Balm For The Troubled Soul
The psalmist in Psalm 88:1-9 recorded these words:
O LORD, the God of my salvation, I have cried out both day and night before You.
Let my prayer come before You; Incline Your ear to my cry!
For my soul has had enough troubles, And my life has drawn nigh unto the grave.
I am counted with those who go down into the pit; I am as a man with no strength….
You have put me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the depths.
Your wrath has rested upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves.
You have removed my acquaintances far from me; and made me an abomination to them….
My eye mourns because of my affliction; I have called upon You every day, O LORD.
Though a passage such as this is hard for most young people to understand, due to the unlikelihood that they have yet to experience grievous afflictions… the truth of the matter is, every believer will eventually come to the point of having a “deeply troubled soul.” The poor man of Psalm 88 was so grievously ill that he was lying at death’s door and had lost the comfortable presence of God — it seemed to him that he had been abandoned and forgotten by God. He was utterly perplexed that God would so completely abandon him that He would actually hold back any expression of pity or favor, so that his only companion was darkness (v. 18). It is good that this Psalm was included in God’s Word, because every believer will one day know the experience of a deeply troubled soul — incidentally, there are far more “Jobs” (Job 1:6-12) out there in the world than some would have you believe. All of us, no matter how firm our faith in the Lord (Job 1:1-5; Lk 22:31; 1 Pet 5:8; Jam 4:7), will at some point fall into “great times of trouble,” so that it seems as though God has abandoned us. When we are subjected to such difficult times, it is important to remember that, as believers, we not only lack the capacity to keep ourselves saved (Num 6:24; 23:19; Is 55:11; Rom 3:3; 1 Cor 1:9; Tit 1:2), but we also lack the capacity to hold on to our own faith (that is simply the reality of our feeble condition — 2 Tim 2:13; Lk 22:31-34). Like the poor suffering saint of Psalm 88, each of us can easily come to that point where we think that God has totally forgotten and deserted us, resulting in a greatly troubled soul. Most scholars believe this, “the saddest of all psalms,” was included in Scripture to assure the most desperately afflicted believer that God will not forsake him… ever! (Deut 31:6; Heb 13:5).
There are two wonderful things to remember when we reach such desperate straits: First, our salvation and our soul rest in God’s hands alone. Nothing (not even some profane sin — the natural result of diabolical flesh) can pluck our souls from the safe harbor of God’s protection (Rom 7:18; 8:35-39). Second, it was God who saved us and it is God who will keep us saved (Jn 6:37-39; 17:2; 18:9; Rom 8:28-31; Eph 1:11). As the 16th century Scottish Presbyterian minister, David Dickson, said: “God can sustain a soul by secretly supporting a man’s faith without comfortable sense” (A Commentary on the Psalms, published by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985, pp. 106-107). Our salvation does not rest upon our feelings, which will wax and wane throughout the difficult experiences of life (one moment we can feel incredibly close to God, and the next moment we might wonder if we even know Him)… nor does it rest upon our performance, which is never pure and without blemish; it is always tainted with sin — the truth of the matter is, there is no room whatsoever for boasting of any great virtue by the child of God — we are saved by grace… start to finish! Probably one of the most poignant messages of Psalm 88, is that, in the end, the only thing that really matters in this life is “our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.” We can float through life on beds of ease, or stumble through from one difficulty after another… yet, when we reach death’s door, the only thing that will matter is our relationship to Christ. So, if you’re disillusioned by your sinfulness, or perplexed by your seeming lack of faith, “get your eyes off of yourself and focus on Christ" (Rom 7:18; Heb 12:2). A “self” focus will always lead to discouragement. As Christians, our number one problem is that we are preoccupied with our [sinful] selves! (Rom 7:18). We desperately want to “feel good” about us — but that will never be a reality as long as we inhabit sinful flesh — we can only feel good about Jesus! (Heb 12:2). Humility is a necessary requisite for godliness.
Let me expand a little more on this psalm — in the last verse, the author repeats the lamentation of verse 8: that there was none to show compassion to him, none to pity him, none to counsel or comfort him, none to whom he might impart his mind fully for easing him… rather, his old friends who loved him before, failed him and forsook him, and God made it manifest that He was the one who thrust them away from him… so none were to accompany him… he was to sit in darkness completely alone. Thus we learn that though a friend be made for the day of trouble (Prv 17:17), and though it would have been an ease to have had any friend’s company as a means of comfort, yet he found none — in this particular situation, God withheld them all for the trial of His servant. It is important to note, such a heavy and comfortless condition may be the lot of any beloved child of God (though it is never a continual condition): “Thou hast removed lover and friend far from me; my acquaintances are in darkness” (v. 18). Under the saddest sense of wrath, a believer is still called to “trust in the Lord,” even though it seems as though God has slain him. As Peter said, “To whom else should we go? You alone have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68; Job 1:21; 2:9-10). The man of faith considers the fullness of reality, not just the negative aspects of it.
The apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, said: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed… perplexed, but not despairing” (2 Cor 4:8). Obviously, Paul was often perplexed, but he never completely despaired, because he “knew” that God was causing all things to work together for good in his life (Rom 8:28)… and “that knowledge” gave him a peace and a joy that surpassed all understanding (Phil 4:6-9). Paul knew that the living God was so ordering his life that regardless of the sufferings and trials that he was subjected to, “the lasting good of his soul” was being produced (Phil 4:11). Paul knew our God is a personal God, exercising personal care over the personal lives of every one of His children. The word “causes” (Rom 8:28) is in the present tense in Greek; thus the emphasis is that God is “continually working good in our lives” (not spasmodically, or only in certain circumstances). The truth of the matter is, God is always working good in our lives, whether we feel like He is or not — He is continually and perpetually working toward the end of our great good, and “not even our stumbling and bumbling puts a halt to that work.” Our stumbling may make the process more painful and less joyful, but it does not stop God’s work in us! As the good book says, “God will accomplish what concerns me!” (Ps 138:8; Is 55:11; 1 Th 5:24).
It is also important to note that God causes “all things” to work together for our good — there is nothing that is excluded. Our God (the LORD of lords and the KING of kings) sits on His throne in Glory and causes everything in the universe (which He made) to conspire together for the eternal good of His children! Obviously, we can’t really grasp the immensity of this concept, because “all” includes things that seem unfavorable and favorable to us, both good and bad, both pleasant and painful… and it also covers our sins and mistakes and failures. Remember Joseph’s reply to his brothers: “As for you, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:20). Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “God is able to take the angriest, cruelest actions of sinners and turn them into an implement of His grace in the lives of His children.” By the way, only a sovereign God can take every circumstance and every detail of our life, and every action of others toward us, and every pain and every pleasure, and weave it all together for the ultimate good of His children. The very last things in the world that I might think God could use, He can use for good in my life. Remember, He actually used the most heinous crime ever committed (the crucifixion of Christ) to procure our salvation — in other words, He used the worst thing imaginable to accomplish the greatest good imaginable! So don’t fret over some sin you may have committed, thinking that you derailed God’s eternal purpose for your life! Such is the lie of hell! As Spurgeon so succinctly stated it, “Omnipotence has servants everywhere!” What a concept to try and grasp! The devil has always tried to persuade us that God is not good… starting in the Garden of Eden in his conversation with Eve. But God is good — just as Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone” (Mk 10:18). And this is the God who is working for our good in all things — the only good One! Take a moment and “thank God” for the good He is doing in your life “right now,” even if you feel completely sinful and abandoned — prayerfully articulate the truths presented above, and you will experience a “strange peace” in your soul, despite your perplexing condition (Phil 4:6-9).
