Henry David Thoreau once said every writer’s duty was to give “first and last, a simple and sincere account of their own life.” Most songwriters take that philosophy to heart, too. That’s certainly true with Taylor Swift. Almost all her songs have to do with break-ups with former boyfriends. I don’t want to diminish the pain felt by a teenager who endures a break-up—after all, pain is pain no matter the source, but the truth is that many great songs have been written out of the depth of painful experiences. It’s true of the great hymn of the church—A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
Martin Luther, the great reformer, penned the hymn in the 1520’s after the Diet of Worms at which he was charged with heresy, ex-communicated from the church and declared an outlaw. He lived the rest of his life in hiding. Through his trials and tribulations, Luther would proclaim, “A mighty fortress is our God…” Luther would take his famous hymn from another whose life had known hardship, the psalmist who penned Psalm 46.
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Psalm 46 is a song of radical trust in the face of overwhelming threat. The author never clarifies the nature of the threat, but reading the psalm it would indicate that is was likely a political threat, or possibly even in the midst of a war. One commentator speculates this was another of David’s psalms and was written at the time of the Assyrian invasion of Judah to give hope and assurance of God’s presence, protection and provision in the face of the invasion.
We Americans have our own illustration of that which the psalmist sang. We call it 9-11, and most of us here remember that date, don’t we? We remember where we were and what we were doing on that day. Even on the evening, we opened our churches and held prayer meetings, and it didn’t matter what pastors planned to preach that following Sunday, it was changed so that words of comfort and hope could be spoken. There were countless sermons that called on this 46th Psalm to bring words of comfort and hope to people whose foundation had been shaken. Politically, our world has been shaken. We don’t know quite what to do with it.
Culturally, too, we feel the ground shaking around us. There are some significant cultural shifts taking place in this world. They are happening so quickly it’s like the earth is shifting underneath our feet and we can’t seem to get our footing solidly underneath us before the next shift is taking place. Technology has hastened much of that shift. The changing of societal norms has hastened that shift. We scratch our heads dealing with one cultural earthquake, and before we can figure out how to deal with that one, the next one is already overwhelming us. From same-sex marriage to climate change to immigration reform to the disintegration of the family to the legalization of drugs we’re faced daily with questions and more questions, and we’re not sure we like all the answers.
Individually, too, we can feel the earth move under our feet. We get the word from the doctor—“It’s cancer”—and the mountain crumbles. Our marriage fails and we wonder what happened. We lose a child tragically and there seems to be no reason to live. We lose our job and we’re left to wonder how we’ll manage to feed the kids and pay the mortgage. We lose again the battle with some addiction and we just get tired. All we want to do is give up the fight. Our interior lives can be shaken by the brokenness of our own sin. And, the ground shakes, the earth quakes, the mountains crumble, and we need hope. What do we do? We do exactly what the psalmist did. We cry out to God. We put our trust in him.
I see three truths the psalmist acknowledges that allowed him to put his trust in God. The first truth the psalmist acknowledged is this: God is real. The psalmist begins, “God is…” I’ve been a pastor for almost 25 years, and the one thing I’ve learned is the more I learn about God the more I discover I don’t know about God. The closer I get to God, the more questions I have about God. That does not, however, cause me to doubt the existence of God. William Murray says, “Humanism or atheism is a wonderful philosophy of life as long as you are big, strong, and between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. But watch out if you are in a lifeboat and there are others who are younger, bigger, or smarter.”
We live much of our lives as what Craig Groeschel calls Christian athiests. Christian athiests are those who believe God exists but live their lives as though He doesn’t. We’re like the atheist in London making a speech at Hyde Park who said, “My hatred of religion is inherited; my grandfather was an atheist; my father was an atheist; and, thank God, I’m an atheist, too.” When we live as Christian atheists, we wander away from God. We foster violence in movies, television and music. We become obsessed with lust. We allow greed to possess us. We kill unborn children for the sake of convenience. And, when the ground shakes beneath our feet, we tremble in fear and live with the anxiety. but, when we believe God is real, we find God is our refuge and strength. We don’t live in fear. I love how the psalmist says it in verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” We hear the words “be still,” and immediately we think of getting quiet. We think of solitude and silence. There is an element in that, but the Hebrew literally means “cease and desist”—stop what you’re doing. It’s like God is speaking to two fighting children and says, “Stop that!” Stop what you’re doing. Stop being afraid. Stop worrying. Trust me. Acknowledge that I am.
