that real community exists, somewhere, and we simply must tap into it. It’s not something you have to work at; in fact, if you have to work at it, then you know it’s not real community.

“This mind-set runs rampant in our day. If you have to work at community in a marriage, you must not be right for each other. If you have to work on community where you are employed, you’ve got a bad boss, or bad co-workers, or a bad structure. If you have to work at community in a neighbourhood, you just picked the wrong subdivision. If you have to work on things with people in a church, well, there are obviously just problems with the church, or its leadership, or…yep, its “community.”

“I cannot stress enough how soundly unrealistic, much less unbiblical, this is. Community is not something you find, it is something you build. What you long for isn’t about finding the right mate, the right job, the right neighbourhood, the right church — it’s about making your marriage, making your workplace, making your neighbourhood and making your church the community God intended. Community is not something discovered, it is something forged. I don’t mean to suggest any and all relationships are designed for, say, marriage. Or that there aren’t dysfunctional communities you should flee from. My point is that all relationships of worth are products of labour.

“This is why the Bible talks about people needing to form and make communities, not just come together as a community, or to “experience” community.

“It’s why principles are given — at length — for how to work through conflict.

“It’s why communication skills are detailed, and issues such as anger are meant to be dealt with.

“It’s why the dynamics of successfully living with someone in the context of a marriage, or family, is explored in depth. As the author of Hebrews put it so plainly, “So don’t sit around on your hands! No more dragging your feet…run for it! Work at getting along with each other….” (Hebrews 12:12-14, The Message)”

James Emery White

How can we do this? Ps.15 challenges how we use our tongues if we want healthy community.

Imagine that someone who knows you well is going to speak behind your back about you. Which of the following facts/opinions would you be happy for them to report behind your back to a third party?

  • To tell someone that you led worship in church and it was wonderful.
  • To tell someone that you are pregnant when you have not yet told anyone else yourself.
  • To tell someone that you have run up £17,500 of debt on credit cards in the last eight months.
  • To tell someone that you have an incontinence problem.
  • To tell someone that you have a problem with anger.
  • To tell someone your monthly income.

What Psalm 15 tells us NOT to do if we want healthy community.

Do not gossip — v.3a

…who utters no slander (v.3a)

… [who] casts no slur on others… (v.3c)

If your tongue is used to utter slander or gossip you are making yourself unsuitable to enjoy God’s presence.

Slander = telling a third party a damaging untruth about a person

Gossip = telling a third party a damaging truth about a person

By the way, this does not mean we cover up evil! Exposing evil is positively encouraged in Scripture — but that is so different to gossip. When we need to expose evil we go to the correct people who have the responsibility to act — the police, the trustees, the board.

Gossip is fuel for disharmony

Without wood a fire goes out;

without a gossip a quarrel dies down. Proverbs 26:20

The disclosures we make when we gossip harm the standing of others and thereby elevate our own standing in a given group. (See Proverbs 26:20, 25:9, 17:9, 16:28).

Indiscretion always destroys trust, and weakens the covenant community. Gossip is an unjust use of information.

In his sermon on James 3 (referenced above already) Calvin wrote:

…the tongue exists to reveal our hearts. Therefore let us be encouraged to use such a gift and not to soil it with our vices and deplorableness. And seeing that God has given it to us for the purpose of nurturing tender love and fraternity with each other, may we not abuse it in order to gossip and bustle about here and there, so perverting our speech as to poison ourselves against each other. (Sermons, 216 – as quoted in Hauerwas, 1999, p.119).

Do not listen to slander or gossip

“The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.” (Proverbs 18:8, 26:22).

Avoid gossips

A gossip betrays a confidence;

so avoid anyone who talks too much. Proverbs 20:19

How can we deal with it when a conversation turns to gossip?

John Wesley gave this guidance:

  • We will not listen or willingly enquire after any ill concerning another.
  • If we do hear of any ill in another’s life we will not be forward to believe it.
  • As soon as possible we will ask the person concerned to verify the facts.
  • Until this is done no word will be spoken to any about the ill news.
  • After communicating with the person we will not breathe any word about the matter to others.
  • We will keep these rules unless we feel bound in conscience to break one of them.

When someone gossips to you, ask:

  • Why are you telling me this?
  • Where did you hear this from?
  • Have you checked it’s true directly with the person?
  • Can I quote you on this?

Source: Dan Barraco, Christian Fellowship of Columbia, Missouri, USA

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Nicky Gumbel gives this advice:

When you are about to speak ask yourself these three questions about what you are going to say:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it necessary?

What wise advice!

Do not grumble

Do not grumble against each other. James 5:9

Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! James 5:9

Grumbling seems like a small sin to us but it is a grave one in God’s eyes — 1 Cor.10:1-13.

Have you ever had someone grumble to you? How did you handle that person?

