“The worth of our abundance, no matter how small it is, is the empathy that drives us to understand those with less and that compels us to reach out and help.”
Dark times can subtly creep upon us. Sometimes Satan is merely the one who capitalizes on other things happening with us. When I say dark times I don’t mean sickness, although that’s certainly nothing to be happy about; I don’t mean attack by an enemy. I simply mean unexpected emotional hardship in response to life experiences. It’s our own hearts taking us by surprise.
I’ve always referred to this as the ‘human element’. The phrase is rudimentary, lacking eloquence, and in need of explanation. Let me share two stories from my life to help you see what I mean.
Story 1: The Summer Burn-Out
I went to college in Oklahoma, so I didn’t often return home on the East Coast during holidays and summers. Instead, I would remain on campus and work. The school year had ended and my routine remained largely the same besides no study and working full-time to care for myself. I was to begin my junior year that fall and take some long-awaited major courses. But by the time classes started I was mentally fatigued, having never rested. By the end of that semester, my grades plummeted and I nearly failed two important courses.
Story 2: The Derailed Trainman
I once worked as a railroad conductor. One sunny day after our last move before returning to the hub, my engineer and I were halted. I had been secretly watched by an official and hassled for a trivial infraction; the fallout caused a very serious error minutes later. It landed both of us out of work on a 10-month probation that ruined me financially. I lost everything and had to rely on others. Outwardly I seemed fine, but I was emotionally devastated by my loss. When the time came to return to the job, I resigned despite offers of help from family.
From Stasis to Chaos
When I speak of the human element, I’m talking about unanticipated disconsolation, depression, or vices resultant of continual emotional wear or emotionally depleting events or results. It is elicited by both positive and negative experiences. One day life is swell—the family is fine, work is good, money is flowing, dreams are coming true; but the next moment we are emotionally blindsided and don’t know why.
It is the response of the heart that is atypical. Pain hurts and you cried; you were elated by your success—but there was more that was incited.
I speak of the subtle trajectories of the heart, the unexpected drawings and cravings certain experiences arouse and that point back to emotional flaws or deficiencies needing special attention. This is a poignant matter in our driven, innovative culture where we suppose we can continually be on the go and have every experience without proper solace and emotional reflection and repair; it only leads to breakdown.
We cannot always calculate how we will react to our experiences. There is no autopilot for our emotions; they change and must be managed. Have you ever been happy for a friend’s success and then for weeks battled your own feelings of failure? Have we not all observed the successful business person or celebrity, a rising star but a life spinning out of control. They cope with their success by drinking, through addictions and riotous living, and even suicide.
How we deal with life events, the good and bad, is plethora and accomplished in healthy and unhealthy ways. Importantly, we should closely monitor how certain experiences stimulate our emotional needs and carefully plan our responses. Being unaware or not fully honest about serious inner issues is risky.
And before you give me a gospel spiel, I understand what it means to live in the Spirit, to have strong faith, and to make Christ Lord of every part of me. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that godly folk wrestle with their emotions and become depressed. If you need evidence, the biggest book in the Bible is full of people who have shared these very stories and watched God bring them back from the brink. Our emotional reaction is one thing; a mindful and godly response is another—but we can have emotional struggles.
I offer no quips or solutions. I just think it’s important to know that the events of our lives affect us in more ways than are apparent, emotionally so; and that being attentive to our souls and how we handle life matters is vital to our emotional well-being—Christian or not.
Psalm 13 presents the complaint of one waiting for God’s intervention. The writer, David, is clearly under some type of oppression from people he deems enemies. He has been patiently waiting for God’s action, but it seems that it will never come; now he struggles with despair.
When meditating on this divine reading, notice in Verses 1 and 2 the four vexations of the writer: the sense that he is 1-2) forgotten and avoided by God; 3) shamed and left to figure out his own escape plan; and 4) oppressed by the ungodly.
Verse 1 (ESV)
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”
Every believer walking with Christ will face trial, and every believer will have to wait for God’s deliverance. How we wait makes all the difference. We can wait trusting God’s promise to deliver us or we can wait begrudgingly and wondering why he doesn’t help us. But what about when we are patient, even longsuffering, but God seems to never come?
This is the writer’s foremost trouble: God has forgotten him. We sense that he is a godly man, has guarded his heart from bitterness, and endured much trouble while waiting for God’s vindication and deliverance. But the tenor of his words reveals that despair has seeped into his heart.
“How long will you hide your face from me?”
He charges the all-seeing God with the notion that he is avoiding him. Haven’t we all felt this way? We are confident that we belong to God and rightly understand that we will suffer, just as Christ himself suffered. We endure our pain with our minds focused on God and his Word but grow perplexed when he doesn’t make the pain go away fast enough.
