As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. (from Psalm 42:1-2)
There are diamonds in Psalm 42. Miners, like this psalmist are those who find them. Miners are questions askers. Because they learn to ask the right kinds of questions and persevere in their asking, they find the gems. Questions are native to thirsting and panting souls. Listen to this miner’s digging: “When shall I come and appear before God? Why are you in despair, O my soul? Why are you disturbed within me? Why hast Thou forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of my circumstances?”
There are different types of questions. Some are mere camouflage for bitterness and unbelief. Others are rhetorical tools used by the proud for posturing and positioning —an actual question would be redundant to them. They already know the answers. Some questions are asked to collect the data we need to support our existing hypotheses. None of these types of questions unearth true gems.
Then there are questions free of agendas and pre-formed notions. They come from child-like, searching hearts. They are often hard questions, shaped in the depths. Hungry and thirsty souls have the courage to unearth them and bring them before their God. Digging in this vein equips the miner with the humility to encounter their God in new ways.
As miners, we are both driven and drawn. From behind, we are driven by pain and fears we dare not stop and face. We know that pausing to face off with these pursuers would be our undoing. We’ve looked over our shoulder before. We have seen those deep and unwelcome questions gaining on us. They were raised by experiences (or their lack) that once nearly destroyed us. We have vowed to outrun them because we are convinced they will kill us. This is not a problem though—we have worked this out. We have learned that we can turn up the volume and speed of life such that these questions are drowned out and left behind in the wake of our efforts to escape them. This is a tragic waste, because the pursued and the pursuer are exactly where the father of lies wants them.
The real Trilateral threat is from the world, the flesh and the devil, who conspire to see that we remain driven. They gladly provide us with diversions and excuses—anything it requires to keep us from excavating deep enough to uncover our long-buried issues and put them in their place as our servants rather than our masters. It is from these unexplored caverns that God calls to us. This is essential because He endeavors, with our cooperation, to overthrow every lie and half-truth we have buried by believing them. These are the very things that drive us.
Then there are those, like our psalmist, who are drawn. They hear the call and they descend. They press on down through the valley of the shadow of death. With a familiar voice, albeit faint at times, calling them, they press through various strata of pain and find Jesus waiting for them. They discover the diamond.
The writer of this psalm descends along a particular vein. He is being drawn. He has bumped into his painful questions and instead of returning to their own story (We could call it The Surface Driven Life), he has written the “Miner’s Psalm.” He gave voice to his questions, paused to articulate them in words. Journaling, by the way, is digging at its best.
The power of journaling rests in its capacity to make us psalmists in our own right—those learning to become transparent before God. We are very close to the gemstone here. This is where deep responds to the drawing of deep. Here, in our depths, His Spirit touches ours; His light touches our darkness. If we will slow down and ask the right questions, we will discover that eternity overtakes time and that a banquet has been prepared on our behalf in this most unlikely of places—in the presence of our enemies.
A precaution: When we start applying the breaks and turn down the volume, the painful questions of the past are going to pull up along side us and call us names, tell us lies, and feed us their best temptations. They have enjoyed driving us—keeping us from the abundance of our rightful liberty. Our Psalm 42 miner gives us a tutorial in his craft. He slows down, listens to the call from his troubled mind, and records his thoughts. He does the very thing we work overtime to avoid. Please listen to this minor shovel:
My soul thirsts. I cry day and night. When will you bring relief God?
I REMEMBER—I HAVE PRAISED YOU BEFORE. I SHALL PRAISE YOU AGAIN!
Why are you in despair oh my soul?
I REMEMBER—I HAVE HAD EXPERIENCE WITH YOU. I SHALL HAVE EXPERIENCE WITH YOU AGAIN!
Thy breakers and Thy waves have rolled over me.
LORD, YOU WILL COMMAND YOUR LOVINGKINDNESS AND YOUR SONG WILL BE WITH ME IN THE NIGHT!
