Comfort for the Troubled Heart
Comfort for the Troubled Heart
The Allies had planned Operation Overlord for years, amassing vast armies, an incredible navy, and enough arms to release Europe from the tyranny of the Nazi regime. In charge of this massive war effort was American General Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the logistics expert, he orchestrated the operation and got the fractious Allies moving in the same direction. He even tamed the British generals, which was no mean feat. The day was set; the tides were right, but the weather was all wrong.
Eisenhower was the only person who could make the decision. A Royal Air Force meteorologist predicted a break in the weather, and Eisenhower gave the go ahead. But all the generals, the admirals, and the air vice-marshals who had been with him in the room promptly left Eisenhower alone. Suddenly, he had nothing to do. He sat down to write two news releases. In one he explained why the operation had failed and accepted full responsibility himself. The other announced that the operation had succeeded and thanked everyone who had participated.
Can you imagine the loneliness and inner turmoil of General Eisenhower at that moment? A 75 percent casualty rate was predicted in some areas of that attack. None of us will ever share the position Dwight D. Eisenhower was in on D-Day. We'll never know that kind of loneliness. Nevertheless, many of us have felt loneliness and inner turmoil.
Maybe you've worked with your colleagues for many years when you're called into the boss's office one morning. You think you're going to be offered a raise, but you're unceremoniously fired. Or perhaps you know what it is like to await surgery. In a quiet moment when you're totally alone, your heart is in turmoil. Some of you have experienced the horror of being served divorce papers. The person to whom you've given yourself for the last 27 years has suddenly decided to get out, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Some Christians say you should never have inner turmoilyou should always be rejoicing and everything should be great. Those Christians probably have not faced any of the experiences I've just enumerated. The Bible is clear that Christians go through the same trauma as other people, but if their spiritual life is together, they know where to turn.
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 25 takes us on a roller-coaster experience. He starts out by reaffirming his faith. Then, some of the doubts return; inner turmoil begins to bubble to the surface again. Then he gets back on track. In short, the psalmist is very open about his feelings, and he knows where to turn in time of trouble.
Know that the Lord is trustworthy.
First, the psalmist reaffirms his faith that the Lord is worthy of his trust: "To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God." He is unequivocally convinced that the Lord is worthy of his trust. But he adds an appeal. To paraphrase: Don't let me be embarrassed, Lord, by the fact that I trust you. Plenty of people look at my circumstances and say, 'Where is your God?' They're going to delight in the opportunity to increase my loneliness, Lord. Do not let me be embarrassed. Don't let me down.
He goes on to say, "Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long." He believes the Lord shows the way to those who are willing to follow. He is absolutely convinced that the Lord delivers from trouble all those who trust him. He believes the Lord is merciful because he's proven himself over and over and over again in the past. Nevertheless, in this dark night of the soul, as St. John of the Cross would describe it, he has to remind himself of these things, because he can lose sight of what he believes when the darkness comes flooding in.
Remember that the psalmist is a member of the covenant people. That means he understands that God has chosen Israel to be his unique people. He understands that God decided to create a people that would be descendents of Abraham, and by them all the nations of the world would be blessed. He established a covenant with these people, and he had been merciful to them. He led them out of slavery in Egypt. He provided for them as they wandered in the wilderness. He gave them the Promised Land and defeated all their enemies. The Lord had proven himself merciful over and over again. As a member of that community, the psalmist understands all those acts of mercy as done to himself.
Just as the psalmist reflects on God's history of mercy during the dark night of his soul, we too must remember that the Lord is merciful. The psalmist remembers that the Lord is merciful to forgive the repentant. Isn't it interesting that when he's concerned about his loneliness he is also concerned about the sins of his youth: "Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways." No doubt he's confessed these things many times and realizes the damage they have done to his own life. But in the dark night of his soul, the Evil One is reminding him of these things. So he asks, "Lord, remember not those things. As far as the east is from the west, remove my sins from me."
The devil is no gentleman; he'll kick you when you're down. One of his cheap shots is to remind you of all the things you did when you were young. Even if you've confessed and been forgiven for them all, he'll drag them up. He'll say, "The reason you're in this fix is because of all the bad stuff you did when you were young." In Psalm 25, the psalmist is being convicted again, so he asks the Lord: Please assure mein this time of intense inner turmoil, loneliness, and afflictionthat I still matter; that you still have plans for me." It's healthy to know where to turn in order to reaffirm your faith.
Humbly seek to be obedient.
