Psalm 28 – Prayer, Praise, and Possibility

Psalm 28 by Dutch artist Wim van de Wege

I pray to you, O Lord, my rock.
    Do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you are silent,
    I might as well give up and die.
Listen to my prayer for mercy
    as I cry out to you for help,
    as I lift my hands toward your holy sanctuary.

Do not drag me away with the wicked—
    with those who do evil—
those who speak friendly words to their neighbors
    while planning evil in their hearts.
Give them the punishment they so richly deserve!
    Measure it out in proportion to their wickedness.
Pay them back for all their evil deeds!
    Give them a taste of what they have done to others.
They care nothing for what the Lord has done
    or for what his hands have made.
So he will tear them down,
    and they will never be rebuilt!

Praise the Lord!
    For he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and shield.
    I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.
    I burst out in songs of thanksgiving.

The Lord gives his people strength.
    He is a safe fortress for his anointed king.
Save your people!
    Bless Israel, your special possession.
Lead them like a shepherd,
    and carry them in your arms forever. (New Living Translation)

The biblical character David, in frustration and agony, cried out for help, for God to hear his prayers. And, when his prayer was heard, David gave exuberant praise to the Lord for listening to him.

We are not told specifically of how that prayer was answered and what happened between the request and the response. It seems the juicy details are left out on purpose, so that maybe we would not get lost in the retribution but stick with the fact that there was a desperate need and the Lord stepped in and did something about it.

As I pondered this psalm and its lack of life-detail, I wondered about David’s situation:

Could it be that David gave God praise just for being heard by him? 

Was David cured in some way, or was he healed from the need to be healed? 

Was there even any actual deliverance that occurred? 

Did David come to praise God despite a lack of deliverance? 

Was David’s joy in his relationship with God conditional, or unconditional?

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1601 C.E.) put the question this way: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlet’s soliloquy went on to say:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance, to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin (knitting needle)?”

Hamlet, much like David of old, was miserable and burdened with a profound lack of power to change his circumstances. So, he reflects on life and death in a morbid and melancholy way. It’s not that Hamlet was contemplating suicide as much as he meditated on what life truly is and finding some meaning within it. Unlike David, Hamlet cannot find the courage to deal with his frustration and feels stymied with fear of the unknown.

If we are blatantly honest with ourselves, we must admit that far too often we have a particular outcome in mind that we want or expect God to do.  Our hopes become tethered to God doing something extremely specific so that, if it does not come to pass (or does not come quickly!) we become discouraged and disillusioned. Like Hamlet, we become lost in the shadows of our thinking and ponder some sort of escape.

So, here is another set of questions I am asking myself: 

If my adverse circumstances do not change, can I praise God anyway? 

Can I, like David, take joy in simply being heard? 

Can I find gratitude in all situations? 

Do I only express thanks and praise to God when things are going my way? 

Am I open to whatever God wants to do in my life, even if it is not what I would choose? 

Do I feel that I am above having to put up with the wickedness of this world? 

Am I expecting heaven on earth, or am I willing to suffer as Jesus did? 

I honestly believe the answers to those questions will determine the trajectory of our Christian experience. For the identity and meaning of all persons is found in the divine.

I praise you, O God, in the good and the bad, the easy and the difficult, the failures and the victories.  You are Lord over all things.  You are my strength and shield in every circumstance.  When I am weak, I am strong. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Amen.

Job 39:1-30 – Questions without Answers

God responds to Job out of the whirlwind by William Blake (1757-1827)

When do mountain goats
    and deer give birth?
Have you been there
    when their young are born?
How long are they pregnant
    before they deliver?
Soon their young grow strong
and then leave
    to be on their own.

Who set wild donkeys free?
I alone help them survive
    in salty desert sand.
They stay far from crowded cities
    and refuse to be tamed.
Instead, they roam the hills,
    searching for pastureland.

Would a wild ox agree
to live in your barn
    and labor for you?
Could you force him to plow
or to drag a heavy log
    to smooth out the soil?
Can you depend on him
to use his great strength
    and do your heavy work?
Can you trust him
    to harvest your grain
or take it to your barn
    from the threshing place?

An ostrich proudly
    flaps her wings,
but not because
    she loves her young.
She abandons her eggs
and lets the dusty ground
    keep them warm.
And she doesn’t seem to worry
that the feet of an animal
    could crush them all.
She treats her eggs as though
    they were not her own,
unconcerned that her work
    might be for nothing.
I myself made her foolish
    and without common sense.
But once she starts running,
she laughs at a rider
    on the fastest horse.

