Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Calming Yourself

Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself
Like a little weaned child with its mother;
I am like a little child.
(Psalm 131:2 HCSB)
There is much going on around us. Much turbulence to be caught up in. Much that we do not understand. Many things that tempt us to worry. David the Warrior could certainly identify with us. In fact, he often experienced it much more and to a greater degree than we do. But he came to a place in his life where he learned how to deal with it effectively. A place where he could say,
LORD, my heart is not proud;
My eyes are not haughty.
I do not get involved with things
Too great or too difficult for me.
(Psalm 131:1 HCSB)
He realized it was not necessary for him to understand everything that was happening in his life. He did not take it upon himself to fix everything. “Instead,” he said, “I have calmed and quieted myself.” He did not try to calm and quiet the world around him — that was not his to do — but he calmed and quieted himself. Like when he and his ragged band of soldiers came back to camp to find their families and all their possessions had been carried off. David’s men were ready to kill him. He might have simply given up in despair, but instead we read, “David encouraged himself in the LORD his God” (1 Samuel 30:6 KJV; see How to Encourage Yourself in the LORD).

Now he speaks of calming and quieting himself, to become “like a little weaned child with its mother.” When a child has weaned away from his mother’s breast, he has begun to learn how to trust and have patience. He is not worried that he will be abandoned; he knows that his mother will see that he is properly fed and clothed and provided for. He is secure in the knowledge that his mother is neither far away nor inattentive.

Of course, David is not actually talking about his mother here. He says “like a little weaned child.” In learning to trust his mother in the weaning process, he was also learning what it means to trust in the Lord. Now he was like a like a little weaned child with God. Whatever issues of life were too deep to ponder, whatever circumstances were too difficult to understand, David did not concern himself with them — he left them for God to deal with, fully confident that everything that was needed would be taken care of.

Jesus calls us all to be like that, like a little weaned child. He said,
Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it. (Mark 10:15)

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:31-33)
A weaned child does not worry about these things. Likewise, we do not need to anxious either because God has already provided for everything we need. Our part is not to understand everything but to trust God in everything. There are many things in life that are too difficult for us, but they are not too difficult for Him — and He doesn’t even need our advice on how to deal with them.

This is living life in a different, more powerful and effective way. We have a new focus now — God. We seek His kingdom (God’s rule and reign) and His righteousness (God’s way of making things right), and everything else that we need will be added to us. David had many enemies set against him, but he set his focus on God
One thing I have desired of the LORD,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD,
And to inquire in His temple.
For in the time of trouble
He shall hide me in His pavilion;
In the secret place of His tabernacle
He shall hide me;
He shall set me high upon a rock.
(Psalm 27:4-5)
When Martha was fussing with numerous tasks and complaining that Mary was not doing what she was supposed to (and doing what she was not supposed to), Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41). Martha was worried and distracted by many things, but Mary was thoroughly focused on one —the Lord Jesus.

“O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, both now and forever” David concludes (Psalm 133:3 HCSB). In the Bible, hope is not a tentative, maybe-so, maybe-not affair. It is a solid expectation, a positive anticipation. This is how we calm and quiet ourselves, how we wean ourselves from the worries of the world and things too deep or difficult for us: We set our expectation on Yahweh. We seek His kingdom, His power, His glory — His will being done on earth as it is in heaven. We focus on His righteousness — His ability to set everything right. And everything else will be taken care of.

This is our new SOP, our “standard operating procedure” from now on.

Friday, July 16, 2010

When God Seems Absent and His Hand Still

So I say, “It is my sorrow
That the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
(Psalm 77:10 HCSB)
The psalm writer has been in a severe time. “The day of my trouble,” he calls it. He has been afflicted somehow. He is in deep distress. By what, we do not know. He calls out to the God — loudly. “I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might, I yell at the top of my lungs” (v. 1, The Message). All day he lifts his hands to the Lord in prayer, but finds no comfort (v. 2). He remembers God, but his trouble remains. He meditates, but he is overwhelmed and weak (v. 3). Whatever this thing is, it is keeping him awake — and God is silent about it. His pain becomes too deep for words and his voice gives out (v. 4). He thinks of earlier days and happier times (v. 5). In the night, he calls to mind the song he used to sing, the music he used to make. He ponders in his heart, diligently seeking an answer (v. 6). He asks himself,
Will the Lord reject forever
And never again show favor?
Has His faithful love ceased forever?
Is His promise at an end for all generations?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has He in anger withheld His compassion? Selah.
(Psalm 77:7-9 HCSB)
These kinds of questions are easier to answer when things are going well than when everything seems to be falling apart. They emerge from the psalm writer’s deep pain: Has he been rejected by the Lord? Has the favor of God come to an end in his life? Has God stopped loving him? Has the promise of God failed? What about grace — has God forgotten to hear and answer prayer? Is God holding back His compassion?

