I believe there is right and wrong. I believe in truth. I believe in the truth of the Bible. I believe in the observations of life. What happens though when all that collides? What does one do when the observations of life seem to smash what the scripture is saying? Just flip through the verses from the Psalms and see if your quick take on those verses has always been true in your experience, in your family, the news from around the world?
Can no intrigues find you because you are so hidden in Christ?
Can no tongue accuse you because you are a Christian?
Can no harm befall you because you are a Christian?
Can you not stumble in life because you are a Christian?
These seeming contradictions between life and scripture need to be given some legitimate solution. I started the preparation of this lesson in Psalm 121 and in that studying moved to Psalm 91, 61, 31 (an odd run of 30’s it seemed) and in these different passages the fuzziness of this question grew.
So David’s statements about security and sheltering and shading seem not to be what the experience of Christians has been. There is no bed of roses. Paul was shipwrecked and snake bit and all kinds of other things. Christians have been martyred and discriminated against. On May 28, 2016 Nicholas Kristoff wrote a very good article for the New York Times called The Liberal Blind Spot. (here is the link). Just read the comments (there were more than 1500 by 6/2/2016). The bulk of them had rather strident anti-evangelical presumptions; not all, but most. This is especially so in academia. To claim an evangelical status would easily prevent you from being selected for a job and certainly put an attempt at university level tenure in jeopardy.
When reality (“observations of life” as I termed it above) quickly pokes holes any trite consideration of verses like these I get edgy. What is one to do when life and observations seem to contradict the scriptures? Does one go for a secular-spiritual compartmentalization assuming that “Bible stuff” goes here and “life stuff” goes there? As Henri Blocher said in his book In the Beginning do we “deliberately forget [our] paleontology while [we] are reading [our] Bible, and … forget [our] Bible while [we] are classifying [our] fossils.” 1 In that vein can be asked, “do we deliberately forget the struggles of life when reading the Psalms and deliberately forget the Psalms when dealing with the struggles of life? “That “discordism” is not satisfying. Are Psalms such as these just David speaking in a reverie of idealism or did he really mean what he said? Is not one of the great advantages of the Psalms their ability to support us in our struggles?
Many more questions can be posed here, but the biggest question begging an answer remains: Can God really be trusted like the Psalms would say he can be? The manner in which I came to my answer was through praying about the struggle, by writing on scratch pads and struggling with the various answers. It is a bit like Proverbs 2:1-5 which speaks of the struggle to understand the fear the Lord and knowledge of him. In the midst of this my mind was drawn to Charles Spurgeon’s text The Treasury of David which is a book my dad has long owned and to which I have occasionally drifted or been directed.
So around 6 a.m. on 6/2/2016 I found myself at an online version of Spurgeon’s text that dealt with Psalm 91:9-10. There was found an answer which satisfied what I was looking for. A phrase that really caught my eye was, “No evil in the strict sense of the word can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good.” Included just before that phrase he wrote, “the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is no ill, but only good in a mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honour, death is his gain.”
This is another way of telling Romans 8:28. God works all things for the good of those who love him. That does not mean all things are good. It means that God overrules the evil and turns it to the advantage of the follower of Christ. Note how Spurgeon skillfully juxtaposes these phrases.
Losses enrich him
The apostle Paul said in his letter to the Macedonians that those things which he forfeited in following Christ have resulted in the surpassing greatness of knowing God in a personal manner. The true riches were found in the confidence for living and the ministry he was given by God’s grace.
In the early 1990’s I was in medical school and living on a shoestring budget. Deb and I had one car. My dad bought that 1978 Bonneville from a dealership in Omaha, Nebraska just down from my junior high school when I was 15. While I had been so proud of its electric windows back then I was embarrassed by it in medical school. My friends all had their “modern” Honda Accords and other newer things, and I had gratefulness issues. One Saturday morning when Deb and I went out to get in our “boat” and head to a church picnic that car could not be found. As it turned out those 1970’s edition steering columns were rather easy prey for thieves who liked the big cars. The police told me that people like to steal them, load them with people, drive till the gas runs out and walk to their homes.
Eventually they found that Bonneville with a man asleep in the back of it. He told the police that he had arrived to work early that day and was sleeping till his job started. I never saw that sleeping and presumed thief, but I did get my somewhat degraded chariot back. I was grateful for the wheels. By that stage I had learned that asking your neighbors and Sunday school teachers for rides to the grocery store and church was worse than driving a car that one presumed was beneath one’s station.
