Dr. Jim Hurley preaches a chapel message on Psalm 139 at RTS Jackson entitled “Security in God’s Embrace.”
Our hymns this morning and the Psalm we look at, really the Psalms we’ll look at, move us across a variety of emotional stances. They’re chosen deliberately for that, precisely because that’s part of how we live. And that’s something that the Scripture not only sees and acknowledges but celebrates. We took joy in our redemption, then we reflected here on the stress and the pain that can be there for people looking at Christ, wondering, is it worth the struggle? And that’s intended to encourage us in those times. The point that I’ll be making, and we’ll look at the text of Scripture in just a moment, is that a security in our relationship with the Lord leaves us a freedom to experience life before his face with its ups and downs without being crushed or overwhelmed or lost, and also to be alongside of those who are hard pressed, who are worn without pushing them away from that, but being alongside them in it.
God Knows Us Intimately and He Can Handle Our Emotions
So I want to look, first at Psalm 139, the initial verses, it’s much longer than we have time for here. And I won’t be doing what you’d be doing in an exegetical paper because I’m thinking at a slightly higher level, and I don’t have Dr. Van Pelt here. However, some of the other folks here have reviewed my Hebrew before. Psalm 139:1,
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it entirely. You hem me in, behind and before, you lay your hand on me. That kind of knowledge is too wonderful for me; it’s so high I can’t attain it.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and settle in the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me becomes night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day because darkness is as light with you.
The Psalmist writes here with a wonderful and even slightly surprising candor, but also an emotional stance. Take a moment to think about God knowing absolutely everything about you. There are a few things I kind of wish, actually, quite a number, that I wish he didn’t know about. The idea that he knows me entirely and minutely is a little uncomfortable, and yet consider the alternative. If God embraces us, and then he looks and says, “What? That’s there?” The Psalmist has a working relation with God that is secure at such a level that everything in his life is open to God, and instead of being afraid of that, he finds comfort in it.
The Psalmist has a working relation with God that is secure at such a level that everything in his life is open to God.That which we hide from ourselves, others, God, is that which is out of sight, which we don’t sometimes deal with, especially that’s true with God. What a secure relationship, and this applies with God, spouses, children and parents, church members, a secure relationship where you know someone is fundamentally for you. That even when you fall, even when you sin, they are for you. That kind of security leads to tremendous freedom. We see it graphically with children. If they’re afraid of their caretaker, they get cautious. They don’t take risks. They don’t step out because it’s scary. They can’t count on someone to be there. Then they close down.
The same is true for so many of us, if you think about times of fellowship among the people of God. Have you been in a group where you really knew these people are for you, where you begin to talk honestly about where you’re struggling and wrestling and you know that what’s going to happen is not that you’re going to be shamed, but they’re going to be for you and supporting you in the change? They’re not going to pretend sin isn’t sin, but they’re not going after you. When God embraces us, when we’re adopted, it’s after he’s paid the price in minutia. Everything. There are no surprises to him. We come, “Lord, I can’t show you that. I’m afraid of this.” He says, “Well, I actually know about that. Do you remember the cross?” Do you remember what Paul says about there’s a bill of indictment nailed on that cross? Our indictment nailed up there and fully met by him. There are no surprises for God. He knows, and he reaches to us, and he looks to build us up.
Then there comes a freedom in that. A freedom to be real, a freedom to be genuine instead of having to pretend. I want to think with you a little bit about some other Psalms that model the Psalmist’s freedom, but I want to think with you as well about a pastor’s role, especially in the Reformed tradition. We have a tradition that looks at, rightly, the majesty of God, that understands the worship of God as people coming in the presence of a holy God, one who is to be revered and honored. We don’t come flippantly or dismissively into his presence, but a lot of times, when we do that, what we’re thinking about is, we’re sort of stable and don’t have our emotions working and we can even feel a little embarrassed about having them.
Several times I’ve watched preachers, as they preach, come to a point where tears begin and they apologize. Or as a pastor, when you are in the presence of a parishioner who’s really upset, a lot of men are kind of uncomfortable. What does a man often do when he’s in the presence of somebody who’s sad or crying or showing actually almost any intense emotion? A lot of men back up, especially if it’s another man, and give him a chance to kind of recover. What is that saying? “I’m a little uncomfortable with that. I figure you’re likely a little embarrassed about it. So I’m going to just back away a bit, let you settle down.” Back away a little bit and let you settle down by yourself.
One thing you can guarantee a pastor or actually anybody who lives a little while is that they’re going to be in the presence of very intense emotion. Emotion that can be so hard and so strong that the person having it has a difficult time regulating it, a difficult time managing it. They’re being overwhelmed by it. Nowadays we can actually describe the neurobiology of that. But when a person is there, what’s the wise response? And if we’re uncomfortable with intensity, we tend to back away.
