Much of Psalm 86 is a prayer prayed in extremis (at the point of death)—the sort of biblical prayer that is prayed so often as to be a bit discouraging, a reminder of all the pain in the world, all the things to be afraid of. But in the middle of it is an affirmation that can be prayed not only in the context of the psalm, but can also be lifted out of it and remembered in good times and bad,
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
✙ Ps 86:5 ✙
I see four points in this affirmation:
- God is good all the time. Even the best human being mixes some evil or selfishness with their good intentions. But God's goodness is unalloyed with any evil. God does not limit divine blessing only to those who already love God, which is why Jesus tells us we are free to be good to those who aren't themselves good: But I say to you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.' [Matt. 5:44-45]
- God is forgiving. I am often afraid to ask for forgiveness because I confuse God's motives with human motives and God's reactions with human reactions. But God is not reactionary. God is the source of all action and therefore God's forgiveness is unconditional. I need not fear admitting my wrongdoing to God, or becoming weak and vulnerable in God's eyes. God's very goodness is partially defined by God's forgiveness.
- The third part of this verse is translated in the NRSV as love. Which is true. Once again all the time, for God's love is constant in a way that fickle human love can never be. But the Hebrew word used here, חֶסֶד, is closer to kindness. There's a healthy snack company that a year or two ago advertised the difference between nice and kind. "There's a difference between nice and kind. There's no sacrifice in nice." And they have a point, for God so loved the world that God gave us a Child to show us the way to eternity... even when we turned that gift into a sacrifice.
- And finally, God's kindness is for all. Not for all who ask for it. But for all who simply call out to God. In reality, this kindness is even for those who do not call upon God. Calvin said that the psalmist "uses the term all, so that everyone, without exception, from the greatest to the least, may be encouraged confidently to commit themselves to the goodness and mercy of God." All the time, God is good.
I thank you for your goodness, Lord, even as I ask you to forgive my badness. In your abundant kindness, hear my prayer in the Name of the One who taught me to pray: Our Father...