Give up. Let go. Cut it out. Go limp. All are valid translations of the Hebrew word raphah, which begins Psalm 46:10. It’s a well-known verse, but I think it’s been misunderstood. The ESV translates it, “Be still, and know that I am God.” If you wanted, you could translate it, “lose heart.”
Not that anyone would do such a thing. Psalm 46:10 is a verse that gets put on pretty pictures of landscapes and solitude, maybe with a person meditating or praying, and rays of sunlight beaming down between clouds. We associate it with our over-busy lives, reminding ourselves that quietness and meditation are important to spiritual growth – which they are. There are lots of other verses to back that up, including Gospel records of Jesus going to pray by himself. We need our day of rest, if we’re to be sane.
That’s not what Psalm 46:10 is talking about.
Psalm 46 is one of my favorites. It probably inspired Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. The words are magnificent, full of imagery and beautifully bold lines like “we will not fear though the earth gives way,” and “he utters his voice, the earth melts.” The words “awesome” and “epic” can be used in their old meanings. It shifts suddenly from world-wide disaster to a sunlit paradise, the difference between being outside of God’s protection and inside it, before displaying just why we should not be afraid. God ends war.
These words aren’t spoken over a harried human racing from one obligation to the next. They’re not aimed at workaholics or party animals or pundits who won’t shut up. The audience is soldiers, the armies of the world, warriors and generals and kings. “He breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’” Violence and chaos are raging, guns are roaring, cannons blasting, jets screaming, men dying, and God steps into the middle of the fray like a father among squabbling children, as concerned about nuclear weapons as we would be about Nerf guns. “Cut it out. I’m God.”
Be still. Put down your weapons. Give up. Stop this nonsense. Because I am God.
We’re born to fight. We fight all the time. We fight our parents and our siblings. We fight our peers, our friends, our classmates, our coworkers. We fight our neighbors and our governments. We fight ourselves. The reasons are many, some nobler than others. The subtler ones can be hard to catch. When we realize how messed up we are and how messed up the world is, we try very much to fight evil on behalf of good. Which sounds nice, except (as usual) we often get it wrong.
We do not make ourselves righteous. We do not save the world. We do not convict sinners. None of those are our fight. We do what the Spirit tells us. We go on the path appointed to us. We do not choose battles, and there are a lot of battles which the Spirit will tell us are not ours to fight.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31
Another verse with a perspective I hadn’t noticed before. We were singing a song about it in church and suddenly a footnote landed in my brain: If our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? So why are we fighting? We are often stopped. We are often stood against. Does it mean that God is not for us? The word “if” there could be translated as “since”: God is always for us. What stops us? Only what God allows – nothing else can stand. If we are being stopped, the answer may be “fight harder”, and the answer may be “Stop.”
I’m among those who fight for my own goodness, to make myself as good a person as I’m able. It’s ridiculous. God knows my brain better than I do. He knows my rebel thoughts and my twisted heart. I beat myself up trying to bring my brain in line, when the actual cure is “give it up, hand it over, let God take care of it.” I have fought and fought and fought, and I’m a stubborn fighter, but then I went and reached the end of my strength, and right now, I’m learning the joy of giving up on self-improvement. Resolution for 2013: “STOP MAKING RESOLUTIONS”.
Stop this nonsense. Go do silly things. Draw cartoon ponies. Make calligraphy out of baling wire. Chase the cat around the house while yelling “OOGA-BOOGA-BOOGA!” Listen to the Spirit while the sunset paints the sky in glorious neons. Enjoy music. Call some friends. If God is God, and is All-wise and All-powerful, if he knows how things work, then he knows when and how each one of us should fight. He knows when we must work. He also knows when we must rest. He can be trusted to tell us when we need to do one or the other.
The only way we can see his power, his might, his majesty, his righteousness and glory, is to come to the end of ourselves, give up, and then witness what he does with a word, without any help from us. “Be still, and know that I am God.”