On the defensive

People who know me, I think, generally see me as a relatively calm person, able to take most things in stride. When I was young and in one of my very first jobs, for example, some of my co-workers would look at the chaos and office politics around them and wonder why I didn’t seem more perturbed. Teasingly, they would propose doing something unpleasant to me and say, “Would that make you mad?”

Thankfully, they never did any of the things they threatened to do.

But trust me, I am not always calm. And I am quite capable of responding angrily and defensively to perceived threats that don’t actually exist.

Throughout the pandemic, things have been chaotic and unpredictable in the world of education, from elementary all the way up to grad school. I have been working diligently to stay ahead of the demand and make my courses as helpful and viable as possible, even in an online format. It’s cost me hundreds of extra hours of preparation (teachers, can I get an “Amen”?). I was feeling good about all the hours I had already invested over the summer to prepare for the fall.

And then I got an email from my department chair saying that I would probably have to change the format of one of my courses, an eleventh hour policy decision which felt like an incursion on my freedom as a faculty member to teach my courses as I thought best. And potentially, it meant throwing away all the hours I had already spent rewriting and re-recording my video lectures.

I went ballistic — though, admittedly, “ballistic” for me means a strongly worded but polite email response. I was mad. I was resentful. I was on the defensive. I imagined vague scenarios of an autocratic administration. I made it clear in my response that I was unhappy about this, and came just short of saying, “This is wrong” or “This is stupid” — although I wanted to say it, and had just enough self-control to leave those incendiary words out.

So I said it to my wife instead. Gripe, gripe, gripe.

Long story short: after a back-and-forth email exchange with my chair, I realized that there was a perfectly good reason for the change. It would take too long to explain it here, but it was one that I would fully support. Fully. I never stopped to imagine such a possibility, because I was too busy being angry, derisive, and defensive.

The next day, after spending some time in the Psalm 59, I apologized to my chair for adding to her burden.

. . .

Over and over, the Psalms address real threats to the psalmist’s well-being. They are addressed with imagination, but the threats are not imaginary. Sometimes, the complaints are linked to moments in the life of David, as in Psalm 59. There, the heading associates the prayer with the time “when Saul ordered [David’s] house to be watched in order to kill him” (NRSV).

The story is found in 1 Samuel 19. Saul, jealous of David’s success and popularity, wanted to kill David. He threw a spear at David, but David ducked and fled. Saul sent men to watch David’s house, with plans to kill him come the morning light. David’s wife Michal — Saul’s daughter — helped him escape, and had to lie to her father about it.

The psalm is thus a prayer for deliverance:

Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
    protect me from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from those who work evil;
    from the bloodthirsty save me.
(Ps 59:1-2)

One can indeed imagine David praying to God in the darkness, knowing there were men waiting outside to kill him:

Even now they lie in wait for my life;
    the mighty stir up strife against me.
For no transgression or sin of mine, O Lord,
    for no fault of mine, they run and make ready
. (vss. 3-4)

The psalmist’s enemies are characterized as a pack of wild dogs, prowling the deserted streets of a city at night, looking for prey (vss. 6, 14), and as men of lying and arrogant speech (vss. 7, 12).

But the psalm is not simply an individual plea for help. The psalmist acts as a stand-in for the people, who pray for God to save them from their national enemies (vss. 5, 8, 13).

And as we’ll see, with that prayer comes a vote of confidence in the trustworthiness of God. God is their defense, their refuge.

I might want to remember that the next time I’m tempted to go on the defensive, especially when the threat is merely imagined.