God the Helicopter Parent

Psalm 39 speaks to those times when we’d like God to just leave us alone.

I like to recite a psalm in my morning prayers. Recently that brought me to Psalm 39. In the past I have tended to read it and move on. It seemed to be just another lament psalm like so many others in the psalter, and not a very memorable one at that.

This particular morning I was reciting it from a translation I acquired a few years ago.* The translator gave the psalm a different cast from other translations I have used.

Lament psalms form a large proportion of the psalter. Most of them bemoan the seeming absence of God from the psalmist’s life or God’s delay in coming to the psalmist’s assistance in his need. The question is: Where is God when I need him?

Psalm 39 is a lament psalm too. But instead of lamenting God’s absence or God’s procrastination, the psalmist seems to be lamenting God’s too overwhelming presence in his life. It’s as if the psalmist is experiencing too much of God. He wants some relief.

Stop tormenting me;

You strike and I grow weak.

You rebuke us for our sin,

eat up our riches like a moth:

we are but a breath. (Psalm 39:11-12)

Now sometimes we can feel this way because we are feeling especially guilty. The searching eye of God seems to be exploring every dark part of our personality and behavior. We squirm.

But additional words in the psalm make me feel as if there is more to the psalmist’s torment:

Stop looking so hard at me,

allow me a little joy

before I am no more. (Psalm 39:14)

Psalm 139 seems to be expressing a similar feeling when it says:

 Where can I hide from you?

How can I escape your presence? (Psalm 139:7)

Both psalms speak to me about those times when we feel God is too much in our face. They talk about those times when we experience God as our divine helicopter parent. God hovers over and around and within us. We’re not sure we like it.

I think this language talks about more than just that uncomfortable feeling when our sense of sin makes us feel so unworthy in God’s presence. God loves us, deeply and profoundly. In his love he wants the very best for us and the very best out of us (as every caring parent wants for his or her child). He wants to see his creative intention for each one of us fulfilled to the fullest. Only that will give us the greatest happiness.

But we are only too happy to settle for second best. We accept mediocrity as the best we can produce because aiming for the very best is going to be just too much hard work or will require us to tackle some truly scary challenges. Life may become very tumultuous and upsetting in the process. We are glad to settle for something a little less demanding.

I’ve come to believe, however, that God likes to challenge our compromises. At least that has been my experience at times. The more he does, the more we may come to feel that we would like God to back off. As the psalmist says, “Allow me a little joy before I am no more.”

But God seems determined not to let us become comfortable with anything less than the very best he has created for us. So he continues to challenge us throughout our spiritual journey.

This is not the only way God relates to us, nor does it express the totality of our Christian experience. But I think it is important to acknowledge that this is one aspect of our spiritual journey. For that reason, there will be times when we, like the psalmist, want to say to God, “Please, just leave me alone.”

John Calvin once described the psalms as providing an anatomy of all parts of the soul.** As we immerse ourselves into the psalms, we find indeed the whole range of our experiences with God reflected in its lyrics. That’s why, I think, believers so love them.


* The translation of the Psalms I was reading is The Psalter: A faithful and inclusive rendering from the Hebrew into contemporary English, compiled by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Published by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Liturgy Training Publications, 1994. It has not received an imprimatur for use in Roman Catholic services, but I still find it a thought-provoking translation.

** A short summary of Calvin’s view on the psalms can be found in an unfinished article titled “John Calvin and the Wonder of the Psalms,” by the Rev. Angus Stewart of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.

Oaks of Righteousness

White_Oak_Tree_MarylandWhat does a mature Christian look like?

When I read the Old Testament prophets, their images sometimes arrest me. A case in point: Isaiah 61.

In this passage the prophet addresses an exiled and dispirited Israel. He says that the Spirit of God has commissioned him to “bring good news to the oppressed.” His message, he says, is to give them the “oil of gladness instead of mourning.” He declares to “all who mourn” God’s plan to restore the ruined city of Jerusalem.