Why hast Thou forgotten me?
I WILL HOPE IN GOD. I SHALL YET PRAISE HIM. MY COUNTENANCE SHALL BE LIFTED!
This psalm leads to the mother-load. It demonstrates a man’s complete emotional honesty before God. It highlights the value of questions. It demonstrates that we do not require an intermediary between God and us. It demonstrates that a troubled heart can be a place of new beginnings. It demonstrates the power of recalling truths and declaring them to ourselves as answers to our own questions. It reveals that it is from our wounds, our failures, and restlessness that God calls us. Can you hear his voice? Are you being driven or are you being drawn?
Father, we are children of light. Teach us to live in Your light, especially when it gets uncomfortable. Lead us into that place where we truly become free souls. Help us to mine deep enough to that place where your sacrifice and suffering touches our depths. Help us to do our part in overthrowing the lies which have robbed us of the abundant life. Succeed in making us that city set upon a hill that radiates your light. When this world asks, “Just where is your God?” they will receive their answer in the joy of our countenance, the vigor of our step, and the wisdom of our council. Amen.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
I listenined to Thirty Million Words by Dana Suskind on Audiobook. She is the surgeon-turned-social scientist who wants to change the world, one child’s brain at a time. Her solid research has proven that between birth and four years old a child’s brain is a super computer under construction. The contractor? The child’s primary caregivers, who either connect the circuitry of that brain by way of a language-rich environment or leaves the wiring only partially connected through language deprivation.
I spend time with four year olds at a local public school. My heart aches knowing this window of extraordinary opportunity is closing on these precious children. Sadly, I can see that it has, in fact, already closed for some. The TMW research shows that by 4 years old, if a child has not heard thirty million words, they will suffer an achievement gap which will follow them their entire lives. For want of words (and wiring), incalculable potential is squandered. This thought connects directly, but perhaps not obviously, to the American Dream, which, to many, seems to be at great risk.
Research tells us that the American Dream has gone awry—the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; the middle class is shrinking. And, to make matters worse, profit-driven media and power-driven politics have framed this problem for us as a policy issue. People, please, policy making is like spitting on a raging fire. New laws and policies are at best a futile form of damage control. Our nation could take a giant step forward in extinguishing our fires by owning one simple truth—our problems are way too big for government to solve. Only we the people can resolve our problems. Only we the people can resuscitate our American Dreams.
May I share a piece of my American Dream with you? It’s really just a byproduct of my vision of God’s kingdom, which includes honoring the inalienable right of each human to reach his or her fullest potential, which happens to come from a higher source than the United States Constitution. Dignity comes to us by virtue of having been created in the image of God. The moment this notion is abandoned, every dream of freedom is at risk. My current American flavored kingdom dream includes a statesman or stateswoman who has chosen to rise above divisive, political claptrap, who, armed with poise and hope, will take the podium and say to us, the American citizenry:
Dear American family. I intentionally address you as “family” because that is precisely what we are. Within the bounds of these two oceans, we have a unique mission and common destiny. Perhaps you may recall: that for America to retain her beauty (which we each treasure), she must “confirm her soul with self control and her liberty with law.” I hope that sounds familiar. It is from the second verse of “America The Beautiful.” Remember her? Sweet Land of Liberty, of thee we once sang? Here is a portion of the third verse: “America! America! God shed His grace on thee, till selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free.”
Dear American brothers and sisters. Let me begin by asking you to help me rescue public discourse from hate mongers and sound bites. For their own selfish reasons, they pit us one American against the other. Shame on them! They profit as they con us into blaming each other for withholding the American Dream from a shrinking middle class. With your help, I am going to do my level best, as a steward of truth, to rescue public discourse from its media captors. We, meaning you and I, must spend our personal and national resources dealing with root issues.
