The Divine Helper (Psalm 121)

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore. (New International Version)

Not a one of us gets off this planet without needing help – a lot of help! Even people who are in helping professions or who identify themselves primarily as helpers need help themselves.

There is no such thing as complete, total, and irrevocable independence. We humans are hard-wired by our Creator for community. That means we can only find our greatest fulfillment within interdependent relationships; and, furthermore, discover our highest happiness in a dependent relationship to God.

To need others, and especially to need God, is not a weakness; it’s a sign of strength. To have an awareness that help is needed allows us to make wise and confident choices. Only the fool goes it alone, believing they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “God helps those who help themselves,” was originally said by Benjamin Franklin, not Holy Scripture.

So, the question becomes: To whom and to where do we go for help? Who do we consult? With whom do we collaborate?

The most important step any of us can make is to realize that our own personal resources, although important and necessary, are inadequate. Therefore, we must admit, “I need help with this.” The next step is to go to the right source for that help.

The psalmist insists that the Lord is our helper, our keeper. Keeping is a large part of helping. God as our Divine Keeper means that the Lord watches over us, guards our lives, and seeks to preserve us from harm, wrongdoing, injustice, and oppression.

The very identity of God is wrapped up in being a Protector, Guard, and Watchkeeper. The Lord shields and shelters us, much like a mother hen over her chicks. God watches over us, just as a watchman keeps guard over a city at night when the residents are sleeping. And since the Lord is everywhere present, there is a continual divine presence in all of our life journeys. The dangers of both the day and the night are no match for the God who is our Keeper.

The promises of safety in today’s psalm are not meant to suggest that those who walk in the shelter of God will never endure harm or that nothing ill will ever befall them. The Psalter knows all too well that the wicked are everywhere and that they thrive unjustly.

Rather, these divine promises are general promises—they are blessings God does for those who rely on the Lord, call upon God’s name, and seek divine help. We are to have a continual awareness of God’s presence in this world. Although we are not inoculated from pain, God is always with us in our hurt and bewilderment.

It can be hard to ask for help. Our pride, stubbornness, and independence might cause us to experience harm rather than seek assistance. Be specific about the help needed. The following are some “helpful” ways of approaching God by answering some basic newsgathering type questions. The goal isn’t to convince the Lord to help us, but rather to enable us in connecting with what we truly need and being specific about God’s assistance for us or for others:

Who needs help?

Be clear and specific if the help is for yourself, another, or a group of people.

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. (Matthew 8:5-8, NIV)

How will God’s intervention help?

God is an expert listener. Tell the story of what you have tried already and where you fall short.

Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24, NIV)

Why are you asking for God’s help?

Explain what’s going on and the reasons why you believe the Lord is the One to help. Mention the divine attributes and actions of God, as well as your own personal connection.

Then Asa called to the Lord his God and said, “Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.” (2 Chronicles 14:11, NIV)

Where is the help needed?

Is it a geographical location, a specific spot in the human body, or a place such as a building or home?

Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. So, he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them. (Luke 4:37-39, NIV)

When do you need help?

Immediately? Tomorrow? At a specific time?

O Lord, God of my salvation,

    when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

let my prayer come before you;

    incline your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,

    and my life draws near to Sheol. (Psalm 88:1-3, NRSV)

What, exactly, is the need?

Spell out what you want in detail, holding nothing back. Don’t be concerned about the words or saying it right. Speak in your own plain language.

Help, O Lord, for the godly are fast disappearing!

    The faithful have vanished from the earth!

Neighbors lie to each other,

    speaking with flattering lips and deceitful hearts.

May the Lord cut off their flattering lips

    and silence their boastful tongues. (Psalm 12:1-3, NLT)

The help you and I need is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. We only need to ask, and it will be given; seek, and we will find; knock, and the answer will open to us.

I Cannot Do This Alone

A Prayer by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray and to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness, but with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me; I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace. In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty, and enable me to live now, that I may answer before you and before men.
Lord whatever this day may bring, Your name be praised. Amen.

