Psalm 40:1-10

John Woolman, a remarkable leader among the Quakers in 18th century America, recounts an episode in his childhood that shaped him for life. While walking to a neighbor’s house, Woolman came across a robin sitting on her nest. As he approached, the robin quite naturally flew off. Yet because her nest was full of young ones, she hovered nearby, expressing her discomfort and concern. Young John, as boys tend to do, began throwing stones at the mother robin. When one of the stones finally struck the frenzied bird, killing her, John stood tall with pride. In just a moment or two, however, the horror of his act seized him, and he simply stared at the dead mother and listened to the helpless chirping of her young ones.
For the next several hours, John could think of nothing but, in his words, “the cruelties I had committed.” As he continued to reflect, his young mind concluded that his actions were contrary to the tender mercies of God, a god who loves all of his creation. For Woolman, even as a young child, serving a tender-hearted God required that he be tender-hearted himself.
The Psalmist learned a similar lesson, and he recounts it for us here in Psalm 40:1-10. While there is no indication that he ever threw stones at a screaming robin, it is readily apparent that he had just come through a soul-searching experience of his own. He had found himself in some severe but unspecified mess, and the parallel images “desolate pit” and “miry bog” in verse 2 reflect his feeble attempts to label his predicament. “I was hanging on for dear life,” we might say today were we to find ourselves in a similar situation, “hanging by a thread.” “Then,” the Psalmist continues, “after waiting for what seemed like an eternity”—you know how slow time seems to go when you feel trapped—“God heard my cry and literally ‘bent down’ to help me as one would reach down to rescue a wounded fawn.” “I tried everything to free myself, pulling and tugging on the rope,” he seems to say in verses 3-5, but I finally learned this: “Happy are those who trust in the Lord.” “He put a new song in my heart and an unmistakable bounce in my step.”
The issue facing the Psalmist now is this: “How does one respond to such an overwhelming act of divine mercy and compassion?” Immediately typical human responses spring to his mind. “I need to pay God back.” Like exhausted people rushing to the store to buy additional Christmas cards so that they can send them to everyone who had sent them cards earlier, he nervously asks, “Should I bring a sacrifice? Do I need to run to the market and buy an offering to present?” No, he surprisingly realizes. In a culture in which sacrifices and offerings were prevalent and, when done properly, appropriate, the Psalmist makes an interpretive leap in verses 6-8 and concludes that such sacrifices and offerings are in fact not what God desires. What God wants in response to his mercy and compassion is not so much a choreographed or pre-rehearsed ritual but a joyful and receptive heart that finds great pleasure in doing the Lord’s will. “Here I am,” the Psalmist cries, and “I delight to do your will, O my God;…” “I want to do not only what you demand,” he seems to say, “but what you desire.”
And how does such a joyful and receptive heart express itself? What are its outlets? The Psalmist makes that clear as well here in verses 9-10. “I have told everyone about your gracious acts on my behalf. I have not guarded your mercies as my own personal secret, nor have I zipped my lips. Like a chattering child who seemingly has no control over those two fleshy or muscular parts that compose the exterior of his or her mouth, I have announced in both word and deed your steadfast love and faithfulness, O Lord.” How, once again, does one respond to the grace and compassion of God? By sharing it. By announcing it. By living it out in the flesh.
John Woolman did just that, and he continues to serve today as a stirring model of grace and mercy. Woolman, like the Psalmist here in Psalm 40, believed that the compassionate life begins with a profound realization that God has been compassionate to us. “They who know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, and are thus acquainted with the merciful, benevolent, gospel spirit,” he wrote, “will therein perceive that the indignation of God is kindled against oppression and cruelty….” God despises unkindness and meanspiritedness, in other words, and those of us who have experienced the grace of Jesus Christ should, of all people, know that. Woolman further believed that this compassionate God placed within every human mind a principle or desire to demonstrate goodness to every living creature. That principle or desire we can ignore and disregard, but as we do, we grow increasingly cold and insensitive. If we follow its pull and act on its call, however, we become more and more sympathetic and tender-hearted.
Think about such an impulse in your own heart and life. Do you pay attention to it? Do you nurture it? Or do you often ignore it? You sense a tug to reach out graciously to someone whom others perhaps despise or make fun of. You experience this drive to help someone in need, or to say a kind word to somebody who is lonely. Perhaps you feel this pull to cry out against evil, or to confront someone in love who is acting unmercifully to others. Maybe, like the young Woolman, you even sense within the depths of your own soul the pain that your insensitivity and meanness causes others. What do you do? Choose the compassionate response, Woolman would tell each of us, and watch your compassion grow.
In actual life, Woolman demonstrated such compassion at various levels. He sought, first of all, to understand the situation in which other people lived. In his remarkable essay entitled “A Plea for the Poor,” Woolman speaks specifically to wealthy people who look down on others without fully appreciating the needs and conditions of those who are less fortunate than them. “Now, when some who have never experienced hard labor themselves live in fullness on the labor of others, there is often a danger of their not having a right feeling of the laborers’ condition,” Woolman suggests. “One year of hard labor would be good for you,” he chides them. “Cultivate tenderness of heart,” he suggests, “and…improve every opportunity of being acquainted with the hardships and fatigues of those who labor for their living….” Learn, to put it simply, to walk in other people’s shoes.