Admittedly, for a time, it will be difficult for us to grasp, that at their core, our problems are not rooted in policy. They are rooted in people. So permit me to lead you back to the people-place where disparity actually begins. The roots of our American losses can be traced to the womb. From this place of safety, a child enters into this world with one of its organs not yet fully developed—its brain. What happens to that child’s brain after it leaves its mother’s womb is critical to America’s future. It is at risk because it is entering into an environment where “whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”
We are currently exhausting, dividing and bankrupting ourselves wrangling over symptoms. If we must point the finger, let’s point it back toward root issues. Let me direct your attention to what may be the root of all roots—early childhood development. Hang with me. I’m not just talking about educational policy reform—I’m talking about societal awakening.
As Americans, we must become a racially, politically blind people where the collective good transcends selfish ambition. If we don’t overcome our selfishness, if we fail to exercise self-restraint, we are going to fuel a cold war within our borders that will weaken our nation at its core. Our enemies will laugh at us as we divide and bury ourselves with politically driven laws instead of giving ourselves to the proven roots of our liberty. We, the American people, have opportunities before us. They are many, but certainly one of the greatest is how we raise the next generation.
Let’s acknowledge together that our children are this nation’s future. Let’s repent of the evil we have foisted upon them with our national debt. Let’s do everything in our power to make this right for our children. And… while we’re talking about our nation’s greatest resource, our children, let’s acknowledge the fertile window of brain development that is being squandered between birth and four year’s old. Let’s do everything in our power to equip these children to reach their fullest potential.
Opportunity, not tax coffers, is the true wealth of our nation. This is how we will redistribute the true wealth of our nation. This is a major way we will restore the middle class. This is how we will restore our American dreams. Please vote for hope when you go to the ballot in November.”
Well … I’m not running for office. I’m just a Christian, who happens to be a citizen, dreaming and praying that my voice will be mingled with other kindred spirits. Our dream is that America may succeed in her destiny as that nation tasked by God, to reconcile its soul with self-control and her liberty with law.
This may not seem like a very spiritual topic since saving a soul from hell was not once mentioned. While I have not discounted the sweet-by-and-by, the Father’s business also involves redemption in the here-and-now. It may not be the whole story but helping humans reach their fullest potential sounds just like something Jesus would do. It fits with His kingdom mission to…
Bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.
Thy will be done on earth, even in America, as it is in heaven… and by all means, allow our children their bread of at least thirty million words. Amen.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I have conquered the world. (John 16:33)
It is the “I have conquered the world” which allows “taking heart” and “continued difficulties” to coexist in the same sentence. It is also the “I have conquered the world” which allows us to “take heart” in our “continued difficulties,” making us into the overcomers we are destined to be. What does that mean though, that “Jesus has conquered the world?” How much relief am I to expect as a consequence of His conquest?
Jesus is presented to us in our passage as the great high priest. Why does the author give Him status as “great?” The traditional duty of a high priest was to oversee the sacrifices and to offer up the blood of beasts in behalf of Israel’s sins. This inspired author points to Jesus coming down from His high place in heaven and taking on human flesh so that He could experience our frailty and temptation. He was great because in doing this, He never once sinned. He was also great because He didn’t just oversee the sacrifices. Jesus became the sacrifice, once, for all.
His sinless life qualified Him as a sacrifice which met God’s criteria. His blood as an unblemished substitute purified and secured victory for all who would believe in Him. It was at the cross that He conquered the world. This is what made Jesus a great high priest.
Beyond the gratitude due him, what other application is there, now that we have a fresh reminder of God’s greatness? First: Hold fast to our confession. In Romans 10:9-10, Paul ties our profession to our salvation. I don’t believe he was speaking only of the initial profession of faith our traditions require at baptism or confirmation. I believe Paul was also speaking of a lifestyle of profession in which our union with Jesus is expressed throughout our lives in the midst of continued difficulties.