Selah, indeed. Quick and easy answers won’t do here. He has come to the end of those. The anguish of his heart is too deep for shallow, thoughtless responses. He needs something that will sustain him.

It is characteristic of many psalms that the climax comes in the middle, not at the end. That is the case here. The turning point in the next section, verses 10-12, brings the climax of the psalm. It divides the psalm into two, roughly symmetrical, halves.
So I say, “It is my sorrow
That the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
I will remember the LORD’s works;
Yes, I will remember Your ancient wonders.
I will reflect on all You have done
And meditate on Your actions.
(Psalm 77:10-12 HCSB)
He concludes the first half with the words, “It is my sorrow that the right hand of the Most High has changed” (v. 10). Of course, as he was going through his distress, he probably did not realize it was just the first half of the story. He has presented the intensity of his anguish, and he is in rough shape, perched on the sharp, painful edge of sorrow. His answer to the earlier questions he posed is, “Yes, God has changed toward me.” It is an emotional response.

But then, in verse 11, he takes an unexpected turn. He begins to speak in a different way. He does not tell his soul, “That’s just the way it is, get used to it.” Though all seems dark, though God seems absent and His hand seems still, the psalm writer makes a critical decision: “I will remember the works of the LORD.”

Up until now, he has spoken only of “God” and “the Most High” and “Lord.” The name “God” is a title; it does not tell us who God is but what He is. “Most High” is an honorific, and “Lord” (Hebrew, Adonai) is a name of respectful address. But now he speaks of “LORD” (all capitals). We often forget that this is a personal name there because it is usually disguised in English translations by the word “LORD,” in all capital letters. But the Hebrew name is — Yahweh, the personal name of by which God reveals Himself in covenant relationship with His people.

Until now, the psalm writer has wallowed in his distress and how he called on God but found no help. But now, he remembers that his God is Yahweh, with whom he and his people are in covenant. He has gone from thinking generically and religiously to leaning into personal relationship with Yahweh. And he makes a definitive choice: “I will remember the works of Yahweh!”

He confirms that with, “Yes, I will remember Your ancient wonders” and follows it up with, “I will reflect on all You have done and meditate on Your actions.” Before, he spoke about God. Now he speaks to Him. Before, God felt distant to him. Now, he is stepping into intimacy with Him.

Understand, God has not moved anywhere throughout the psalm. He did not go away; He has not just now come back. God has not changed, but the psalm writer has. He has stepped away from how things seemed and the way he felt, into the personal relationship with Yahweh that was waiting there for him all along.

In the first half, the psalm writer thought about the “good old days,” his thoughts switching back and forth between the way things were then and how they were now. In the second half, he makes a choice: “I will remember Yahweh’s works.” Before, it was all about him and his misery. Now it was all about Yahweh and His works, His miracles and wonders, and all the ways He came through for His people.

The psalm writer made a definite choice. It was a willful, intentional act. To remember is to call to mind. “I will call to mind the works of Yahweh,” he said. More than that, he pondered them, meditated them, reflected upon them, and spoke of them, uttering them with his lips.

The second half of the psalm is all about Yahweh, His wonders, His strength, His power and the redemption He brought for His people. Specifically, he talks of God’s great redemptive act: When God delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness into the Promised Land. It is the touchstone of salvation in the Old Testament. It points us toward the New Testament and the greatest redemptive act of all: The Cross and Resurrection of King Jesus the Messiah.

This sets things in perspective for us. Paul, who was no stranger to affliction, distress and days of trouble, put it this way
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)
When God seems absent and His hand seems still, it is time to remind ourselves of the mighty works of God, the victories He has won for us in King Jesus the Messiah. Even now, they are already being worked out in the world.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Filling the Space Between Heaven and Earth

Your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
Your faithfulness to the clouds.
(Psalm 57:10 ESV)
David was in a tight spot. He wrote this psalm when he had fled from Saul and was hiding out in a cave. Though he is closed in, his faith is in God, trusting Him to be gracious to him. Even in the midst of his trouble, he knows that God is moving on his behalf.

