Read: Psalm 86
Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name (Psalm 86:11, NRSV).
They call them foxhole conversions—those faith commitments made when shells are exploding overhead and death looms large on the horizon. Some of these conversions undoubtedly stick. Yet, when the immediate danger is past, the durability of the commitment sometimes passes as well. If God were to take us to task for our insincerity, a good lawyer could probably get us off by pleading “severe mental stress” or “temporary insanity.”
Even if we did not come to Christ this way, most of us have struck the occasional bargain with God. The contract usually reads, “Please, God, if you just get me out of this mess I will….” You fill in the blank.
Psalm 86 occasionally reads a little like this, especially in verse 11: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.” At first glance, this prayer seems like just another attempt to twist God’s arm (see also Ps. 30:9). “Look, God,” says the psalmist. “It’s really in your best interest to grant my request, since I’m going to be really, really good if you do.”
Certainly the person who wrote Psalm 86 was in a tight spot. “Preserve my life,” he pleads in verse 2. Later in verse 14 he says, “the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life.” Still, a closer look at the psalm as a whole—and verse 11 in particular—sets this prayer apart from the foxhole variety.
First, the person who prayed this prayer clearly had a deeply personal relationship with God already. “I’m devoted to you,” he reminds God in verse 2. “You are my God” (italics added). And so the relationship is evidently not a new one. Verse 16 suggests that it may have begun at his mother’s knee. “Save the child of your serving girl,” he begs. In other words, “If you won’t do it for me, do it for my mom’s sake! She’s served you loyally for more years than I have.”
Something else sets this prayer apart. The request for an “undivided heart” in verse 11 reveals a remarkable level of realism and commitment. In fact, once we realize the cost of such a commitment, we may wonder whether we would have the courage to pray this prayer ourselves.
The “heart” in Hebrew is not only the site of the emotions, but of the intellect and the will as well. People felt, thought, and made commitments with their heart. If, heaven forbid, their heart should become “hardened,” that meant they could neither think, feel, nor decide well. This explains a lot about the Pharaoh’s behavior in the Exodus story!
An undivided heart is a heart that is wholly given over to God. No corner of life is somehow kept back; there is no compartmentalization of “God’s business” and “my business.” Every aspect of our lives is fair game for God.
In her unconventional conversion story, Traveling Mercies (Pantheon Books, 1999), Anne Lamott compares Christ to a little cat running along at her heels, begging to be picked up, mewing at the door to be let in. “But I knew what would happen,” she complains. “You let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever” (50).
So much for the hound of heaven! Yet Lamott is on to something—not just about conversion, but about the Christian life. The mewing doesn’t stop once the kitten comes through the door. Once through, we will hear mewing at some inconvenient times and in some unexpected places. And it won’t stop until it’s attended to.
“Into my heart, into my heart,” invites the old Sunday school song. “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.”
Did any of us know what we were getting into when we sang that song? Probably not. Did the psalmist know what he was getting into when he prayed his prayer for an undivided heart? Who knows? But we know now. The only question is: are we really ready to make that kind of a commitment?
Ponder: What would it mean for you to commit your intellect, your emotions, and your decisions to God? Are you ready to make that kind of commitment?
Pray: God, I acknowledge that, “were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” (From “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaace Watts).
This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.
“Practicing the Faith” Series
This series explores some of the things that Christians can expect once the first blush of belief has worn off. Contrary to the mistaken assumption that once we are “saved” we can sit back and relax, these reflections explore the hard work that awaits the believer on the other side of baptism. However, characters from Genesis to Revelation illustrate that practicing the faith is not just a responsibility but also a reward.
All of these reflections are “encore” performances from a book I wrote early in my career: Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved. I have edited them lightly, and chosen them with the current context in mind. I hope they have stood the test of time.