John Howard Griffith, a sensitive white journalist from Texas, did that literally in 1959 and 1960. Griffith underwent medical treatment to temporarily alter the color of his skin, and he spent the next six weeks living as a black man in the Deep South. In his book entitled Black Like Me, Griffith recounts the horrors that he went through—raw hatred, violence, and constant rejection. After this experience, Griffith never looked at a person of color in the same way again. Whose shoes do you need to walk in for a mile or two? When we take the time to learn and understand the situations in which other people live, we are far more likely to respond with compassion rather than with contempt.
But Woolman refused to stop with simple understanding, as important as that is. Once we gain an understanding of other people and the conditions under which they live their lives, we need to respond according to the merciful principle that God has placed within us. Woolman did this in both deed and word. He lived when slavery was still prevalent here in America, and slavery in fact became the defining issue of his life. As Woolman increasingly recognized what slaves went through, he concluded that slavery was contrary to the will of God. And so, he sought to abolish it.
In deed, Woolman treated slaves with uncharacteristic grace and dignity. On one occasion, a dying Quaker Friend asked John to draw up his will, which he gladly agreed to do. However, when he was told which child to assign a young slave to, Woolman responded that he could not be part of any process that would cause a fellow human being such hardship. The friend decided to let the slave go. On still another occasion, Woolman quietly walked out of a dinner gathering rather than be served by slaves. Moved by Woolman’s visual testimony, the dinner host, Thomas Woodward, freed all of his servants the next morning.
Another story that continues to impress me deeply actually occurred a bit earlier in Woolman’s life, and you see in it that he was very much in process. While having dinner in a certain home, John was served by a slave. This troubled him greatly—he did not like to benefit from someone else’s oppression. Although he was not yet quite ready to get up and leave—that would come later—he could not sit still. So he spoke to the head of the family privately and insisted on paying the slaves directly for their services. This in fact happened on multiple occasions, and Woolman later commented that he could not recall a time when such an offer was resisted.
How do we treat people who are on the fringes, victims of uncontrollable circumstances or unjust systems? How do we respond to the weak and the lonely who are all around us, or even the strong and mighty? Who are the “slaves” in contemporary American society? How do we act toward them? They are everywhere—at work and in school, even here in our church. Choose the compassionate response, Woolman would tell us, and watch your compassion grow.
In addition to living a compassionate life among the people, Woolman also spoke out boldly for the cause of compassion. Like the Psalmist, who did not restrain his lips, Woolman proclaimed the mercies of God and the evils of oppressive practices. To be a Christian, once again, involves extending God’s grace and compassion to others, even the lowliest among us. Woolman so deeply believed this that it brought him nose to nose with many of his fellow Quakers. During a great deal of Woolman’s lifetime, many Quakers had slaves of their own, so Woolman and other kindred spirits increasingly called the practice into question. This conflict reached a head at a Yearly Meeting in 1758, when the issue of slavery was vigorously discussed. With tears in his eyes, Woolman quietly rose to speak (and I paraphrase):
When I consider the purity of God and the justice of his judgment, my soul is
deeply troubled….Many slaves on this continent are oppressed, and their cries
have entered into the ears of God himself. God’s judgments are pure and certain—he cannot show partiality to us in this matter. In his infinite love and goodness he has enlarged our understanding and he has shown us how we are to treat these people—this is no time for us to delay. If in spite of our understanding of what God expects of us, we refuse to act and instead guard our own interests or wait for God himself to bring about their release supernaturally, God may answer us harshly in this matter.
Without a single dissenting vote, the Quakers agreed that day to totally remove slavery from their midst. No other group, religious or otherwise, had been willing to take such a step. Further, the Quakers were the only body to actually ask the slaveholders to reimburse their slaves for their time in captivity. One hundred years later, Abraham Lincoln sought to pay the slaveholders for their losses. Woolman and his friends, acting in godly compassion, reimbursed the slaves.
John Woolman at a very early age learned the importance of living the compassionate life through committing a devilish deed—he stoned a helpless robin to death and left her young motherless. The Psalmist learned the importance of living the compassionate life through benefiting from a merciful deed—God removed the stone that was directed at his own head. Although their defining moments perhaps differed, the lessons they took with them were so much the same. If you have genuinely experienced the compassion of God at work in your own heart and life—and Woolman and the Psalmist are speaking to all of us here this morning: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, weak and strong—then you will act with compassion toward others. You will seek to understand the struggles that others endure. You will reach out and assist those in need. And you will announce, whether with friend or foe, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ overthrows evil with compassion. Choose the compassionate response, Woolman would tell us were he here today, and watch your compassion grow.