Being the father of two young boys, the song, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” is a really fun song to sing at our house. Singing at the top of your lungs and doing all the hand motions are a must, no exceptions. Well, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. One day when I was a little boy at Vacation Bible School, I busted my lip on the back of the chair in front of me while singing at the top of my lungs. That plastic chair showed no mercy as I enthusiastically bent-down to touch my toes!
Whether it is by means of our head, our hands, or our feet, society is driven by success. Public opinion, social status, and a person’s value can all be strongly influenced by how much stuff a person has. It is no wonder Christians are so easily tempted to seek the hand of God. Prayers sound more like three wishes for a genie than sincere petitions. People live as if “Zoltar” is actually a Hebrew name for God, instead of a fictional character in the movie Big.
The scripture paints an entirely different picture of what healthy prayer should be like for a mature Christian. Psalm 24 teaches a truth which propels us toward spiritual maturity. Early, in verses 3 and 4, David describes the kind of person who will experience the true blessing of God. According to the Psalmist, this is someone who is pure in action (hands) and feelings (heart). He goes on to describe what is considered the antithesis of sincerity, a person who lifts up their soul to what is false. The original Hebrew communicates a sense of vanity – that he or she does not lift up their soul to a vain cause. There could be no greater vanity than to reduce a Son-sacrificing, omniscient God to simply a giver of things – turning our prayer closets into a trip to see Santa at the mall. Hands become dirty and hearts become un-pure as we lift up our souls to a man-centered version of God.
While our God does not condemn those who have needs, we do understand it is a heart that seeks the presence of God which will receive the true blessing. Nominal Christians know that God “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” and therefore often treat Him as a wealthy benefactor. Tragically, this perspective often breeds contempt whenever we do not get what we want, when we want it. We become a spiritual version of Veruca Salt, demanding of Willy Wonka, “I want the world, I want the whole world…and I want it now!” The desire for what our finite minds can conceive rules our heart. This is a selfish faith. A God-honoring faith prays prayers which desire God – His will, His ways, for our lives – and then are not only satisfied with what He produces, but with who He is and how He chooses to act in response to our prayers.
It is the man or woman with pure motive who will receive blessing from the Lord. David goes on to teach in verses 5 and 6, that it is the generation who takes their eyes off of themselves and who instead seeks God which will receive righteousness from Him.
Consider the record of the Israelites in the book of Exodus. To this point in the journey, God’s people had experienced the hand of God in many miraculous ways. In Exodus 12 the Israelites had seen the Tenth Plague set their freedom in motion. In chapter 13 God’s people were not led into war, but rather given safe passage by the incredible phenomenon of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Things become intense in chapter 14 when Moses and the Israelites learn Pharaoh is in hot pursuit. Yet again, God’s hand provides the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of their enemies. In chapter 15 bitter water is made sweet, in 16 bread is sent from heaven, and in 17 God instructs Moses to strike the rock with his staff and, at the place of Massah, drinking water poured forth. However, Exodus 32 tells the tragic story of what can happen whenever God’s people refuse to seek His face, but instead prioritize His hand.
Their leader, Moses, had gone up to the top of Mount Sinai to meet with God. Verse 1 of chapter 32 describes an impatient people. God’s people had become bored with waiting for the presence of God and instead craved the hand of God’s miracles. So the Israelites created a solution: empower Aaron to become their new leader and have him fashion a physical idol, a Golden Calf, for which they could worship in the absence of a fresh miracle of the hand of God. With great irony, Aaron instructs God’s people to “take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.” Wait, where did a group of refugees find such fancy jewelry?! Only twenty short chapters earlier, in Exodus 12, we learn God blessed the Israelites with unique physical gifts. Exodus 12:36 reads, “And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus, they plundered the Egyptians.” The Golden Calf was created out of the very gifts God had given them! Sadly, at this point, their prayers – ultimately their hearts’ desires – had shifted from seeking and trusting God to desiring and worshiping idols. The faith of the Israelites failed and they expressed an unhealthy perspective of who they were and who God is. Distracted by a vain pursuit of self-worship and an unhealthy hunger for the hand of God, God’s people sinned greatly.
Perhaps the most profound personal experience I have ever had while learning this truth came early last fall. My wife and I had planned an extremely special trip out of the country to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Forty-eight hours before we were to leave, our youngest son came down with a rather severe stomach bug (it would later feel like we were hit by the Black Plague). Sure enough, as these things go, our older son soon caught it and, within eight hours of our flight leaving, my wife found herself down for the count. About midnight that night I laid on the couch alone, not feeling well myself. I could hear my son being sick on one side of the house (cared for by my mother-in-law) and my wife was ill in our room on the other side. As I laid there, I prayed, “God please heal my family, You are the Great Physician.” Then, sure enough, my prayer went… “unanswered.” I was tempted to find myself begging for God to heal them, as if a lack of physical response by God meant He was either unable to heal or did not care. My dramatic desire for the hand of God led me to an inaccurate perspective of who God is. My heart was being influenced by a poor, selfish theology. What I realized is that while the hand of God may not act in a way that I want when I want, if I will instead seek the face of God I will never lack satisfaction. In that moment, though God chose not to heal my family instantly, I could seek His presence which is guaranteed to bring comfort and peace. The face of God is a blessing of love and compassion for all those who seek Him.
The more mature a Christ-follower becomes, the more he or she will choose not to seek only the hand of God, but instead sincerely seek the face of God. Whenever we desire the presence of God – no matter our circumstances – it is then when we will be blessed beyond measure. Golden calves will lose their shine, the stomach bug will strike again, but there is simply no other soul-satisfying experience like seeking the face of God.