Second: Draw near to God with confidence. The early part of Hebrews 4 discusses the essential nature of rest in a believer’s life. Resting from our works (that thing in us that says approval from God must be earned) is a primary piece of our weaponry. Resting in God’s work on the cross enables us to come boldly before His throne so that we may find grace in the continued difficulties life in a godless world guarantees. In our rest we are supremely dangerous!
We live within a cosmic war. Our hearts are beachheads into this godless domain where the battle is being waged. As in Normandy, the Lord of Hosts is invading a stronghold of enemy opposition. The domain we relinquish in our own hearts becomes the substance of our stories and the newly taken ground of His kingdom. With these stories, we will mute Satan’s cosmic lies, which often sound like this: “Just look around. You and I both know you’re outgunned. We both know exactly who’s in charge here. The reason this world appears as a godless place is because it is a godless place. Its mine! Hasn’t suffering confirmed to you yet that God is absent and indifferent? Don’t you think that if God were good and all-powerful, as He claims, He would have relieved you of your continued difficulties by now?”
While there is no doubt great spiritual battles are being waged in the heavens, every believer’s heart is the beachhead of this same battle on earth. That is why I remind myself frequently that we must “Watch over our hearts diligently; everything, including this battle, starts there” (my paraphrase of Proverbs 4:23).
Our ongoing difficulties appear to us as blockades when they are really footholds. When we take heart in this reality, we discover just how Jesus is conquering this world. He will take more ground in our hearts as we face off with the satanic lies rooted in our own belief systems. Watching over our own hearts will cause a shift in the tide of this battle. Here is the cosmic irony: the greatest warriors are those who nurture the most rest in their hearts.
In that final battle, I picture Satan’s last accusations—his final condemning and intimidating lies being drowned out by the stories of millions of God’s rescued and resting children. His foul ideas will be silenced by the roar of praise from the multitudes of captives Jesus has set free. The stories of how He sustained us through our continuing difficulties will abound. In us, In Christ, we will have become the overcomers God destined us to be. God will have the final word!
Father, may our hearts adopt Your perspective regarding these continued difficulties of ours. Help us to meet You in the midst of life, facing off with whatever shows up on the battlefield. Show us where to resist enemy attacks. Show us how to advance in our rest. Amen.
But Thou, O God, the Lord, deal kindly with me for Thy name’s sake. (Psalm 109:21)
“For Thy name’s sake” is a key phrase in this passage. David spends a good portion of his psalm petitioning God to absolutely pulverize those who have slandered him—for Thy name’s sake, of course. I imagine a scene wherein David—king of Israel, meets Jesus – king of the universe. To the bowing Jewish king, Jesus says, “David, I know this will be different for you, but instead of me destroying these people, I would like you to just forgive them. I want you to love them, turn the other cheek and then ask how you might serve them. I want you to start praying for these people not against them. Oh yes…just one more thing—I love your heart.”
With his God-approved heart, I believe David would eventually have moved beyond his desire for revenge and personal vindication. So, what was it about David’s heart God liked? For starters, I believe it was David’s habit of regularly presenting his heart to Him. God applauded David because he lived presumptuously, like a child, regarding God’s favor (see Acts 13:22).
Knowing that he was safe with God, David confessed to Him that his own heart was wounded, that he was weak and shaken. He wanted relief from his suffering. He wanted God to improve his circumstances. I believe God also loved a certain motive of David’s. David wanted everyone to see an outcome in his life that reflected well on God. It seems David is not too different from you and me.
We don’t know what percentage of David’s heart was motivated exclusively by a concern for God’s glory, but we do know a portion of it burned with that ambition: “And let them know that this is Thy hand; Thou Lord hast done it.” Even though David’s motives were mixed, like ours, God endorsed David’s heart.
What percentage of our hearts are fueled by concern for God’s glory? Do we see our hearts well enough to even know how divided they are? Are we conscious that we do many things for our name’s sake? Even if we could discern our vested self-interest in singing that “special” or preaching that sermon or appearing in this or that light, could we then just flip a switch and be all in for His namesake? If it were that easy, those of us on our way back to Paradise would forfeit the opportunity to know God’s intimacy, which was the essence of Eden.
