Remembering God in Our Affliction

Dear fellow travelers,

Psalm 119 is memorable in many ways, including that it is the longest chapter in the Bible, with 176 verses.  But the Psalm was also designed to be memorized in Hebrew, with 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  In Hebrew, each stanza has 8 lines that each begin with the same letter.

It is also memorable for its topic: a lengthy meditation on God’s law and its positive, multi-faceted qualities.  The Psalm uses 8 words to describe God’s law, and all 8 appear in 5 of the stanzas while every stanza has at least 6 of them. [1]

However, in addition to meditating on God’s law, at least 7 verses also refer to affliction and/or its benefits in one way or another:

This is my comfort in my affliction,
            that your promise gives me life.” (verse 50)

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
            but now I keep your word.”  (verse 67)

It is good for me that I was afflicted,
            that I might learn your statutes.”  (verse 71)

I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous,
            and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.”  (verse 75)

If your law had not been my delight,
            I would have perished in my affliction.”  (verse 92)

I am severely afflicted;
            give me life, O LORD, according to your word!”  (verse 107)

Look on my affliction and deliver me,
            for I do not forget your law.”  (verse 153)

Why the repetition?  By repeating the idea of affliction in this Psalm, the writer wants to make one more thing memorable: in our affliction, God is faithfully present, giving us life, teaching us, and reminding us of His goodness.  His steadfast love remains, even when this broken world and our own sinful condition present endless difficulty.

The law cannot save us, and affliction in this world is difficult, but “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”  (Romans 8:28-29)

What God uses all things for, and what He has predestined, is that His people will be conformed to His holiness: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6). Even affliction, in God’s hands, contributes to our development in holiness.

As J.I. Packer sums up these verses from Psalm 119 in his book, Rediscovering Holiness, “God’s faithfulness consists in his unwillingness that his children should lose any of the depths of fellowship with himself that he has in store for them. So he afflicts us to make us lean harder on him, in order that his purpose of drawing us into closest fellowship with himself may be fulfilled.”[2]

Whatever our affliction, God will deliver us and bring us to glory. Amen.

[1] According to the Reformation Study Bible
[2] Packer, J.I.  Rediscovering Holiness (1992), P. 268.  I “miraculously” discovered this quote within ½ hour of posting this blog, then had to add it, and repost.

God Rules in His Sleep

In Mark’s Gospel, he tells a story of Jesus taking a nap, causing His disciples to panic.  Does it ever seem like God is asleep, leaving you feeling adrift the world’s circumstances?  When Jesus walked the earth, there were times when God literally was asleep.

One story comes from Mark 4:35-41.

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

At the beginning of the story, Jesus told His disciples they were going to cross the Sea of Galilee, then knowing what was coming, “He who keeps Israel[1] took a nap.  Had the disciples understood Jesus, His napping should have reassured them that they were safe, since He was not concerned about the storm.  Instead, they thought He didn’t care, which showed that fear of the storm had overcome whatever faith they had.  Jesus said they were going across, but they doubted.

Which brings up a very important question.

When did the wind and the sea obey Jesus?  At the beginning of the story, at the end, or both?  Or at all times?  Before Jesus calmed the storm, was the sea being disobedient to God’s laws and will?

Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

I believe Jesus calmed this storm so that next time He wouldn’t have to.  He was teaching them that He always cares, regardless of what the circumstances seem to say.  He was teaching them that even when it seems like He’s asleep, He is still in control of our circumstances no matter how chaotic they look and feel to us.  During the next storm, He wanted them not to panic, but to trust Him because He showed them no circumstance escapes His notice.  The storm does not control us; He controls the storm.

When Jesus calmed the storm, He did not create a hedge (See Job 1:10) around His disciples, He just demonstrated that it existed all along.  God was not going to let His Son drown before His mission was complete and neither will He let His other children drown before their work is done!

Sometimes when God seems distant and we feel we are sinking, in reality we are being given a divinely designed opportunity to learn to trust that:

The LORD will keep you from all evil;
            he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
            your going out and your coming in
            from this time forth and forevermore[2]

He knows sometimes we have to learn the hard way, and He knows best.  Even when He is sleeping.“Let us go across to the other side.”

[1] Psalm 121:4
[2] Psalm 121:7-8

Sometimes, Victory Over Giants Takes Time

Do you have giant problems?  Problems that seem too big to overcome, and that just won’t go away?  There was a time when Israel had problems with literal giants and that story may encourage us with our own giant problems.

In Deuteronomy, Moses’ re-telling to Israel of their history as they prepared to finally enter the Promised Land, the second verse says, “It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.”  This eleven-day journey took Israel 40 years after being delivered from slavery in Egypt because they had giant problems.

40 years earlier, Moses sent spies into the land promised by God, not to say whether or not they should conquer the land (God has already decided that they should), but only to document what they saw.  These spies reported back after 40 days in the land at Kadesh, the same place Moses was delivering his address in Deuteronomy.  Unfortunately, the spies did more than document what they saw, they also injected their own opinion: “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.”[1]

Although the spies agreed the land was very desirable – “And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” – they added three objections to the report: “However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.[2]  The people are strong, the cities are strong, and some of the people – the descendants of Anak – are actually literal giants.  The spies probably thought they were doing the right thing by presenting an “accurate” report of Israel’s military chances in Canaan, but in doing so they were opposing God and His promise.  Only two of the twelve spies – Joshua and Caleb – tried to encourage the people to take the land, but the report of the other ten made the people want to stone Joshua and Caleb to death[3] instead of entering Canaan.  So, God punished the people by making them wander in the wilderness until the entire rebellious generation died, for 40 years.

