The introduction to Psalm 63 in our Bibles informs us that this psalm was written by David “when he was in the wilderness of Judah.” By this we know that David wrote this psalm during one of two difficult episodes in his life: either while he was fleeing for his life from Saul (1 Samuel 22-23) or when he fled from his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15-16). Whichever episode it was, we know that this was an anxious time for David in harsh conditions. As David fled through the desert, he grew thirstier and thirstier, with no drinking fountain in existence, no soda machine around the corner, and no nearby convenience store. Even the nearest stream was a long walk away. David was thirsty—intensely thirsty. But what David longed for even more than water that his body longed for was intimate connection with God that his soul longed for. Thus David opens this psalm with the words, “O God, you are my God, I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Here’s the good news: Our souls thirst for God because God wants to be found!
Koshy Muthalaly shares a wonderful story: “My six-year-old son, Alex, dashed up the stairs to the bedroom, looking for me. We were having a great time playing hide-and-seek. Looking everywhere but not seeing me, Alex called out. But the silence that ensued offered him no comfort. ‘Dad!’ he called out again, to no response. Finally, in his frustration, little Alex said, ‘Dad, if you love me, show me your face.’ I could resist no longer. I showed myself, and Alex came to me and gave me a big hug.”
Koshy Muthalaly’s love for his son does not outdo God’s love for us. More than Koshy delighted in showing his face to his son, God delights in sharing himself with us!
Not only did David seek God, he also clung to God. In verse 8, he shares, “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”
The Hebrew word used here for “clings” is used in Genesis 2:24 to describe a husband leaving his father and mother and clinging to (being united with) his wife. The word is also used in Ruth 1:14 to describe Ruth clinging to her mother-in-law Naomi, not willing to part from Naomi when Naomi decided to move back to Bethlehem.
This is what we need to know about David’s relationship with God. As much as marriage partners devote themselves to each other, for the love and joy and stability and contentment they desire, David devoted himself to God, believing that he found in God deepest love, joy, stability and contentment. And as fiercely as Ruth clung to Naomi, David clung to God, not willing to let the fears and frustrations and disappointments in life separate him from God.
When we seek God as though “in a dry and weary land where there is no water,” and as we cling to God, we will discover in our lives the truth of what David shares in verse 8: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.”
When Charles V (a.k.a. Karl V) stepped down as the last of the Holy Roman Emperors in 1557, he retired to the Monastery of Yuste on the Iberian Peninsula. He had six clocks there. No matter how hard he tried, he never succeeded in getting them to chime together on the hour. He wrote into his memoirs, “How is it possible for six different clocks to chime all at the same time? How is it even more impossible for the six nations of the Holy Roman Empire to live in harmony? It can’t be done. It’s impossible, even if they call themselves Christians.”
How accurate he is! Throughout the centuries, Christians have found it impossible to live together in unity. We divide apart from each other over and over and over again, resulting in more than 45,000 different denominations around the world.
Sadly, one of the elements that has divided the church has been prejudice against people according to the color of one’s skin. The church in South Africa provides one tragic example of this…as well as a glimmer of hope.
In 1857, while already practicing racial separation at the Lord’s Supper, the Dutch Reformed Church decided to hold separate services of worship for “white” members from “colored” members. In 1881 they went so far as to establish an entirely separate denomination, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, for those who were not “white.” Not until 1978 did the two groups decide to begin to work together toward a goal of unity. In 1982, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared apartheid a heresy and suspended the membership of the white Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. Later that same year the Dutch Reformed Mission Church met in Belhar and drafted what became known as the Confession of Belhar to advocate for unity in Christ rather than the divisiveness of apartheid.
The second article of the Confession of Belhar begins: “We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family. We believe: That Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Ephesians 2:11-22); That unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Ephesians 4:1-16); That this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23)….”
In 1990, President F.W. de Klerk worked with Nelson Mandela to dismantle apartheid. In 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to bring both justice and healing to the nation. In 2016, the Presbyterian Church (to which I belong) adopted the Confession of Belhar, with its call to unity and justice, as an official confession of our denomination.
