Knowing and Loving God Through His Word (Part 2)
A sermon on Psalm 119 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 1/9/2005
How do you love a God who doesn’t stop a tsunami that kills more than150,000 people?
What have you heard and read about this tragedy? I hope you’ve been listening and reading - and discussing this issue with coworkers, family members, and neighbors. I’ve heard and read three main reactions:
1) “There is no God. There is only nature, which is controlled by impersonal, scientific laws. We humans are at the mercy of impersonal forces.”
2) “There is a God, but He is loving and merciful. Such a God could not and did not send something this terrible.” One commentator on a radio call-in program, a chaplain at a major university, said, “God doesn’t micromanage the universe.” That is, either He doesn’t care about details, or He is unable to deal with details.
3) The Bible says: There is a God. He is loving. He is merciful. He is sovereign. He is just. He is inscrutable – we cannot understand His ways.
“Micromanage” is a “boo-word”, a word with negative connotations. So by definition God doesn’t do that. But Jesus tells us, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father” (Matthew 10:29). He knows the number of hairs on your head (Matthew 10:30). These are the details of this life. Jesus says God not only knows them but He controls them.
And the Bible tells us He sends calamity. We could pick any one of a number of examples, but consider one of the major events in biblical history: In 586 BC the Babylonians took and then destroyed Jerusalem after a long siege. At the end of the siege, there was no food left in the city, so the people had become desperate. Jeremiah witnessed this tragedy and wrote:
20 Look, O LORD, and see! With whom have you dealt thus? Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? 21 In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity. Lamentations 2:20-21 (emphasis added)
There are a lot of commentators out there saying the biblical idea of God - of a God who slaughters - is repulsive. So they dismiss that idea, and move to #2 above – or even #1. Many of these call themselves Christian, have seminary degrees, are on the staff of churches or other Christian organizations.
One example: David Hart, a theologian, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering . . . no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends.” (See http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110006097 ).
What do you do “when confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering”? That’s a good description of the tsunami – but realize this: It’s a good description of every day of every year.
In the 2 weeks since the tsunami, do you know how many infants less than 12 months old have died worldwide? About 200,000. More than the total number of deaths from the tsunami. And I’m not including here those unborn babies killed by abortions. Just children between 0 and 12 months of age. About sixteen thousand a day. Every day of the year. About 90 percent of those preventable with decent medical care. And each one a tragedy. Each one a great sorrow.
How can you love a God who not only fails to stop a huge destructive tidal wave, but also fails to stop the daily tragedies of suffering and dying infants?
My friends, that’s one of the reasons God gives us the Bible. That’s one of the reasons why God gives us His word. God tells us here Who He is, how the world got the way it is, what He is doing about it, and how it will all ultimately end up.
We are in the middle of a sermon series on The Great Commandment. Jesus tells us the Great Commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength. We’ve discussed knowing and loving through the incarnation and through prayer. Last week we began our discussion of Knowing and Loving God Through His Word: We said there are three barriers to loving God:
The bad things in this world, that cause us to doubt God’s existence or His love or His power;
The good things in this world, that tempt us to look to them, and then delight in them above God;
The busyness of this world, distracting us from thoughts of God.
The tsunami is on our minds, as it has dominated media attention this week in a way I did not anticipate, so we will spend most our time this morning on the first topic. But we will speak briefly to the other two points also, asking the question: How does God’s Word help us overcome these barriers to loving Him?
Our text is Psalm 119, this marvelous chapter of 176 verses on God’s Word. Surprisingly, about one-sixth of this psalm deals with the topic of affliction or persecution. The psalmist shows us four responses, four ways to use God’s Word to deal with affliction. These are deeply valuable to us, so that in the end far from leading you away from God, affliction will deepen your knowledge and love of God. We especially need to hear this today. I pray that God would use this Psalm to deepen your understanding and thus your love for the God who controls all events, who does whatever He pleases, who in the end will display perfect justice, righting every wrong, and wiping every tear from our eyes.
The first of these four responses to affliction and suffering:
My eyes long for your promise; I ask, "When will you comfort me? . . . How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me? Psalm 119:82, 84
Have you cried out these last two weeks? Have you responded with tears?
I hope so. If you haven’t – take a couple of hours and read some of the personal stories. Look at the pictures. Something deep inside you should say, “This is wrong! This should not be!” We cannot respond from our comfortable homes and say, “Look what God did today! He’s in control so everything will be ok.”
