Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Psalm 77 and dealing with difficult times

As we live in a fallen world, it is inevitable that we will encounter difficult times.  These challenges can take many different forms.  Many of these things are the results of circumstances and situations that are completely outside of our control.  No matter what shape they may take, the fact remains that we often find ourselves facing the challenge of living through difficult circumstances in life.

When we face these kinds of situations, how are we to handle them?  What model can we follow or where can we look for guidance?  For nearly three millennia God’s people have recognized the Psalms as a primary resource for this.  In the Psalms we encounter inspired prayers.  The Psalms are both prayers addressed to God and they are God’s word addressed to us.  When we use the Psalms, the Spirit is teaching us how to think and how to pray.

Even within the Psalms themselves we find different ways of dealing with difficult times.  One psalm that I have come to appreciate greatly is Psalm 77.  In the psalm, Asaph begins by saying:

             I cry aloud to God,
                        aloud to God, and he will hear me.
            In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
                        in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
                        my soul refuses to be comforted.
            When I remember God, I moan;
                        when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah (Psalm 77:1-3 ESV)

Asaph begins with the confident cry of faith.  In the day of his trouble he cries aloud to God.  He is confident that God will hear him.  Day and night he turns to God for help. However it begins to become clear that this does not bring immediate relief. On the contrary, his soul refuses to be comforted and in his prayer and meditation he moans and his spirit faints.

In the next section Asaph moves deeper into the description and contemplation of his plight.  He says:

            You hold my eyelids open;
                        I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
            I consider the days of old,
                        the years long ago.
            I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
                        let me meditate in my heart.”
                        Then my spirit made a diligent search:
            “Will the Lord spurn forever,
                        and never again be favorable?
            Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
                        Are his promises at an end for all time?
            Has God forgotten to be gracious?
                        Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah (Psalm 77:4-9 ESV)

Bereft of sleep, Asaph declares that he is so troubled by the situation that he cannot speak.  He turns to the past as he attempts to remember the song that used to accompany his life in better times.  Yet just as the psalm began with a cry of faith focused upon God, so also now in the midst of his troubles Asaph’s attention remains centered on what God has revealed about himself.  God is the One who is favorable towards his people.  He is characterized by steadfast love and faithful promises.  He is gracious and compassionate. These things do not seem to be in evidence right now for Asaph.  Yet in the words of the psalm this is considered atypical – it is completely uncharacteristic of God, and so surely it will not continue.  Asaph is in the midst of great troubles and is sorely distressed, but his basic outlook remains one that is grounded in faith toward what God has revealed about himself.

At the present, Asaph’s experience contradicts what God has revealed about himself. God does not seem to be acting in ways that are commensurate with his revealed character.  And so Asaph makes a key move.  He writes:

            Then I said, “I will appeal to this,
                        to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
            I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
                        yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
            I will ponder all your work,
                        and meditate on your mighty deeds.
            Your way, O God, is holy.
                        What god is great like our God?
            You are the God who works wonders;
                        you have made known your might among the peoples.
            You with your arm redeemed your people,
                        the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah (Psalm 77:10-15 ESV)

Asaph turns his attention to what God has done in the past – to the wonders and mighty deeds that he has worked.  God is the God who works wonders and in doing so he has made known his might among the peoples.  In one central event God has done this in a way that goes beyond all of the others – in a way that is foundational for all of the others.  He did this in the exodus as he redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt.  This action affirms all of the things that Asaph knows to be true about God.   If Asaph focuses on his own present situation he may wonder whether God is favorable towards his people; whether he is characterized by steadfast love and faithful promises; whether he is gracious and compassionate to the ones he has called. But by remembering and meditating on the mighty deeds of God in the exodus he finds assurance that this indeed is God’s character for him.

Finally, Asaph speaks about the most dramatic moment of this powerful event.  He writes:

            When the waters saw you, O God,
                        when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
                        indeed, the deep trembled.
            The clouds poured out water;
                        the skies gave forth thunder;
                        your arrows flashed on every side.
            The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
                        your lightnings lighted up the world;
                        the earth trembled and shook.
            Your way was through the sea,
                        your path through the great waters;
                        yet your footprints were unseen.
            You led your people like a flock
                        by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:16-20 ESV)

Asaph describes in a dramatic fashion how God brought Israel through the Red Sea.  God led his people like a flock.  He cared for them as he rescued them from slavery. The God who has done this can be counted upon to care for his flock in the present – no matter what things may look like right now.

Psalm 77 provides the pattern for us to follow when we are in the midst of difficult times.  Our first move is the cry of faith to God.  Like Asaph, we know that God has revealed himself to be the One who is favorable towards his people.  We know that he is characterized by steadfast love and faithful promises; that he is gracious and compassionate.  When we experience difficult times and this does not seem to be evident, in faith we are also to regard it as completely uncharacteristic of God,

And so in the face of contradictory evidence we remember the deeds of the Lord, the wonders that he has done. When Asaph did this, he turned to the great Gospel event of the Old Testament – the exodus.  Now in the era of the New Testament we turn to the Gospel event – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Through his action God has redeemed us.  He has purchased and won us from sin, death and the devil with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death.  By his resurrection he has guaranteed that his life will triumph over death for us. 

Through this action God has affirmed for all eternity that he is steadfast in his love and faithful to his promises.  He has demonstrated that he is gracious and compassionate towards us.  We return in faith to this and to the way we have received a share in it. Asaph returned to the mighty wonders that God had worked with water.  We do too, for in the water of Holy Baptism we have died with Christ and have been buried with him.  Because of this we know that we will also share in his resurrection on the Last Day (Romans 6:3-5). No matter what the circumstances of the moment seem to be saying, we are able to affirm, “I have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  In this fact we have the assurance of God’s love and care which the Spirit uses to carry us through the difficult times of life.


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