In another psalm, the writer places his petition before God, “Unite my heart to sing Thy praise.” It seems this writer understood his duplicitous motives. He was crying out for purification and refinement in the deepest part of himself. It is in this space where motivations reside—where deep calls unto deep. It is in this place that Jesus either becomes Lord or just a consultant we bring in on an as-needed basis. Since we will one day see Him face to face, “Lord, unite my heart to sing Thy praise” is a very sane prayer for us to be praying.
Having one’s heart united is painful. Being disentangled from previous alliances is death to our old selves. The suffering involved in this dying process is one of the things God uses to refine our heart-motives. If we will process our sufferings in the Lord’s presence, as David did, we will come to know Him more intimately. When we stand before Him, a greater portion of our hearts will have been united—desiring to have seen His name exalted above our own. Is Jesus our Savior and Lord, or is He our Savior and consultant?
Father, help us to cooperate as you unite our hearts. Retrieve them from all the things we have given them over to—our reputations, our success, our ambition, our need for approval, our own comfort, and our own glory. May we grow to live for Thy name’s sake. Unite our hearts to sing Your praise. Amen.
Not too many years ago I would occasionally find myself behind the pulpit, delivering the word, as sermons or teachings were referred to in our church. I vividly recall my final word. I was well into my message when it dawned on me, mid-sentence, that those rows of people in front of me could have taken the same time I had with the scriptures and been much better off.
The timing of this revelation was disastrous! While I was just trying to keep the show on the road, I was being interrupted by one hostile thought after another: “They will never learn to feed themselves or fly if they are not shooed from the nest.” “Baby birds will perish and it will be Mama’s fault if she doesn’t do the shoving.” It struck me that in delivering the weekly word I was complicit in maintaining a spiritual welfare culture. Since that memorable day, I have often thought: I must learn how to keep my thoughts from myself. I unknowingly crossed a line that day and I haven’t been able to find my way back.
Today, my yardstick for measuring a shepherd’s effectiveness is not how many people attend his gatherings or how much money has been collected. (Any church can achieve those things with a strong speaker and a good worship band.) It is how many convert/attenders they have transformed into disciples. How many believers have they taught to feed themselves and fly? The best preachers are not just conveyors of Bible gems. They also ask penetrating, equipping heart-level questions which send believers off to their prayer closets, bible-in-hand, to consider what God has spoken to them and how they shall obey that word.
So, today I’ll take my own council and simply offer you some questions relating to our passage. Over time, this practice of personally asking and seeking causes our wings to grow because we are being nourished in ways that passive listening (to even to the best sermons) cannot accomplish. In this mode, believers eventually hear their own word, from God. This habit is key to enjoying a personal relationship with Him.
According to Paul, what are normal emotions for a follower of Christ?
If we have not prayed with accuracy or eloquence, why might this passage offer us hope?
What can separate us from God’s love?
In what set of circumstances does Paul say we will overwhelmingly conquer?
To what is Paul asking us to compare our “present” circumstances?
What are we to anticipate between predestination and glorification?
What future event are believers and creation greatly anticipating?
On what basis might a follower of Christ take courage when the events of their life seem wasteful, unfair or painful?
Importantly: What is God speaking to you?
Most importantly: What is God asking you to do?
When we take the time to search the scripture’s we will taste the meat. As we meditate and wrestle with God, in His Word, we will draw from it the essential nourishment our spirits require. Believers who do this long enough become disciples and are weaned from dependency upon pastor’s milk. Truth and revelation become our own. A pastor’s goal should be to eventually wean each young Christian from him, bringing them to appropriate levels of independence and maturity.
Father, bring many sons into maturity for Your name’s sake. Amen.