The Psalmist here is looking at evil that affects him personally. But surely – if we are to fulfill the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, then evil that affects others should move us just as evil that affects us personally.
The psalmist asks again and again, “When will you comfort me! How long will this continue? When will you judge my persecutors?”
We must be asking those questions too - as well as: “What can we do to help?”
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, even though He knew He would raise Him from the dead. Suffering is horrible. We must acknowledge that. We must cry out against it.
But note how verse 82 begins: “My eyes long for your promise.” And look at verse 147:
I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words.
This is the difference between the biblical response to suffering and that of David Hartand the many like him. We hope in God’s promise! We hope in God’s Word! In the midst of trials and suffering we turn to what God has revealed about Himself. We don’t turn to simplistic statements like, “A good God would never do such a thing!” But we let God speak for Himself, and trust His Word. And He tell us Romans 8:28 that He works all things together for the good of those who love Him. He tells us in Habakkuk 2:14 that the world will be filled with knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. So we hope in His Word as we cry out.
But we do even more than that. We cry out for help from God so that we might keep His Word:
Psalm 119:146 I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies.
Remember, we said last week that the Law, the testimonies, reflect the character of God. So when we observe God’s testimonies, we are taking on more of the character of God. We are showing what He is like – and thus glorifying Him. So we could paraphrase verse 146: “Lord, help me! Save me, so that I can glorify you!”
And this is the implication of such a plea: “Lord, I want to glorify you! If you will be glorified more in my death than in my life – don’t save me!”
This was Jesus’s prayer, wasn’t it:
27 "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name." John 12:27-28
So our first response to tragedy, affliction, and suffering should be: Cry out! Don’t be content with a world full of suffering! Such a state of affairs is not right! And it will not always be this way. But don’t try to figure out how you would run the world differently from God. Instead, look to God’s promises. Indeed, cry out on the basis of God’s promises. Cry out asking for salvation so that you might fulfill His Word.
Then our second response to affliction and suffering is:
Some respond to disaster by turning their backs on God’s Word. They don’t see how all could be working for good in such a tragedy, so reject God’s Word altogether.
But the psalmist, in full view of suffering, does the opposite.
Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me, I do not forget your law. Psalm 119:61
He syays, “I’m caught in their trap! I have no way to get out! You haven’t helped me, Lord!” He could continue, “So this must mean that you’re not who you say you are! You’re not faithful to Your promises!” But that’s not how he continues. Instead, he says, “I will not forget your law!”
Verse 161 goes even further:
Princes persecute me without cause, but my heart stands in awe of your words. Psalm 119:161
The word translated “stands in awe” means “fear greatly”. Here, the authority of the state is against the psalmist. He is suffering, and he has no legal recourse. And he has done nothing to merit this persecution. But how does he respond? He could respond with great fear – of the state! Of the prince! But instead he says, “My heart stands in awe of your words.” He is not in awe of the power of the prince, who could put him to death. He is not in awe of the state security detail. Instead, he is in awe of what God reveals about Himself in His Word. As Jesus says in Matthew 10:28:
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
So in tragedy, in affliction, the psalmist remembers God’s Word. He holds on to it. He uses God’s Word to remind himself of what God is like. He trembles at God, not at the affliction he faces.
Our third response to affliction and suffering is to:
Psalm 119:75 I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
This is what David Hart and those like him rebel against. But the psalmist does not rebel. He says, “Lord God, You are just! You are good! You are in control! So this affliction ultimately is from you! I know that nothing can happen to me apart from your control. So I trust in your goodness.“
Such knowledge of a sovereign God who is in control is a great help in the midst of tragedy. To know that there are purposes that are beyond you, but that since God does not let even a sparrow fall apart from His control, nothing will happen to you apart from His control.
So the psalmist also says:
Psalm 119:50 This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.
Note: He is not saying, “You promise you will end this affliction.” Instead, he says, “Your word is the source of life! I have You! I can take on Your character, even in the midst of affliction! I can look to Your word and see Your love, Your sovereignty, Your power, Your goodness, and be comforted.”
In the midst of terrible tragedy, God’s word sustains us – if we turn to it, if we have treasured it in our hearts. Indeed, verse 92 says:
If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.
