Recently I woke up in the middle of the night anxious about something. The worry over it kept running through my head, keeping me awake.
According to the Bible, King David experienced his share of restless nights as well. On one such restless night David composed Psalm 4. Jewish tradition claims that this psalm was written while David fled from his son Absalom. (Absalom led a revolt against David. His army swept into Jerusalem, chasing David out.)
David’s predicament was much worse than mine, but he handled it in a way that gives me hope for my restless nights.
What did David do that I might imitate?
The key thing David did was to pour out his heart to God. He began the psalm with a plea to God to hear his prayer and to answer his prayer. And he spoke honestly of his distress, his shame, his struggle with anger, and the hopelessness that surrounded him that left many asking, “Who can show us any good?”
What I begin to recognize as I contemplate Psalm 4 is that when my anxiety remains bottled up inside of me my restlessness multiplies, but when I pour out my anxiety to God my restlessness dissipates.
I don’t have to express my anxiety as poetically as David. John Bunyan stresses, “The best prayers have often more groans than words.” So I simply need to pour out my heart to God—with words or just with groans.
1 Peter 5:7 counsels, “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.”
No matter what the anxiety is, when it is bottled up inside, it multiplies; when it is expressed to God, it dissipates.
David Seamonds writes, “Have you found and faced the painful places in your past which you feel are the chief sources of your low self-esteem? It is very important that you have the courage not only to honestly look at the people and incidents involved, but also to plug into the feelings that go along with them. Brain research proves conclusively that our memories store not only mental pictures from the past but also the original emotions experienced at that time. So when you feel you have discovered the hurts, humiliations, deprivations, or rejections, allow yourself to feel their pain and also to feel your reactions to that pain. This not in order to blame others or to escape responsibility. It is done so that you can honestly face up to feelings you may have buried for years…. But you cannot confess to God what you will not first admit to yourself….
“The greatest manifestation of grace is the Cross, and the Cross means that when God saw us at our worst, He loved us the most. So armed with the courage grace can brings, look squarely at the worst, the most painful, the most humiliating, the most abusive, and the most devastating put-downs of your life. Remember them in your mind, and relive them in your emotions, but don’t stop there. Relinquish them to God in forgiving and surrendering prayer. It’s doubtful you can do this by yourself, so get help from a close friend, pastor, or counselor.” (Freedom from the Performance Trap, p. 161-162)
How did it turn out for David when he poured out his heart to God?
He remembered where his hope had come from, so he prayed, “Let the light of Your face shine upon us, O Lord” (verse 6). He recalled the joy that had come to him from the Lord, so he sang, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound” (verse 7). And he resolved to trust himself and his sleep into God’s care, so he declared, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (verse 8).
As a Christian, I am called to be a witness for Christ. The “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:18-20 commands me to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The Sermon on the Mount calls me not to hide my witness but to let my light shine before others.
In realistic ways, how should I share my faith with others that some might come to Jesus Christ?
Unfortunately, the impression many people in our society have is that Christians are anxious to hammer away at them until they surrender to Christ. In response to that approach Harry Emerson Fosdick counsels Christians, “We defend religion too much. Vital religion, like good music, needs not defense but rendition. A wrangling controversy in support of religion is precisely as if the members of the orchestra should beat folks over the head with their violins to prove that the music is beautiful.”
If we have to beat people over the head with our Bible to prove to them that God is good and loving, then something is wrong with our approach.
The wonderful children’s author Madeleine L’Engle adds, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
In other words, the preface to telling others about Christ should be that we live out His love in a way that will interest people in what we have to share.
I truly believe that people all around us desperately want to know the love and hope and peace and forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus Christ will give them, but they will pay no attention to our words of testimony until they experience His care from us.
Once the necessary foundation of care is laid, our message of hope is needed.
Imagine you were on a boat that capsized (as happened to my brother-in-law). You are flailing about in the ocean waves. A boat comes along. One person aboard throws you a book consisting of maps, and charts of the prevailing ocean currents, and instructions on long distance swimming. What good will that do you?
Another person scolds you for not wearing your life jacket before the boat capsized, and he issues you a citation for breaking the laws of boater safety. What good will that do you?
Another person tosses you a diver’s mask so that you will be able to see the fish beneath you without getting salt in your eyes, and she encourages you to think positively and to make the most of your opportunity. What good will that do you?
Finally, someone else on board grabs a life-preserver, jumps into the water, and swims out to you. That’s what you need!
