Is Oprah Right on Psalm 37:4?
Last fall Oprah appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and they exchanged favorite Bible verses. Oprah chose Psalm 37:4, prompting podcast listener Gavin Thomson to write us: “Hello Pastor John, I am a long time listener and I have read many of your books including Desiring God. I know well that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. I wanted to ask you about this interview in October, where Oprah talks about Psalm 37:4 and delighting in God. I know her interpretation is not biblical, but I was hoping you could teach us the true meaning of the verse. When we delight in the Lord what does that really mean in Christian Hedonism?”
I went and listened to the segment where she spoke on this. And whenever I listen to Oprah, which isn’t very often, I come away amazed at how gifted she is. And I wish she would recover more of her gospel roots and find her way back to the particularities of the Christian faith rather than distancing herself from them in order to pull all the religions into the same orbit, which is what it seems to me she is regularly trying to do.
Stephen Colbert asked her if she had a favorite Bible verse and she said: Yes, Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” So to get at the meaning, let me describe four differences between the way Oprah handled the verse and the way I handle the verse.
1) The first thing she did was to move from the specific person of Yahweh. You know whenever you see the all caps LORD in the English version that means it is a reference to the particular personal name of the God of Israel, not to a generic name of God. And that is what is here. Delight yourself in Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God and Father of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who descended to the world to die for sinners and rise again and establish an eternal kingdom. That is the God that is being known and delighted in here.
“When we enjoy God himself, the desires of our heart are shaped in accord with our delight in him.”
But what Oprah does is to say that — here is a direct quote: “Lord has a wide range: compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the Lord is revealed.” So she is moving from specificity in a person to generic character traits that everybody can be happy about. Now my approach is to move in exactly the opposite direction when I read that verse or anywhere else in the Bible. I think the emphasis here falls not on aspects of virtue or character, but on the person of the Lord himself.
So my mind is always moving from the things we know about God toward the person of God himself. So I am always thinking that when God reveals a particular thing about himself, he is helping me know him. That is the point of saying things about himself or doing particular things in the world. He is helping me know him, the true God, a person, so that my delight can be in him and not in anything abstracted from him that could somehow be united, then, to another religion. So on this first point our minds, Oprah’s mind and my mind, are moving in two opposite directions as we read the text. That is the first difference.
2) The second difference, and it is the reason why the first one really matters, is because of what she does with her direction in this text. She says that the point of the text is the principle: “If you focus on being a force for good, then good will come.” Then she generalizes by saying this. This is her real agenda. She says, “That is the same as 1) the third law of motion, 2) karma, 3) the golden rule.”
So you can see what moving away from the specificities of the name of the God of Israel to generalizations about compassion, love, forgiveness, and kindness leads to. It enables her to say, What this text is really saying is really the same thing you find in high level physics, eastern religions, teachings of Jesus. So by moving away from the specificity of Yahweh, she is able to move toward the unification of all religions and all science as having the same basic message.
And, of course, that is the opposite of what I think the psalms are doing. I think the psalmist is intensifying the specificity of the unique name of God, namely Yahweh, and seeking to capture our affections, our delight for a very personal relationship to a specifically personal deity whose character is revealed in the way he works in history and in Jesus Christ. That is the second difference.
3) The third difference is that Oprah does not connect this verse with Jesus Christ at all except as Jesus lines up with the principles of physics and the eastern religions. And I would relate this to Jesus in another way. I think delighting yourself in the Lord is another way of saying: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,” Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:37. And then I would point out that Jesus taught that no one can truly love the Lord God, no one can truly delight in the Lord God of Israel, who does not receive Jesus himself as the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world, sent into the world by Yahweh.
“Receiving Jesus is the litmus test of whether anyone’s claim to love God or delight in God is authentic.”
And the reason I say that is because Jesus says this. He says to the Jewish leaders, “I know that you do not have the love of God within you” (John 5:42). Now how do I know that? Next verse: “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me” (John 5:43). So if you don’t receive Jesus, you don’t love God. That is what he is saying.
So receiving Jesus is, as he is presented, especially there in the Gospel of John and throughout that whole Gospel and the New Testament, receiving Jesus is the litmus test of whether anyone’s claim to love God or delight in God is authentic, which means that Oprah’s effort to make this text serve the unification of religions is the opposite of its biblical intent.
4) And here is the last difference between her way of going at this text and my way of going at this text. Her way of handling the relationship between the two halves of the verse is to simply say it is cause-effect. If you delight, then you get your desires. Or if you devote yourself to good, then you get good.
Now I think the relationship is, yes, cause-effect, but more than cause-effect. I think delighting yourself in the Lord is what shapes the desires of your heart so that it will be good for you for God to grant them. In other words, there are a lot of desires in our hearts that are impure and unwise, and this is not a promise that, if you delight in God, then you get all those evil desires in your heart. And the best way to bring the desires of our hearts into conformity with God is to put all of our energy and all of our effort into enjoying God himself. When we enjoy God, not just his gifts, but God himself, then the desires of our heart are shaped, are defined and created, in accord with our delight in him.
When God gives us our desires, he will not be contradicting his own supreme value in our lives as our supreme delight. It is very similar to what Jesus said in John 15:7. He said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” So there is this condition of words abiding in you, presumably because when words of Jesus really abide and take root as our passion and our satisfaction, that shapes what we pray for so that the answers come more surely, more regularly.
The reason those who delight themselves in the Lord receive the desires of their heart is not just because of one causes the other, but because one shapes the other. Delighting in God supremely determines, shapes the kinds of desires that we have in our heart.
So I think the root of the matter is that Oprah, in general, leans away from the specific, particular, distinct dimensions of biblical reality and leans toward abstractions from those specific realities so that she can pursue her goal of finding unity among the religions and the sciences of the world. I think that is the opposite of what the Bible was written to do and I think it is the opposite of why Jesus came in to the world.
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