Then comes this striking phrase:

They [the returning exiles] will be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:3)

There it is, that image “oaks of righteousness.” The mature oak is a strong, sturdy tree. It sometimes can grow to great height. We have one in our backyard. And it produces a wealth of acorns at this time of year.

All of that sturdy tree is contained in the acorn. But what a contrast that mature tree is to the seed. The acorn is the embryo of a tree. The grown tree is the picture of magnificent maturity. God never intends the acorn to remain an acorn. It is to grow into its intended destiny.

Asking an Important Question

This image raises the question for me: What qualities define a spiritually mature person?

In my own denomination (the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.), our Book of Order has a chapter describing the mission of the church in its educational and pastoral care. The text contains this striking sentence: “The nurture of believers and their children in the Christian community is a process of bringing them to full maturity in Jesus Christ” (paragraph W-6.1003). I have highlighted the phrase in italics to call attention to it.

What is this full maturity in Jesus Christ? In fact, what does a mature Christian look like? I consider that an important question because how we understand full maturity will guide the goals and the methods we pursue in our “our process of bringing them to full maturity in Jesus Christ”. I am not sure many Christian educators or pastors have taken time to ask that question of themselves.

It is also an important question to ask because there are millions of Christians in the world today. They live at innumerably different levels of spiritual maturity. Yet their actions and their behaviors, commendable or not, shape how the world at large as well as fellow Christians see our faith.

If we want to challenge some of the immature and discreditable things Christians do and say, do we know on what basis we make our challenge? Are we judging others on the basis of our own inchoate prejudices? Or do we have a clear and thoughtful sense of what a “fully mature” Christian looks like?

It’s not an easy question to answer. For one, the answer may vary from person to person depending upon a person’s unique calling in life. We do not expect the mature fruit of a tomato seed to look exactly like the mature growth of an acorn. And for another, we find several different pictures of maturity in the Biblical texts. It is not easy to unite them into one simple, coherent whole. But let me hazard a few thoughts that come from my own reading in Scripture.

First, maturity is not the same thing as giftedness. A person may have many extraordinary gifts or talents that set him or her apart. But those gifts may say nothing about the emotional maturity or character of the person. History offers many examples. Mozart, for example. There have been few musicians more gifted than Mozart, but that does not say Mozart was a paragon of emotional maturity in his behavior.

Nor is spiritual maturity to be equated with deep piety. One may be deeply committed to a life of piety. That can bear admirable fruit in the character of a Christian, but not necessarily so. We can all think of people who, like the Pharisees in the gospels, are obsessive in their devotional practices, yet in their behavior give Christianity a bad odor in the wider world.

Some Initial Thoughts on an Answer

So what does spiritual maturity look like to me?

I find myself turning to Psalm 1 for one picture of maturity. There we have mature believers, people who meditate day and night on Torah, compared to trees that are planted by streams of water. (Note again the image of the tree.) Because they are so planted, they possess a basic stability. When the gales come, the winds may assault them, but they do not uproot them. In this respect, they contrast with the wicked who are rootless. The wicked blow about in the gales like lightweight chaff.

Also the trees of the righteous prove fruitful. They are productive in their work. They accomplish things.

I find it fascinating that three different psalms (Psalm 1, 52, and 92) all employ the image of the rooted tree as an image of spiritual stability just as does the prophet in Isaiah 61. In Psalms 52 and 92, those trees draw their stability by their being planted in the house of the Lord.

The second passage I draw upon in my understanding of spiritual maturity is Galatians 5:22-23. There the apostle Paul names the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Note that these are not primarily actions. They are traits of character that will express themselves in the believer’s action. Once again note that when the apostle uses the word “fruit,” he is drawing upon the image of a fruit tree.

Although the Galatians passage draws my attention to traits of character, I also think maturity can express itself in particular actions. And here I find myself returning to Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28). The spiritually mature person is able to do two things well. One is to love God with all of his or her being; the other is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.

There may be much more to say about this question. But they are my initial thoughts. What are yours?