Firm Promises from God for Troubled Souls
Six centuries before Christ (597 BC), Ezekiel (at the age of 25) was taken into Babylonian captivity along with a number of other Jews. In the fifth year of his captivity, God called him to prophesy to his brethren in that strange land. Back in Canaan, where other Jews remained, pressures were building that would ultimately result in the horrible destruction of Jerusalem under King Nebu-chadnezzar in 586 BC. When the news of Jerusalem’s destruction (including the sacred temple) reached the exiled people of Israel, they became deeply depressed. Was there no hope for them now as a nation? It was Ezekiel’s task to give them a message of hope — grounded, of course, upon their repentance. Ezekiel 34 is remarkable in that it contains a series of “divine promises” framed with the phrase, “I will.” Note what the Lord promised to His people — “I will…
1. Search and seek them out (vv. 11, 16a)
2. Deliver them (v. 12)
3. Bring them out (v. 13a)
4. Gather them unto myself (v. 13b)
5. Feed them (v. 14)
6. Cause them to lie down (v. 15b)
7. Bind up the broken (v. 16b)
8. Strengthen the sick (v. 16c)
9. Destroy the enemy (v. 16d)
10. Judge my sheeps’ differences (vv. 17-22)
11. Watch over them (v. 23)
12. Be their God (v. 24)
13. Bless them (vv. 25a, 26b)
14. Cause them to dwell in safety (v. 25b)
15. Make them a blessing (v. 26)
16. Abundantly satisfy them (vv. 29-31)
Now re-read the list above and apply each of those “actions by God” to you personally. When interpreting scripture, in particular the Old Testament, always “apply the actions of God toward Israel as a nation” (His chosen people) to you personally… carefully note, God never “writes off His people” — He chastises them, but He never permanently abandons them! Never! No matter how sinful or obstinate they became… in the end, because of God’s incredible grace, they will ultimately become a holy and upright people to the praise of His glory! There are some very significant lessons to learn from the situation in Ezek 34. First, note that God did not shield His people from hardships. Our earthly domain is an environment of suffering; that is what the introduction of sin has done, and we all are paying the price for that. We suffer not only for our own sins (1 Pet 4:15), and for the sins of others (Ex 20:5; Rom 5:12), but we also suffer because God is testing our faith (the “dross” is being removed), and we are being made more like Christ (Is 48:10; Jam 1:2-3; 1 Pet 1:6-7; 4:1, 12-13, 17-18). Only heaven has that atmosphere where trials and problems will not exist (Rev 21:1-5). Second, God allows His people to suffer for their own good — suffering is the classroom of obedience; it is through suffering that we “learn” critically important spiritual lessons. Trials are a refining process (Is 48:10; Jam 1:2-3; 1 Pet 1:6-7). Christ Himself was even subjected to suffering that He might become qualified as our merciful high priest (Heb 2:10, 17-18; 4:15-16; 5:8-9).
Third, our Creator promises to sustain us… if we will demonstrate our confidence in Him by trusting Him, obeying Him, and leaning on Him during the hard times through which we struggle. That “if” is troubling to many believers. It should be remembered, “every believer” trusts and obeys to some degree, so it is not as if God’s promises don’t apply to you because you fail to demonstrate that “magic level of faith” that activates God’s promises. Note carefully, every believer cooperates with God to some degree (Ps 32:8-9; 37:23-24; Jn 10:3-5, 27-28), and no one comes close to giving a perfect performance (as Satan continually reminds us & God before His throne). By the way, the root cause of our cooperation is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit — not us! “It is God who is at work in us, both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13; Col 1:27; 1 Th 5:24). The apostle Paul described it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ – it is no longer I who lives – but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). It is also important for us to remember that the more we cooperate with God, the greater will be our peace, joy and fruitfulness. So, just as God’s promises to Israel were fulfilled because of the loving-kindness of the Lord… so also will His promises will be fulfilled in those of us who are His children. Following is a poem titled, “The Grieved Soul” by Joseph Hart (1712-1768), a British preacher who was converted under the ministry of George Whitefield — the poem is a dialogue between a believer and his soul, and captures the essence of the typical heart of the child of God, in which the smallest discontent can produce angst in the soul. Carefully reflect upon it.
Believer: 1. Come, my soul and let us try – For a little season,
Every burden to lay by – Come and let us reason.
What is this that casts you down? – Who are those that grieve you?
Speak and let the worst be known – Speaking may relieve thee.
Soul: 2. O, I sink beneath the load – Of my nature’s evil!
Full of enmity to God – Captive by the devil!
Restless as the troubled seas – Feeble, faint and fearful;
Plagued with every sore disease – How can I be cheerful?
Believer: 3. Think on what thy Savior bore – In the gloomy garden.
Sweating blood at every pore – To procure thy pardon!
See Him stretched upon the wood – Bleeding, grieving, crying,
Suffering all the wrath of God – Groaning, gasping, dying!
Soul: 4. This by faith I sometimes view – And those views relieve me;
But my sins return anew – These are they that grieve me.
O, I’m leprous, stinking, foul – Quite throughout infected;
Have not I, if any soul,– Cause to be dejected?
Believer: 5. Think how loud thy dying Lord – Cried out, “It is finished!”
Treasure up that sacred word – Whole and undiminished;
Doubt not He will carry on – To its full perfection,
That good work He has begun – Why, then, this dejection?
Soul: 6. Faith when void of works is dead – This the Scriptures witness;
And what works have I to plead – Who am all unfitness?
All my powers are depraved – Blind, perverse, and filthy;
If from death I’m fully saved – Why am I not healthy?
Believer: 7. Pore not on thyself too long – Lest it sing thee lower;
Look to Jesus, kind as strong – Mercy joined with power;
Every work that Thou must do – Will thy gracious Savior
For thee work, and in thee too – Of His special favor.