How To Deal with Temptation (James 1:12-16)

Eve reaching for the forbidden fruit, by S.J. Grove, 1995

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. (New International Version)

The slow slog of uphill adversity, at various times, is a common experience of us all. We must deal with circumstances we didn’t choose, and situations that are out of our control. Throw into the mix that many people have few resources, and you have a feeling of being totally overwhelmed.

In this state of being, it’s challenging to maintain solid decision-making, emotional stability, and spiritual support. We need both encouragement and warning so that we can be strengthened in faith.

The Apostle James sought to encourage and warn a small struggling church who were enduring difficult and unwanted situations. He reminded the believers that the person who perseveres under a time of trial and testing of faith is blessed. 

To be “blessed” is to have God’s stamp of approval. God approves of learning, enduring, and maturing through hardship. For such people, God has promised to give “the crown of life.” All the hard lessons we have under our belts, puts us in the position to connect with Jesus and enjoy God.

Don’t blame others

Sometimes, however, we face suffering not because of the circumstances which God brings in our lives, but because of our own unwise response to difficulty. 

Problems are compounded whenever we blame our troubles on others, and refuse to learn what God is trying to teach us. This sort of response has it’s origins in the Garden.  

Adam said to God, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12) The implication of Adam is that he would have remained innocent, if God had not put Eve in the Garden with him. 

Ever since, blame-shifting has been a staple of human behavior. Our bruised hearts and damaged egos send us desperately looking for someone else to blame when we are confronted with our own trouble. 

“There are two eras in American history: the passing of the buffalo and the passing of the buck.”

Will Rogers

Some folks can be so desperate to justify themselves, they end up saying illogical things, such as: 

  • “I wouldn’t lose my temper if my co-workers were easier to get along with, my kids behaved better, and my spouse were more considerate.” 
  • “I would be a patient person if I didn’t have so many things to do, and if the people around me weren’t so slow and incompetent!” 
  • “I would have a pure mind if there were not so many sexual images in our culture.”
  • “I wouldn’t worry about the future if I had more money, and no health problems.”
  • “My spiritual life would be much better if the pastor did a better job.”
  • “I would follow if there were some decent leadership around here.”
  • “I could never forgive that person [or God].”
  • “My neighbor is an incredible cook; I can’t lose weight with such good food.”
  • “I’ll never be happy, as long as that person is in my life.”

So, I ask us, “What will it take?”…

  1. To stop making excuses? 
  2. To quit blame-shifting onto others? 
  3. To trust God and step out in faith?
  4. To cease worrying about what other people think and start doing what God thinks? 
  5. To look at faith as a dynamic relationship with the Lord, instead of just a static thing you possess? 
  6. To read Holy Scripture as if your life depended on it? 
  7. To minister with initiative and confidence? 
  8. To be humble, do justice, and act with mercy? 
  9. To spiritually grow?
  10. To truly enjoy life?

Don’t blame God

It seems that to err is human; to blame it on the divine is even more human.

God cannot be tempted; it’s not an option. God hates sin and disobedience; the Lord has no appeal for it, at all. It’s a moral impossibility for God to even consider attempting to do evil. Therefore, since God cannot be tempted by evil, God cannot tempt people toward evil.

Then why in the Sam Hill would we ever blame anything on God? Because it’s a cheap easy (and pathetic) way of absolving ourselves from responsibility for our own unwise choices, words, and actions. 

Certainly, God tests us, in order to improve our character, and to bring us toward greater spiritual maturity. Yet, God never forces us to make bad, immoral, or evil choices. God may have brought the trial and testing into our lives; but how we respond to it is up to us.

Take responsibility for yourself

The real culprit behind temptation is one’s own personal and strong desire. It’s the intense motive to have-to-do-it, have-to-say-it, and have-to-have-it, which are at the root of temptation. 

