Psalms — Week 3

Monday, September 17

Read: Psalm 42:1-2

Consider: When people speak about prayer, they’re often thinking of the things that we say to God. Our praises, our requests and our expressions of thanksgiving are aspects of prayer that usually come to mind. At times we groan in prayer, interceding for people we love and pleading for God’s intervention. Sometimes we even listen. But there is much more to prayer. It goes deeper than what we could ever verbalize. It is more than we can understand on a cognitive level.

Throughout my life I’ve heard many definitions and descriptions of prayer. I’ve underlined quotes on prayer. But none have been more meaningful to me than what I read a few years ago from John Chrysostom. This fourth century preacher said…

“Prayer…gives joy to the spirit, peace to the heart. I speak of prayer, not words. It is the longing for God, love too deep for words, a gift not given by humans, but by God’s grace.”

Prayer, not words. That grabbed my attention. I love words. I always try to verbalize my feelings and the circumstances of life. It’s how I wrap my mind around spiritual issues. So, to think of prayer without words was a counterintuitive, and yet refreshing idea to me.

John Chrysostom called prayer “the longing for God,” which the psalmist attempted to convey through poetry…

“As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
(42:1-2)

When it comes to my spiritual formation, I’m convinced that nothing is more important for me than panting—longing—for God. Too often we’ve seen our spiritual lives in terms of what we believe. We’ve grabbed ahold of principles and rules to illuminate our lives. We’ve tried to do all the right things—to be right and to be righteous. But in trying to construct our spiritual houses, we may have forgotten to simply receive God’s grace. I’m speaking about the gift of love that is “too deep for words.”

Our brother, John Chrysostom, said this longing and love is “a gift not given by humans, but by God’s grace.” Maybe it’s time to ask and to receive.

Pray: “Lord, you promised that if we asked, we would receive and that if we knocked on the door, it would be opened. I ask for what is beyond my comprehension. I ask you for that yearning that will ignite a love in me that I never thought would be possible.”

 

Tuesday, September 18

Read: Psalm 42:1-6

Consider: Yesterday we looked at the panting—the yearning—for God that forms us in love. But we need to remember that, for the psalmist, this longing was the result of pain.

“My tears have been my food
    day and night…
My soul is downcast within me…”
(42:3, 6)

One of the spiritual writers who has taught me so much, says that two things take us deep into God—great suffering and great love. We don’t necessarily like to hear that, but it rings true. Pain and suffering strip us of our pride and self-sufficiency. When we’re brought low, we hunger for God to reveal himself to us. We long to know he’s there.

And he is. But in the throes of great suffering, it’s difficult to know his presence. At times is seems impossible.

As a pastor, on many occasions I have been given the honor of walking through tragedy with people. I’ve watched them suffer and tried to enter into their suffering. Sometimes these sisters and brothers tell me that they’ve never felt closer to God. For some, that assurance comes much later. As they look back, they see that God was working. But whether it is seen in the moment or in retrospect, they discover that they were going deeper. And that realization of total dependence on God, caused them to desire God in a new way.

There is not a person among us who wants to suffer. But all of us have and all of us will. To learn to find God in our pain is no easy task. But he is there, and he is taking us to a new place. Tomorrow we’ll look at the psalmist’s words for that place.

Pray: Let’s pray the prayer contained in today’s psalm…

“My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you…”
(42:6)

 

Wednesday, September 19

Read: Psalm 42:7-11

Consider: On Monday we looked at John Chrysostom’s expression, “prayer, not words.” He called prayer “the longing for God, love too deep for words.”

Most of us have experienced times of deep distress when our lips could not form a prayer. As the psalmist described that darkness, he said, “My tears have been my food day and night” (42:3).

The Apostle Paul, who had suffered so much, understood what it was to cry out to God when we’re unable to pray. He said…

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26)

But the painful times are not the only occasions for wordless prayer.

There is a phrase in this psalm that has always intrigued me. I’m sure I’m not alone. It is a poetic phrase that is not easily explained. But, of course, that’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to explain what the psalmist meant when he said, “Deep calls to deep” (42:7).

The full statement is stunning…

“Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.”

God’s majesty, beauty and power speak to us at a level too deep for words. We cannot verbalize his love. So, rather than asking, requesting, or even trying to praise, we simply dwell in him. And that may be the most powerful form of prayer we can ever know.

Pray: “Lord, your word tells me that I am ‘clothed with Christ’ (Galatians 3:27). You said that you dwell in me and I dwell in you (John 14:19). I don’t always trust the wisdom of my verbalized prayers, but the knowledge of your presence is my true prayer. I will listen as deep calls to deep.”

 

Thursday, September 20

Read: Psalm 46

Consider: There comes a time in each of our lives when we must face our own weakness. I’m not talking about slight or temporary weakness, but powerlessness. We discover that we cannot engineer our lives. We cannot force goodness or success. We come to the point where we must reject the myth of control.