How is it that bad things happen to us when we have angels looking out for us, when Christ himself intercedes for us, and when God, who is all-powerful and all-knowing is all for us? If God is my fortress, how did this stuff get over the moat and into the fortification?
How are we to respond to suffering? What value, if any, does it have? The answer we get from the scriptures may not be what we’ve been taught, and it may not be what we’d prefer, but if we will listen to Peter, he will answer the questions so many of us have asked, and may be asking still. Peter tells us that 1) since Jesus has suffered, arm yourself with the very same purpose 2) don’t let suffering catch you off guard as if a test were an unexpected thing 3) when you suffer according to God’s will, entrust yourself to him 4) Christ shares his suffering with some; if you are privileged to be one of them, stay current in your rejoicing, knowing that exultation awaits you 5) trials and suffering are necessary sometimes 6) suffering serves as a refining fire for our faith which will prove more precious than gold 7) responding well to suffering will result in the eternal benefit of praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
I will once again reference two classic books by the late Paul Billheimer: Don’t Waste Your Sorrows and Destined for the Throne. These books hammered home a spiritual reality: out of life’s painful experiences, God somehow creates current intimacy as well as eternal blessing. Consequently, when suffering has come into my life, there has always been a hope, albeit at times faint, that God was in the midst of the fire with me. Thanks to the scriptural teaching on suffering, there has always been an understanding that God was at work in the midst of unwanted circumstances.
Thanks to Paul, the apostle, Romans 8:28 contribution, there has always been the anticipation that proof of redemption would one day become evident, accruing to God’s glory and contributing to the furtherance of God’s kingdom. Viewing suffering through this lens exposes a deep mystery and encourages the perseverance required by faith—that thing which is so pleasing to God.
Sufferings are intersections where the believer finds a stoplight. He can turn either left or right. Or, preferably, he can proceed straight ahead on the main highway. The left turn has the believer closing his heart off to God because bad things transpired under the watch of a supposedly good Father. These travelers have no answer to suffering other than disappointment and even anger.
The right turn has the believer doubling down on false gospels that conveniently avoid the subject of suffering altogether or explain it away as satanic-theft. In this hyper-religious response, a God who must be good (all the time), by our temporal measurement, is rescued. This imagined deity’s throne is secure as long as believers can keep Satan at bay with their authority in Christ.
I don’t believe either of these directions honors the scriptures. I don’t know where they ultimately lead and I don’t want to find out. However, I do believe the Parable of the Sower sheds some light. Whether it was in bitterness or denial, the talent got buried. In the heart, where it might have grown, faith lay fallow. Neither the left nor the right turn will bring a return of investment to the Master.
Just as I have a low tolerance for physical pain, I also have a low tolerance for spiritual pain. At one level I despise suffering; I tremble for myself and others as I watch them dealing with it. I am keenly aware of both the left and right turn temptations. But, deeper in my heart, I recall that suffering may be necessary. I recall that redemption is embedded in all things (which includes suffering). I believe I will see this redemption if I will only respond to Jesus—as opposed to reacting to my circumstances in bitterness or religious-denial.
I don’t want to squander my sorrows. The scriptures tell me they are treasures in disguise. This is a place where we can advance in loving God with all our hearts, with all our strength and with all our minds. These intersections are where Jesus can become our all in all. Mysteriously, suffering can produce intimacy—God’s anticipated return-on-investment.
Admittedly, suffering is a cosmic mystery and we are right there, with Christ, in the middle of it. Responding to it correctly is how we are to stay on the main highway. My thanks go out to Peter, to both Paul A and Paul B, and to my other spiritual fathers for your navigational assistance.
Father, we really don’t need to know why painful experiences come our way. Regardless of our poor initial reaction to suffering, help us to recover quickly, realizing we are being raised as sons of God, as brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ and that you are a competent and loving parent who is capable of making use of everything that touches our lives, regardless of where it comes from. Amen.