by Isaac Banegas
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”
4 For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
10 The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?
12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
13 Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.
16 Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!
"Where’s Tom Petty from?" I recently heard this question asked by a comedian in a segment of his routine wherein he discussed the irony of the Internet. He tells the story of lying in bed late one morning and asking the innocuous question to his iPhone. He argues the space between knowing and not knowing is made so small by our devices that we lose the ability to delay gratification and wonder at the answer. Consequently, the ordinary is stripped of wonder. Any overarching significance that a famous person was born in a particular geographical place offers no mediated relationship of meaning to the one who questions. So then the immediate discovery is empty. The result of the extraordinary power to access endless amounts of information is boredom. A boredom haunted by a quest for meaning.
If you do not know where Tom Petty is from then, you feel a deficit within your being. Even now, dear reader, you may feel the impulse to Google the blond rock star or consult Siri on the matter. This condition, brought on by torrents of information and hamster wheels of accessibility, is the white noise, the static screen of our lives. It flies under the radar. Its symptoms are nagging boredom and anxious, harried toil. My hope is to give a name to this static and list some of its characteristics.
This condition of tired boredom brought on by meaningless toil has been called different names by philosophers and theologians through the ages. Diagnosed as one of the seven deadly sins it goes by the name sloth or acedia.
Philosophers have preferred the title malaise. Let’s go with tradition on this one and call it acedia. In monastic tradition acedia is often referred to as the noonday devil. The time of day after midday meal and prayer, when no amount of discipline or solitude could focus one’s attention on meditation or prayer. They often found themselves falling asleep to the boredom. Something similar kicks many of us in the gut when we are trying to rest but are burdened by tasks left undone, obligations to stay in touch, or simply wanting to know where Tom Petty is from. The potential to act on so many different thoughts that fly into our mind has us distracted and anxious and, at the same time, bored and tired.
Acedia is that sense of being overwhelmed by incoming texts and calls. Its inbox is at 100. It’s the guilty nudge towards social media when you’re trying to read for school. It’s the nagging sense that you forgot to complete a task at work that was required of you, while you should be resting on the weekend. It’s also the hamster-wheel of trying to be more present and toiling for more self-control. It’s sharpening productivity habits to be more effective. The purposeless toil of acedia is an ulcer. Furthermore, our attempts to cure ourselves of the ulcer is like printing and binding all the best results on ulcers from WebMD and rubbing our belly with it, hoping the pain stops. What we need is a physician.
So what can be done? We have to work to eat. And how are we to rest on so much work to do?
The delayed punch line of the joke about Tom Petty comes in the form of a story. The comedian explains: before the time of pocket-know-it-alls, you would walk around with a deficit of knowledge but full of wonder asking people if they happen to know where Petty hails from. And most people wouldn’t know, but you keep on trying, until one day you see a girl wearing a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers T-shirt, and you ask her where Tom Petty is from, and she tells you, “Florida.” And that’s the story of how you met your wife. The journey of learning how to work and rest well and not be bored, anxious, and cynical leads to a person.
Psalm 90 diagnoses our acedia ulcer and introduces us to a doctor who's wearing a "Heartbreakers" T-shirt. The psalm asks the question, "Who considers the power of Your anger, according to the fear of You?" This question leads us to a person.
What is being asked is the hinge of the whole psalm. Within this psalm, we find a diagnosis of acedia. God’s power is illustrated by the psalmist's confession that God is Creator and Lord over the cosmos including all life on earth. Knowing Him in His anger makes work a toil, life but a breath, and the life of man like dust. If work is not done for the sake of God’s Kingdom and in honor and admonition of His reign, the labor and toil of life go just the way it is illustrated in the psalm. Therefore, God must establish the work of our hands. Because Jesus finished His work and now lives and reigns with God the Father, our work can bring meaning, and we can rest knowing the greatest labor has been done. We have been made heirs of the promise that Jesus has done everything for us.
God returned to His rebellious creation through His Son, so that we might not know Him by His anger, but by His love. Jesus is the one who considers God’s anger and fears His Father over men, which led to His death. Yet in His very death, His Father’s anger was appeased, so He declared the Son righteous in death. If we participate in that same kind of fear of the Lord and serve Jesus as our King, God will indeed, “establish the work of our hands."