Life is all about progression.
It’s about moving forward in a chosen direction.
The book of psalms in the Bible – the 150 psalms which functioned as the hymn book of the people of God – opens with a stark presentation of how that life progression works.
We are shown a description of the person who is blessed by God, but it is presented negatively; we are told that those who are blessed by God are those who do not…
It is as if we are being told, ‘Look, God’s desire for you is that you should be blessed, and that will always happen unless…’
Blessing us is God’s default position, but we can place ourselves outside of it through disobedience.
Of course, this is not an arithmetic process – it is not the case that those who do good are always blessed.
We only have to look at the life of Jesus to see that; or to read the book of Job in the Old Testament.
In this life it is often the case that bad stuff happens to good people.
Yet, these instances are ‘unnatural’.
There is still an underlying truth that, in the way God deals with human beings, blessing often follows obedience.
So what does the psalm teach us?
We are shown that which sets us on a downward path, which takes us outside of the orbit of God’s desire to bless us.
‘Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,’
(Psalm 1:1, NIVUK)
We are shown that going wrong is a process, a downward progression.
Firstly, we start to ‘walk in step with the wicked’ – we allow ourselves to fall into the company of those who reject God – we listen to them and we follow their advice.
Notice how casual an unintended this can be. Just walking along and, almost by chance, we find ourselves in lock-step with someone else. This leads to a conversation and before we know it, we have become connected.
How might this play out in our lives today?
We listen to the cultural influencers and leaders who reject God and we start to pay attention to them more than we do to God. We watch the movies, read the books, consume the social media that present and promote ways of thinking and living that are opposed to God and godliness.
All of these things gradually bring to bear an influence upon our values, thoughts and actions. Bit by bit we become less and less godly.
Secondly, we ‘stand in the way of sinners’. Here we have moved on from a casual ‘bumping into’ someone. Here we start to associate with, to seek out the company of, those who lives and actions are clearly opposed to God. We keep company with those whose values are not God’s.
In our contemporary context it is about going to the places where godly conduct is not only not practised but flouted. Values of holiness and purity turned on their head. Ethics and standards of behaviour ostentatiously broken.
Finally, we ‘sit in the seat of mockers’ – we firmly take sides with those who ridicule righteousness, who despise God and who see God’s people as their enemy. It is at this stage that our ‘conversion’ is complete. We have sided with the opposition. We have taken our place with those who set themselves against God and against good.
Although the end is dramatic, the process that leads us there needn’t be so.
As we saw above, the first step is accidental, unconscious even.
The rest of the process can be lived as a gentle, downwards slide.
Bit by bit, choice by choice, step by step we gradually distance ourselves further and further from God.
But although the process can be largely unconscious it is not without momentum.
We gather speed as we go.
And the further and faster we go, the harder and harder it becomes to stop and turn around.
We can find ourselves trapped in a vortex from which it feels like we cannot escape.
So, if stopping is so hard, the wisest course of action is not to start in the first place.
So how might we prevent ourselves from going astray, from starting on that downward spiral?
Helpfully, the psalm shows us how this progression is prevented – it is by reflecting, meditating, savouring the word of God.
A deep embracing of God’s word as our rule of life is the silver bullet that keeps us centred in the place where God’s blessing falls.
The psalm then presents us with the results of that blessing. It uses the image of a tree planted beside a stream. A tree that is resourced, secure against the drought that was often a part of middle-eastern life; a tree that produces both leaves and fruit.
Whilst we probably get the metaphor of fruit – qualities, characteristics, attitudes, behaviours flowing out of our life with God that bring blessing to others – perhaps the metaphor of leaves is less clear.
In the ancient world, leaves were often used as medicines for healing.
So a tree that is full of leaf is one that offers healing to those around it.
So the person who dwells in the orbit of God’s blessing is a person whose life offers ‘fruit’ which enriches and blesses those around them and ‘leaves’ which bring healing to others.
This is such a beautiful image.