In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul stresses the importance of believers striving for unity in the body of Christ: “I…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
As Ephesians 4 continues, Paul speaks of God giving gifts to each of his children, stressing that these gifts are “to equip the saints [you and me] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (verse 12). William Barclay points out that the Greek word used here for “equip,” katartismon, has the basic idea “of putting a thing or a person into the condition in which he or it ought to be” (such as repairing a broken bone or mending a torn net). The message Scripture wants to get across to us is that whenever God breaks apart the prejudices and barriers that divide us, God is mending the church, restoring us to what we are meant to be: a community of mutual care in the bond of peace through which the world might see the goodness and grace of Christ.
A particular line begins Psalm 62 and is repeated later in the psalm with very minimal changes, so it is worth giving our attention to that line: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2).
Learning to wait on God in silence does not come naturally to us. Perhaps that is why the psalmist felt the need to repeat the challenge to us.
Warren Wiersbe remarks, “The ability to calm your soul and wait before God is one of the most difficult things in the Christian life. Our old nature is restless…the world around us is frantically in a hurry. But a restless heart usually leads to a reckless life.” Because God does not want our lives to be reckless, God calls us to learn to be silent before him.
In an article entitled “All the Right Moves,” chess master and mentor Bruce Pandolfini speaks of the importance of silence: “My lessons consist of a lot of silence. I listen to other teachers, and they’re always talking…. I let my students think. If I do ask a question [‘Why are you making that move?’] and I don’t get the right answer, I’ll rephrase the question—and wait. I never give the answer. Most of us really don’t appreciate the power of silence. Some of the most effective communication—between student and teacher, between master players—takes place during silent periods.” Perhaps this explains why God is often silent with us: God is waiting for us to learn. Perhaps this also reinforces why we should practice silence.
Indeed, C.S. Lewis offers suggestions of what we should do if we want to miss being aware of God’s presence in our lives: “Avoid silence; avoid solitude; avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd.” A lack of silence effectively keeps us away from noticing God. Silence is essential if we want to be aware of God
“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.”
Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen tried to measure a particularly deep part of the Arctic Ocean. On his first attempt, he used his longest measuring line but was unable to reach the bottom. He wrote in his log book, “The Ocean is deeper than that.” The next day he added more line but still could not measure the depth. Again in his record book he wrote, “Deeper than that.” After several days of adding more and more pieces of rope and cord to his line, he had to leave that part of the ocean without learning its actual depth. All he knew was that it was beyond his ability to measure.
That was Paul’s perspective of what God is able to do in our lives. In Ephesians 3:20, Paul states that God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine!”
Because of Paul’s confidence in God’s ability “to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,” he was brave to ask big things from God on behalf of the Ephesians (and we should be brave enough to ask for such big things for ourselves and others).
In Ephesians 3:16, Paul prays “that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” He doesn’t pray for easy lives. He prays for something bigger. He prays that our inner being will be strengthened so that we can handle all struggles, challenges and opportunities.
Prayer opens our souls to the gaining of such strength. Oliver G. Wilson asserts, “Prayer fills a person’s weakness with God’s omnipotence and opens the gates to new fields of achievement. It makes the weak strong and the simple wise.”
If we pray merely for easy lives, we might get the ease we desire, but we will get nothing more. But if we ask for strength, lives might be marked by miracles. One buried in the snows of Valley Forge could become a George Washington; one raised in poverty with a multitude of setbacks could become an Abraham Lincoln; one knocked down by polio could become a Franklin Roosevelt; one stripped of her sight and hearing could become a Helen Keller; one locked in prison for sheltering Jewish neighbors could become a Corrie ten Boom; one locked in prison for protesting apartheid could become a Nelson Mandela. A prayer for strength is the bigger and more critical prayer.
In Ephesians 3:17, Paul prays for us to be “rooted and grounded in love.”
Before a seed bursts forth above the ground, it sends down its roots. The roots soak up moisture and nourishment from the ground, enabling the plant to gain health and strength. As the roots dig into the soil, they establish a strong hold for the plant to be able to withstand the winds that blow against it. Paul’s prayer is for our roots to sink down deep into Christ’s love, soaking up the nourishment that his love provides, gaining a strong hold so that we might be able to withstand the winds that blow against us.