That’s the good news Christians have to share with people around us: God so loves the world that He didn’t leave any of us to flounder about in the ocean, but Christ jumped into our mess with us to rescue us. This is the message we have to share with people who long to discover the love and hope and peace and forgiveness and eternal life that Christ would give to them!
My dictionary defines “enemy” as “one who hates or bears ill will toward another.”
I wish that I could say that I have never felt that way toward anyone. Or I wish that I could say that all such feelings of animosity or antagonism toward others were in the past in my life. I wish that I could say that I have moved beyond such feelings. Unfortunately, I still struggle with angry reactions toward others when I feel hurt by them. I still find myself harboring ill will toward those who have caused me pain.
What is a good Christian to do in such circumstances?
I find some initial hope in Paul’s words in Romans 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
This verse fills me with initial hope because I like the idea of heaping burning coals on my enemy’s head! If doing nice things for my enemy causes such pain, then I am all for it! This strategy will satisfy my ill will toward the person.
Sadly, though, when I explore what this verse actually means, I discover something else. In his book, The Peacemaker, Ken Sandee points out,
“Paul’s reference to ‘burning coals on his head’ indicates the irresistible power of deliberate, focused love. Ancient armies often used burning coals to fend off attackers. No soldier could resist this weapon for long; it would eventually overcome even the most determined attacker. Love has the same irresistible power. At the very least, actively loving an enemy will protect you from being spiritually defeated by anger, bitterness, and thirst for revenge. And, in some cases, your active and determined love for your opponent may be used by God to bring that person to repentance.”
Disappointingly, according to Sandee, the true goal of doing good to my enemies is not to inflict pain on them simply for the sake of pain but to bring about their surrender. That’s disappointing enough as it is, but then he makes it even worse by stressing, “At the very least, actively loving an enemy will protect you (me!) from being spiritually defeated by anger, bitterness, and thirst for revenge.”
According to Sandee (and apparently according to Scripture), doing good to my enemy might win my enemy over; most importantly, though, it will protect me from the anger and bitterness that would turn my soul ugly. What this challenges me to do is to exercise kindness toward my enemies for the sake of what it might do for them (or for the healing of our relationship) and for what it will do for me (for the health of my soul).
On the personal level, I am challenged by something Marcus Aurelius said, “The true worth of a man [and of a woman] is to be measured by the object he pursues.” If I pursue vengeance, that will shape my soul toward bitterness. If I pursue kindness, that will shape my soul in Christ’s likeness.
I am also challenged by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The ultimate weakness of violence [or vengeance] is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it…. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Rick Warren suggests that one of the “marks” of mercy is that “mercy is patient with difficult people.”
Apparently God has deep appreciation for the struggle this is for us, for the Bible is filled with the records of many great people of faith who had to deal with difficult people in their own lives. for example:
- Abel had a difficult brother who murdered him (Genesis 4)
- Esau had a difficult brother who cheated him out of a blessing (Genesis 27)
- Jacob had a difficult father-in-law who cheated him repeatedly (Genesis 29-30)
- Joseph had difficult brothers who sold him into slavery (Genesis 37), and a difficult master’s wife who had him imprisoned under false charges (Genesis 39)
- Hannah had a difficult relationship with her husband’s other wife (1 Samuel 1)
- David had a difficult relationship with his best friend’s father who tried to kill him (1 Samuel 18 and following), and a difficult son who tried to steal his throne (2 Samuel 15)
- Hosea had a difficult wife who was unfaithful to him (Hosea 1)
Throughout the pages of Scripture we meet people who had to deal with “difficult” people.
How should we deal with the difficult people in our lives?
Reinhold Niebuhr offers a helpful prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Someone came up with a version that is probably a bit closer to how we often feel: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to hide the bodies of those people I had to destroy because they ticked me off after being extremely tolerant and patient with them!”
Someone else proposed: “God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”
But, in many ways, if I am to be brutally honest, this is what I would have to pray: “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the people I cannot change; the Courage to change the people that I can; and the Wisdom to know it’s me.”
What it really comes down to is this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, which is pretty much everyone, since I’m clearly not you, God. At least not the last time I checked. And while you’re at it, God, please give me the courage to change what I need to change about myself, which is frankly a lot, since, once again, I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect. It’s better for me to focus on changing myself than to worry about changing other people, who, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying, I can’t change anyway. Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter than everyone else in the room, that no one knows what they’re talking about except me, or that I alone have all the answers. Basically, God, grant me the wisdom to remember that I’m not you. Amen”