The Searching of God
“O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.” Psa_139:1
We are prone to associate the searching work of God with events of a striking or memorable kind. It is in great calamities and overwhelming sorrow that we feel with particular vividness God’s presence. When Job was in the enjoyment of prosperity, he was an eminently reverent man; but it was in the hour of his black and bitter midnight that he cried out, “The hand of God hath touched me.” And that same spirit dwells in every breast so that God’s searching comes to be associated with hours when life is shaken to its depths. Now the point to be noted is that in this psalm the writer is not thinking of such hours. There is no trace that he has suffered terribly or been plunged into irreparable loss. “Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising”—my usual, ordinary, daily life—it was there that the psalmist recognized the searching; it was there that he awoke to see that he was known. And as the psalmist’s, so our effort must be to try to discover how in our usual round, in the downsitting and uprising of our days, God searches us and shows us to ourselves.
The Passing of Time
In the first place, we are searched and known by the slow and steady passing of the years. There is a revealing power in the flight of time just because time is the minister of God. In heaven there will be no more time; there will be no more need of any searching ministry. There we shall know even as we are known, in the burning and shining of the light of God. But here, where the light of God is dimmed and broken, we are urged forward through the course of years, and the light of passing time achieves on earth what the light of the Presence will achieve in glory.
He is a wise father who knows his child, but he is a wiser child who knows himself. Untested by actual contact with the world, as children we dream our dreams in the sunshine of the morning. And then comes life with all its harsh reality and the changes of the years, and we turn around on the swift flight of time and say, “O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me.” We may not have suffered anything profound, we may not have achieved anything splendid. Our life may have moved along in quiet routine, not outwardly different from the lives of thousands. Yet however dull and uneventful, God has so ordered the flight of time for us that we know far more about ourselves now than we knew in the dawn of our morning. Brought into touch with duty and fellowmen, we have begun to see our limitations. We know in a measure what we cannot do, and thank God, we know in a measure what we can do. And underneath it all we have discerned the side of our nature which leans towards heaven, and the other side on which there is the door that opens to the filthiness of hell. It doesn’t take any terrible experience to learn our power and weaknesses. Each single day which makes up the passing years, slowly and inevitably shows it. So by the pressure of evolving time—and it is not we, but God, who so evolves it—for better or for worse we come to say “O Lord, thou hast searched me and hast known me.”
Our Responsibilities Test Us
Then also, God searches us by the responsibilities He lays upon us, for it is in our duties that the true self is searched and known. Think of those servants in the parable who got the talents. Could you have gauged their character before they got the talents? Were they not all respectable and honest and seemingly worthy of their master’s confidence? But to one of the servants the master gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, and what distinguished and revealed each one was the use they made of that responsibility. They were not searched by what they had to suffer; the servants were searched by what they had to do. They were revealed by what their master gave and by the use they made of what they got.
And so, I take it, it is with all of us to whom God has given a task, a job, a talent—it is not only a gift to bless our neighbor; it is a gift to reveal us to ourselves. It is not always the greatest jobs that make the greatest demands on a man. It is sometimes harder to be second than first, and sometimes harder to be third than second. In the important jobs there is a certain glow, and generally a cloud of witnesses to cheer us on; but in the humbler jobs there is nothing of that. Great services reveal our possibilities; small services reveal our consecration, calling for patience and rigorous fidelity and the power that can endure through dreary days. So by the daily work we have to do and the task that is given us of God, we are tested in the whole range of manhood. There are no temptations more subtle or insistent than those that meet a man within his calling. There are no victories so quietly rewarding as those that are won within one’s daily work.
God also has a way of searching us by lifting our eyes from the detail to the whole. He sets the detail in its true perspective, and seeing it thus, we come to see ourselves. You know how the writer of this psalm proceeds: “Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising,” he says. These are details, little particular actions, the unconsidered events of every day. But the writer does not stop with these details—he passes on to the survey of his life: “Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.”