Mark Labberton stresses, “We are made to live out of God’s belovedness first and primarily. When that occurs, we have a far, far greater likelihood of coming to all else in our lives with more capacity to live and to love.”
I have a tendency to be highly critical of myself, but when I shame myself for my faults and failures, I am not living “out of God’s belovedness. Paul’s prayer is that we be able to comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love and “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” so that we might have greater “capacity to live and to love.”
A line in Psalm 61 grabs my heart and fills me with hope. It is found in the latter half of verse 2 and the whole of verse 3: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.”
When we are confused in life and don’t know where to go or what to do, this is what we need: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” “When the ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at ‘the house of the dying’ in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked, ‘And what can I do for you?’ Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. ‘What do you want me to pray for?’ she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: ‘Pray that I have clarity.’ She said firmly, ‘No, I will not do that.’ When he asked her why, she said, ‘Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.’ When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, ‘I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.’” (told by Brennan Manning in Ruthless Trust, p. 5) In other words, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”
When troubles bombard our lives, this is what we need: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” When Dr. Tom Dooley was a medical missionary to Southeast Asia in his early thirties, he contracted cancer and died at the age of 34. On December 1, 1960, in the depths of his battle with cancer, he wrote a letter from his hospital bed in Vietnam to the president of the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater: “Dear Father Hesburgh, They’ve got me down. Flat on the back, with plaster, sand bags, and hot water bottles. I’ve contrived a way of pumping the bed up a bit so that, with a long reach, I can get to my typewriter…. Two things prompt this note to you. The first is that whenever my cancer acts up a bit, and it is certainly ‘acting up’ now, I turn inward. Less do I think of my hospitals around the world, or of 94 doctors, fundraisers, and the like. More do I think of one Divine Doctor and my personal fund of grace. It has become pretty definite that the cancer has spread to the lumbar vertebra, accounting for all the back problems over the last two months. I have monstrous phantoms; all men do. and inside and outside the wind blows. But when the time comes, like now, then the storm around me does not matter. The winds within me do not matter. Nothing human or earthly can touch me. a peace gathers in my heart. What seems unpossessable, I can possess. What seems unfathomable, I can fathom. What is unutterable, I can utter. Because I can pray. I can communicate. How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?” In other words, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.”
In Ephesians 3, Paul shares a little of his biography. He talks about the mystery of God that was revealed to him and he talks about the commission that was given to him to share the good news of Christ with the Gentiles. He presents a very minimal biography here, but it is helpful to know a little more of Paul’s biography. He was born into privilege as a Roman citizen, which means that his father was a Roman citizen. He was born into an affluent family that could afford to send him to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, one of the most renowned Jewish scholars of all time. Paul advanced beyond others of his age as a respected Pharisee. The driving force in his life was to maintain the purity of his religion, pushing away those who didn’t fit in the religious structure he loved so deeply. He took on the responsibility of hunting down and locking up those whom he considered to be polluting his religion. But on his way to Damascus to lock up Christians, Christ appeared to him in a vision and transformed his life. After that, it became the driving force in Paul’s life to welcome those who had previously been excluded.
In his book Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli tells the story of Margaret, who experienced deeply the pain of rejection. After Margaret rushed late into class at nine years of age, Ms. Garner placed Margaret at the front of the class and said, “Boys and girls, Margaret has been a bad girl. I have tried to help her to be responsible. But, apparently, she doesn’t want to learn. So we must teach her a lesson. We must force her to face what a selfish person she has become. I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard. Maybe this experience will motivate her to become a better person!” (p. 45)
Yaconelli shares, “Margaret stood frozen next to Ms. Garner. One by one, the students began a silent procession to the blackboard. One by one, the students wrote their life-smothering words, slowly extinguishing the light in Margaret’s soul. ‘Margaret is stupid! Margaret is selfish! Margaret is fat! Margaret is a dummy!’ On and on they went, until twenty-five terrible scribblings of Margaret’s ‘badness’ screamed from the blackboard.” (p. 46)
Over the years, the trauma stuck with Margaret to the end that she slowly became what the students wrote. Eventually Margaret sought the help of a counselor. After two years of intensive work together, Margaret’s counselor said to her, “I guess it’s graduation day for you. How are you feeling?”