So did the Lord keep me from the harm of losing my car? Did the Lord slumber that night and forget to keep the thief out of my driver’s seat? Are these observations of my own life contradictions to these scriptures? No. That loss (and a similar situation with a camera in Philadelphia) helped me to be thankful for the provisions I had been given. With God I see evil overruled for good.
Sickness is his medicine
When I was 40 I awoke one morning as usual, but there was an arc shaped glow in my right eye. The lights were off of course for I had been sleeping all night. I sat up and went off to the bathroom and that little glow stuck with me all the way to the bathroom. After getting ready I headed off to the kitchen to get coffee going. As I walked through the dimly lit kitchen that arc shape was still present but now it was dark and every where I looked it was projected. “Hmmmm, not good…” Having been a practicing ophthalmologist for 10 years by that stage I knew what the problem was and I knew where the problem was. I had had an ischemic event in the top part of my right optic nerve and part of the tissues were not sending their signals to my brain and vision was missing. As you might imagine I kept watching and watching this thing and by 8:30 a.m. (I get up around 5 or 5:30 a.m. usually) it was gone. So I decided it was an ocular migraine, but 3 hours for the visual event? That was longer than it should be and my medical mind quickly reminded me that ocular migraines are more likely to result in a permanent visual loss than the aura that some experience in the common migraine.
I canceled my patients. I went to work and saw my boss who was a retina specialist. I don’t remember if he saw any edema of the optic nerve. I had a visual field (those are a pain to take) and no vision was missing. “Whew! Back to normal. I made it.”
Well that was only the beginning. Every morning I began to fear waking up. It became a constant, “Is it back?” type event. Would I lose my vision permanently? Sure I had disability insurance; I could still pay for the things in life comfortably if I lost my vision. While early retirement might seem to have its advantages early retirement because of blindness was not one of those things that I could easily paint as valuable. A couple of weeks later I got chest pain and dizziness and had to have a heart attack ruled out. No problems with my heart. I went 12 minutes on the treadmill and my cardiac enzymes were all perfect. “Ok, I’m good, I guess.” After I got out of my short stay in the hospital (it’s a pain to be a patient) I went to buy Christmas presents for it was mid-December. Well, well, well I found another and much more tremendous problem. I found myself massively uncomfortable in public places to the point where I could not function. While I had always preferred my solitude I had never been mentally derailed by crowds or stores.
Well, that was my anxiety trigger and since then I have been on another road. Was I protected from sickness? No. Was this a disaster? It surely seemed like it for it was about 2 weeks before I went back to work and a couple of Sunday’s I skipped church (that is a very rare thing for me to skip; and I had to have another person teach my Sunday school class all of a sudden). I was in a funk. I was eating to keep myself balanced. I was mainly just putting one foot in front of the other. It was no joke. Normalcy eventually returned and I have for years now been back to my regular things, but still every now and then that anxiety creature will bite me on the ankle or someplace else.
How was this sickness medicine? How was this evil overruled for good? Well, I can promise you before that event my sympathy for the mental struggles of others was quite low. My reflex of the right approach to anxiety was a proud, “suck it up.” I probably did not say that (though my face and demeanor might have belied it, not sure), but I definitely felt that. Having gone through the experience where I absolutely could not “suck it up” I learned so very much. It has helped with so many relationships at home, work and with patients. Empathy is on a different plane and it would not have gotten to that place without this sickness.
Reproach is his honour – Death is his gain
I was more hard pressed to recall to mind situations of reproach and I certainly am not dead (at least when I typed this I wasn’t!) so I cannot tell you how death is gain, but great is the example of Christ in these matters.
“And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matthew 27:39-44–ESV)
Is there any greater reproach than the example of Christ? Was not evil overruled for good? The example of Christ so well known must not be forgotten for his honor is far above all principality and power, might and dominion, and name that can be named on earth or in heaven, God the Father alone excepted.
Conclusion of the matter
So David’s songs are not mere fantasy. They are not idealisms of youth. They are not hyperbole. They are not idle niceties spoken from points of pain or pleasure. They are songs that speak of and are rooted in the firmest foundation. The seeming contradiction that can arise between observations of life and the scriptures and but that: they just seem to be contradictions. Upon deeper investigation they are not pipe dreams or Hebrew rhymes. They are truths that can be embraced. If one makes one’s ear attentive to wisdom and inclines the heart to understanding; if you seek insight and understanding like one seeks silver or hidden treasure, then one understands the fear of the Lord and learns the knowledge of God.
Forget not that when I started to prepare this lesson for the Sunday school class of 6/5/2016 I did not have a reflex answer to these things of David. These things came through the very things here spoken of. Life with God works from the highest to the lowest and life with God is for everyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see. Hope to see you in class some day.