He will send from heaven and save me;
He will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah.
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
(Psalm 57:3 ESV)
The Hebrew word for “steadfast love” is hesed. It speaks of God’s personal commitment, His covenant to love His people and show them His mercy and favor. God’s “faithfulness” (Hebrew, emeth) is His truthfulness, His trustworthiness, His reliability. It is the guarantee that He is always going to come through on what He has promised. It is David’s assurance, and this is his prayer:
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let Your glory be over all the earth!
(Psalm 57:5 ESV)
Isn’t this how Jesus taught His disciples to pray when He said, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? It is not an abstract request. Not in David’s case, nor in Jesus’ prayer. They both call for a tangible manifestation of God’s glory and holiness — on earth as it is in heaven. The Message Bible has the opening lines of Jesus’ prayer as, “Our Father in heaven, reveal who You are. Set the world right.”

That is what David, in his exile, is asking the God to do. He is looking for God to be exalted in the heavens, to reveal Himself, by might mighty acts of deliverance. To reveal His glory on earth by His saving deeds, and set the world right. David is so certain of God’s deliverance that he begins to sing the victory, even from the bowels of his hideout.
My heart is steadfast, O God,
My heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
(Psalm 57:7-9 ESV)
God’s love is steadfast and David’s heart is fixed on it. The matter of his deliverance is settled; everything else is just details, and they will soon be worked out. All that remains now is to wake up the world with praise to God, and exalt him among the nations. So David stirs up his “glory” (Hebrew, kabod, every good thing within him) and pours it out to God. This is his song, his cause for rejoicing:
Your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
Your faithfulness to the clouds. (v. 10)
God sends out His steadfast love and faithfulness, filling the space between heaven and earth. It exalts Him above the heavens and fills the earth with His glory.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Smooth in the Day of Adversity

Happy is one who cares for the poor;
The LORD will save him in a day of adversity.
(Psalm 41:1 HCSB)
These are days of adversity for many people in the global economy. Many have lost their jobs, their homes, their savings and their retirements. And that is on top of all the many more who never had any of those things to begin with. While some continue to prosper, there are many who are “hanging by a thread.” These are ones the Bible calls “the poor.” The Hebrew word derives from a root that literally means to dangle, to hang down low. Though they may seem to have no help, God has not forgotten them. He is mindful of them and wants us to be mindful, too. God wants us to share His heart for the poor.
David understood this. “Happy is the one who cares for the poor,” he says. The NKJV says, “Blessed is he who considers the poor.” Young’s Literal Translation has, “O the happiness of him who is acting wisely unto the poor.” This speaks of a depth of joy, a joy that partakes of God’s own pleasure. When we share in His heart for the poor, we also share in His joy when they are helped.

It is an abiding joy, not a happiness that quickly fades away. Likewise, our concern for the poor is to be more than an afterthought or a sporadic, momentary act. The word for “care” means to give attention to, to look upon with insight, to have wisdom and understanding concerning the poor. It is a consistent mindfulness, a recognition that we are connected to the poor. They are not so different from us after all. They are experiencing a time of trouble, and we could one day find ourselves in a similar situation.

God makes a connection between how we treat the poor in their day of adversity and how we will fare in ours. He gives this promise to the one who cares for the poor: “The LORD will save him in a day of adversity.” Whenever a time of trouble comes upon us, God will save us, deliver us, rescue us. The Hebrew word speaks of smoothness, slipperiness, like one who slips out of a tight spot or escapes a snare. When we give to the poor and help smooth their way, God will likewise smooth our way and slip us through our time of trouble.

