This week's Bible Study - December 14, 2014
The Shelter of God's Encouragement
Psalm 42:1-8; 43:3-5
Quotes of the Week:
In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.
- Albert Einstein
Have you ever needed to be encouraged? Of course you have, since we all have that need from time to time. Some people act as if they have everything under control, at all times, but we know that is a front, as we all need encouragement. If you read these lessons often, you know that Berkley and I are avid sports fans (actually, probably I am more than her, but we both like to watch games). Have you ever thought about why there is at least a perception of home field advantage in most sports? In reality, the advantage isn't as huge as sports commentators and fans like to think it is, but there is a documented edge to the home team. If two teams had equivalent abilities and played multiple games at both places, you would expect the home team to win more often. This may be due to the impact of the fans on the teams or even the referees and umpires. If you were to play a game, it is often encouraging to have others there to watch you and to support you.
For most of us, athletics are not our primary source of income and though we can learn a little about encouragement from that, the areas we need encouragement in do not generally involve an audience. We experience many times in our lives where we need encouragement and nobody is around. We may have the encouragement of family members and friends, but they can't be in our meetings or in our classes or in our medical tests, standing by and offering words of encouragement. We do appreciate the prayers of others and their words of encouragement, but there is something deeper that cries out for help at times, when no other human is able to answer that cry.
Encouragement is another one of the benefits that we have as believers. We know that God gives us strength to act and gives us the ability to withstand. We also know that many believers have fallen in areas of their lives. In those areas, it isn't because God has forgotten us, but we have likely allowed ourselves to be more focused on self than on God. The passages selected for this lesson have something to do with worship. You may not understand how worship and encouragement are related, but if you do not seek God passionately, how can we expect that we will benefit from the encouragement that He offers in life?
For many of us, the first verse is fairly familiar, "As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after Thee". Although you won't likely hear this song, even in many contemporary services anymore, this was the basis for a worship song written in the early 1980s and was widely used in many churches. The picture here is of a true longing for thirst. I've heard it said that some people can go nearly a week without water, although I think it would be difficult to go for more than three or four days. Most of us will never really test the limits. I drink water often during the day, especially when I am active in sports. Even on a normal day, I tend to drink a lot of water. When Berkley and I walk in the neighborhood, we generally take a bottle of water with us. That is only an hour and if we forget the water, we seem to get thirstier. We all know what it means to be thirsty, but do you know what it means to be really thirsty? We don't think a lot about thirst, until we are someplace where we feel the pangs of thirst and there is nothing to drink. We begin to look for fountains or stores or anyplace to get that precious water.
Do you see the passion that is intimated with the deer panting for the water? Are we as passionate as we seek God, so that our souls are panting for God? As believers, I know that we all seek God in some capacity, but it is so easy to get caught up in the things of this world such that we are only seeking God off and on, in church services and other meetings. Are you seeking God passionately, throughout the week? Do you see the need for connection with God, as much as you see the need for your body to have water?
The Psalmist asks where he can go and meet God. Have you ever found it difficult to meet with God? We may go through the motions at times, doing all the right things, but even then, God may seem distant. So many people are dealing with so many things. On our prayer list right now, we have many friends that are struggling with terminal illness and others who are battling cancer. We have friends that are having job related problems and others where families are falling apart. Some have medical problems, as we have been personally dealing with some things in the last couple of months. Some see train wrecks about to happen, as they have families or friends that are forging forward in life, carrying loads and loads of baggage that will certainly cause problems in the future. There are times that God seems distant. While we wouldn't say this out loud, in our minds, we often think that if God were really for us - life should be easier. When life turns out to be difficult, then some will question where God is. In this passage, we see someone solely focused on finding God, to the point of others also asking "Where is your God?"
Then there are times when we go to God with shouts of joy and praise. When have you personally felt the presence of God in a memorable way? Some people can point to worship services where they felt the presence of God and others have felt God in the midst of difficult circumstances. If you can remember back to these times, you know that God's presence can be felt, and it likely gives you a chill to think back to that day. Sometimes, when we look back and remember what God has done, it encourages us to seek Him and His presence once again.
Again the writer asks the question "Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?" As previously stated, there are times in our life when things go wrong. These times happen to all of us. How do you respond when one thing after another just seems to fall apart for you? For most of us, the tendency is for our souls to become downcast and we often become disturbed. It is at those times that we must put our hope in God. Even when it is difficult, we must continue to praise him. In prosperity or in despair, He is still our Savior and God.
