We live in an age of expressive individualism, well documented by Carl Trueman in his excellent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Expressive individualism wears many faces, but can be defined by the slogan, “You do you!” The highest goal of any person is to interrogate themselves and then seek the highest level of self-actualization. Everything is turned inward. Using the late sociologist Philip Rieff’s categories, he says, “In the world of psychological man, however, the commitment is first and foremost to the self and is inwardly directed. Thus, the order is reversed. Outward institutions become in effect the servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being.”
This inward focus is the spirit of our age. It is the air most people breathe. But we are called, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, to not be conformed to this spirit. We are called outward. Just as our Trinitarian God moves outward towards us in love, sending His Son, and pouring out His Spirit on us, we are to imitate Him.
Psalm 122 speaks directly against the spirit of the age, this spirit of expressive individualism. It directs us outward and upward, beckoning us to love others and not ourselves primarily.
I’m going to quote from The Message translation of Psalm 122. I read the authorized biography of Eugene Peterson called A Burning in My Bones by Winn Collier, and just recorded a podcast episode talking to a friend about Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I was so struck by the deeply thoughtful manner of this man’s prayer life that I’ve decided to take the month of August to pray through the book of Psalms, using The Message translation. Maybe I’ll write about how that goes when I’m done. I have not been a fan of The Message translation in the past, but learned through reading his biography that Mr. Peterson was a straight A student in Greek and Hebrew and memorized large sections of the Psalter in Hebrew.
For now, let’s look at how Psalm 122 pushes back against the expressive individualism of our day. It reads this way:
When they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of God,’ my heart leaped for joy. And now we’re here, oh Jerusalem, inside Jerusalem’s walls!
Jerusalem, well-built city, built as a place for worship!
The city to which the tribes ascend, all God’s tribes go up to worship,
To give thanks to the name of God – this is what it means to be Israel.
Thrones for righteous judgment are set there, famous David-thrones.
Pray for Jerusalem’s peace! Prosperity to all you Jerusalem-lovers!
Friendly insiders, get along! Hostile outsiders, keep your distance!
For the sake of my family and friends, I say it again: live in peace! For the sake of the house of our God, God, I’ll do my very best for you.
This is one of the Psalms of Ascent, which traditionally is thought to have been used as pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to worship. The tribes of Israel were all commanded to go to Jerusalem, to the temple, to celebrate their feast days. They were not supposed to set up their own altars or their own temples for worship. They were to make corporate pilgrimage. So imagine this pilgrim, weary from days or weeks of travel, eagerly anticipating the moment when he sees the walls of the city. Notice his affections. His heart leaps for joy. His affections and his prayers are all directed outward and upward toward the place where God has promised to dwell, the place where he calls his worshipers to go. There are more than 10 references to Jerusalem in this psalm, if you count words like ‘city’ and ‘house of God’ and ‘there’. Pretty much every verse is referring to Jerusalem. The psalmist identifies himself with the nation of Israel and longs to protect the peace of Jerusalem. He calls his fellow Israelites to pray the same way.
While we aren’t required to keep these feasts anymore and we can gather with various bodies of believers in any number of churches, notice the stark contrast between the psalmist here and how we treat the concept of ‘church’ today. When many of us go to church today, and some still haven’t gone back since Covid, we are focused on ourselves. What can the sermon or music give me? We need a boost on Sunday so we go to receive our weekly pep talk. Or we go to experience inspirational music. We may go to church for our children, seeking activities and inspiration for them. Most of our reasons for going to church are inward and self-focused. We don’t identify with the Bride of Christ so much as with ourselves and our felt needs. We want the Church to reflect us, not the other way around. Our prayer life is mostly taken up with ourselves and our safety, our health and our wealth, not the Church. I capitalize the word Church here because it’s appropriate. I’m not speaking of a building with an address. I’m speaking of the blood bought Bride of Christ. The Body of Christ. Do we love her? Are we zealous for her peace? Do we pray for her health? Are our hearts stirred every weekend in anticipation of meeting with the people of God, to bear their burdens, and to be fed along with them from the Word of God?
I remember a specific time in my life when I realized I didn’t really love the Church as I ought. I was spending some time alone in prayer in the sanctuary of my church and God convicted me of my selfishness, of the narrowness of my affections. I wasn’t really praying for my pastor. I wasn’t very concerned about the health of my church. Since then, I have sought to be more aware of how this culture’s incessant focus on the self seeks to distract me from the kind of outward, sacrificial love Christ has called us to. The kind of love He, together with the Father and the Spirit, continually pour out on us.