Archive | October 2019

The Challenge of Learning to Rest in God

In Psalm 131, David presents a beautiful image of a soul at rest: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” 

A weaned child resting upon its mother is a lovely thing.  It is a mother’s greatest happiness to hold in her arms a resting, contented child.  It is a child’s deepest joy and peace to rest contentedly in its mother’s arms. 

Melinda Cousins remarks, “A weaned child…lies in its mother’s arms not for food, but for relationship, content purely to be held and know the peace and security that comes from being loved.”

Getting a mother’s milk is vital for the health of a growing baby.  But getting, and basking in, a mother’s love is the best of all.  It is vital for the health of a child’s soul.

What we have to face, though, is that getting to the point of a contentedly weaned child on its mother’s lap is not an easy achievement for the mother or the child.  A baby wants passionately and demandingly and expressively what a baby needs!  What a baby needs is its mother’s milk.  If the baby doesn’t get it, the baby cries with a piercing and painful shriek that seems to have been designed by God to be one of the most irritating noises in the world, guaranteed to grab our attention.  When a baby wants milk it cries; it screams; it grabs; it demands.  But as a child grows, it must learn that it does not always get what it wants when it wants it.  It is only after going through a painful deprivation process that a child is weaned and becomes content to sit upon its mother for love more than for milk. 

Ray Fowler comments, “Weaning is a child’s first experience of loss.  It is a difficult but important lesson that you can’t always get what you want in life, and that you can’t always have your own way.  Unfortunately some of us are still trying to learn that lesson.  You’d think we would have learned it back when we were weaned!  But weaning is a process.  It’s a battle to wean a child, and it’s a battle for God to bring us to this place of quiet contentment and rest.” 

Since weaning is a challenge to a child that involves the child giving up the illusion that it will always get what it wants when it wants it, what makes us think that it will be easy for us to develop a restful soul?  We only develop a peaceful soul by going through the same process as a weaned child: By learning to give up our demand at getting what we want when we want it, and by learning to come to God to rest in and to bask in God’s overflowing love for us. 

Artur Weiser puts it this way: “Just as the child gradually breaks off the habit of regarding his mother only as a means of satisfying his own desires and learns to love her for her own sake, so the worshiper—after a struggle—has reached an attitude of mind in which he desires God for himself and not as a means of fulfillment of his own wishes.  His life’s center of gravity has shifted.  He now rests no longer in himself but in God.”

David, the psalmist here, seems to have a sense of humor, though.  He ends the psalm with the plea, “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”  He invites Israel to enter that peaceful realm of resting contentedly in God’s arms.  But the name Israel comes out of a wrestling match between God and Jacob.  The name is a continual reminder that God wrestles with His people for His people.  As a child learns to be content on its mother’s lap only through the challenging process of weaning, so we need to recognize that we will come into God’s peace only by the wrestling God does with us for us, and the more we learn to surrender to God, the more peace we find. 


Lean toward God

The first verse of Psalm 130 could be the cry of one who is drowning in the agony, hopelessness, and despair of depression: “Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord.” 

That cry matches what Ginger Zee confides about her struggle with depression: “Depression, for me, has been a couple of different things—but the first time I felt it, I felt helpless, hopeless, and things I had never felt before.  I lost myself and my will to live.” 

It also matches what Elizabeth Wurtzel writes about depression in Prozac Nation: “That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight.  But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.”

“Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord.”

The depression of Psalm 130 may have come from guilt, as verses 3-4 suggest, but depression comes from many different sources, and the agony of it can be debilitating no matter what the source may be. 

Clinical depression should never be taken lightly.  Calling a counselor or doctor may be the essential first step to take. 

Along with that, Psalm 130 offers a couple of other words of counsel:

Cry out to God. 

God is a good one to cry out to because God cares immensely for you and will always draw near to you.  In his book Bounce: Learning to Thrive through Loss, Tragedy, and Heartache. Aaron Fruh shares,

“When my son, Nathan, was five years old, my wife and I were drinking coffee in the living room early one morning when we heard a cry coming from his bedroom.  When Sharon went into his room she screamed out to me because Nathan was having a seizure.  She came running down the hall carrying the twitching and flailing body with his little brown eyes rolled back in their sockets.  I ran into the kitchen to call 911, slid across the kitchen tile, and scraped my knee.  The ambulance took my son to a children’s hospital, and I slept next to him in his room for the next five days while the pediatric neurologists treated him. 

“When he had his seizure, Nathan was afraid because his body was doing strange things it had never done before, so he cried out for his mother and father.  It was a lament, a complaint: ‘Help me!  Something isn’t right!  Come quick!  I’m afraid!’  And what did I do as a father?  I ran across the kitchen floor and skinned my knee.  In the hospital I drew closer to my son in his distress.  That’s what a father does because of the covenant bond he has with his child.  A lament is a form of speech that releases us, even encourages us to complain about injustice and call on God to hear our cries of suffering.  And what does our Father in heaven do when we raise a lament His way?  He runs across the kitchen floor and skins His knee.”

Cry out to God, then lean toward Him. 