Is God avoiding us? We can indeed feel this way. We all know what it feels like for a person we consider a friend to evade us; it doesn’t feel good. This is what troubles the writer. Satan will also attempt to confuse us and bring guilt. We’ll begin to ask, “What have I done that is pushing God away from me?”
“How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”
Have you ever gotten frustrated because you waited on God? You trusted the Lord, but, when his aid took forever, you felt that you would’ve never had trouble if you had only used your own head to solve your problem. This is the writer’s quandary. God gives us a mind, so we should use it; but when does our rationale interfere with God’s plan? And are there some trials he needs us to experience for our own making such that we could never think our way out of them?
The writer’s agony in this verse is his feeling embarrassed by God’s absence, that the Lord has left him to his own devices to fix his troubles when he has been doing what he’s always known to do, which is wait on God. What was right: to wait on the Lord or to tunnel his own way out? Not knowing what to do, he becomes depressed.
“How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
Here is our clue that the writer has been afflicted by someone. So to add insult to real injury—“God, are you going to let my enemy rule me, your child?” How long will he allow those who scoff at religion to vex a believer?
It is not a charge against the writer here, but it’s a good place to deal with the topic. It is our human thinking, even for the Christian, that personal righteousness is to be rewarded by God. God has told us this in no uncertain terms (Matt. 20:4), but it is not our place to decide what is rewarded and when. Job was indeed righteous, but we notice pride in his attitude toward his suffering, which always has a profound way of making us see what’s in our hearts. Our thinking is off. Living godly is its own reward and only the Spirit and Heaven itself can prove this to us. God owes us nothing; we owe him everything.
Verse 3 and 4
“Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
Could it be that the writer is antagonized due to his faith and because they understand his modus operandi is to trust his God? He pleads with God to prove his fame, for the man’s faithful witness and the credibility of his religion depend on God’s response. He has been a bulwark of conviction to this point; but now he’s in his prayer place wondering if God will ever come. He asks for light, here so symbolic of hope or a sign, lest depression consumes his very life.
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”
Suddenly, as though the light prayed for has come, the writer’s strength of heart returns. He remembers the kindnesses and the favor of God shown to him in the past, assurances that he has not forsaken him now, for God is constant. And with that look toward the future, he grows joyful at the prospect of God’s imminent deliverance. Trouble couldn’t last forever, but hope would steady the heart until the answer came.
“I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
We should praise the Lord for his mercy toward us. He knows our frailty and that we don’t always understand his dealings with us. He can also see where the strength of our faith weakens; and first not letting us be overcome by any trial, he draws close to us in hardship to let us know that he will answer.
Think in your own life how once you may have despaired and thought you’d never be happy again, at least not until the problem was solved. But the Spirit came and lifted your heart ever so lovingly; before you knew it, your confidence had returned though the problem lingered.
David remembers the character of God and sings his praise: “He has been good to me!” It all comes down to this—his kindness, his love, his faithfulness, his justice, his incredible goodness toward us. They are our assurances that God is present and coming to our rescue.
I am perplexed as to why many Christians work so hard to be what they already are: the righteous. A strong emphasis on discreet living is too often undermined by pretense and hypocrisy; it is easily identified in churches and some Christian brands. This happens when preserving a godly image outweighs living as frail individuals liberated in the grace of God.
Our righteousness in Christ is a fact; we are unblemished in God’s sight.
But there are reasons we live as though this isn’t true. We feel that we have to prove our righteousness—to ourselves, to others, and to God—and become entrapped in works religion, forcing ourselves to earn God’s favor. Then, at the heart of it for many people is a conscience that remains guilt-ridden and desperate for penance, needing a deep understanding of grace.
Conversion is a lifestyle of sanctification, which is inherently progressive in nature and governed by God’s abundant mercy. I can master one area of my life and bring God glory there while another area may present me a lifelong chore; and though I may stumble, God’s power remains available to help me overcome that vice. But sanctification is an act spoiled if we retain too strongly a judicial view of God. That is the reason why we feverishly sweep around our doors and morally dot our “I’s” and cross our “T’s”—because God must be appeased and there is no stumbling or he’ll be mad at us.
How paradoxical it is that those who sing “Amazing Grace” have not grasped it! We let the dust cloud of guilt, personal failings, and dim outlook make us overlook Jesus before us saying “I accept you.” He doesn’t accept us because we have it together, but rather because we need him, the Savior.
A Present Reality
This radical kindness is what makes our only duty—emulating Christ by producing the fruit of righteousness (Gal. 5:22-23)—paramount. This one way is how we prove not our uprightness, but our love for God and appreciation for his kindness to us. It is perhaps the greatest assurance of our salvation. Christ died and gave us his life (zoe); we kill sinful tendencies and grow in righteousness—but in full knowledge that we are broken and still accepted.
So we need not resort to works religion, sin management, or undue behavior modifications. Instead, we are now righteous. We are now saints of God. We are now entered into the kingdom to come.