Lips curled above the fangs and a low growl warned of the nasty mood and jealous protection over Candy’s bowl of food. Short and fat but solid as an anvil, the old beagle-hound mixed breed dog spent mere seconds before lunging out to literally bite the hand that fed her. She was my neighbor’s dog and I had been given the job of feeding her. Apparently, I stood too close after putting the food in the bowl and she was letting me know where I stood with her. It didn’t matter who I was or how I was working for her benefit, I stood between her and what she wanted and thought was hers, so she bit me.
It wasn’t the fang-baring that caused a reaction in me, it was the bite. Teeth puncturing my skin. The betrayal of my best intentions toward her. It hurt not only my broken, bleeding skin, it hurt my best feelings toward her. I don’t remember ever going near her again because I’d learned something of her character: she was an old dog with a short temper and a very short memory of who I was.
Shin is a prayer to God concerning betrayal from the closest kind. The psalmist turns to God and cries out the pain of having been bitten by one who should have known better–a shepherd-pastor, a teacher, an official in the position of protecting from injustice. We are people who can take threats into account in quiet consideration, but once we are bitten we cry out. It isn’t just the pain of being bitten, it is the heart-cry of betrayal. If one we trusted has bitten us, who then is left to be trusted? It is at this crisis point, this intersection between faith and distrust, that my faith can be shaken. What I do at this point determines the quality of my faith.
The Poison of Impulsiveness. What did I do when I was bitten by Candy? I withdrew myself from physical proximity. That is only natural to avoid a second incident. I needed to figure out what had just happened. I of course uttered a loud “Ouch!” and nursed my bleeding hand. I resolved to not go near that dog again. Maybe others would have reached out with a stick or hurled an object or administered a swift kick to retaliate. Maybe some would have yelled and tried to frighten Candy. It seems there are basically two options that we humans usually swing to: withdrawal or attack. Of course, those aren’t the only two options, but they are the extremes and we drift somewhere along the spectrum. We react and often impulsively. We lose our bearings, our long-term discernment, in order to respond in the moment to sudden and invasive attack.
God offers steady discernment. The psalmist in 119 has a center to fall back on, a standard that is true no matter the circumstance. That center is the Word of God. In the Old Testament, that word was literally the commandments of God given first as a covenant and commandment to Adam, confirmed in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and clarified in the commandments given to Moses. In the New Testament, the Word became “flesh” (incarnate) in the person of Jesus Christ. All that God has promised or required of us was illustrated, clarified, and modeled for us in Christ. He is the Word Alive! The psalmist’s reaction, or at least his learned suggestion to us from previous experience, is to steady ourselves on the promises, the wisdom, and the requirements of the Word of God. He knew that our own reactions (to fight back or self-protect) can shake us down to the same level as our betrayers.
No fear in love. After reading many missionary biographies, and especially those testimonies of those who have suffered unjustly for the cause of Christ, I am humbled by the witness of these who quelled their reactions in order to magnify the overwhelming love of Christ. Christ’s higher example placed the salvation of his betrayers over the pain and sacrifice of his own martyrdom. He loves that much. Can we love any less?
At just such a time as our personal suffering and especially unjust suffering, we have a choice: what do I want the yield from this incident to be? What outcome is most important? The stability of the word of God allows us the freedom to think beyond our personal affront and to think long-term about the benefit such suffering can have. We all want to know our suffering has meaning. Our suffering can have meaning. My injustice and suffering can be the catalyst for good in me and for others, or it can destroy me and others through bitterness, fear, hatred and rage and murderous intent.
In permanent withdrawal or counterattack, the goal is the same: to punish. But there is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). We can press forward into the wind of opposition and achieve the impossible by setting impulsive, defensive feelings aside and acting out of love. Such love is not weak, but strong. No one is forcing us to lay down our impulses, we bring them under Christ’s lordship and control for good and not for evil. We can love because all fear of our own punishment before God is gone, washed away by the shed blood of Christ for our sins. Fearless, we can then love others, even our enemies.
Daily Opportunities. Have I suffered to the point of Corrie ten Boom who lost her family and watched her sister die in the German Ravensbruck concentration camp? No, the only affronts I have suffered have been against my sense of self-righteousness, my comfort, or my security in this world.
Nonetheless, I know what it is to be betrayed and attacked without cause. I have felt the burden, as most people have, of feeling wounded to the core, displaced, lost and unable to trust again. I have even experienced doubt in God when things didn’t turn out as I thought they would after doing all I could to follow hard after the Lord. That was my mistake, of course, and the Lord corrected my misguided expectations lovingly with good results.
The lesson learned and modeled in Shin is valuable. Perhaps I shall need it more in the future when in my own country I am denied the very freedom of publically worshipping or praising my Lord such as those Christians in Eritrea, India, Turkey, China, N. Korea.
I shall, however, need it every day in those little moments of challenge within my own household or at my place of work when I am tempted to impulsively retreat to the defensive and utter sharp words that say: “Back off!” instead of “Come in!” I will need it when, after temporarily withdrawing to re-assess (not an unwise action), I reconnect in love and kind self-forgetfulness….regardless of any change in the other party.
We love simply because Christ loved us and sent His Son to remove all fear from our hearts. We don’t need to self-protect; He is our protection. We don’t have to hate all dogs simply because of having been bitten by one. We just keep loving.
The Power of God. The final point that the psalmist makes is that we can’t do this without the power of God in us, alive and active in clean vessels. He doesn’t try to achieve heroics of self-denial on his own; it is utterly impossible. All such self-effort distorts and perverts to the same level of intrigue in the end (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Only Christ’s pure love in us will keep us from such perversion of soul and motive (Proverbs 3:5-6). So we lay it out before Him and ask Him to love through us.
Father in heaven, you see my soul and the many affronts, big and small, that I face in a single day. Mostly I am unclean. I can’t claim to be perfectly righteous. There are always areas that I may have inadvertently precipitated the problems. I ask you to reveal to me my sin and help me to own up to it honestly and frankly without fear of recourse or shame; help me to see confession as a noble act and follow your own leadership example of self-forgetfulness. But there are times, Lord, and you know them, when I am unjustly accused or betrayed. Take my heart, Father, and heal the wound. Give me a higher perspective than my own limited understanding. Help me see the needs of others even in this and help me to stand, not weakly, but in your strength to love and to rise above in all gentleness, for you are very near (Phil 4:6). Help me to be brave where I am so very tired. Make this an opportunity to share your incredible love and forgiveness. Thank you for the sure truth of your Word. In the name of Jesus, our Word of Truth, so let it be.