You will remember that it was through details that Christ revealed the Samaritan woman to herself. She had been hiding her guilt from her own eyes by busying herself in the details of the day. And then came Jesus with His enlarged vision in which the days are all parts of the one life, and in the eyes of Christ she saw herself because she saw the details as a whole. “Come, see a man,” she went and cried, “who told me all things that ever I did.” Actually, it was an exaggeration, for Christ had not spoken to her very long. But when you get down to the spirit of the words, you never think of their exaggeration for they reveal the way that Jesus took in searching her and showing her to herself. He would not let her hide in the detail; He wanted her to have a vision of the whole. He wanted to show her what her life was like when looked at closely. And so this woman was searched and self-revealed through detail in its true perspective, and her conscience, which had long been slumbering, awoke.
I think that is often the way the Lord deals with you and me. We are all prone to be blinded by details so that we scarcely realize what we are doing. There are lines of behavior which we would never take, if we only realized all that they meant. There are habits and certain sins to which we would never yield if we only saw them in their vile completeness. But the present is so tyrannical and sweet and the action of the hour is so absorbing, that we cannot see the forest for the trees, nor see ahead the path that we are taking.
We often say when looking back upon our sufferings, “We wonder how we ever could have borne it.” One secret of our bearing it was that we only suffered one moment at a time. And in looking back upon our foolish past, we sometimes say, “How could we have ever done it!”; and one secret of our doing it was that we only acted one moment at a time. When a man is dimly conscious that he is wrong, he has a strange ability to forget yesterday. When a man is hurrying to fulfill his passion, he shuts his ears to the call of tomorrow. And the work of God is to revive that yesterday and tear the curtain from the sad tomorrow and show a man his action of today set in the general story of his life. Sometimes He does it through sickness; sometimes in a quiet hour such as this. Sometimes He does it in a mysterious way by the immediate working of the Holy Ghost. But when He does it, then we know ourselves and see things as they are, and we are ashamed. Only then we can cry with David, “O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me.”
Seeing Ourselves in Another’s Life
We may never know ourselves until we see ourselves divested of all the trappings of self-love. It was thus, you remember, that He dealt with David when David had sinned so terribly. For all the depth and the grandeur of his character, David was strangely blind to his own guilt. But then came Nathan with his touching story of the man who had been robbed of his ewe lamb, and all that was best in David was afire at the abhorrent action of that robber.
Has God ever shown you your own heart like that, in drawing the curtain from some other heart? That, you know, is your story, your temptation, your sin in all its strength and sweetness. But ah, how very different it looks now when there is no self-love to plead for it and shield it, when there is no hand to weave excuses for it such as we make so quickly for ourselves. You thought that in yourself it was romance; but in another you see it as being disgraceful. You thought that in you it might be easily understood, yet in another it appears despicable. So in the mirror of another life God shows us what we do and what we are, and, seeing it, what can we do but cry, “O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me.”
Someone may enter the circuit of our being, and the light they bring illuminates ourselves. We are all prone ordinarily to settle down into a dull routine. The vision of the highest fades away from us, and we go forward without any worthwhile ambition. Our feelings lose their freshness and zest, and we are no longer eager and strenuous as we once were. We become content with far lower levels of achievement now than would have contented us in earlier days. All this may come upon a man, and come so gradually, that he hardly notices all that he has lost. His spiritual life has grown so dull and dead that prayer is a mockery and joy is flown. Then we meet someone whom we have not seen for years, one who has wrestled heavenward against storm and tide—and in that moment we realize it all. Nothing is said to blame or rebuke us. The influence lies deeper than speech. Nothing is done to make us feel ashamed. We may be welcomed with the old warmth of friendship, but there is something in that nobler life suddenly brought into contact with our own that touches the conscience and shows us to ourselves and quickens us to a shame that is medicinal. It is often so when the friend is a human friend. It is always so when the friend is Jesus Christ. “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man”—the very coming of Christ searches and sifts. But the joy is that if He comes to search, He also comes in all His love to save; and He will never leave us nor forsake us, till the need of searching is gone forever.