We all have legitimate needs, wants, and desires for love, security, companionship, and to make a difference in the world. Yet we may seek illegitimate means to satisfy those needs. We are lured to the hook by the enticing bait of temptation, and if we bite, that’s on us. Our own temptations lure us to satisfy our legitimate needs in illegitimate ways. 

And when we get ourselves in a pickle because of following our own temptations, the internal push to blame others and/or God becomes strong. It doesn’t help that blame-shifting feels good; it gets the monkey off my back – at least for a time. 

But like a bad addiction, blame-shifting needs to occur in a bigger dose, after a shorter duration of time. Before you know it, we’re caught in a destructive cycle. The temptation has enticed us and we have taken the bait.  Like a fish-eyed follower of evil, we succumb to the lust for ambition, revenge, sex, power, fame, or money.

Know the consequences of blaming others

Temptation, like a smooth operator, comes along and gives a slick pitch about how our troubles can be managed or taken away through blaming others, even God. Then, all of sudden, like a star-struck fan seeking to be satisfied, we take the bait and go to bed with the idea. 

We let sin’s temptation have its way with us. Now, it’s inside us. Like a fetus, the small sin grows within. Eventually, this pregnancy will come to full term. But instead of giving birth to life, there is the terrible agony of death.

Conclusion

Everyone struggles in some way with some sort of temptation. We don’t all wrestle with the same demons, but we’re all tempted in some manner. However, the cycle of guilt and separation from God can be broken. The glory of the gospel is that it breaks the power of sin.

So, hear the good news: 

Don’t let anyone fool you by using senseless arguments [blame-shifting]. These arguments may sound wise, but they are only human teachings. They come from the powers of this world and not from Christ… Christ has taken away your selfish desires… God let Christ make you alive when he forgave all our sins.

God wiped out the charges that were against us for disobeying. He took them away and nailed them to the cross. There Christ defeated all powers and forces… Now the forces of the universe don’t have any power over you….

Kill every selfish desire. Don’t be immoral or indecent or have evil thoughts. Don’t be greedy, which is the same as worshiping idols….  You must quit being angry, hateful, and evil. You must no longer say insulting or cruel things about others. And stop lying to each other. You have given up your old way of life with its habits….

God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him. (Colossians 2:8-3:17, CEV)

Amen.

Don’t Lose Heart (2 Corinthians 4:1-12)

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 

For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (New International Version)

We all face times of adversity and seasons of life which stretch our faith and press the limits of what we can handle. 

You will find no promise within Holy Scripture that believers will avoid trouble. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Jesus promised that those who follow him will experience trouble. (John 15:18-20; 1 John 3:13; 2 Timothy 2:12) 

The pressures of life can sometimes be so overwhelming that we may lose heart. We might blame ourselves for the adversity we’re experiencing and wish things were different. Or we may blame others for our troubles and believe that if they would just get their act together, all would be well with my soul. 

Yet, no matter the source or nature of the problem, believers need a point of focus to direct their troubled hearts. We all need to be reminded of the grace we possess in Jesus Christ.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is both a spiritual and a physical reality. If we believe this truth in our hearts we will be raised both spiritually and physically (Romans 10:9-10). This faith in Christ gives shape to the hope that, although we might be experiencing the effects of mortality and the fall of humanity, we are, at the same time, being spiritually renewed day by day. 

The same afflictions that cause our bodies to degenerate and dispirit us are the means to achieving a glorious, resurrected existence (2 Corinthians 4:13-18). There cannot be the glory of spiritual and bodily resurrection without a shameful death. The way of Jesus was to absorb the shame of the world’s violent ways on the cross so that we might be raised with him in his resurrection. 

However, this victory through Christ’s cross and resurrection does not mean that the church will never experience difficulty in this present life. In fact, daily spiritual renewal can and does happen through adverse circumstances. 