We Can Turn to God Even with Our Most Uncomfortable Emotions
But the psalmists, when they’re fearful, they say so, and look to God for comfort. Frequently when they’re angry, they say so in ways that are uncomfortable for us. But where the Lord says, “Be angry, don’t sin,” if we’re telling people, “It’s not right to be angry, it’s not good to be angry,” they’re never going learn to manage it without sin. Be angry, don’t sin. Or in other areas like grieving. It’s really easy to have a sense of, if you’re actively trusting God, if your faith is strong, you won’t be overwhelmed by your grief. So you watch somebody standing in the numbness of grief and say, “See how strong they are? See how strong is their faith?” But numbness is not necessarily the mark, the unique mark of strong faith. There are other marks. So a lot of times our discomfort with intensity leaves us just pretending a little bit, pulling back from people with intensity or our own. Then we feel a little fake. Actually we can become the frozen chosen that way.
So I want to look at the Psalms, and just think about what God has done here. Some of them are very uncomfortable for us to read. And not only are the Psalmists showing us their own emotional intensity, but they wrote these to be sung or at least brought them to be sung in the temple in the midst of all of God’s people. He didn’t give us a hymnbook with music in it, because I suspect every generation, every culture is going to have its own way of expressing tunes that match the emotion. But here are these Psalms written describing powerful, intense experiences, and they’re intended to have the whole of the people of God gathered together before him, sharing in the singing and the experience.
And God is the one who said, “Put that in the hymnbook.” He’s not offended. He actually invites and not just the niceties, but also the hard places. So take a look. I’ll read it at you, hopefully to you. But Psalm 6, starting up at the beginning. And notice in this Psalm and the others I’m looking at, the duration of emotion and the emotional process that the people are involved in. Have you noticed if you get really upset, it doesn’t just turn off, at least not for most people? It takes a minimum of something like a half hour to get back to where you were, even if it’s only a flash of intense anger, and it can actually take days.
Or loss. You know a person is with the Lord, and yet there can be a lengthy period of grieving, of intensity, and actually, our brains are literally adjusting to the lack of what they’d become used to having. The grieving is an honoring of the loss and involves an adjustment to the lack of that powerful resource. The more important the resource, the more sudden the loss, the more intense the grieving tends to be. There is emotional process, and being alongside of God’s people involves being willing to have, to honor, to be present in the midst of the process without yourself being overwhelmed, but without pushing it away.
O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O Lord, because I am languishing. Lord, heal me because my bones are shaking with terror. My soul is also struck with terror. O Lord, how long?
Turn, O Lord, and save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise? I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with weeping. My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.
Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be ashamed and struck with terror. They shall turn back, and in a moment they’ll be put to shame.
Notice as this psalm moves forward, the psalmist is not saying, “I’m not afraid of men. They’ll never threaten me.” He says, “I am bone weary of this. I’m in bed at night sobbing and my bed’s wet with all those tears.” That’s not embarrassing, and it’s not a lack of faith. And my eyes—have you seen somebody who has spent three or four days in grief? Their eyes look shriveled up. That’s what the psalmist is saying, “My eyes are tired.”
So here’s a man who has spent a prolonged period in intense distress. And he’s saying to God, “How long? This is hard for me. How long?” That’s not a lack of faith, but it’s a genuineness of experience. And the Lord invites that into the Psalm. The Lord celebrates that. David didn’t just come to the back end of it and say, “Oh, the Lord delivered me. I’m so glad he.” He didn’t shout, “The Lord delivered me. I’m so glad.” He’s actually walking through it, and this is something for God’s people also suffering to share. Does this make sense to you? This is intended not simply to celebrate the deliverance of God but to acknowledge the long, difficult period of walking through horrible stuff that is distressing and painful. David intends us to think about and to touch that long process, not without hope, but allowing it its place.
I wonder how often we actually would back away a little bit from somebody doing that. Or encourage them, “Don’t be so down, brother. God is faithful.” Those are two statements. “Brother, you’re way down. It feels hopeless. You’ve had a terrible loss.” And, “God is faithful.”
We Need to Give People Comfort, Not Theological Platitudes
We can actually shame people. Young pastors, young men, others, I think less women, but the first time they go to a funeral and somebody is just overwhelmed and distraught, they come up and they want to bring comfort and they say, “God is faithful, and your loved one is is with him. Cheer up!” basically is what they’re saying. Do you recognize how difficult that is? You’re saying, “Put away that grief. Don’t let the terrible loss be there.” It’s much more effective to come up and say, “I am so sorry.” Give them a hug. If they want to talk about the theology, one can talk about that. But certainly they don’t need the wonderful theological insight that takes eight paragraphs about the sovereignty of God when mostly they’re overwhelmed with this tremendous sense of loss.
