Dr. Timothy Tennent: What to Do in Challenging Times
As many of you know, I have a special love of the Psalms. For the first thirty years of my ministry, I took only a very cursory interest in the Psalms. However, for the last eight years I have dedicated, as a part of my daily devotions, a portion of each day to a more careful study of the Psalms. This past week I was reflecting on Psalm 83. This is the last of an eleven Psalm collection of Asaph (Psalm 72-83). Once you get to know Asaph you realize what a gift he is to us all. Asaph is unafraid to raise very difficult questions in his own prayers to God. He models a kind of open transparency in prayer that I am still trying to discover in my own prayer life. For example, his Psalms are filled with honest questions directed passionately to God. Some of them are about the absence of God, or asking why if God is so powerful, is the world so messed up. Psalm 83, rather typical for Asaph, opens up with a question about why God is silent and not acting: “O God, do not keep silence… or be still.” However, I was really struck this week by verses 8 and 9 of Psalm 83 which says, “Do to them as you did to Midian, as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the river Kishon, who perished at Endor and became like refuse on the ground…”
These verses recall how God used Gideon to rout Midian in Judges 7 with only 300 men. It also recalls that moment in Israel’s history (recorded in Judges 4) when Deborah prophesied that the Israelites would defeat Sisera even though he led a formidable army with 900 chariots. Israel did defeat Sisera’s mighty army. The point is that simple phrases like “Midian’s defeat” or “Sisera and Jabin at the river Kishon” recalled for the Israelite a past redemptive moment which gave them hope for their present difficulty. Even if God seems silent today, we stop and remember his past acts, and we know God will see us through.
The Israelites had many such phrases which could remind them of God’s past faithfulness. Phrases like the “Red Sea” or “Mt. Sinai” or “the Lion’s Den” or the “Fiery Furnace” are all simple phrases which recall an entire narrative of deliverance and hope. The New Testament is also filled with similar moments when we can look back and remember and gain hope in the midst of formidable challenges. Phrases like “Babe in Bethlehem” or “Empty Tomb” or “Day of Pentecost” or “Road to Damascus” are redemptive phrases which belong to every Christian and help us just as those earlier phrases encouraged our Israelite brothers and sisters in a more distant time.
However, the good news is that those redemptive acts of God do not come to a close in the New Testament. We can remember the time when St. Benedict drew up his rule of life, or when Augustine sat weeping in the garden and heard those amazing words, “tolle lege, tolle lege.” We can recall the time when Catherine of Sienna saw her vision, or when Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms and declared, “Here I stand” or when Luther was afraid and feeling tempted and he declared to the Devil (throwing an inkwell in the process!) “I am baptized!” We can stop and remember John Wesley’s heart being warmed at Aldersgate, or the day William Carey boarded a ship for India.
My wife and I keep a journal which we have called, “Windows into Heaven.” It is our own personal remembrance of times when we were really going through a challenging time and the Lord met us and answered our prayers. For us phrases like, “Tim weeping in Princeton” or “Julie playing I Stand Amazed at the Presence of Jesus the Nazarene,” or “Bishop Al Gwinn putting his arms around us and praying” recall a whole redemptive narrative in our lives. For us, even the single word “Nigeria” recalls a difficult time in our lives when God rescued us when we were feeling hopeless and lost. None of these phrases will mean anything to you. That’s the point. Each of us has our own memories of God’s past faithfulness. We must maintain a holy recollection. It will begin with your own version of your “Aldersgate” or your own personal “Damascus Road” or your “day of Pentecost.” But, hopefully, you have many other such moments in your life when God moved in a powerful way. When you feel like you are at the end of your rope and you don’t know where to turn, what do you do? What do you do when you feel like God is silent and not answering your prayers? What happens when you feel like you are misunderstood and the very people you have been called to serve seem unresponsive, apathetic, or even hostile?
When I was a pastor, I saw God’s mighty hand move in our midst on a number of occasions. But, I also had sleepless nights of travail and lament when it seemed like heaven was silent and I felt discouraged at every turn. There is no easy answer to these difficult questions. But one sure path forward is to take a lesson from Psalm 83 and begin to remember God’s past faithfulness in your life. Recall some of those redemptive moments in your life when God revealed himself to you. Perhaps you should start your own journal of remembrance. On many occasions, we have taken our little book of remembrance off the shelf and, with tears in our eyes, began to recall how God has met us in the past in amazing ways. It gives us hope even in times of God’s silence. It restores our faith even when our prayers go unanswered. It gives us hope because although our circumstances may cloud our vision, God remains a faithful God. By remembering his past faithfulness, we can gather up the courage and hope to know that He will bring us through this difficulty. Someday we will see him face to face and hear those words which we all long to hear, “well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Thanks be to God.