This week, Faith in Real Life follows our Sunday sermon series into the Psalms, discussing Psalm 40:1-11. Through this, they explored the feeling of being lost in a quagmire, forced to recognize the reality that we cannot save ourselves and must rely on God.
1 I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. 3 He put a new song in my mouth,a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. 4 Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. 5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted. 6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. 7 Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. 8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” 9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD. 10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation. 11 Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
The psalmist has seen some hard times. She has felt so desolate that every step forward had her falling backward. If your car has ever been literally stuck in the mud, all of the revving the engine and rocking the car back and forth will get you nowhere—except perhaps deeper into the hole. Finally, you will need outside help to get moving again. It is a terrible feeling to realize ‘bad’ things are happening and there is nothing to do except cry out. In this psalm that help has been received, and the writer is profoundly grateful.
In FIRL, we focused upon how she received help, the unexpected path to ‘secure steps’ and finally the importance of finding the words to share God’s redemptive activity in our lives.
We started with the miry bogs of our own lives—times of pain,despair and helplessness. There were many desolate pits, some spoke of watching a child’s life threatened, some spoke of personal illnesses, some had lost people they loved. Some spoke of exploitive relationships—so broken that dying seemed better. Others described the repeating pain of dropping children off with their ex. Not only was there pain surrounding the failed relationship, there was fear and anxiety —each weekend—about the consequences and pain inflicted upon the children. Things would never be the same again. Finally, a man described the sleepless night worrying about the demands of his job. Had he forgotten something, was there enough time to get everything done, was he enough, would he fail those he had pledged to serve? In real life, desolate pits are part of the fabric of living.
Most of the stories were told in retrospect so I asked, as they looked back, how did they find relief? How, or did they find their feet set upon a rock and their steps secure? All of us knew that we were not in those same pits. That alone is cause for great gratitude and relief. But the ‘how’ relief came is a more difficult question. The process is not magic or mystical. Relief from the pit comes as we learn where to place our feet. Those stepping stones are God given and they can be identified and sought.
A phrase that I will borrow from one of our group members is that throughout life, we discover “new normals’. We learn, and often the hard way, that how we think does not necessarily match God’s way. As we slowly realize God’s ‘new normals,’ they become the rocks which can allow our steps to be secure.
So here are several of the ‘new normals’ we discussed. First, there is a new normal that comes from realizing our limits. ‘Normally’ we expect to rely on our own resources. We expect ourselves to figure it out. But then we find ourselves in desolate pits and miry bogs, we are at the end of our rope and we are helpless. It is terrifying.
I remember laying in the hospital wondering if my liver failure was somehow self inflicted. Did I take too much tylenol? Had my procrastination about getting a colonoscopy resulted in a cancer going undetected? Was I going to die because of my own stupidity.
Over and over again, when something painful happens, we want to explain it—even at the cost of self blame. If fault can be established, the pit could have been avoided. Though it is true that some pits could have been avoided, many can not. That is an important rock to stand on. Even if the pit was someone’s fault, we’re in it now. Looking backward is not going to help. It may sound paradoxical but there is secure footing in knowing no matter how we got there, we do not have the means to rescue ourselves. There is a peace to realizing the limits of what you can do.
That leads to a second stepping stone. When we are desperate, we realize we need help. Asking for help is hard. Most of us would much rather offer aid than ask for it. As desperate and painful as the miry bogs of our life can be, they can also become the doorway to new possibilities. As one group member put it, the end of our rope is the beginning of God’s. The rock we can rely on is that the pit itself provides a new opportunity to receive grace. There is peace in learning to ask for help.
Third, alongside learning that we need help, is learning that other people have been in the pit and have survived. They hold out a hope we can not imagine. We are not alone and we need to remember that ‘this too shall pass.’ We can not see that on our own. Many others have gone before us and we need their companionship and testimony to endure. They have already lived what the psalmist proclaims. There is a peace to hearing that others have walked where you are—and they not only survived, they found new life. It is the promise lived out in Jesus’ life.
Another stepping stone out of the miry bog is waiting. The outcome is out of our control and may be very different from what we desire—but we hold the faith that God is with us. We hold a single candle in the darkness and it only provides enough light to take our next step. Worry about that step. God loves us. “He will not suffer our foot to be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber”. That is the promise of the another psalmist (129) and the promise of the gospel. There is a deep peace in waiting in the confidence that God is with us.
Finally, there is a peace that comes from grappling with the fluidity of life. This psalm is unusual in that the verses we are examining are a psalm of thanksgiving which would usually stand alone. But in this case, a psalm of lament (not printed here) immediately follows thanksgiving. I don’t think anyone knows why these two literary forms were combined into one psalm, but, for me, placing thanksgiving and lament together suggest the ebb and flow of real life. Our darkest moments will pass and our greatest joys will be interrupted. It is tempting to separate them but in real life they are inextricably intertwined. Our steps will be secure and we will sing a new song.
One last note. The psalmist emphasizes the importance of sharing God’s redemptive activity in the great congregation. It is certainly more important to walk the walk than it is to talk about the walk. But one does not exclude the other. It is important to find words for our faith. Finding words forces us to reflect upon and focus our faith. Sharing those words is our testimony to the steadfast love of God. It is that love that transforms us. It will keep us safe forever—in the deepest pit or on the highest mountain.
Help us seek the sure footing you have given us. Give us the words to testify to your abiding love. Let be so.