Psalm 31: “In thee, O Lord, I put my trust; never let me be ashamed; deliver me in your righteousness. Bend your ear down and deliver me quickly. Be my strong rock, a house for my defense to save me. . . . Have mercy on me, O Lord, because I am in trouble. My eye is consumed with grief.” Here’s that lengthy process again. My eye is actually worn with grief and my soul, my central person, and my stomach as well. Heavy grief tears you up. The psalmist is experiencing it. And he’s saying, “Help! Do something. Step in, because my life is spent with grief and my years with sighing.” This is not a one day process. “My strength fails because of my iniquity,” so his own self is involved in this, “and my bones are consumed.” Long, hard, difficult process.
Trust is the product of repeated experiences of trustworthiness.And interestingly, not one where we can simply say, “Well, God has forgiven you. Put it down. Be putting it down. Be involving this in the fabric of your life, not closing it out, but it’s there. We know that, and move on.” You see that in marriages where there’s an infidelity. “Well, I’m sorry. I’ve stopped. Now you have to forgive me. Let’s move on.” It doesn’t work like that. Trust is the product of repeated experiences of trustworthiness. Having an affair and stopping does not bring a person to a place of great trust. They need repeated experiences. That’s not lack of forgiveness, necessarily. But trust comes by repeated experiences.
Emotional change is a process, and it takes time. We encourage. We walk alongside. But don’t back away. Don’t dismiss.
Jesus Engaged with the Grief of His Friends and His Own Grief
Now we have not only the example of the Psalms, we have another example of somebody who’s willing to really engage the intensity of human experience. John 11, Jesus comes to the family of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. John very carefully tells us Jesus heard about Lazarus, he loved him, because he loved him, he sat still for three days while Lazarus died. How are we doing for compassion? What is he doing when he allows them this terrible grief? And certainly he’s going to use it. He’s going to have God honored through it. Yet the people really walk through hard times and death. When they get to Jesus, they say, “If you’ve been here, he wouldn’t have died.” That’s not simply a statement of faith. That’s also probably a quiet accusation. “If you’d been here, he wouldn’t have died.” And he’s dead.
And Jesus sees them,” verse 33, “when Jesus therefore saw her sobbing and the Jews also weeping that came along with her, he groaned in his spirit and was troubled.” And the Greek there points the distress and even anger. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” And they said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. He’s going to raise him in 10 minutes. What are these tears? Jesus looks and recognizes does not back away from and in fact attunes to: he is weeping when he looks at the distress, the terrible distress of these people. That’s not lack of faith. That’s reality of loss. He weeps, and they look and they say, “See how much he loved him.” That’s right. He loved him, and there’s terrible pain, and he’s prepared to weep with them.
I remember at one point after Gordon Clark had lost his wife, and Gordon didn’t like emotion without words, actually he didn’t like emotion at all. Which is the subject of a very interesting discussion between us because he would invite me to play chess. And Ruth would say, “You understand? That’s the way he gets alongside you and tells you he likes you.” And then actually as a great compliment in Sunday school class, when he knew I was teaching in another church, he’d say, “Well, Dr. Hurley what do you think of that verse?” And somebody would say, “Well, he’s over at the other church.” “Oh, yes.” That was a compliment. And other times, he’d come up and say, “What do you think about this passage in Euripedes?” I would say, “Gordon, New Testament is Greek is OK. Euripedes is not New Testament Greek. I have a very hard time with that stuff, and I don’t read it.” But this is how Gordon would get alongside you.
Jesus was prepared to weep alongside the weeping.So his wife died. For three days, he told no one. And then he came. And as I was talking to him, I said, “I’m so sorry. I loved Ruth, I’m so sorry.” And he teared up then, and he said, “I’m sorry.” I said, “Don’t be. Christ wept for Lazarus. He weeps for Ruth.” Gordon was profoundly uncomfortable with intense emotion, even to the point of wanting to have his regulated and put away. And he’s really uncomfortable with somebody acknowledging it. Jesus was prepared to weep alongside the weeping. As a pastor, there’ll be times when you’ll watch something happen in the therapy room, and it will touch your heart because you see connection, and you’ll cry. There are other times people are going to come with information, and you’re terribly sad for them, and you’ll cry. And I’m wanting very simply to say, do it. Jesus did. You have a really good precedent for that.
Not that he was overwhelmed and distraught, but he was willing genuinely to feel it. Many of your congregation will see that tear and remember it for a lifetime, literally. They’ll come back years later or their children will come back and say, “My father never forgot when you wept as he wept.” The psalmist is not embarrassed. God is not embarrassed. Jesus is not embarrassed to have the reality of our intense emotions. They’re celebrated in Scripture.