That is, “The only thing that kept me alive was my delight in Who You are.” Verse 143 is similar:
Trouble and anguish have found me out, but your commandments are my delight.
External circumstances may lead to despair. But even when that is the case, God’s Word is a word of hope, a word of life – eternal life and hope if not life and hope in this life.
So the psalmist responds to affliction by crying out, by remembering God’s Word, and by receiving comfort: from God’s Word. All this leads to the ultimate end of these difficulties:
Psalm 119:71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.
We can have confidence that God is working all things together for good even when we can’t see what He is doing. Praise God, sometimes He gives us glimpses of what He is doing. The psalmist saw that – in himself. He sees that one of God’s good purposes in his suffering was his learning of God’s Law, his learning of Who God is. So the affliction let the psalmist see that the things of this world are transient – they can disappear in a flash: possessions, status, health. What really matters is what is eternal. Thus, our true source of joy is not anything we own, any position we attain, but God Himself.
Charles Spurgeon wrote, “God’s commands are best read by eyes wet with tears.” That’s what the psalmist discovered.
So affliction need not lead us away from the love of God. Quite the contrary. When we cry out against suffering and evil, when we depend on God’s promises and remind ourselves of them, when we take comfort based on those promises, we can then learn of God’s character from our affliction. We thus have confidence that God will use future afflictions to deepen our love and obedience, and no longer begin to doubt God’s love or power when affliction comes our way. As 19th century Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle wrote:
Trials are spiritual medicine, which poor fallen human nature absolutely needs. By them He keeps us humble. By them He draws us to Himself. By them He sends us to our Bibles. By them He teaches us to pray. By them He shows us our need of Christ. By them He weans us from the world.
God’s Word is at the center of this process. Without God’s Word, we blame Him or reject Him or make Him out to be something He is not. But when we lean on God’s Word in the midst of trials, our afflictions lead to our glorifying Him.
Let us now briefly turn our attention to the good things of this world, and then the busyness of this world, as barriers to loving God
Affliction by its very nature is bad. We are to cry out against it, and God will bring it all to an end for His people. But there are other barriers to loving God. The good things of this world can also lead us away from loving God. These good things are gifts of God. They are good in their proper place: Health, intelligence, money, possessions, aesthetic pleasures, sexual pleasure. The purpose of all these is to point us to God. He intends that our enjoyment of these gifts point us to Him as the Giver, and result in His glory. But these become alternative sources of delight for us. We end up delighting in the gift instead of delighting in the giver. Or we end up desiring these gifts outside the context in which God given them – such as an unmarried person desiring sexual pleasure. Or we become envious of those who have more of these gifts than we do. These good gifts thus can keep us from loving God.
How do we combat this?
The first step: Recognize that we need help. Verse 73:
Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments.
This is a very wise prayer. The psalmist acknowledges God as his creator. He made us. He made us for a purpose. He can do anything He wants with us. Therefore, we must ask Him to help us understand our purpose! The psalmist thus cries out, “Give me understanding! Help me to learn what you are like! Help me to learn what I am made for!”
God always is ready to answer that question. He tells us, “You are not made for indulgence in this life. You are made to delight in Me.”
If we don’t understand the purpose for which He created us, we will never be fulfilled. So we must ask Him to teach us His ways. How does He do this? Through His Word!
The second step is thus to increase our understanding of God’s character and our affections for him. As the psalmist says in verse 32:
I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!
Remember, the Hebrew word translated “heart” includes our ideas of both mind and heart, intellect and affections. So the psalmist is saying, “Open my mind to who You are! Let me see You in Your Word! And enlarge my affections for You, so that my affections and my thoughts don’t dwell on the less important things of this world, but instead dwell on You. Then, when my affections and thoughts are on you, I will run in the way of your commands!”
Why does he use the word “run”? Throughout the Bible, “walk” is used for your manner of life, how you live. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:1, “Walk in a manner worthy of your calling.” Here the psalmist takes that image and intensifies it to running. He is so delighted to follow God that he runs in the way of God’s commandments. His mind understands, his affections are moved by God’s character, so he obeys with great joy.
The third step is to depend on God’s Word day by day to move our thoughts in a godward direction, so that we are not enticed by worldly pleasures. Some of the most familiar verses from this psalm are on this theme:
9 How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
The idea behind all three is that God’s Word needs to be a constant light on the path we travel, on our way of life. Each step of the way we need help to see Who God is, and what following Him means. At every moment, we need to have God’s Word in our heart, stored up and looked to as valuable, ready to be used to ward off other enticements. Always, we need to be watchmen, guarding our hearts as we are on the lookout against temptations drawing us away from God.