How can we make our home, our workplace, our church community a place where it feels uncomfortable, wrong even, to grumble? Healthy community demands we find a way.

What Psalm 15 tell us TO DO to work towards healthy community.

Make your tongue like a hose pipe in farmyard — always turned on with a flow of sweet water.

Who speaks the truth from their heart v.2c

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Matt.5:33-37

All you need to say is simply “Yes,” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matthew 5:37

Bravery is needed.

Too many of us say yes when we mean no, or vice versa. And this is big. Jesus says this comes from the evil one.

The confidence to say ‘no’ is crucial. Cloud and Townsend tell a powerful story about a couple in their book, Boundaries. The wife was fed up because her partner kept saying ‘yes’ to every request to help other people. He defended himself saying that he liked to say ‘yes.’ But she quipped back, “but don’t you see that every time you say ‘yes’ to other people’s requests, you are saying ‘ no’ to me and our children?”

Who honours those who fear the LORD — Psalm 15:4

Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10

Let’s make it our aim to help our colleagues to shine, whether at work or at church or in the family.

Who keeps an oath — 15:4c

Being people who are able to make commitments — whose ‘yes’ can be relied on!

What about the VERTICAL dimension – healthy community with God? That’s in Psalm 24:3-6

3 Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?

Who may stand in his holy place?

4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not trust in an idol

or swear by a false god.

5 They will receive blessing from the LORD

and vindication from God their Saviour.

6 Such is the generation of those who seek him,

who seek your face, God of Jacob. Psalm 24:3-6

Psalm 24 is also a psalm written by David.

He asks the same question in both psalms and gives different answers.

Do they contradict or complement?

I think there is a connection, so let me try to make it. In the letter of James (3:1-12) we are told that it is easier to tame a wild animal than to tame the tongue…

Has anyone else here found it hard to tame the tongue?

People spend a lot of money to have their dogs trained. How much money have you spent on training your tongue? How’s that going?

Repentance with faith is always a good step.

When any of us realises that we have said words that, for example, amounted to slander or gossip we may initially be defensive, but at our best we will realise that we have harmed another person’s reputation and we will realise that we need to confess that we spoke wrongly, turn around (repent) and resolve not to do this again.

Is repentance with faith all we can recommend to work towards healthy community?

In Psalm 24 David points to a further step.

David tells us that he’s found we need to dig deeper to look for the idol beneath our wayward tongues. He asks us to consider where we have misplaced our faith.

A lot of our problem behaviours arise because our faith is misplaced.

That’s what Psalm 24 tells us…

3 Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?

Who may stand in his holy place?

4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not trust in an idol

or swear by a false god. Psalm 24:3-4

Trusting an idol is having your faith in the wrong place, in the wrong thing.

Repenting of our sins is good, but if we do not identify and renounce the idols behind our sins we remain enslaved.

Earlier I said that every single one of us carries a lethal weapon — our tongues.

Truth is most of do not intend the damage we do with our tongues most of the time…

Yes, sometimes we speak so as to hurt… But mostly, when we gossip, or cast a slur on someone it’s not usually conscious spite or malice. And mostly, when we tell lies it’s not because we love the excitement of deception. How does it happen?

This is where Psalm 24 is helpful to us.

David realised that the reason we act badly and speak badly is often because we are serving or protecting an idol. The idol has seduced us and is controlling our behaviour.

If you want to share God’s house you have to be willing to leave your idols behind — preferably outside the door.

What do I mean by an idol?

An idol is something that sets itself up in our minds as of infinite worth — that we must protect at all costs.

To detect an idol…

Ask yourself “What was I really protecting/serving/valuing when I said that (or did that)?”

Gossip, slander, sin in general, often occurs because we are protecting something instead of other people, and serving something instead of God.

So when I cast a slur on someone…

…it may be because I am being blamed for something that was not my fault (or not entirely my fault) and, faced by that loss of face, I want other people to know whose fault it really was by casting a slur on the ‘guilty’ person by reporting on their delays, poor decisions, or incompetence.

And what I am protecting by doing that is myself — but not the other person. I am protecting my reputation. In other words, I have made my reputation an idol. And my fear of losing my good reputation means I assassinate that other person’s character to protect my own standing.

It’s not that I had any malice towards them. It’s rather that I am driven by my slavery to the idol of my own good reputation. The result is that I do not protect the other person’s reputation.

We like to say that our feelings have been hurt.

Tim Keller says we are not really being honest when we say that. It’s not our feelings that are hurt. It’s our sense of our own identity which is threatened. (Keller, in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, location 130 of 431).

And when I am grumbling…

…it may be because I think that person has messed up my life by their actions and I am trying to protect myself from further damage. When I grumble it’s because I have cast myself as a victim, and I have cast that other person as the controller of my life in place of my Father in heaven.

