Search me, O God

Photo: Markus Winkler, Unsplash.

We have a little problem with our washing machine. Just about every day, waterlogged clothes get centrifuged to one side and the whole thing starts banging like a goblin war drum. We don’t know what’s going on inside and what can be done about it until the machine slowly spins down. Then we can pop the top and take a look. (Sweatshirt again.)

I’ve been praying Psalm 139:23 — “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” I’m learning the art of slowing down and being seen by God. What’s inside?

David begins this psalm by naming that, in one way, the Lord has already searched and known him. In fact, God knows everything, the in and out, top to bottom, past, present and future weave of human life. 

“You discern my thoughts from far away,” and “even the darkness is not dark to you” and “you are acquainted with all my ways.”  

God’s presence is everywhere: “Where can I go from your spirit?” 

God’s knowledge encompasses all things: “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” 

God knows everything, including everything about us. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” 

So far, so omniscient. 

But this psalm winds up at a different place with a very different kind of knowing. 

After a jag through three furious verses — the part we never read in church (verses 19-22, “O that you would kill the wicked, O God . . .”)
— David prays: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.” 

It jars you. The psalm can feel like a bag of assorted emotions that may or may not fit together.  

Yet the Psalms have an intelligible flow. We need to take seriously divine inspiration and poetic design when we read Psalm 139. 

King David’s song-prayer is to the God Who Sees (Genesis 16:13). It’s a cry for God to see this, here, now. Lord, you can see everything, so see the injustice and evil that people are committing! And then: Lord, see me.

Psalm 139 begins with a declaration of God’s omniscience but resolves in prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” 

It’s a bold prayer, especially in light of David’s plea that God see and respond to evil in the world. The God who sees will gaze right through our heart’s excuses and little yes-buts, through the crinkled gauze of whatever we think we are. 

Maybe it’s exonerate me, like Job of old (see Job 31). 

Or maybe David is praying a prayer deeper still. Maybe David is calling for God to truly see him, even if what God sees is gnarly.

Like King David, I long to be seen and known by God. To be seen is to be recognized. To be recognized is to be given status and stature. 

I think we all carry this desire within us, however secretly. No doubt this is why Paul describes eternal life in terms of seeing “face to face.” 

“Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). 

Contemplating God in his glory forever is what the ancient church called the “beatific vision” and understood to be the essence of heaven.

So, too, it is only insofar as God searches and knows me that I can know myself. I often don’t understand my own spinning heart — what’s going on and what can be done about it. I need to slow down and let God pop the top and take a look. 

I need Jesus’ truth to set me free from all the pale dissemblings I hum to myself, the little things I stash under the lid because I don’t want to deal with their uncomfortable thump.

Openness to God’s searching and knowing is one of the gifts of silence, if you can receive it. Sit alone and quietly for long enough, and we begin to see some things from a God’s-eye view. We notice the frayed tangle of our motives and the heart’s deviousness (see Jeremiah 17:9). 

Silence has a loudness all its own, which is why so few choose it. 

I used to think the best decisions were made quickly and decisively. Shoot from the hip every time. I’ve grown suspicious of choices I made that way. As gray creeps into my beard, I’ve learned to befriend silence and become more comfortable with slow thinking. 

Whether I’m more self-aware is another question. I’m still praying. Search me and know me, O Lord.  

Brad Roth

Brad Roth is lead pastor of Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston, Kan., and the author of The Hunger Inside: How Read More

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!