Some people fight this downcast feeling so much so that the casual observer would never know that anything is wrong. In fact, we all have done this at one point or another. When you go to church on a Sunday morning and someone asks how you are doing, what is your normal response? By and large, the stock answer is 'fine', even if our worlds are falling apart. Unfortunately, the church is the one place where people are more apt to wear their 'life is fine' masks, to make others believe that everything truly is okay. It is as if we don't want to show signs of weakness in the very place where we should find support. On the other hand, people routinely go to bars or other places and openly share the struggles that they face. Why do you think that is? Sometimes, in our churches, people don't appear to really want to know the truth, because there is the thought that for a believer, everything should go fine, all the time. Some have seen how others have been treated when they have shared their problems, and if it didn't go well, perhaps they don't want to suffer the same treatment. However, in other places, people are often more empathetic and seem to really care about our problems. Do you think we've missed the point, when we have to hide our feelings?
There is much that could be said about how important it is to have a few close people that you can be utterly honest with. We need people that can help us see what God may be doing and to encourage us, rather than those who are going to goad us into unhealthy reactions. But, even with those godly people in our lives, we must be honest before God. We need to address our fears, our disappointments, and other issues as we put our hope in Him.
We must remember to continue to seek God and remember him as he has worked in our lives. Even though our situation may have changed, God is still the same. All of us are guilty at times of having a very short term memory. Even when we have seen God work over and over in our lives, we have a tendency to forget His presence in the next tragedy. We are urged to remember.
The writer goes on to say that deep calls to deep in the roar of waterfalls - waves and breakers have swept over me. Have you ever truly seen a rushing river or a waterfall? From a distance, there is a beauty that is hard to explain. A few years ago, when Berkley and I went to Vancouver and then drove up to Whistler, we stopped at Shannon Falls, which is about halfway between the two destinations. We needed a break and to be able to stretch our legs a bit, but we were literally awestruck at the beauty of the waterfall. From a distance, the falls were beautiful, but as you got nearer, they appeared much more fearful. There was a sense of the water being out of control, as it sped up, became very choppy and then tumbled over the top, crashing into rocks, twisting and turning past obstacles. After the falls, the water flowed into a steady stream and, at that point, there is a clear sense that things are okay. Sometimes our lives resemble the water going over the falls - it is as if we are in a state of turmoil, being thrown down against rocks - and the sound is very loud. At that point, God is still in control. In the deep of the water when all may seem lost, we must continue to put our faith in God.
The Lord is present in the day, when things are going well. Have you noticed how much safer and more pleasant most places seem to be in the middle of the day? However, in the middle of the night, even our very homes can seem to be different and may even seem scary. The difference between light and dark is amazing. However, the Lord's song is present with us, in both the day and the night.
The writer continues to ask God to lead him by God's light and His faithful care. He desires to be brought to the holy mountain where God dwells. In the middle of good times and bad, our worship should lead us to God's altar. There is an incredible peace that can be found in God's presence. If your worship takes you somewhere other than into the presence of God, then you are really not worshipping, or at least you are not worshipping God. God is indeed to be the object of worship. As we seek him, we will find our joy and delight; we will find our encouragement in life.
The writer states that he would praise God with the lyre. Instruments can be used to enhance worship experiences, but the worship is not about the instrument that is used. Both Berkley and I have gone to many different services and have been moved in many ways by talented musicians and singers. In some ways, worship services can become more like professional performances which are more about the act and less about God. Our life, our encouragement and our hope comes from God and not from the talents of others. Certainly, we may be moved by music and other performances, but they should be moving us more towards God than anywhere else. We may realize that God has greatly gifted others, but the worship should be about God and not about the gift of others.
In the final verse of this passage, the writer once again writes that his soul is downcast and disturbed. As often stated, this is a common theme throughout the lesson. It as if that is a point that we must hear over and over for it to really sink in. We will be downcast and disturbed and we reap no benefit from acting as if we aren't. What we are to be reminded of is that in any life situation, we must praise our Savior and God.
The lesson is about receiving Encouragement from God, but we see that this comes as we seek Him, and long for Him. Ask yourself - Who are "you" longing for? If you are longing for anyone or anything other than God, you are going to miss what God wants you to have. Some people long for another person. It may be a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend or someone else. We do have deep relationships and we should long for those close to us. In many ways, we are indeed blessed by God, but His intention is that we seek Him and put our hope in Him, as opposed to what He has given us. Are you longing for God?
Are you honest about your condition? We will all experience trials. It doesn't make them go away to act as if they don't exist. I know that there are those who have not endured substantial loss or heartache in their own lives (yet). We need to count ourselves blessed when things are going well, but realize that will not always be the case. You may not deal with tremendous loss or tragedy for a number of years. But, trials will come to each of us eventually. When these trials come into your life, know that you can put your hope in God. He will encourage you in the midst of your trial, as opposed to becoming the 'get out of jail' genie that many people desire.
Are you longing for God? Have you experienced the true worship of God recently? Are you placing yourself where that is a possible reality? If you aren't involved in a church, you are missing out on potential worship opportunities. If you aren't surrounding yourself with Christian friends, you are missing out on hearing how God is active in other's lives. Are you focused on seeking God? When we realize what God can do in our lives, we would all do well to orient ourselves so that we can find God each day.