When we give of our resources and ourselves to help the poor, we are “laying up treasure in heaven.” That is how Jews of the Old Testament era understood it; we see that from some of the ancient apocryphal writings:
Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster. (Sirach 29:11-12 NRSV)

Give alms from your possession, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. (Tobit 4:7-10 NRSV)
We find this also in the New Testament, where both Jesus and Paul speak of being generous with one’s resources.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19-20)

Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come.(1 Timothy 6:17-19)
Our open-handedness to the poor becomes treasure we lay up for ourselves in heaven. Not for the next life, as many think, but to be released as needed for this life. Psalm 41:2 says that those who are mindful of the poor will be blessed “in the earth.” The generosity we show is laid up as treasure in heaven for the sake of earth, so that the will of God may be done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s desire is to smooth the way for both the prosperous and the poor in the day of adversity.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Do Not Be Agitated

Do not be agitated by evildoers;
Do not envy those who do wrong.
For they wither quickly like grass
And wilt like tender green plants.
(Psalms 37:1-2 HCSB)
Lately, I have found myself talking back — yelling, actually — at my TV set. Not that anybody I am yelling at can hear me, I know. But I have become weary of the lies, dissimulations, hypocrisies, frauds, empty posturings and arrogances of politicians and their media enablers. These days it seems that it has been a relentless stream. And I have let it bug me. Really, really bug me.

Yesterday, as I was praying this psalm — my habit is to pray through the book of Psalms each month (150 psalms / 30 days = 5 psalms a day), and Psalm 37 falls right in the middle of my group on day 8 — I was brought up short by this admonition: “Do not be agitated by evildoers.” The Hebrew word for “agitate” means to be hot, furious, burn, become angry, kindled, incensed, to blaze up and be heated with vexation. Yep, that’s been me. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

But David gives us this admonition, and also a very good reason for it: “For they wither quickly like the grass and wilt like tender green plants.” David was speaking from experience; he certainly had his share of opportunities to be agitated. Sometimes he may even have taken advantage of those opportunities — but he strongly recommends against it. Why? Because it doesn’t do any good. Quite the opposite.
Refrain from anger and give up your rage;
Do not be agitated — it can only bring harm.
For evildoers will be destroyed,
But those who put their hope in the LORD
Will inherit the land.
A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
Though you look for him, he will not be there.
But the humble will inherit the land
And will enjoy abundant prosperity.
(Psalm 37:8-11 HCSB)
Cease from “anger” — the Hebrew word pictures the heated flaring of the nostrils. Give up venomous rage and its poison. Do not be agitated — it only does harm! Liars and cheats and frauds — evildoers — will soon reap what they have sown, and become a byword of infamy. My agitation will not do anything to hasten that day; it will only hinder me. It is a stumbling block and if I let it trip me up I will no longer be making progress and moving forward. And, after all, I do want to move forward. So what should I do? David offers an effective strategy in verses 3-7:
Trust in the LORD and do what is good;
Dwell in the land and live securely.
Take delight in the LORD,
And He will give you your heart’s desires.
Commit your way to the LORD;
Trust in Him, and He will act,
Making your righteousness shine like the dawn,
Your justice like the noonday.
Be silent before the LORD and wait expectantly for Him;
Do not be agitated by one who prospers in his way,
By the man who carries out evil plans.
There are a lot of good bullet points here and they all work together for my good.
  • Trust in the LORD. If I let myself become agitated by those who do what is wrong, I am not trusting in God and resting in Him.
  • Dwell in the land and “live securely.” The ESV has it as “befriend faithfulness.” The NKJV says, “feed on His faithfulness.” To dwell means to abide. God has not gone off anywhere, and neither should I. If I stay put and feed on God’s faithfulness, I will befriend it and find it in myself.
  • Take delight in the LORD. I can choose to be agitated by the faithless and feckless or I can choose to take delight in the Lord. Delight is better. The Hebrew word for “delight” here means to be luxuriantly happy. The promise is that He will give me the desires of my heart. The wicked cannot keep that from me, but allowing myself to be agitated by them can.
  • Commit your way to the LORD. The word for “commit” literally means to “roll.” Whatever is bothering me, I can roll it over onto Him. “Cast all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). “Trust in Him,” David says, “He will act.” Whatever needs to be done, He will bring it to pass.
  • Be silent before the LORD. Be silent, be still and rest quietly in Him. If there is anything I need to do or say, He will show me. And I certainly don’t need to tell Him what to do. His words will always be much better, and God-directed actions will always be far more effective than my own. But if I let myself become agitated, it will be much harder for me to hear His voice.
  • Wait expectantly. Faith is the substance, the underlying reality, of things hoped for, the things we are joyfully anticipating (Hebrews 11:1). When we put our trust in God, He will bring about everything that needs to be done.