Jesus, in his time of overwhelming sorrow and coming judgment, reached out for people he loved.Now I’ve looked especially at the more negative side. There’s one more of those I want to look at, and then I want to shift sides because our clock’s moving and we’re moving through Psalms. Matthew 26, Jesus is coming up into the garden. He is about to experience something horrendous, and the experience weighs heavily on him. He took with him as he went to Gethsemane, Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, people who are particularly close to him, and he began to be sorrowful and very heavy.
Have you felt terrible loss, and your motor slows down? It’s difficult to move. Your thinking starts slowing up. That’s apparently what’s happening. He’s very sorrowful, and he’s heavy in the weight of it. And he said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.” Have you been so down it just feels like you’re going to die? That’s what Jesus said. This is the Savior. This is not lack of faith at all. Then he says, “Stay here and watch with me.” Jesus, in his time of overwhelming sorrow and coming judgment, reached out for people he loved. He didn’t say, “Give me a theological lecture.” He said, “Pray with me. Be present to support and comfort me.’ If Jesus can do that, it’s alright, for us, it’s all right for our congregation. It’s alight to be alongside.
Now, for many of you, you already know this, but some of you may also feel a little uncomfortable with these things. The first I want to re-encourage, to the second I want to encourage. But then we come out of these very difficult, intense emotions that happened to be hardwired in our brains, and we could talk about how they work, but this isn’t the place.
The Scripture Also Models Wholehearted Joy and Praise
It’s not only the difficult, hard, terror, fearful emotions that the Scripture models. Psalm 150, the end of the Psalter. It’s not the end of what I’m saying, but it’s the end of the Psalter.
Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty expanse. Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness. Praise him with trumpet sound, praise him with harp and lyre [kind of like our music up here, not harp and lyre, but still instruments], praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with stringed instruments and a pipe [we got that this morning], praise him with loud cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.
What’s their worship like? We do this at Easter, sometimes at Christmas. You import the instruments, and you make a loud noise. That’s OK. I rejoice in that. I’m kind of a Philistine musically. Bill has beautiful pieces, sometimes I can’t find the tune. That’s OK. I’m ignorant. They’re beautiful. I can’t find the tune, that’s all. But here is a worship that is wholehearted. Get your trumpet. Get your cymbals. I mean, not little cymbals, big ones. Can you feel the integrity of joy in the same way that at the depths there’s an integrity of sorrow?
But it doesn’t even stop just there. Psalm 98:4, it’s not just trumpets and it’s not just cymbals. Psalm 98 says, “Shout joyfully to the Lord!” Do you have any idea what would happen if one of you stood up and did that right now? I remember preaching in a church. and what I was saying, by the grace of God, really touched somebody’s heart, and they began to cry audibly. And afterwards, the elders suggested to me, I should be careful about that. Oh my. I’m not looking to play with emotions, but no embarrassment for that. Freedom to be whole, genuine, up, down. Not out of control, that’s where we help each other stabilize.
“Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Break forth and sing for joy!” The only time I ever do that is in the woods alone. But I do it, and I actually will run through the woods. I have to watch my ankles. Because if you jump off a log and you land funny, then you shout differently. I’m Presbyterian. I’m from a tradition where you don’t do that. But, you know, it’s really fun. “Sing praises to the Lord with a lyre,” I can’t sing with a lyre “and the sound of melody.” I can vaguely do that. I make a joyful noise, mostly. “Do it with trumpets and the sound of a horn. Shout joyfully before the king.” Wow, these guys cut loose. They sound charismatic.
But, you know, people respond differently. And so we’re in Ezra, and they’re laying the foundation of the temple. And what did the people do? Well, listen. “And they sang, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘Because he is good, and his loving kindness to Israel is forever.’” And all the people shouted with a great shout. They praise the Lord because the foundation of the House of the Lord had been laid. But many of the priests and Levites and the heads of the households, the old men who’d seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes. While many shouted for joy, here are God’s people with an integrity of person, an unfettered freedom to be genuine. Some are shouting with joy and others are weeping, remembering what’s been lost. And they’re all welcome in God’s house. Praise the Lord and weep, genuinely, honestly before him.
Praise the Lord and weep, genuinely, honestly before him.Not as a show, but genuinely. At a certain level, pastors need the freedom to see and to work with this. You can’t learn to be angry without sin if you can’t be angry, and God says that’s what counts.
And Paul writes carefully to the Romans about their relations and he says, here, I will finally finish. He says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice. And weep with those who weep.” Be genuine, present, and willing to step up alongside the experience of another. That is experienced overwhelmingly as caring and present and supportive. Think about your life in places where somebody really got it, and was alongside you and your emotion. Pastors, join your congregations.