“At this very moment, in precisely what you are facing right now, God will be what He has always been and what He promises He will never fail to be–your resting place. God is seeking you out to lead you back to Himself so that you can find all your needs satisfied in Him.” (The Song of a Satisfied Soul, 41)
Pain is no phantom. It is a real enemy and a persistent goad to our souls. If it isn’t always excruciating, it is, at least a burr buried in the weave of our hearts, annoying and inescapable.
David wrote Psalm 56 out of pain. In this case his present pain was more than irritating; it was a spike of the highest order. It was “when the Philistines seized him in Gath,” according to the ancient title ascribed to the psalm text (cf. 1 Sam. 21:10-11). Life was at its lowest ebb for David. He had fled jealous King Saul’s murderous plots and in desperation had sought refuge in the hometown of Goliath (17:4). What is worse, David strode into town with the giant’s own sword strapped to his side (21:9; 22:10)!
How bad must things be to find your last best hope in the hometown of the fallen hero in your greatest military exploits?
Things didn’t go well for David in Gath and he had to play the madman to get away (21:12-15). Fleeing to a cave, he threw himself within and cried out to God (22:1a). Psalm 56 is the result.
The prayer-song is predictably laced with anguish. But there is faith as well. Twice David prayed, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (vv.3-4, cf. vv.10-11).
Did you catch that? “When I am afraid … I shall not be afraid.”
Umm … what?
How’s that work? It could come in handy.
The full answer is beyond the scope of this short article (see chapter 2 of my book Praying Through for a longer answer), but a good bit of it comes from the truth about God that David worshipfully rested upon. Simply stated: He knows.
David prayed, “You have kept count of my tossings.” In his heart of hearts he believed that not one step of his wanderings, not one anxious flip-flop in the midst of a sleepless night had gone unnoticed by God.
David told God, [You] “put my tears in your bottle.” Every tear that David had shed was kept as a treasure, precious to God, somewhere in His great bottle of sorrows.
David confidently asked, “Are they not in your book?” David knew that every salty drop meticulously had been noted down and divinely kept in a sacred record of all his distresses.
Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
To deeply for mirth and song;
As the burdens press, and the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?
Does Jesus care when my way is dark
With a nameless dread and fear?
As the daylight fades into deep might shades
Does He care enough to be near?
The hymn writer’s answer is an echo of David’s own conclusion and exudes his full confidence!
Oh, yes, He cares;
I know He cares, His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.
There are moments when that’s all we have – the confident knowledge that whatever else may be true, He knows. And, wonderfully, that is enough for now.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.“ (Matthew 5:10-12)
William Barclay was correct: “A man had to be prepared to be lonely in order to be a Christian.” (The Gospel of Matthew, 1:107). A.W. Tozer also asserted that “Most of the world’s great souls have been lonely.”
Indeed, how could it be otherwise? Tozer declared in another place that “The Christian, the genuine Christian, realizes that he is indeed a lonely soul in the middle of a world which affords him no fellowship.”
This world is no friend of grace, nor of those who live by and offer it. There is a reason Jesus put “peacemakers” just before “persecuted” when enumerating His Beatitudes. Yet Jesus’ words do speak of a deeper fellowship than the world can offer, indeed, a fellowship that is truly found only in the world’s rejection. It is fundamentally a communing fellowship with the King Himself. To the rejected, despised, persecuted and reviled, Jesus promised a present experience (“is”) of “the kingdom of heaven.” Which at least means that such folk get to come under that special reign and relationship with the King Himself right now, in the present. Jesus’ words may mean more than simply that, but they do not mean less.
There is then (marvelously, but only secondarily) down this painful road also the fellowship that is found with “the prophets who were before you.”
Again, I affirm that Barclay was correct: “A man had to be prepared to be lonely in order to be a Christian.” But he was also correct when he then later wrote, “… no man ever suffers persecution alone; if a man is called upon to bear material loss, the failure of friends, slander, loneliness, even the death of love for his principles, he will not be left alone, for Christ will be nearer to him than at any other time. …. When a man has to suffer something for his faith, that is the way to the closest possible companionship with Christ.” (1:113, 114)
Is it possible that your present hardship is not an evidence of Jesus distancing Himself from you, but, quite the contrary, an evidence that He is drawing near to you? Is it possible that current distress is only God’s answer to your prayer to know Him more deeply?
John J. Murray, was speaking about God’s plan for building our character, but I wonder if his words do not also fit with this matter of bringing us into true fellowship with Himself: “We might be tempted to ask whether God can [give us true intimacy with Himself] without suffering. That is a hypothetical question. He has not chosen to do so.” (p.15, Behind a Frowning Providence)
“… when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” (Job 23:10b)
“Whatever else we may have, if we do not have character we have nothing. It is character that determines destiny. The only failure that matters in the end is the failure to build character. In ordinary life character is formed by overcoming difficulties. . . . We might be tempted to ask whether God can build character without suffering. That is a hypothetical question. He has not chosen to do so.” (John J. Murray, Behind a Frowning Providence, 14-15)
“I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she,
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!”
–Robert Browning Hamilton
(William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 1:89)