In verses 5-6 the psalmist states, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I put my hope.  My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” 

The Hebrew word for watchman is tsaphah.  Literally the word has to do with leaning forward to peer into the distance.  Historically watchmen were appointed to keep vigil on the city walls throughout the night.  They would lean forward at their post, peering into the darkness, watching for any sign of danger, and waiting for the sun to rise in the east.  They could do nothing to hasten the rising of the sun, but they leaned forward, longing for the arrival of a new day to relieve the darkness. 

This psalm invites us to be people who lean toward God in the midst of our darkness. 

Better yet, may we be people who lean on God in the midst of our struggles and weakness.

Sometimes Christians are criticized for leaning on God, or for using God as a crutch.  Marshall Shelley reflected upon that criticism while he was on crutches after breaking a leg in a soccer match:

“From my point of view, crutches are not for the weak.  For the last month and a half, my arms and especially my underarms had gotten quite a workout.  And they were feeling much stronger….

“Who are crutches for?  For those who are broken, who admit something is wrong and want to get better.  For people who want to continue being active—not sitting around with their feet up—but getting around, engaging in work and relationships.

“Likewise, Christianity is for broken people.  But it’s definitely not for the weak or faint of heart.” 

Leaning on God is not a bad thing to do.  It is in leaning on God that we find healing and renewed strength. 

What to do when facing injustice

Psalm 129 is not the most uplifting of psalms.  One writer remarked that she could not find a single verse in the psalm that she would embroider on a pillow case. 

But Psalm 129 is a vital portion of the canon of Scripture because Psalm 129 deals honestly with the painful reality of injustice and injury. 

Verse 3 expresses it graphically: “The plowers plowed on my back; they made their furrows long.”  About this verse, Eugene Peterson writes, “Picture Israel, the person of faith, lying stretched out, prone.  The enemies hitch up their oxen and plows and begin cutting long furrows in the back of Israel.  Long gashes cut into the skin and flesh, back and forth systematically, like a farmer working a field.  Imagine the whole thing: the blood, the pain, the back-and-forth cruelty.”

This is a psalm from which we learn three key lessons about what to do when we are struck by injustice: 

1: Do not sugar-coat injustice. 

This psalm never pretends that injustice is less than what it is: the infliction of cruelty and pain upon another.  Nor does this psalm ignore the emotional trauma injustice thrusts upon those who are injured. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words fit this psalm perfectly: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  God will not hold us guiltless.  Not to act is to act.”  This psalm encourages us not to remain silent in the face of evil.

2: Pour out your heart honestly to God.  Express to God your hurt, your anger, your resentment, your fear. 

This psalm is bold enough to offer an anti-blessing on those who mistreated them: “May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward.  Let them be like the grass on the housetops that withers before it grows up, with which reapers do not fill their hands or binders of sheaves their arms, while those who pass by do not say, ‘The blessing of the Lord be upon you!  We bless you in the name of the Lord!’” 

In her book When God Weeps, Joni Eareckson Tada tells the story of a friend who has to travel out of town regularly on business, leaving behind his wife and three young children.  One day, as the children were seeing him off at the airport, Jim’s youngest child began wailing and sobbing, knowing his father was about to leave again.  It broke Jim’s heart to leave his child like that.  As he told the story to Joni, his eyes again welled up with tears.  As Joni watched her friend’s emotional reaction, she thought to herself, “If that boy’s cries tug at Jim’s heart, how much more must our tears move our heavenly Father.  Nothing grips God’s heart like the tortured cry of one of His children.”  (p. 155-156)  This psalm encourages us to pour out to God whatever is on our heart. 

3: Persevere.

Verse 2 declares, “Often they have attacked me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.”  That’s a message of perseverance!

In his book Prayer, Philip Yancey reports, “In the 1980s, a pastor named Laszlo Tokes took over a small Reformed church to minister to his fellow Hungarians, an oppressed minority living inside the borders of Romania.  His predecessor had openly supported the communist Romanian government, even to the extent of wearing a red star on his clerical robes.  In contrast, Tokes spoke out against injustice and protested government actions.  Soon the sanctuary began filling each Sunday, bringing together worshipers and dissidents of both Romanian and Hungarian descent.  Membership grew from forty persons to five thousand. 

“The courageous new pastor attracted the attention of special agents as well.  They threatened Tokes many times with violence, and one evening the police were dispatched to evict him.  Word spread quickly and hundreds of Christians—Baptists, Orthodox, Reformed, and Catholic alike—poured out of their homes to surround Tokes’ house as a wall of protection.  They stood through day and night, singing hymns and holding candles.

“A few days later, police broke through the protestors to seize Tokes.  Rather than dispersing and filing home, the protestors decided to march downtown to the police station.  As the procession moved noisily through the streets, more and more people joined in.  Eventually the crowd in the town square swelled to 200,000, nearly the entire population of that area.  The Romanian army sent in troops, who in one bloody incident opened fire on the crowd, killing a hundred and wounding many more.  Still the people held their ground, refusing to disperse.

“A local pastor stood to address the protestors in an attempt to calm the rising anger and prevent a full-scale riot.  He began with three words, ‘Let us pray.’  In one spontaneous motion that giant mass of farmers, teachers, students, doctors, and ordinary working people fell to their knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer—a corporate act of civil disobedience.  Within days the protest spread to the capital city of Bucharest, and a short time later the government that had ruled Romania with an iron fist toppled to the ground.” (p. 119-120) 

This psalm encourages us to persevere.