I wish I could prove God is real. I would want to point to the beach to prove God is real. I lay at the beach, especially at night, and I see the stars spread across the vast universe and I think, “This couldn’t just happen!” I hear the waves roaring and beating against the shore, and it reminds me of God’s majesty and power. The apostle Paul said creation was the best evidence of God’s existence. He wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen” (Rom. 1:20). I lie there and I know it’s the sun and moon and gravity all working together, but I consider the fact that the earth is the perfect distance from the sun to support life. If we were any farther away from the sun, we would freeze; if we were even slightly closer to it, we would burn up. It’s obvious (to me, anyway) that God is real. I would also point to babies and beetles, to the bible and to the fact that the church exists. I would point to Jesus, and to my relationship with him, but it would all be pointless if I proved he were real because then it wouldn’t be faith. By faith, we acknowledge that God is real, and though our whole world crumbles around us, we will not be afraid.
The second thing I see the psalmist acknowledge is that God is present—always! We experience tragedy in our lives, or in our culture, or in our nation and we ask, “Where was God?” Where was God on 9/11? Where was God at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Where was God in my cancer? Where is God in all this cultural upheaval? The same place he was in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were rebelling. God was present waiting to cover their sin. Was He really present? Couldn’t He have stopped it before it began? Oh, it is not a matter of whether or not He could have. It is a matter of our choice. But, He was there!
God was with Joseph when he was rotting in jail – ever present. (Gen 37-50) If ever anyone’s world came crashing down, it was Joseph’s. Yet with all his hardships, problems and abuse, Joseph was able to honestly say, “You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” God was there when his brothers sold him into slavery, and God was there when Potiphar’s wife accused him of rape, and God was even there as he languished in prison. Every step of the way, God was able to take Joseph’s circumstances and mold him ever more closely into the man he would one day become. He was there all the time, though I am sure Joseph must have wondered at times where God was, in the end all knew well He was there all the time.
We could go on and on and tell of experiences such as Moses (Ex. 1-4) on the backside of the desert – being prepared for greater service. Or, Samson (Jud 14-16) groping in darkness – being strengthened in his hour of weakness. Or, Peter & John (Acts 3-5) beaten for preaching the Gospel – being given greater opportunities for sharing the good news of Christ. Or Paul (Acts 14-28) being stoned, shipwrecked and imprisoned – yet being assured that all things work together for good to them who love God.
“Where was God?” The same place He was on a Friday when His own son’s life was being taken from Him. Ever present – Jesus was God in the flesh, enduring the pain for the benefit of others. And even the Father didn’t flee the scene. Even Jesus felt forsaken, and asked God why His presence wasn’t felt. But God was present, and sin ran its course, and that is always a most ugly scene! Where was God when His Son hung dying on the cross? Didn’t He know? Shouldn’t Jesus have been able to come down from that cross? Couldn’t the Father have prevented it? Was He helpless? Didn’t He care?
Of course, He knew! Of course He could have stopped it! And, Of course He cared! The Father knew it was happening, could have stopped it, but He didn’t. And, aren’t we glad! There was a greater good to be accomplished by the suffering and death of Jesus. Through the suffering of One, many would be made whole. Through the sacrifice of One, many would have their sins forgiven. Through the death of One, many would be made alive.
God is ever present, even when the world comes crashing down around us.
One final thing to acknowledge, briefly—God is in control. That knowledge should enable us to see our circumstances in the light of eternity. Sometimes, life is like being in a waiting room. You know there’s something wrong but you’re not quite sure what it is. You just want to see the doctor and find out what’s wrong so you can get it fixed. A waiting room can be an unpleasant and unhappy place. You want this to be over and not have to wait any more. It is all you can do to obey the scripture that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
Jill Briscoe says, “I remember a time when I was waiting for soon to become now. I went down in Oconomowoc to a little lake where we live, and I sat there very early in the morning, praying, pleading with God that my soon would become now. ‘God, I cannot see you working. What about all these prayers that people are praying? This is a terrible situation. What are you doing about it?’ God said to me, ‘Any fish in that lake?’ I looked at the lake, which was like glass, and I said, ‘Sure. Of course there are fish there.’ ‘How do you know? Do you have to see fish jump to believe they’re there, Jill?’ I remember sitting there for a long time until I could say to God, ‘If I never see a fish jump, I will believe they’re there and active. If I never see you answer a prayer, I will believe.’ We all have a choice when trouble comes knocking at our door. We can curse God and die, or we can trust God and grow.”
Whatever circumstance you’re facing—God’s got it. Whatever our culture is facing—God’s got it! Whatever our church is facing—God’s got it! Let’s put our trust in Him. Let’s live obediently to Him! Let’s be faithful, come what may. That’s the song the psalmist is singing. If we sing it, too, we’ll discover that God is actually writing a song from our lives, taking the good and making it better, and taking the bad and working it for good, and in the end, it’ll be a sweet, sweet song of faith and hope.
Until next time, keep looking up…