Blood, heart, and data: An imperfect reflection on what’s real

By Scott Mealey
gerard van honthorst king david playing the harp google art project rs2

“And behold [David], you are caught in your own evil, for you are a man of bloodshed!” (from II Samuel 16:8)[1]

“…‘I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after My heart…’” (from Acts 13:22)

When I was a young man working in my first church in Bangor, Maine, I spent a long season reading through I and II Samuel, reflecting on the life of David. At the time, it felt like I was beginning an epic journey, walking side by side with one of the great heroes of the faith: “a man after God’s own heart.” Recently I felt led to revisit these books … and I nearly abandoned the whole project. Where once I had been inspired by a godly role-model, now – many years and blows later – all I could see was “a man of blood.” Perhaps I had misread the Spirit’s prompting? Maybe, as a good Anabaptist friend suggested, I should spend less time studying the problematic theology of Old Testament characters. Or maybe, in the parlance of my professional life, I was having a data collection problem.

Some context: over the last decade, much of my professional life has involved collecting empirical evidence about how people make sense of their world and conduct themselves in it. Until recently, a significant part of that work involved using surveys and interviews to study the real attitudes and behaviors of theatre audiences. Using these data as my guide, I would ask, for instance: does the message of the performances actually change a spectator’s perspective? When they say they like a show, are they just being polite? Would they pay the same amount for a similar production in the future? Since being hired as the associate director of Wycliffe’s Canadian Institute for Empirical Church Research, I have similarly focused on how congregations and denominations demonstrate their real values. I ask questions like: how do they spend their money? Whom do they hire? What churches are opening and closing – and why? All that to say, I feel that valuing “the real” means being committed to gathering good data.

I felt I was bringing that same evidence-based data focus to my rereading of the story of David. After weeks of chronicling a string of violent responses, from his youth to the height of his reign, I couldn’t help but feel a kind of kinship with Shimei, the bitter servant of the former king. When David was desperately fleeing his equally murderous son, Absolom, Shimei picked this moment to pelt the deposed monarch with stones and curse him for being “a man of bloodshed.” Judgement nearly rendered, I had my own moralistic stone raised but then David did something that challenged my conclusions. I remembered he had prevented his soldier from executing Shimei, but I had forgotten what he said to him: “Leave [Shimei] alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him. Perhaps the Lord will look on my misery and return good to me instead of his cursing this day” (II Samuel 16:11–12). Instead of focusing on lashing out at Shimei or revenging his son’s coup d’état his first thought was about God whom he saw as his righteous accuser and potential savior. In that moment, the Holy Spirit reminded me of the importance of first thoughts and how much (according to my own research) they reveal a person’s real values and priorities. I found my mind spinning backward and revisiting all those happy moments – like David’s entrance with the ark – and devasting ones – like the imminent death of Bathsheba’s son – where his thoughts and meditations were likewise first and foremost “after” the Lord.

I felt undone. The evidence I had collected about David’s life was correct – he was, after all, a “man of blood” – but incomplete. Somehow my own Shimei-like grievances and scars had kept me from seeing all the data and, mostly critically, David’s better nature. This was a particularly uncomfortable revelation because I should have known – and seen – better. I had learned from my time with audiences and congregants that our inner perspectives, or “frames,” not only shape our reactions but literally limit what we can see around us. As Jesus explains in the Sermon on the Mount, “if the light that is in [us] is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Mathew 6:23). The Spirit now shifted me from David to myself, and I suddenly realized that a season of particularly fraught encounters with church leaders had dimmed my own light. I could see the blood, but not the heart.

Good data matters, both for both our personal lives and for the life of the Church, but we also need eyes that will see and ears that will hear all of the data – and consequently the conclusions that the Spirit of God wants to reveal (Matthew 11:15; Revelation 3:6). This journey has reminded me to be aware of my own “frames” – well-intentioned but limited – and to join the man of blood/man after God’s own heart in his prayer:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
Put me to the test and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there is any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139:23–24)

[1] From the New American Standard Bible, here and throughout.