In verses 815, the psalmist takes time to reflect on the Lord in two ways. He reflects on how the Lord interacts with sinners and how he interacts with those he calls the humble. In verse 8 he describes the Lord as "good" and "upright." Because the Lord is upright, he is separate from sin and cannot look upon iniquity. But because he is good, he can forgive sin. We must always hold those two truths in tension.
The psalmist imagines that his sin may have brought on this dark time, but he also reflects on how the Lord relates to the humble. The humble man acknowledges he has no claim on God, but that God has a total claim on him. The humble person knows that God would be perfectly within his right if he brought judgment upon us and gave us no grace at all. The humble person knows he exists only because God initiated him and continues to perpetuate him. We read in verse 9 how God relates to the humble person: "He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant."
The covenant was simply this: God takes the initiative and says to Abraham and his progeny: I will be your God. I invite you to be my people. The only two things I ask of you are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. To instruct them how to accomplish those tasks, he gave them Ten Commandments. They were designed to show Israel how to love God and humbly serve him.
The essence of our spiritual walk with the Lord is obedience. This man, in his loneliness, comes before the Lord and reflects upon the fact that God has called him into covenant and is leading him into a life of obedience. It's always possible that we will slip into disobedience during dark moments; it's always possible that we will veer from the path he's chosen for us. That's what the psalmist talks about next.
In verse 12, the psalmist indicates that fearing the Lord means allowing your conduct to be transformed into a befitting the path he chooses for you. Do you believe that? Do you believe that if you've begun a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, that you might fit into the pattern of good works that he foreordained for you? In your loneliness, when your troubles are multiplied, do you believe that you're actually walking a path the Lord has chosen for you with good intentions?
Come into God's inner circle.
The psalmist knows what to do in this time of intense disappointment and discouragement. He knows he will spend his days in prosperity, and his descendants will inherit the land. That means he will begin to know the blessing of God. In verse 14 he says, "The Lord confides in those who fear him." That means that they are invited into God's inner circle.
Imagine that! At the time of your loneliness, you can turn from your solitude and commune with the Lord. You have opportunity to discover the secrets of the Lord. Practicing solitude allows us to reflect on the Lord and his command, to discover the communion of the inner circle of the Lord. That's how we handle the inner turmoil of the soul.
I read once about a man who was facing hard times. "I am so discouraged and depressed," he said, "that I can't pray." His father said, "Just groan." The Holy Spirit will take our deep groanings and translate them in the mind of God. Recognize your time of trouble as an invitation into deeper communion with the living God.
Seek God's integrity and uprightness.
The psalmist begins to feel great strain in verse 17. "The troubles of my heart have multiplied," he says. So much is going on in his heart that he feels it's going to burst. Again in the following verse he mentions his sin for the third time. Maybe there is sin we're harboring. Maybe there is sin we have not confessed. Maybe there is sin we're intent on continuing. Perhaps sin is the blockage that is hindering our communion with God. Maybe the psalmist is onto something; he just needed to say it three times before he could admit the real problem: There's stuff going on that has gone on for a long. I've grumbled that my spiritual life wasn't what it might be. I have felt deprived, but I've hung on to this cherished sin.
The psalmist says, "Lord, take away my sins. See how my enemies are increased and how fiercely they hate me. Guard my life and rescue me." He asks that integrity and uprightness will protect him. These qualities can refer either to the character of God or to the things that God has built into the psalmist's life. Either way, there's no questionwe can rely on the integrity and uprightness of our God. He will never do wrong. We can be absolutely confident that he will always treat us with righteousness. As God instills a sense of integrity and righteousness in our hearts, those qualities become our greatest defense in times of trouble.
Show concern for others.
And as we live in obedience, it is inevitable that we begin having a heart for people outside ourselves. Everybody knows that sooner or later the cure for loneliness is people. In the same way, the cure for inner turmoil is to become less absorbed with our problems and more concerned with those of others.
An old Chinese proverb says, "I grumbled when I had no shoes, until I saw a man who had no feet." I think somebody who doesn't have shoes has cause to grumble. But I think the person who sees the man with no feet will stop grumbling and begin to recognize how fortunate he is to have feet.
Do you find yourself lonely or troubled? Do you know where to turn? The first place to turn during the dark night of the soul is to the Lord. He will guide you in integrity and uprightness, and lead you to others who will help you persevere.
For the outline of this sermon, go to "Comfort for the Troubled Heart."
Stuart Briscoe is minister-at-large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and author of several books, including What Works When Life Doesn't (Howard Books).