Today’s Daily Office reading included two verses from a psalm that comprise an awesome prayer that I think Christians should be praying continually: “Test me, O Lord, and try me; examine my heart and my mind. For your mercy is before my eyes so I will walk in your truth” (Psalm 26:2-3). This prayer summarizes what it means to live with integrity and illustrates how utterly we need God to make that possible.
I actually may have cheated a little bit in my translation of verse 3. All the translations I’ve found say, “For your mercy is before my eyes, and I have walked in your truth.” In the Hebrew for verse 3, these two clauses are joined with the letter vav which often means “and” but can also mean “so.” The Hebrew word for “walk” is in a funky hithpael verb form so I can’t tell if it has to be “have walked” instead of “will walk.” But the meaning of the whole prayer completely changes if I’m telling God to test me and try me because I’m confident that I have walked in truth (i.e. that I’m flawless) or if I’m telling God to test me and try me (i.e. expose my flaws) as an act of trust that results in my walking in truth. Whatever the original psalmist had in mind, the Holy Spirit told me that the latter is the meaning of this prayer for me.
One uncomfortable reality that we have to face about the psalms as Christians is that some of them express the consciousness of people who did not think of themselves as sinners as their foundational reality. It’s not pious for a Christian to say, “Vindicate me, God, for I am blameless.” We would say that a person who says that is blinded by their spiritual pride, because nobody is blameless since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But saying that it’s bad to call yourself blameless is by no means intuitive to all people; it only makes sense when you’re a Christian who believes that Jesus died on the cross for your sins.
So when we read psalms like Psalm 26 that are packed with claims of blamelessness, we have to do a little bit of shuffling to make the psalm work as a prayer for us as Christians. So for example, if I pray Psalm 26:1, “Give judgment for me, O Lord, for I have lived with integrity; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered,” I’m reading it as an expression of my human frailty rather than a theologically authoritative true statement about my character. God, I really feel like I’ve been trusting in you and living with integrity, so please let things go my way just this once (even though I’m sure you could point out ways that I haven’t trusted in you without faltering).
See, here’s the paradox about integrity. I am only living with integrity if I never stop doubting my integrity. Integrity is a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance and self-doubt in which I am saying over and over again to God, “Test me, O Lord, and try me; examine my heart and my mind,” fully expecting God to find flaws that need tweaking. If I’m completely convinced that I’m right and blameless, then I’ve foreclosed the possibility of receiving God’s testing and correction. It’s a state of mind that is called epistemic closure, when your mind is completely closed off to the possibility of new ideas because you know that you’ve already got everything all figured out.
Many Christians unfortunately ask God to try them and test them because they know that they’re right, which is to say that they’re not really asking God to try them and test them. It’s a vain prayer unless I recognize that God’s testing and correction is the only means by which I can gain integrity. To have integrity requires confessing that I am helpless in my effort to be truthful without God’s testing and correction.
Verse 3 explains the reason we can feel safe asking God to try us and test us, because his mercy is before our eyes. Jesus’ cross puts God’s mercy always before our eyes; we have no excuse for not seeing it. God doesn’t want to hit us in the head with a two by four in order to correct us, though he has had to oblige me more than a few times when I wasn’t praying the integrity prayer. He wants for the testing and trying to take place in a completely safe, merciful environment of deep listening. He wants us to be soft clay in his hands, not brittle pottery that he has to shatter in order to reshape.
Many Christians don’t really get God’s mercy. I know that I prefer an unmerciful God when I want to give myself the right to hold other people’s flaws over their heads instead of being merciful to them. So in those moments, I would rather say bring it on, drill sergeant, God, I’ve walked in your truth; try to find something wrong with me because you won’t. But with that posture, I can have no integrity and I have closed my heart to the possibility of receiving God’s correction even if I tell God disingenuously to test me and try me. Whenever I’m convinced of my blamelessness, I am completely without integrity.
Integrity only happens when I’m able to confess, God, I don’t know what I’m doing and I never will perfectly, so I will trust in your mercy enough to invite your constant testing and correction and hope that by your grace, I can walk in your truth. So please pray for my integrity and for yours. I want to live in that messy cognitive dissonance forever, and somehow, as a result of my merciful potter’s hands, become a person who walks in God’s truth.