There must be suffering before glory, both for Jesus and for us. Just because we have spiritual deliverance, does not mean we are inoculated from daily stress and pressure. That’s because it’s the troubles of this life that teach us to trust God; it is the adversity which weans us from all that we have previously trusted upon to cope with those troubles. All of this begs several questions for each believer and every church: 

  • Do we give inordinate attention to either the tangibly physical or the intangible spiritual? 
  • How does the gospel impact us today? 
  • How do we interpret our earthly troubles? 
  • What place does faith in God have in our daily decisions? 
  • As we become older, are we being renewed in Christ? 
  • Does the Lord’s Table, as a tangible sign and seal of our intangible faith, shape our hope?

We must learn to embrace our troubles as the means of growing our faith. And the first step to this is by acknowledging those troubles. There is no accepting, coping, and transcending difficult circumstances apart from this awareness. Troubles only have power over us for ill if we ignore them or put up a false front to hide them. 

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NIV)

The Apostle Paul wasn’t asking anything of the believers that he himself hadn’t already faced. Paul’s Christian experience sometimes resulted in beatings, stoning and shipwreck, hunger and poverty, danger and trouble, not to mention all the pressures of his concern for all the churches he established. Yet, through it all, Paul was transparent and named his troubles so he could apply the poultice of God’s grace to his afflictions. 

It is our brokenness, and not the pretension of having it all together, that shows the grace of God to others.

Over and over again, Paul described his life and ministry in apparent paradoxes: strength in weakness; glory through shame; life through death; riches through poverty. Although we experience the fallen nature of the world, God bends each situation for divine purposes so that what seems to be our downfall becomes the means to our spiritual renewal. 

Every church is inherently paradoxical, a strange amalgam of victory and defeat, faith and doubt, full of sorrow and joy. So, let us then embrace this reality and allow God to use whatever means to shape believers in Jesus for good and benevolent purposes. 

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Out of the Slimy Pit (Psalm 40:1-11)

He Lifted Me by Nate Owens

I put all my hope in the Lord.
    He leaned down to me;
    he listened to my cry for help.
He lifted me out of the pit of death,
    out of the mud and filth,
    and set my feet on solid rock.
        He steadied my legs.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise for our God.
Many people will learn of this and be amazed;
    they will trust the Lord.
Those who put their trust in the Lord,
    who pay no attention to the proud
    or to those who follow lies,
    are truly happy!

You, Lord my God!
    You’ve done so many things—
    your wonderful deeds and your plans for us—
        no one can compare with you!
    If I were to proclaim and talk about all of them,
        they would be too numerous to count!
You don’t relish sacrifices or offerings;
    you don’t require entirely burned offerings or compensation offerings—
    but you have given me ears!
So I said, “Here I come!
    I’m inscribed in the written scroll.
    I want to do your will, my God.
    Your Instruction is deep within me.”
I’ve told the good news of your righteousness
    in the great assembly.
    I didn’t hold anything back—
        as you well know, Lord!
I didn’t keep your righteousness only to myself.
    I declared your faithfulness and your salvation.
I didn’t hide your loyal love and trustworthiness
    from the great assembly.

So now you, Lord—
    don’t hold back any of your compassion from me.
Let your loyal love and faithfulness always protect me. (Common English Bible)

Every follower of the Lord has a powerful story of God’s grace in lifting them out of a slimy pit experience. 

We live in a profoundly broken world; and no one is exempt from its effects upon us. Whether physical problems, emotional trials, or relational hardships, there is always something going on in our lives – with the added pull toward trusting in things other than God. 

The temptation to say unjust words and do unjust actions is always over-promised and under-delivered. 

It’s easy to get sucked-in to poor decisions and be stuck in an empty hole with seemingly no way out. We often find ourselves slipping into a slimy pit because of our own bad decisions, as well as by no fault of our own. 

Living in a fallen world means that we inevitably experience troubles and hardships.

So, what do we do if we find ourselves in a slimy pit?

Look for Hope

David, the psalmist, waited patiently for the Lord. With great expectation, he fully anticipated God to act on his behalf. The sort of patience he practiced was an intense waiting – a waiting filled with longing and expectant hope, a patience that kept looking and praying and seeking.