Did you give horses their strength
and the flowing hair
    along their necks?
Did you make them able
    to jump like grasshoppers
or to frighten people
    with their snorting?

Before horses are ridden
    into battle,
they paw at the ground,
    proud of their strength.
Laughing at fear, they rush
    toward the fighting,
while the weapons of their riders
    rattle and flash in the sun.
Unable to stand still,
they gallop eagerly into battle
    when trumpets blast.
Stirred by the distant smells
and sounds of war,
they snort
    in reply to the trumpet.

Did you teach hawks to fly south
    for the winter?
Did you train eagles to build
    their nests on rocky cliffs,
where they can look down
    to spot their next meal?
Then their young gather to feast
    wherever the victim lies. (Contemporary English Version)

God has a way of asking questions for which he already has answers to.

The older I get, and the more understanding I gain, the more I realize how little knowledge I truly possess. When I was eighteen years old, I thought I had the world pretty much figured out. Since then, it has all been downhill. With each passing year, my ignorance seems to grow exponentially.

I suppose this all really makes some sense when talking about God’s upside-down kingdom. So much more of life is a mystery to us than we realize. Turns out that those with understanding need to become stupid before they can truly be wise. Seems like the biblical character of Job found this out the hard way.

If there is any person in Holy Scripture that would be wise and understanding, its him. God speaks highly of Job in the Bible. Regarding the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, God said, “even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 14:14). Job is held up the model of patience under suffering: “As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11).

Yet, with all of Job’s integrity, patience, and righteousness his understanding can barely get a movement on the Richter Scale of God’s expansive knowledge. Being a conscientious follower of God, Job is careful to live uprightly. He acknowledges God in all things and worships him alone. Yet, suffering befell him – for no other reason than that God allowed it. Job knew fully well that there was no personal sin behind his awful ordeal of grief and grinding pain.

So, Job contended with God. For an agonizing thirty-five chapters (Job 3:1-37:24) Job questions God and respectfully takes him to task – as Job’s supposed friends questioned him and assume his guilt. Through it all God is there… silent, saying nothing….

Then, just when we think God is paying no attention, he suddenly speaks. And what is so remarkable about God’s speech is that for four chapters God gives no answers (Job 38:1-41:34). It is all questions. God said, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me” (Job 38:3).

It becomes abundantly clear after just a few questions that it would be impossible for any human being to even come close to having the understanding to answer anything God asks. And that was the whole point. God is God, and we are not. Our questions, however legitimate, real, and raw they are, come from a very puny perspective.

We just don’t know as much as we think we do.

To Job’s great credit, he keeps his mouth shut and listens. At the end of the questioning, Job responds in the only wise way one could after such an encounter: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3).

None of this means that, for us, we need to face our hardships and our sufferings with a stoic keep-a-stiff-upper-lip approach. Trapped grief will inevitably come out sideways and only cause more hurt.

I believe God allowed Job to express his terrible physical, emotional, and spiritual pain for chapter after chapter because he needed to. Only when God sensed it was the proper timing did he jump in and bring the perspective Job then needed. And even after being challenged by God about his vantage point, Job still did not receive answers as to why he had to endure the awfulness of loss beyond what most of us could comprehend.

It just might be that, even if God directly answered all our questions, we still would not understand what the heck is happening to us.

Most likely, God protects us from knowing things that might bring irreparable damage to our human psyches. Yet, this is all pure conjecture. Which leaves us with perhaps one of our greatest challenges as human beings: We must eventually come to the place of being comfortable with mystery – and even embracing it. We simply will not have all things revealed to us that we want to know. And that’s okay.

Anytime we try to pin God down to nice, neat, understandable categories, he typically colors outside our human contrived lines and demonstrates he cannot be contained in our ramshackle box.

God is unbound by any human knowledge, understanding, ideas, or plans. God will do what God will do. God will be who God will be. “I Am who I Am,” he once said. Now that’s a God I can put my trust in.

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me.

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace. Amen.

Revelation 7:9-17 – Persevering to the End

After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. They cried out with a loud voice:

“Victory belongs to our God
        who sits on the throne,
            and to the Lamb.”

All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, saying,

“Amen! Blessing and glory
        and wisdom and thanksgiving
        and honor and power and might
            be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

I said to him, “Sir, you know.”

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Common English Bible)

There is a day coming when followers of Jesus will see him face to face. Believers will serve the Lord continually. God’s very presence will be their permanent shelter. It will be a glorious time of unending peace, harmony, and rest.

