Sorry, Thank you, Please.

Psalm 131, Luke 18:9-17

21 May 2006

Woodley Baptist Church

Evening service


How do you find yourself approaching God? Do you bounce up to him like a Tigger? Or are you timid and fearful like a Piglet?

Are you overflowing with praise, or full of complaint? Do you have a sense of his presence or a shopping list of prayers? Do you come to him only when you feel great, or only when you are in a crisis?

Of course, the great miracle of Christianity is that he allows us to come at all! And there are many ways to approach God, appropriate for many different circumstances. But what I think we find in Psalm 131 is an example of a normal way to come to God; a model, perhaps, for our daily devotions.

As the title says, this Psalm belongs to the "Songs of Ascents": a sequence of fifteen Psalms that made up the hymnbook of pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem for the three great festivals each year.

It was written by King David, but presumably later adopted by the pilgrims since it was so appropriate for their journey. So we find here the song of people approaching God, and we can make it our song as well.

A humble heart

The first thing we need as we approach our God is a humble heart, as we see in verse 1. King David's heart is free of pride, and it is free of presumption.

We see the absence of pride in the first half of the verse. My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty;ref, or more literally, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high;ref.

A proud heart is a heart that thinks too much of itself. Haughty eyes are eyes that look down on other people.

David, king of Israel, had every reason to be proud: he was a brilliant soldier, an accomplished musician, a published poet. He had defeated Goliath and saved God's people. He had been chosen by God through the prophet Samuel to lead the people. Yet David knows he owes it all to God. It was pride that had been the downfall of his predecessor, Saul, and David wasn't going to make the same mistake. He comes to God with a humble heart and downcast eyes.

And this should be our starting point as we come to God as well: a humble heart and downcast eyes.

But it doesn't come naturally, does it? Which of us here doesn't think more highly of themselves than God does? Which of us doesn't secretly believe that they are actually doing God a bit of a favour coming to him at all? Which of us doesn't reckon in their heart that God is better off with them than the person sitting next to them.

How dare we approach God with hearts like this! But this, and worse, is the pride that has its roots so deeply within us.

But pride is not our only problem. In the second half of verse 1 we find a related attitude that is equally out of place: presumption. As David comes to God he is not presumptuous. He says, I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.ref

How exactly should we emulate King David in not concerning himself with great matters or things too wonderful for him?

Well, I don't think it means that a Christian shouldn't study astrophysics or quantum field theory. I don't think it means that a Christian shouldn't take on political power, or senior management positions in business. I don't think it means that we should not strive to understand hard Bible truths like predestination and the Trinity.

But what I do think it means is that David is not trying to do God's job for him. That would be presumption. Let me explain. When it says that he does not "concern" himself with great matters and things too wonderful for him, literally it means he does not "walk" in them. He does not make his business that which is God's alone.

The same two Hebrew words meaning "great things" and "wonderful things" are used in Psalm 86 verse 10 where it says For you are great and do marvellous deeds; you alone are God.ref. Some stuff is God's business alone. We can try and understand it, but we are not to presume we understand it better than God.

We all think we could run the country better than the government, don't we? And perhaps we could. But sometimes we go further and start believing we can run the universe better than God. We think we know better than he does. We're keen to tell God what to do: to judge him and to criticise him.

We see this when we are angry with God; or disappointed with him. We see it when we question his actions; or blame him for things that appear to go wrong. We feel he could be doing a better job—that we could do a better job than him. How dare he allow the Tsunami! I could never believe in a God who sends people to hell! What right has he to let my friend die?

Good questions, but to make them the basis of our approach to God is presumption. He is God, and at no obligation to explain himself to us. We probably couldn't understand him if he did. When we come to him we must do so knowing our place.

My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.ref

What is the antidote to pride and presumption? It has got to be confession, hasn't it? When our approach to God begins by laying out our sins and failures and hopelessness before him, our hearts cannot be anything but humble, can they?

Remember the Pharisee and the Tax Collector we read about. The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before Godref.

This is the first step in our approach to God: a humble heart.

A stilled soul

Next we need a stilled soul.