However, over that time God would also show His people in specific ways that they could overcome the spies’ objections so they could enter the land as He had promised.  It would take time, and more experience of God’s power.

Moses tells that during the wilderness wandering, Israel learned of others who had conquered giants.  In Deuteronomy 2:10-11 Moses recounted land taken by the Moabites: “The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim.  Like the Anakim they are also counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim.”  In 2:20, he recalled land taken by the Ammonites: “It is also counted as a land of Rephaim. Rephaim formerly lived there—but the Ammonites call them Zamzummim— a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim; but the LORD destroyed them before the Ammonites, and they dispossessed them and settled in their place”.  These “Emim” and “Zamzummim” were like the “descendants of Anak” the spies were afraid of, but those giants were conquered.

Also, in Deuteronomy 3, Moses reminds Israel of their own victories that happened before entering Canaan.  They had defeated Sihon, king of Heshbon, and Og, king of Bashan, object lessons of what God could do, and specifically related to the objections of the spies, who had reported of Canaan that “the cities are fortified and very large.”  Deuteronomy 3:5 reports of the conquered cities of Bashan: “All these were cities fortified with high walls, gates, and bars, besides very many unwalled villages.”

While the spies worried about the giant “descendants of Anak,” Moses reminds Israel that Og, Hesbon’s king, was like one of the giants reported by the spies.  Deuteronomy 3:11 describes him: “(For only Og the king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. Behold, his bed was a bed of iron. Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonites? Nine cubits was its length, and four cubits its breadth, according to the common cubit.)”  Therefore, before crossing the Jordan into Canaan, Israel had overcome both fortified cities and giants.  Why should they worry about the discouraging report of the spies, instead of trusting Joshua and Caleb’s testimony about God?

Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash

Therefore, if you have giant problems, seek the testimony of others who have conquered giants, and the testimony of your own experience with God, and be encouraged by the words Moses used to close this section of his message: “You shall not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who fights for you.”[4] But overcoming giant problems might take time because He wants to show us His power in ways we can’t imagine.  Israel took 40 years to make this 11-day journey because that is what God required to prepare them.  Israel was not ready for the Promised Land when they first left Egypt.  Allow God the time to prepare you, and He may also show you His power over your giants.

[1] Numbers 13:31
[2] Numbers 13:27-28
[3] Numbers 14:10
[4] Deuteronomy 3:22

When All You Have is God

Photo by Greg Willson on Unsplash

Near the end of Book 3 in the Psalms (43-89), several Psalms read like cries for help by writers at the end of their rope.  In Psalm 86:14, for example, David writes: “O God, insolent men have risen up against me; a band of ruthless men seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.”  While the exact circumstance is unclear, David knows there is a wide conspiracy against him, and his only hope is to turn to God.  The Psalm opens with “Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.”

Likewise, when we feel desperate and don’t know where to turn, these Psalms remind us that God will never turn us away.  On Psalm 86 John Calvin comments that “the more severely any one is oppressed, and the more destitute he is of the resources of human aid, the more inclined is God graciously to help him. That despair therefore may not overwhelm our minds under our greatest afflictions, let us support ourselves from the consideration that the Holy Spirit has dictated this prayer for the poor and the afflicted.”  In other words, because these Psalms are in the Bible, we can be sure that, no matter the mess our own choices or the actions of others have put us in, God in His steadfast love will listen.

Throughout the Psalm, David writes reminders of the character and works of God as a contrast to both his circumstances and his feelings of futility.  Like him we must always remember that our character is never so bad that God loving us is inconsistent with His character, and that our circumstances are never so bad that loving us is beyond His power to achieve.

When all you have is God, He is enough.

Even for the most desperate, there is always a way out, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13 – “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” In Psalm 86, David does not just pray for a miraculous deliverance, but in verse 11, David looks for the way of escape: “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.”  A united heart is one that feels no anxiety because it knows it is seeking God’s will and willing to act on it based on reverence for Him.  God may urge us to merely wait for His deliverance, or prod us to actions we may not expect, but in all cases, He knows the way, because He is the Way. Only He can unite our hearts.

Bring your desperate anxiety to Him and let Him show you the way forward.  When all you have is God, He is enough.  When you feel your faith is weak because you can’t see or feel God in your life or the world around you, begin with “Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy,” and He will listen.

What You Have Forgotten Today He Can Supply

The Gospel of Mark records two miraculous feedings of multitudes.  The first was mainly a Jewish crowd of about 5,000 in Mark 6:30-44; the second was a mainly Gentile group of about 4,000 in Mark 8:1-9.  These two stories are very well known, but if you read on Mark adds this about Jesus’ disciples in 8:14 – “Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.

On this verse Warren Wiersbe remarks: “It must have grieved Jesus that His hand-picked helpers were so spiritually obtuse. The fact that He had multiplied bread on two occasions and fed over ten thousand people had apparently made little impression on them! Why worry and argue over one loaf of bread when you have Jesus in the boat with you?”[1]

When well-known Bible stories have little impact on us, remember that these disciples knew the story even better than we do – they were there!  Jesus did not give up on them and will not give up on us.

Have you forgotten to trust Jesus with something today?  He desires to be “in the boat with you” in constant fellowship.  Ask Him to take your anxiety and to supply your daily bread.  He never forgets.

[1] Wiersbe, Warren.  Be Diligent (Mark) (1987).  P. 97.