After a long silence, Margaret replied, “I…I’m okay.”
Yaconelli reports, “The counselor hesitated. ‘Margaret, I know this will be difficult, but just to make sure you’re ready to move on, I am going to ask you to do something. I want to go back to your schoolroom and detail the events of that day. Take your time. Describe each of the children as they approach the blackboard, remember what they wrote and how you felt—all twenty-five students.’
“In a way, this would be easy for Margaret. For forty years she had remembered every detail. And yet, to go through the nightmare one more time would take every bit of strength she had. After a long silence, she began the painful description. One by one, she described each of the students vividly, as though she had just seen them, stopping periodically to regain her composure, forcing herself to face each of those students one more time.
“Finally, she was done, and the tears would not stop, could not stop. Margaret cried a long time before she realized someone was whispering her name. ‘Margaret. Margaret. Margaret.’ She looked up to see her counselor staring into her eyes, saying her name over and over again. Margaret stopped crying for a moment.
“‘Margaret. You…left out one person.’
“‘I certainly did not! I have lived with this story for forty years. I know every student by heart.’
“‘No, Margaret, you did forget someone. See, he’s sitting in the back of the classroom. He’s standing up, walking toward your teacher…. She is handing him a piece of chalk, and he’s taking it…. Now he’s walking over to the blackboard and picking up an eraser. He is erasing every one of the sentences the students wrote. They are gone! Margaret, they are gone! Now he’s turning and looking at you, Margaret. Do you recognize him yet? Yes, his name is Jesus. Look, he’s writing new sentences on the board. “Margaret is loved. Margaret is beautiful. Margaret is gentle and kind. Margaret is strong. Margaret has courage.”’
“And Margaret began to weep. But very quickly, the weeping turned into a smile, and then into laughter, and then into tears of joy.” (p. 55-56)
In Ephesians 3:6, it is as if Paul erases what had been there before and writes a new declaration about those who were previously excluded, “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” In verse 8 he adds, “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.”
With the love of Christ flooding his soul, the driving force of Paul’s life became the quest to welcome into God’s family those who were previously excluded. Shouldn’t that be the driving force of our lives as well?
Psalm 60 convinces me that it is permissible for us to express to God whatever is on our heart.
Scripture identifies Psalm 60 as having been written when David “struggled with Aram-naharaim and with Aram-zobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” Scholars therefore determine that the psalm was written at the time of 2 Samuel 8:1-8. The author of 2 Samuel 8:6 presents glowing words about David’s successes: “The Lord gave victory to David wherever he went.” But Psalm 60 begins with David’s genuine gloom and frustration: “O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us! You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering. You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.”
David does not feel compelled to talk to God with nice spiritual sentences or with glowing expressions of trust. He simply sets before God the frustrations and fears that are percolating in his heart. Philip Yancey sees merit in what David does. He writes, “I am convinced the main requirement in prayer is honesty, approaching God ‘just as we are.’”
In his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, Philip Yancey expands on the importance of honesty in our prayers, and on how he learned this lesson through the psalms: “Psalms keep me honest by furnishing words to prayer I would not pray apart from the their prompting. I have learned to pray more humanly by reading the psalms and making them my prayers. As I read psalms of anger and revenge, I have to face the same tendencies in myself. The psalms expose to the light resentments and wounds long hidden. I find it liberating that God welcomes, even encourages, me to face into my dark side in my prayers. I can trust God with my secrets.” (p. 173-174)
Yancey also shares, “A physician friend of mine who learned I was investigating prayer told me I would have to start with three rather large assumptions: (1) God exists; (2) God is capable of hearing our prayers; and (3) God cares about our prayers. ‘None of these three can be proved or disproved,’ he said. ‘They must either be believed or disbelieved.’” (p. 79)
If you believe that God exists, that God is capable of hearing our prayers, and that God cares about our prayers—or if you are willing to take the risk of giving these assumptions a try—then go ahead and pour out your heart openly and honestly to God. I believe he cares deeply about all that is percolating inside of you.
Hostilities, tensions, conflicts. These problems simmer far too often in churches. Thus Paul addresses this problem in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus.