There shall be no more worrying about how to make ends meet, where we are going to get our needs met, and anxiety about the future. Injustice will be a thing of the past. Unending love and light will replace it.

First, however, before this permanent Sabbath, there will be trouble, hardship, trial, and even martyrdom. There is presently pain and suffering. Like a woman in labor, this must take place before there is the glory of new life. 

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

Christopher Reeve

Sometimes the difficult circumstances of life seem to have no end. Yet, they will eventually pass, and we must continually keep this in mind. Christians have the hope of God’s pastoral presence forever guarding and keeping our lives if we endure to the end.

Perseverance, endurance, and pushing through hard situations are necessary to realize the finish line. We cannot just sit here on earth in some sort of holding pattern waiting for the end to occur. Just as an athlete must go into strict training in order to run the race well, finish strong, and cross the line, so we as Christians are to be in training – utilizing an array of spiritual practices that will fortify our souls to keep going and finish the race. 

The book of Revelation was a vision of the Apostle John given to believers in hardship who needed to persevere. Giving them a glimpse of the glorious ending was one way of helping them in the present to live for Jesus Christ, despite the pain.

Since the Christian life is not a sprint but a marathon, here are some ways we can build a enduring and persevering spirit until Christ returns:

Don’t be afraid to fail.

That’s because, for the believer, we know the ending. We may feel like colossal failures, at times, yet, because the Lord is with us, we have nothing to fear. Being secure in our identity as God’s people enables us to step out and engage the world.

When I am afraid,
    I put my trust in you.
I trust God, so I am not afraid of what people can do to me!
    I praise God for his promise to me. (Psalm 56:3-4, ERV)

Take small steps of faith.

We can incrementally improve ourselves daily through our growth in grace. We don’t need to always do big things for God. We can do small acts of kindness with big love.

Continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory, now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:18, GNT)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’The second most important command is this: ‘Love your neighbor the same as you love yourself.’ These two commands are the most important. (Mark 12:30-31, ERV)

Identify the resistance.

Name the obstacles, impediments, and challenges to perseverance. Our awareness of what hinders us gives us the power to choose how to handle it.

We should remove from our lives anything that would slow us down and the sin that so often makes us fall. We must never stop looking to Jesus. He is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. (Hebrews 12:1-2, ERV)

Practice good self-care.

The body, mind, emotions, and spirit are our vehicles to doing the will of God. So, it is imperative we steward these precious gifts of humanity with care. The only way we will make it over the long haul of our lives is through paying attention to this.

God has made us what we are. In Christ Jesus, God made us new people so that we would spend our lives doing the good things he had already planned for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10, ERV)

Surely you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you! (1 Corinthians 3:16, GNT)

Know why you are persevering.

Losing connection with why we do what we do leads to dropping out and giving up. Yet, when we can maintain what is most important to us, it helps us push through all the sticky points of our lives.

So, if you eat, or if you drink, or if you do anything, do it for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31, ERV)

Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17, CEB)

Patient God, you tediously work until your plans and purposes are accomplished.  As you are slowly bringing your kingdom to the world, strengthen me so that I do not give up.  Help me to persevere, living and loving like Jesus, to his glory.  Amen.

James 5:13-20 – Pray In Times of Trouble

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (New International Version)

This entire letter of the Apostle James to a suffering church is grounded in two important theological truths:  God is good; and God acts powerfully in the world for good. 

The foundation of Christian prayer is the conviction that God cares – that the Lord hears us and responds. Prayers can be lifted at any time. Yet, the God-focused and God-honoring prayer has a price. It will cost us time, effort, vulnerability, and follow-through with appropriate action. Biblical prayer is more than private requests; it requires something of us as a community of believers in Jesus.

When To Pray?

We are to pray whenever there is trouble in our lives which causes us to suffer. Whether physical trouble, emotional suffering, or relational difficulty, we are to pray about it all. We are to pray even when we do not feel like it. In short, we are to be pray continually because there is always a need for prayer.

The Apostle James practiced what he taught. The Roman historian, Eusebius, wrote concerning James that “his knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people.” James was in constant intercession to God for people. 

“His knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people.”

The fourth-century historian Eusebius, describing the Apostle James

Like James, we all need prayer is to be our default response in trouble and suffering. When in trying circumstances, a temptation is to lash out at the person who enabled the adversity. We may even become mad at God for allowing trouble in our lives.