The final result of such guarding is given in the opening verse of the psalm:
1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!
“Blessed” means “Happy.” True happiness comes from walking – or running! – in the law of the Lord. It does not come from the good things of this world. Those are only pointers to true goodness, to our great delight – God Himself. And we find true purpose, true joy, when we glorify Him in our lives.
God’s Word keeps us there. God’s Word keeps us from being enticed by the pseudo-pleasures of this world. Thus, God’s Word guards our love for God.
Just two brief ideas here.
1) Don’t procrastinate
60 I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments.
Delay is one of Satan’s most common, most successful temptations. He will say, “You’ve got other things to do now – you can read the Bible (or memorize Scripture, or meditate on it) later. You can start obeying God tomorrow – what difference will one day make?”
Don’t listen to such hogwash. “Hasten and do not delay” to follow God. Busyness is no excuse.
2) Give priority to what is most important
This is what the psalmist prays in verse 37:
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things, and give me life in your ways.
How much of each day do we spend looking at worthless things? We waste some of our time looking at things that are sinful in and of themselves, and thus completely worthless. And we spend even more time looking at things that are relatively worthless – things that may be worth a few minutes of attention instead get hours of our time, while what is worth most of all – God, His Word, showing His love to others – get not hours but at most minutes.
We need God’s Word to get those priorities right! You will have your eyes distracted by what you’ve got to do at work, by getting your car fixed, by keeping your yard neat, by getting yourself and your family fed, by planning for college. All those will gobble up your time. The Word draws us back to the right priorities. That is why we need to be in the Word every day.
So don’t procrastinate. Ask God’s help in focusing your eyes on what is most valuable instead of what is worthless.
So love God through His Word. Do not be enticed by the good gifts of this life. Do not be dismayed by afflictions or tragedies. Do not be distracted by the busyness of this life.
Instead, turn to His Word so that we might:
See God’s steadfast love behind all that happens, good or bad;
See the joy of following Him; and
Move quickly to repent and follow Him when we stray.
So be in His Word daily – both reading long sections so you get a picture of the whole counsel of God, and in-depth study and meditation, so that you mine the jewels of God’s Word. Both are absolutely vital if we are to break down the barriers to loving Him.
Some of you might be thinking, “Coty, in response to the last few sermons, I’ve been moved to say, ‘Yes, in 2005 I will read the entire Bible, I will devote myself to prayer, I will memorize Scripture, I will meditate on Scripture and study it.’ I know this is the way to love God; I know this is the way to true riches. But really, this last week has been hard. I got through the Bible Reading Plan, but then I got to small group on Wednesday ngiht and was unprepared for the Seeing and Savoring study. How do I do all these good things?”
There’s no easy answer to this excellent question. We need to read the entire Bible. And we need to study part in depth. For some, reading long passages in the morning and doing in-depth study at night will be a good choice. For others, spreading out the Bible reading plan over two years will be a good option, devoting three days a week to in-depth study of a few verses. Find something that works for you. And then be aware: Whatever works for you now probably won’t work three years from now. In different phases of your life, your Bible study routine will have to change.
For example: In my own life at present, early morning is the best time for personal reading and study of the Word. But when my children were small, they all got up early. And I was a college professor teaching 8 o’clock classes. Mornings really didn’t work for me then, but since my children were in bed early, evenings were fine.
So I encourage you: Make a commitment to both personal devotional time for both extended Bible reading and intensive Bible study. Be disciplined. Stick to that commitment for a period of time: a month, two months. And then evaluate it. Is this working? Should you make adjustments in the hour or length of time? Are you hungering for more?
Remember, you are in a marathon, not a sprint. You want to develop habits of Bible reading and study that will endure throughout your life, so that you might love God with all your being until the end.
So have a long-term view. Develop your love for the Word. Cry out for such a love. And then, in affliction, in the midst of busyness, in the midst of prosperity, love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 1/9/05. The Spurgeon quote is from The Treasury of David on verse 71 of Psalm 119. The J.C. Ryle quote is from “The Morning Without Clouds”, available online at http://www.biblebb.com/files/ryle/morning_without_clouds.htm .
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