The church in Ephesus was made up of Jews and Gentiles. These groups had experienced deep hostilities, tensions and conflict between each other for decades.
The Jews took pride in their lineage—that they were descendants of God’s covenant with Abraham. They believed their ancestry made them better than others. And they took pride in being followers of the Law of Moses, believing the Law made them holier than everyone else. For these reasons, they looked down on the Gentiles and wanted nothing to do with them.
The Gentiles in Ephesus had taken pride in their wealth, their position in society, their successes and their power. They looked down upon the lowly Jews and wanted nothing to do with them.
But in Ephesus Jewish people came to Christ and Gentile people came to Christ. Both groups found themselves thrown together in the same church and told that they were now brothers and sisters with one another. How are Christians to overcome such long held hostilities?
Paul asserts that the bridge between them is Christ. In Ephesians 2:13-14, he writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” In verse 16, he asserts that Christ “might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
How can the cross of Christ put to death the hostility between people and reconcile us into loving relationship with one another?
Picture it in this way: When Jesus died, my sins were hung on the cross with him and taken away from me. By that, I have been reconciled to God. And when Jesus died, your sins were hung on the cross with him and taken away from you. By that, you have been reconciled to God. You and I have both been reconciled to God through what Jesus did on the cross for us.
But when I hold onto a grudge against you, it is as if I deny its place on the cross. It is as if I refuse to let your sin (that for which I hold a grudge against you) be forgiven.
When your sin is on the cross, Christ forgives you and takes away that sin. But I don’t want your sin to be taken away. I want to hold onto my grudge against you.
How ridiculous is that! I am holding onto that which Jesus died to take away.
I may not like something you have done. You may not like something I have done. But Jesus has already taken your sins and my sins to the cross and done away with them. That’s where we should leave them, too.
When our children were young, we read to them The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare. It is the story of a zealot named Daniel, who hates the Romans. The driving force in his life is the longing to take revenge on the Romans for the suffering they have caused to his family. At one point, Jesus asks Daniel to follow him:
“‘Daniel,’ he said, ‘I would have you follow me.’
“‘Master!’ A great burst of hope almost swept him to his knees. ‘I will fight for you to the end!’
“Jesus smiled at him gently. ‘My loyal friend,’ he said, ‘I would ask something much harder than that. Would you love for me to the end?’
“Baffled, Daniel felt the hope slipping away. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said again. ‘You tell people about the kingdom. Are we not to fight for it?’
“‘The kingdom is only bought at a great price,’ Jesus said. ‘There was one who came just yesterday and wanted to follow me. He was very rich, and when I asked him to give up his wealth, he went away.’
“‘I will give you everything I have!’
“Something almost like a twinkle of humor lighted for an instant the sadness of Jesus’ eyes. ‘Riches are not keeping you from the kingdom,’ he said. ‘You must give up your hate.’”
In the midst of the hostilities that often scar the Christian church, Christ is saying to us, “You must give up your hate.”
King David went through a lot of struggles in his life. He wrote Psalm 59 during one of those times of deep struggle. The introduction to Psalm 59 in our Bibles states that the psalm was written “when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him..” Thus David writes, “Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me” (verse 3). Twice he writes, “Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city” (verses 6 & 14).
How does a person hold up amidst such struggles? Amidst such opposition? Amidst such threats to one’s life?
What enabled David to get through this struggle was the conviction that God was a fortress surrounding him. He concludes the psalm with these words: “But I will sing of your might; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been a fortress for me and a refuge in the day of my distress. O my strength, I will sing praises to you, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.”
David held tightly to the conviction that God was with him, that God was capable of handling his troubles, and that God was holding him securely.
I believe David knew in his heart what A.W. Tozer wrote centuries later, “An infinite God can give all of himself to each of his children. He does not distribute himself that each may have a part, but to each one he gives all of himself as fully as if there were no others.”
Annie Johnson Flint puts it this way:
When we have exhausted our store of endurance, when our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources, our Father’s full giving is only begun.
His love has no limit; his grace has no measure; his power no boundary known unto men;
For out of his infinite riches in Jesus he giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
When troubles bombard us, may we seek refuge in the fortress that is our God.