“Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.” (Psalm 32:9)
‘If you could be any animal, which one would you be and why?’ I don’t know if you’ve ever been thrown one of those curve ball type questions at a job interview. Some prospective employers believe your answer will reveal something interesting about your character, or demonstrate how creative and inventive you are. One website that offers advice on answering such questions recommends (regarding the animal one) that the key is to steer clear of animals with negative associations. So avoid snakes, hyenas or rats. Or spiders.
For the Christian, there are two animals – according to the Psalmist – that we really don’t want to be like. Horses and donkeys. Not because they don’t have valuable attributes. But because both horses and donkeys are prime examples of animals “without understanding.” Creatures that have to be controlled “with bit and bridle” if you want them to stay close to you. Some horse-lovers (or donkey-lovers for that matter) might object here. Hasn’t it been shown that, to some degree at least, horses can understand human gestures? But that’s to miss the point. At root, these creatures only fall into line under compulsion, when a measure of force is applied.
This is not the kind of relationship that God longs for with his redeemed people. Adopted children who only obey, only stay close to him, only submit to his authority when he lays his loving, fatherly hand of discipline upon us. That’s the experience David recounts in this Psalm, as he recalls a time when he kept silent about and tried to cover up his sin: “My bones wasted away through my groaning all day long”, he writes, “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (verses 3-4).
I don’t know about you, but I can think of times in my Christian experience when I’ve been conscious of God controlling me with bit and bridle. Periods where I’ve knowingly disobeyed God’s word and kept silent about my sin, even when the Holy Spirit has sought to gently convict me and lead me to repentance. And although scripture doesn’t teach us to try and match specific acts of discipline with particular sins, we are urged as a general principle to “endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7).
What’s the alternative, then, to acting like a donkey? Well, David gives us the answer in the rest of the Psalm. We’ll experience God’s blessing as we regularly confess and acknowledge our sins to the LORD and receive his forgiveness (v 1, 2, 5). We’ll know his preservation and deliverance in times of trouble as we pray to God and seek refuge in him (v 6-7). We’ll understand the right way to live and avoid the need to be controlled by bit and bridle as we listen to and submit to the instruction, teaching and counsel of God’s word (v 8). And we’ll be surrounded by his steadfast love and know deep joy as we trust and obey him as our loving Father, rather than kick back against his love and care like a wild horse might do (v 10-11).
And in those moments where I do foolishly act like a donkey and have to face God’s loving discipline, my perfect Father in heaven will even work that for my ultimate good: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).