Since that person is the controller of my life now, in my eyes, I have made them into my god — or my idol. I have moved into a place where I believe that my life is in their hands. As a result, I no longer pray to my Father, rather I grumble about that person who is in charge of my life in hopes this will cause them to change what they are doing.

Grumbling is the form that prayer makes when you no longer worship God. You’ve transferred your trust from God to that person. When we grumble, we make our circumstances strong over us, instead of making ourselves strong over our circumstances.

When we say ‘yes’ when we thought ‘no’ and afterwards feel hard done by

…it may be because we are afraid people will not love us if we do not jump to their demands. Instead of standing on the Father’s love for us, we are building our life on the love others have for us — thus making others our idol. The compelling need to say ‘yes’ is to serve that idol. (Cloud and Townsend’s book, Boundaries, is so good on this).

When we divide people up into enemies and friends…

…it may be because we have made an idol of our faction, our tribe, and we feel we must defend the tribe at all costs against any criticism… Maybe we are afraid that our ‘group’ is losing influence.

Maybe you are promiscuous?

…That may be because you are serving your need to be powerful, it may be you are serving your need to be loved, or it may be you are trying to soothe/protect some pain of past rejection…

And when we insist the decision is a black and white, either/or decision, a ‘this way’ or ‘that way’ choice…

…it may be because we fear losing control and cannot let Father be our God — so we have to seize control back from him. We may be protecting our position of being in control.

There are times when we need to attack the idol of control by deliberately giving away control.

“Yes, but actually sometimes I am just spiteful and malicious…”

That may also be in service of an idol. We are sometimes badly hurt by the words or actions of others and cannot let it go. We nurse unforgiveness and unforgiveness is the desire to hurt the other person.

In effect whenever we take it upon ourselves to punish people for their wrong-doing (I’m not talking about police-officers here) we are setting ourselves up as judge and jury — in other words we are taking the seat that only God should occupy — that is, we are making an idol of ourselves. Do not set yourself up as judge and jury and executioner!

Entrance gate
Entrance gate

Jesus is the door to the house of God.

He simply asks us to leave every idol at the door.

It’s not to make us poor. It’s to release us to enter into healthy community with God and one another.

Oh, and by the way, one other idol to leave at the door…

It’s the idol of the perfect church.

Many Christians believe that one of the greatest books written about horizontal relationships in the Christian Community is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “Life Together” published in 1939. Bonhoeffer was a Christian church leader in Germany who stood against the Nazi party. Born in 1906 he was imprisoned in the latter stages of the war and killed by the SS in April 1945 just weeks before the end of the war. When he wrote about ‘Life Together’ as Christians he knew what he wrote about. He had pastored churches under the horrors of Nazism. This is wisdom worth hearing. I’ll quote at length from what he wrote:

“I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me; the other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did for him.” (Bonhoeffer, p.14)

To love my fellow Christian is to lay down my demands and expectations that they will provide me with a perfect experience of being supported and loved.

“Christian brotherhood is threatened most often… by the greatest danger of all… the danger of confusing Christian brotherhood with some wishful idea of religious fellowship…” (Bonhoeffer, p.14)

Bonhoeffer goes on:

“The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realise it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great general disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” (Bonhoeffer, p.15)

“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

“The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realised by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren… When things do not go his way he calls the effort a failure… So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.” (Bonhoeffer, p.16)

“Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter in to that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients… We thank God for what he has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by his call, by his forgiveness, by his promise. We do not complain of what God does not give us; we rather thank God for what he does give us daily.” (Bonhoeffer, p.16)

Nicky Gumbel has wise words about maintaining Christian unity.

  • The first to apologise is the bravest.
  • The first to forgive is the strongest.
  • The first to forget is the happiest.

I find that I do not qualify for God’s presence. Do you?

I cannot possibly pray the prayer in Psalm 15 without feeling a deep conviction of my own sinfulness. I have an answer:

Only one person can pray this prayer — that is Jesus Christ

We can pray this prayer as we realise that we are ‘in him’.

Only one person can give us clean hands and a pure heart — Jesus Christ

By the grace of God, through faith in Christ, we are given guest rights in the Father’s home.

That really is something worth singing about.

If you’d like to read more about the ethics of living in community, try the blog series on Tell the Truth or Keep a Confidence.

Bibliography

Dietrich BONHOEFFER, Life Together, SCM Press, London, 2015

Stanley HAUERWAS & Will WILLIMON, The Truth About God: the Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville, Tennessee, Abingdon Press, 1999

Tim KELLER, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Kindle

Derek KIDNER, Psalms 1-72, IVP, Leicester, 1973

KINGS ARMS, Sustainable Power School notes, 2015

Gordon WENHAM, The Psalter Reclaimed, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2013

 

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