Read Psalm 118
Psalm 118 is a litany of familiar lines. Here are a few of the most well-known:
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; For his steadfast love endures forever. (vs. 1 and 29 – bookending the Psalm)
The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. (v. 14 from Exodus 15:2, the song of Moses)
The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. (vs. 22 quoted in Luke 20:17, Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:7 a favorite New Testament reference to Jesus)
This is the day that the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it. (v. 24 – the classic cross-stitch Bible verse hanging up in your grandma’s living room in the circle frame – a hoop, I think it’s called)
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! (v. 26 quoted by the crowd on Palm Sunday as Jesus enters into Jerusalem in Matthew 23, Mark 11 and Luke 19)
You could camp out in Psalm 118 for weeks – to pray it and make it your own, to understand the Psalm as a whole and how it holds all these great pieces together, to see the multiple ways it points to Jesus. But, today I want to pick up on one theme from verse 6.
The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? 118:6
There are, of course any number of answers to the question: What can man do to me? People can slander you, maim or manipulate you. Your boss can fire you, your co-workers can bully you, and the people whose opinions matter most can simply ignore you. Your spouse can cheat on you or belittle you or mock you. Your kids can laugh at you. Your neighbors can whisper to each other about the weeds in the cracks of your sidewalk.
We are controlled by others.
I was teaching an Old Testament survey class to a handful of college students and we were talking about the concept of idolatry. Idols are the things we put our trust in, the things from which we build our identity, the things we serve. I had the students list all the negative behaviors and attitudes they could. Their list included the basics: lying, cheating, stealing, adultery, anger, anxiety, eating disorders, various substance abuses and greed. We then tried to trace those actions and attitudes back to their root cause. What motivates someone to cheat? What are some of the root causes of anxiety? Why would someone deny themselves food? In almost every case the opinions of other people were the primary driving force of these behaviors. Fishermen don’t embellish the truth about their catch just for the sake of lying; they lie because they want to impress others. Students cheat to avoid the embarrassment of failing. More often than not this is all happening subconsciously. But the truth is, other people’s opinions control us.
We do not like to admit it but just look at your senior picture from high school. Why would you wear your hair like that? In middle school in the early 90’s we would tightly roll the bottom of our pants about two inches above the shoe. Why would anyone do that? Our pants weren’t too big. It looked ridiculous. The answer is simple; the people who matter most to us thought it was cool.
As we grow older, people’s opinions still control us; it just takes on different forms. All the escapes we use – binge watching Netflix, eating a whole sleeve of thin mints, drinking 2 glasses of wine to take off the edge, pornography, etc. – are often simply symptoms of how others control us. We escape because we want to avoid conversation with our spouse or because we felt slighted after our presentation at work or because we need a break from one more difficult conversation with our daughter. There is a reason why you feel you have to check Facebook twenty minutes after you post something – you need to know somebody out there likes you.
The allure of idolatry is that we believe what we worship will give us what we want. And the trade-off seems fairly simple at first. In the idol worship of the Ancient Near East you would simply pour out some wine or sacrifice a goat and you’d be promised healthy children, a bumper crop, or victory over your enemies. But of course the gods are fickle (because they aren’t real) and so you never know where you stand with them. They start demanding more and more (Molech demanded your children) and they start producing less and less.
When we bow down to worship the opinions of others it also seems fairly simple – just wear the right clothes, or produce a quality quarterly report, or get the grade. I remember worrying about getting an A in World Civilization my first semester of college far more than I cared about anything I actually learned in World Civilization. Why? Because I was building my identity on what other people thought of me and having a high GPA was something I could control. Guess what, no one has ever asked me what I got in World Civilization class in any interview or conversation I have ever had. In case you’re wondering I received a B, but it was Honors World Civilization, so there.
The opinions of others are as fickle as the pantheon of gods. You never know where you stand. And so life is lived in a constant state of anxiety. Am I enough in their eyes?
Longing for approval and fear of rejection is why pastors feel inadequate on Sunday evenings because they care too much about what people thought of their sermon. It is why Peter changed his behavior and wouldn’t eat with Gentile-Christians (Galatians 2) for fear of what Jewish-Christians would think. It is why we are afraid to share our faith or be honest about our brokenness. It is why parents give in to their kids after threatening “one more time” five times ago. It is why people pleaser’s calendars are too full and family life is too frenzied.
The Lord is on my side, I will not fear.
The Psalmist speaks in defiance. I will not fear. What can man do to me? Where does this confidence come from? I am sure he knows all the things people can do to him. But he also knows something more, something better. Reading Psalm 118 ten times will not make you less likely to be controlled by the opinion of others. There is no formula. But beginning to trust the truths that Psalm 118 reminds us about God will.
Let’s look briefly at three of these truths.
1. God’s steadfast love endures forever (v.1). This is repeated in the first four verses and then repeated again in the last verse. Read the Psalm again and see how God-centered it is. God answers him in his distress. God is on his side. He cuts off his enemies. The Lord is his strength, song and salvation. The right hand of the Lord does valiantly. The Lord disciplines but has not given him over to death. The Lord provides the gate of righteousness and has made the rejected stone the chief cornerstone. The Lord has made this day and every other day and has made his light shine upon us.
The problem with building our life on what other people think is that it depends on two unreliable factors – our performance and other’s opinions. Our performance is stained and stunted by our sin. Other’s opinions are stained and stunted by theirs. This is why when we care too much about what others think, anxiety rules the day. Our foundation is crumbly like sinking sand. But the Psalmist knows the Lord is good and He is steadfast. The Psalmist knows that if God who has done all these things is for him, who can be against him?
2. Out of my distress I called on the LORD (v. 5). Psalm 118 describes a multitude of sufferings. This is not a simplistic view of life. There is no sense that if the circumstances are good God must love him and if the circumstances are bad God must be mad at him. His circumstances stink, and yet he trusts in the Lord.
God is steadfast. Trustworthy. This is the basis of his confidence. This is why he calls out to the Lord. In our distress we tend to call out to other things for refuge. Approval and recognition being near the top of the list. Certainly God has called us to support, encourage, bear-with, teach and a whole host of other things believers should be for one another. But no other thing should be our refuge. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man” (v.8).
3. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (v. 22). We have the privilege of reading this Psalm through a Christ-centered lens. We know, as the New Testament writers knew, that the rejected stone that God makes into the chief cornerstone is Jesus. Perhaps the greatest fear we have when other people’s opinions control us is the fear of rejection. We know deep down inside that we are not enough. We fall short of God’s glory – which is why we clamor for the approval of others. And, at the same time, it is why we fear rejection.
But look at this incredible good news. Jesus was rejected on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself the rejection that we deserved. In Christ we are in the beloved. And so we no longer have to fear rejection anymore. Brennan Manning tells a great story of an Irishman from Detroit who returns to Ireland to visit his uncle for his 80th birthday. They wake one morning and go for a long walk around Lake Killarney and as they were walking the man turns to his uncle and says, “Uncle Seamus, you look happy.” And his uncle responds, “Yes, lad. I am, you see, the Father is very fond of me.”
I realize this can sound trite and simplistic and a nice churchy cliché. But, if this truth is driven deep down into your heart it is the way of freedom from others approval or rejection – the One who’s opinion matters most sees you, in Christ, and is very fond of you, so fond of you that He sent Jesus to die for you. And that is enough.