We saw in the reading from Luke that Jesus said I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter itref. That's all very well, but if you came round to my house while my kids are having a screaming tantrum or pulling each other's hair out you'd have to wonder exactly what Jesus meant by this.

Well, here in this Psalm we find an insight into what sort of child-likeness we need to cultivate. Verse 2, I have stilled and quietened my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.ref

As David approaches God he makes his soul still, he makes his soul quiet. he is like a child, but not an infant. He is like a weaned child: that is, a child who has moved on from milk to being satisfied with solid food. This child can cuddle up to his mother without fretfulness; without yelling and crying.

We love to think of babies as cute and cuddly and lovely, don't we? But the real truth is that there is nothing in this world so selfish as a little baby. I've lived with two of them, but I don't think it's just ours. A baby yells whenever it wants something: milk, nappy, burp, cuddle—that about covers it. It doesn't care if it is the middle of the night. It doesn't care if it's a convenient moment. It thinks only about itself and its needs. It couldn't care less about yours.

When the baby grows up a little things get a bit quieter. When a child moves on to solid food—something more satisfying—things become calmer. Slowly the child learns that the universe doesn't revolve around him or her alone and a more mature contentedness develops.

This is the picture that David gives us here. As he approaches God, he does not do so like a needy child yelling for milk, for whom the only thing that matters is having his needs met. No, he has stilled and quietened his soul. He's fed himself on the solid food of God. He comes to God not demanding, but dependent.

Compare this with what the Apostle Paul says in Philippians, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.ref

When we are immature as Christians we make demands of God. We are angry with him if he does not give us what we want. We complain at him if we don't think things are going our way. When someone upsets us we whinge to God about it. We come to him full of anxieties and troubles and demand he sorts them out. In short, the world still revolves around us, and we expect God to cater for our every desire. God serves us as a kind of cosmic comfort dispenser.

As we grow in maturity as Christians we begin to learn that it's not about us. As we feed on the solid food of God's word, we grow to trust him; we learn to be dependent but not demanding. And this is how we cultivate a calm and quiet soul.

Notice that it is not that David just happens to be calm by nature, but he has taken positive action to still and quiet his soul. He has consciously taken the focus off himself, and placed his trust in God. How are we to do the same? As we approach God, how can we bring peace to our anxieties, and stillness to our strivings?

It's very common among religions to advocate meditation as the key to stillness and quietness of soul. I wouldn't necessarily disagree, but the crucial thing is, what do we meditate on?

In other places in the Psalms we read things like these: I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deedsref; and May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lordref; and On the glorious splendour of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. [ESV]ref

This is the Christian discipline of thanksgiving, isn't it? We still and quiet our hearts by taking the focus off ourselves and making God and his works our complete focus.

Thanksgiving is a discipline because it doesn't come naturally to us, does it? Like confession of our sins we need to do it consciously and carefully. We need to think through and meditate on the things we have to thank God for. It should be a daily habit and a daily part of our prayer life as we seek to come to God.

I mentioned a moment ago where the Apostle Paul says he has found the secret of being content in all circumstances. Well, here is the secret: the discipline of thankfulness. Just a couple of sentences before that he writes these well known verses. Notice the place of thankfulness. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.ref

The key to stillness and quietness of soul is developing an attitude of gratitude. It takes our focus off ourselves and our needs, and puts it on God where it belongs. In my view, the discipline of thankfulness is the absolute key to Christian maturity; moving from screaming infant to stilled and quieted child. If you want to grow up in the faith, make thanksgiving an essential part of your prayers.

A confident hope

The third verse of our Psalm gives us a confident hope. It seems a bit out of place, doesn't it? In verses one and two we have David approaching God and speaking to him—we have a peek into the private devotions of the King of Israel. Then, abruptly, in verse three he turns round and "addresses the audience" , as it were: O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and for evermore.ref

It's possible that this verse is a later addition, added to the Psalm by an editor when it began to be used for congregational worship—a kind of liturgical flourish. But I think it is something more than that. I think that this is advice from David himself. He tells them to hope in God, and the ground of their hope in God is that their king is right with God.