For us control freaks, that’s not easy. But I’m pretty sure that the sooner we come to this point, the better. We’ll save ourselves and the people around us a lot of stress and pain. And we’ll be empowered to overcome our fears.

The forty-sixth psalm begins with a statement that shows full awareness of our impotence. It doesn’t say, “I control my destiny” or “I can overcome every obstacle.” It says, “God is our refuge and strength.”

What follows is an amazing display of courage.

“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.
He makes wars cease…
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear…”
(46:2-3, 7,9)

Perhaps what is most striking in this psalm is the description of our part in apprehending this strength. What is it that we are supposed to do to know this kind of courage? How are we to help God conquer?

The Lord tells us. “Be still.”

Wait? What? That’s all?

“Be still, and know that I am God.”

Oh. Yes. You are God and I am not. You are in control and I am not. I can trust your wisdom and not my own. I can trust your reality—that I have nothing to fear—rather than trusting my anxieties. As David said, “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s” (1 Samuel 17:47).

Pray: “Lord, trust doesn’t come easy for me. I want to force life to conform to my wishes. And yet, that usually brings me stress, which is often accompanied by fear. Help me. Teach me to be still. Help me to know that you are sovereign. And help me to be grateful for that reality.”

 

Friday, September 21

Read: Psalm 46

Consider: “Be still, and know that I am God.” There is beauty and power in that instruction. It challenges us to live counterculturally. It challenges our egoistic need for control. It challenges us, and yet it comforts us.

It also liberates us. In the Greek version of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint), the word translated, “Be still,” has another layer of meaning which is very important for us to understand.

It not only means dwelling in unoccupied time, but it also means to stand empty handed. In other words, it could be translated, “Be still and let go, and know that I am God.”

One of the most neglected of the spiritual disciplines is the discipline of simplicity. We live in a culture that celebrates consumerism and accumulation. We’ve been part of this system the entirety of our lives, so it is difficult for us to see the destructive nature of excess accumulation. It is soul-crushing. And it is not just a matter of accumulating material objects. We feel that we are missing out on life if we limit our experiences. We think we must do certain things, go certain places, enjoy certain entertainments or we are living too small. So, our money, our possessions, our desires and our schedules own us.

In walking the way of Jesus, we grow to understand that…

Our houses will not protect us, but “God is our refuge” (46:1).

Our incomes don’t give us security, but “the God of Jacob is our fortress” (46:7)

Our efforts won’t sustain us, but “God is our…strength” (46:1).

To simplify our lives is not an easy thing to do. It won’t happen in a month or in a year. It is never complete. It is not an accomplishment, but a journey—a beautiful journey on which we learn to “Be still and let go.”

Pray: “Lord, I open myself to you and ask you to continue to reorient my thinking. Rather than embracing the values of the culture in which I live, I want to learn how to be in step with you. I will work with you to simplify my desires, so that they lead me in the right direction. Help me find joy in you and the many gifts you have already given me.”

 

Saturday, September 22

Read: Psalm 51:1-12

Consider: Context is important. So, at the beginning of this psalm, there is a note which says, “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”

In case you’re not familiar with this event—really, a series of events—you can read about it in 2 Samuel 11-12. Spoiler alert: it’s ugly. David’s sins were great. Not only did he commit adultery with the wife of Uriah—who was part of David’s inner circle and trusted David completely—but he also engineered a cover up. When his efforts didn’t work, he arranged for the death of Uriah and even endangered his troops to make sure Uriah died.

God had given David so much. And to whom much is given, much is required. But David ignored his responsibility to his nation and his allegiance to God and chased his own lusts. It’s staggering that one who was chosen by God would sink so low as to murder a friend.

David repented. David asked God for mercy. Now, here is where it really gets interesting. If you or I had done those things, how would we ask for mercy? I think I would simply ask God not to throw me into hell. I would just plead for my life. But David, whose sins were staggering in scope, asked for more.

“Cleanse me…wash me…
Let me hear joy and gladness.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation…”
(51:7-12)

Cleansing? Gladness? God’s presence? The joy of salvation? Man, who did David think he was? He didn’t deserve anything close to that! What would give him the audacity to ask for those things after the suffering he had caused and the lives he had devastated?

The answer is found in the opening strains of this poem — “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions” (51:1).

God’s mercy is not determined by the size of my sins. I don’t get more mercy if my sins seem smaller than someone else’s. His mercy based on his “unfailing love” and “great compassion” and nothing else.

So, we Jesus followers don’t view the world from a standpoint of moral superiority. We kneel in humility before love that is beyond comprehension.

Pray: Reflect on God’s mercy today and thank him for his “unfailing love” and “great compassion.”