Yet, when afflicted, suffering, or in trouble, we need to pray. Sometimes God will always take away our afflictions, suffering, or troubles. Sometimes not. However, by bringing our circumstances before the Lord and acknowledging our need for divine help, we can see God intervene in the situation we are presently facing. What’s more, prayer can give us the grace we need to endure and come closer to God.

So, when the bottom drops out; when you feel you are hanging by a thread; when circumstances are overwhelming or grow worse by the minute, we should pray. We should pray, whether afflicted, sick, or overcome by guilt and shame.

The cost of prayer is time. For many people, time is as precious as money. So, we try to fit prayer into our lives without ever altering our schedules. That will not do. Prayer takes time because it is a conversation with God, and it requires extended focused attention.

Who Should Pray?

Everyone is to pray – including everyone in the church who are happy, suffering, healthy, or ill. Specifically, James tells us the elders of the church are to pray for those who are sick – including physical suffering, mental illness, emotional hurt, and spiritual sickness. Prayer is for all those who are weak, weary, and worn down by life circumstances.

Notice the chain of responsibility here in today’s New Testament lesson. The onus is on the sick person to contact the elders of the church. Scripture clearly puts the need for communicating an adverse situation on the person who is undergoing the trouble. For many people, this is humbling and difficult, so they simply don’t do it. Prayer has a price: openness and vulnerability.

When the needy person communicates the trouble, then the elders are to anoint the person in the name of the Lord and offer a prayer of faith for the afflicted person. It is the leadership’s job to pray. In the ancient biblical world, anointing with oil was a deeply symbolic act of encouragement. It was a tangible way of lifting the person out of trouble.

And all kinds of sickness are in view: physical ailments of bodily sickness; heart problems of anger or bitterness; spiritual struggles of doubt; emotional challenges of depression or anxiety; along with anything and everything that causes ill health. It all should be prayed over, with people being anointed and encouraged.

Prayer is not a strictly private affair; it is a communal activity. Consider the thought that if you are not experiencing healing, wholeness, and health – whether physical, relational, or spiritual – then perhaps God is calling you and I to more than private prayer but to corporate prayer offered by the elders of the church. 

It is not just the prayer offered by one solitary individual that makes the sick person well – it is the collective faith prayer of the church’s leadership on the troubled person.

How To Pray?

Pray in faith. Pray earnestly. Trust God for healing and wholeness with prayers that are persistent, passionate, and prolonged. Again, this will cost the troubled person a profound willingness to be vulnerable, real, and honest. No vulnerability, no healing. No gut-level honesty with the true condition, no power to raise the person up. No willingness to stop fighting and let go of the pride and perceived ability to handle it ourselves, no end to the trouble.

Today, many people throughout the world are trying to independently get out of their trouble and do not want others to help them through the ministry of prayer. The cost of letting others see their terrible situation is too high for them. So, they suffer in silence, failing to confess and receive healing prayer.

Why Pray?

The goal of prayer is total and complete healing from physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual ills. In addition, it is through prayer that prodigals return from their wandering in the muck of the world.

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. The Old Testament prophet Elijah simply believed God’s Word and prayed accordingly. Elijah knew from reading the book of Deuteronomy that God said whenever God’s people wander from the truth, there will be drought, no rain. 

So, Elijah prayed the words of God. He prayed that it would not rain, and it didn’t. Then, when there was a great revival of the people back to God, Elijah prayed it would rain with passionate, sincere, believing, and persevering prayer. And it rained a gulley-washer.

So, let’s pray…

Good and gracious God, we believe you are compassionate, willing, and able to heal people in the name of Christ. Today we pray for those requiring surgery; needing confidence and courage; trying to understand their suffering; having a sense of guilt or failure; experiencing great anxiety; lacking patience; feeling disappointed; tiring of limitations; wearying of old age; lacking sleep; and wandering from the truth. For all these people and their situations of trouble, we pray to you, Lord, for healing, health, and wholeness. 

Eternal God, send your Holy Spirit upon each person we are praying for right now. Drive away all sickness of body and spirit. Make whole that which is broken. Give deliverance from the power of evil. Provide strengthening of faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who suffered on our behalf, yet also rose from death so that we, too, could live a new life.

Most gracious God, you are the source of healing. We give you thanks for all your gifts to us, but most of all, for the gift of your Son, the Lord Jesus, through whom you gave and still give strength and deliverance to all who believe. As we wait in eager expectation for the coming of that day when suffering and pain shall be no more, help us by your Holy Spirit to be assured of your power in our lives and to trust in your eternal love, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.