The reason believers in Jesus keep hoping beyond hope is that we know that God is ultimately the One who delivers from the pit. 

But what if you have been looking for deliverance from the slimy pit experience and you have not seen it come to pass? 

Expectantly expect God to act. Wait patiently. Do not give up. Keep praying and watching. Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, keep looking out the window, waiting for the son to return, and picture the deliverance coming – because our waiting is not in vain.

flickr.com/photos/joshtinpowers

The psalmist, David, was eventually delivered. The Lord leaned down to him. God listened and lifted him. The Lord God set him on a firm place to stand and put a new song in his mouth. 

This was not only a personal matter for David; it was also an occasion that other people needed to know about.

Look for God

We all must finally come to the end of ourselves and look up. Whenever the deliverance doesn’t come quickly, we may look to other people or things to give us the freedom we long for. It’s easy to become impatient and begin searching for answers in everything else but God. 

Yet, if we will let patient hope have its way, we are blessed when we trust in the Lord.

In all my years of churchgoing as a kid, I had never read my Bible. But God was gracious to me. I remembered all those sermons I heard about Jesus. I gained a newfound sense of my own inner darkness, as well as the desire to read God’s Word. And God saved me. 

My circumstances did not change, but I did. My loneliness turned to joy; my aimlessness turned into purpose; and my selfishness became a deep concern for others. My heart had been black, and what God did to change it was nothing less than miraculous.

Look Within

The person who looks for hope and seeks God is also a person who looks into their own heart and there finds the attitude which God will bless. 

Blessing does not come from great sacrifice, but by syncing one’s heart with the heart of God. 

The Lord cares little about how much money or stuff you have, or how many sacrifices were made for God; that’s because God wants your heart, your mind, your will, and your emotions. In other words, God wants you! 

And God desires you because the Lord made you with a heart that beats for the same things God cares about: justice, mercy, and humility.

If you and I will but look within at the very spirit God has put within us, we shall find resources beyond what we can ask or think.

Look to Bless Others

We possess more than a personal faith which is to benefit ourselves; we also have an equal responsibility to bless the community with our experiences of what God has done in our lives. 

The telling of stories about what God has done for us is a necessary part of building up the church and helping others move forward in faith, hope, and love.

The psalmist proclaimed his testimony in the great assembly, that is, publicly. This isn’t about standing behind a microphone in front of lots of people; it’s about being so touched by God that we cannot keep our mouths shut about the Lord’s deliverance on our behalf.

So, let’s not shelve the idea of giving testimony to others as if it were only for pastors, missionaries, or other very religious people. 

When a person decides to play hockey in -20 degrees below zero weather, we might think that person is a little crazy;  but, hey, we reason, if they love hockey that much, more power to them. 

We must not think about Christianity in the same way, that if a person is passionate about Jesus and desires to tell others about what God has done for them, more power to them; just don’t expect me to go out in the cold and do that because it isn’t my thing. 

Christianity is a life, not a hobby; it’s about humble service, and not a means to look respectable; it cannot be reduced to a few practices, such as church attendance or putting money in an offering plate.

Christianity is a relationship with God through Jesus. Try looking at marriage as simply showing up for supper and paying the bills and see how far that gets you.

Look to Get Lost to Get Found

We may become obsessed with getting out of our slimy pit of illness, infirmity, pain, adversity, hardship, or discord. If that happens, we will likely lose our proper focus.

Instead, get lost in the wonder of God. The Lord does wondrous things when we are immersed in God’s wonders.

“Any of you who try to save the life you have will lose it. But you who give up your life for me will find true life.” Jesus (Matthew 16:25, ERV)

New life comes from a change of heart, not a change of circumstances. Wherever there is a firm reliance on God; a glad obedience to God; and a readiness to give testimony to God’s actions, then we are living into the spirit of today’s psalm.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us your peace. Amen.