You see, in Israel the king was a kind of representative for the people. He wasn't a priest, but he did represent the people to God. God dealt with his people through the king; the decisions the king made affected the fortunes of the whole nation. If they were godly decisions, the people prospered; if they were godless decisions the people perished. We see this pattern time and time again in the Old Testament as king after king appeared, and the verdict is given: either he did what was right in the eyes of the Lordref, or far more commonly, he did evil in the eyes of the Lordref.

So, when David here says Israel, put your hope in the Lordref, he is assuring them that they have solid grounds for hope in God. He is saying: "I, your King, am right with God" —that's what verses one and two tell us— "therefore you have grounds for confidence in God yourselves" .

Are you hopeful that England will win the World Cup? Would you be more hopeful if Wayne Rooney were to announce tomorrow, "actually, my foot is fine. Look at the X-rays, there's no problem at all. I'm training fully and I'm well up for it" ? The confidence of the nation would soar wouldn't it? And perhaps we'd have some grounds for our confident hope if it were true.

In our Psalm, the king is right with God, therefore the nation can hope in God. What gives you grounds for confidence in God? What makes you certain that he will hear your prayers and answer them? How do you know that your life is safe with God forever?

If it were up to us it would be wishful thinking, wouldn't it? If my hope in God relies on how good I've been then I can never have confidence, can I? If our hope in God rests on our own efforts, or strength of belief, then we might as well join Noel Edmonds and take up the "Cosmic Ordering Service". Have you heard about that? It's where you write down your wishes and put them under your pillow as an "order" to the Cosmos, which then gives you what you asked for. If it's up to us then we might as well just read our horoscopes and hope for the best.

But, of course, that's not how it is at all. Christian hope is founded on something much more solid than wishful thinking. And much more solid than our strength of belief.

Israel could hope in God because their king was right with God. We have hope in God because our king is right with God. If Jesus is our king, then we have grounds for genuine confidence as we approach him. Jesus humbled himself before his Father for our sake. He died for us; he rose from the dead for us; and he ascended to be with God for us. Our King is at the Father's right hand. Our hope is the exact opposite of wishful thinking: it is based on what is solid and true and reliable and permanent.

How are we to live in the light of this hope? Well it gives us great confidence in our prayers, doesn't it? We can place our requests before God knowing that he will hear them, and that he will always act in our best interests.

Whether God hears and answers our prayers doesn't depend on us, it depends on our king, and our king is in his presence interceding for us constantly. Doesn't that give you confidence to pray boldly to him? Doesn't that give you enough hope to ask him for the desires of your heart?


So here we have in this beautiful little Psalm a model of an approach to God: a humble heart, a stilled soul and a confident hope. And I think that this is perhaps a useful model for us to adopt in our daily approach to God in our prayers.

It can be summed up with a very simple structure that some of you will be familiar with: sorry, thank you and please.

Following this Psalm: we start with "sorry" because it keeps us humble. We begin with confession to rid ourselves of pride and presumption, to find our right place before Almighty God.

We continue with "thank you" because it keeps us peaceful. To give thanks to God is to be lifted from our anxieties and our self-centredness. Thanksgiving restores our focus on God and stills and quiets our souls.

We finish with "please" because it reflects our hope and confidence. If Jesus is our king then we can trust in God for ever. If Jesus is our King we can be bold to ask for our hearts' desires.

Sorry, thank you and please. It's a lovely simple model for our prayers, isn't it? From personal experience I can confirm that a four-year-old can grasp it. But it is not simplistic. Inasmuch as it reflects the structure of this Psalm it is a formula that has been used for many, many centuries.

If you are finding your approach to God unsatisfactory in some way, then perhaps you would like to try out this model in the week ahead. Say sorry to God: spend some time deliberately and specifically confessing your sins before him. Say thank you: not just for the things that immediately come to mind, but for all that God has done for you. If you get stuck, have a good read of Ephesians chapter one.

Finally, and only then, say please. Lay out your burdens before him, confidently knowing that he hears and answers our prayers.

Learning to approach God well takes perseverance and discipline. Spurgeon said of this Psalm that "it is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn." But it's worth the effort, isn't it?