Soul: 8. Jesus’ precious blood, once spilt – I depend on solely,
To release and clear my guilt – But I would be holy.
Believer: He that bought thee on the cross – Can control thy nature;
Fully purge away thy dross; – Make thee a new creature.
Soul: 9. That He can I nothing doubt – Be it but His pleasure.
Believer: Though it be not done throughout – May it not in measure?
Soul: When that measure, far from great – Still shall seem decreasing?
Believer: Faint not then, but pray and wait – Never, never ceasing.
Soul: 10. What when prayer meets no regard? Believer: Still repeat it often.
Soul: But I feel myself so hard. Believer: Jesus will thee soften.
Soul: But my enemies make head. Believer: Let them closer drive thee.
Soul: But I’m cold, I’m dark, I’m dead. Believer: Jesus will revive thee.
The Testimony of David
The psalmist David said in the 143rd Psalm — “Quicken me, O Lord, for Your name’s sake; for Your righteousness sake, bring my soul out of trouble” (143:11). As the 19th century pastor of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle (where Charles Spurgeon later became pastor) James Smith (1802-1862) said, “The soul that has been once quickened, often feels its need of being quickened again.” David often prayed for this blessing. He knew what it was to be overwhelmed, and have his heart desolate within him; as such, he looked up and sought help from Heaven. He cried with fervor… he pleaded with earnestness… he entreated for his life. He sought deliverance from his foes… instruction in God’s ways… and a renewed sense of God’s loving-kindness. David was in trouble… at times all of us are; and some far more than others. Our faith is feeble… our unbelief is strong; we don’t seem to be able to grip the promise, nor appropriate it to ourselves… we look on it with longing eyes… but we cannot draw from it the comfort we need. Obviously, Satan comes with his temptations in an effort to draw us from the Lord, and lead us to doubt and fear — if he can divert our minds from the glorious gospel, he can soon bring us into bondage, if not into open sin. Then darkness spreads over our soul, and a chill and gloom seizes our spirit… then we feel a deadness in reference to all that is holy… the Word of God fails to make a sweet impression or offer any refreshment… and the throne of grace loses all its attractions. We try to pray, but the most we can do is sigh and groan. Does the foregoing strike a chord in your own heart?
The deadness of soul is terrible! To be surrounded with spiritual food, but have no appetite to enjoy it is bewildering. To be loaded with privileges, yet feel neither life nor comfort from them is frustrating. Writes James Smith, “It is at this point that the hidden evils of the heart, the concealed corruptions that lie embedded deep in the soul… they begin to rise, rage and roar! Such foul, filthy, and unmentionable corruptions are discovered. These terrify and alarm us, while Satan suggests that it is impossible for God ever to dwell in such a vile heart; or for Christ to love and nourish one so corrupt. It is at this point that the soul is troubled like the sea… there is no rest… just tossing, trembling, doubting, fearing, sinking, sighing, and groaning.”
Smith inquires: “Do you know anything of this? Many of the Lord’s people do. Some, who appear to others to have a very smooth path, because all without appears to be prosperous — suffer a martyrdom within. It is a difficult road along which many of God’s flock travel, but all do not sink so deep in the mire, or pass through such miry roads, as David did.” The psalmist prayed, “LORD, Quicken me!” Only the Holy Spirit can quicken us — He gave us life at first, and He must renew us again. Just as God in nature renews the face of the earth in spring, so does the Holy Spirit renew the souls of the Lord’s tried and troubled people. “Bring my soul out of trouble!” was David’s cry. We can get into trouble ourselves, and often do, but only the Lord can bring us out of trouble… and this He does in His own way… and in His own time. In the 143rd Psalm, David used two pleas to God — two reasons why God should act:
1. “For Your name’s sake” — that is, because You are gracious, merciful, long-suffering, and abounding in loving-kindness, goodness and truth; and because it is Your desire to be known as such. David here was praying, “For the sake of Your own glory, show Yourself to be the God of loving-kindness and power which You are esteemed to be, that my soul might praise Your name (Ps 23:3; 25:11; 31:3); for the sake of the honor of Your name, that it might be honored by others, may it please you to quicken and deliver me and deal graciously and bountifully with me!” (Ps 25:15; 34:17; 138:7; 142:7). Likewise, we are also to plead the name of Jesus, and pray that for His sake, on account of what He has done and suffered for us, that we might be renewed, and that He might be praised. The prayers of most believers lack this perspective — most often they simply ask God to do something “for their sake and what they have done”… not for “Christ’s sake and what He has done” (Ps 127:1; Jn 15:5; 1 Cor 3:6). Think about that. Asking God to do something “for His sake” or “for His Name’s sake,” essentially is a direct equivalent of asking God to do something “in Jesus Name” or “for Jesus sake” (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23) — remember, that needs to be the “primary reason” for any request (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23): God’s will, not our will. It should be noted, to ask in Jesus Name is not simply to insert His Name at the end of the prayer — it is to ask in accordance with His mind and will (Mt 26:39, 42; Jn 6:38), and it is to ask for those things which will glorify God, bless mankind, and be for our own spiritual good. Furthermore, in order to ask in Christ’s Name, we must live in close fellowship with Him, otherwise we would not know His attitude… and the closer we are to Him, the more our desires will be the same as His are; so when we live in the center of His will, and walk in fellowship with Him, and ask for that which the Lord desires, we can be sure that our prayers will be answered — “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (Jam 5:16). The Following is a list of 36 passages in Scripture that stress the importance of action taken “for God’s sake;” carefully reflect upon them to enhance your appreciation and understanding of this concept (DON'T JUST SKIP OVER THEM!) — 2 Kg 19:34; 20:6; Ps 23:3; 25:7, 11; 44:22; 69:7; 79:9; 106:8; 109:21; 143:11; Is 42:21; 43:25; 48:9, 11; Jer 14:7, 21; Ezek 20:14, 22, 44; Dan 9:17, 19; Matt 10:18; 16:25; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 6:22; Acts 9:16; Rom 1:5; 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 4:11; 12:10; Phil 1:29; Phi 1:6; 1 Pet 2:13; 1 Jn 2:12. Remember, life is ultimately about God, not us… God is the preeminent One, not us — obviously, that thought runs completely contrary to the flesh, because the flesh is all about “self.” It takes most believers a “lifetime of struggling” to apprehend and accept this truth (Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 8:6; Eph 3:21; Col 1:16; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 2:10; 1 Pet 4:11; 2 Pet 3:18). Carefully reflect upon all of the verses listed above in this section.
2. “For Your righteousness’ sake” — from this expression we understand God’s faithfulness to His Word, in which He has promised to do these things for us… or His just dealing with us, as one in covenant with Him, for God has covenanted to withhold no good thing from us! Blessed be God that we can “plead His name!” — even though we can plead nothing of our own! Yes, we can plead His righteousness — not withstanding our own unrighteousness! Think about that — why do we try to make ourselves “presentable to God” in order to get stuff from Him, when it is impossible to do so? Remember, the only thing that is acceptable to God is that which is “perfect!” — and the Lord Jesus is the only One who is perfect! We can approach God’s throne in heaven only because of Christ and His righteousness. Even though we ourselves have “absolutely nothing” to bring to the table, so-to-speak, we have been given the wonderful privilege of pleading “His righteousness!” Carefully reflect upon this concept: We can plead His righteousness, even though we lack a righteousness of our own! Praise be to His glory! not ours! So why do we insist on being able to “bring something to the table” when we have absolutely nothing to offer? This is the work of Satan in our souls, insisting that we become worthy in and of ourselves (at least to some degree)… lest God cast us out! Satan will always make us feel “shamefully unworthy of God’s love” when we sin… the truth of the matter is, Satan is a religious junkie who wants to get us all tangled up in a “religion of works!” By the way, if that’s the train you’re on, get off of it! You’re on the wrong one! Jesus is our righteousness! beginning to end! (Gal 3:3, 11, 19). Get your eyes off of yourself, and get them on Christ! (Heb 12:2). He is our salvation… not us! Every good and perfect gift comes to us “from above”… that He might be praised! Not us! If this is a strange concept to you, prayerfully wrestle through it over and over again until it peacefully settles in your soul.
Writes James Smith: “Soul trouble is the heaviest trouble!” As Solomon said, “A man may sustain some bodily infirmity, but a wounded spirit — who can bear?” Yet, when soul trouble weans us from SELF, and drives us to the LORD, it does us good. Smith says, “Whatever makes us pray is a blessing” — when the soul is troubled, it is at this time that our theology becomes more than just some forensic truth. The good news is, the Lord’s name, and His righteousness and faithfulness may always be pleaded by us — we cannot plead our own names, or our own doings — but we can always plead the name of Jesus! even though we are shamefully guilty of some wrong! Therefore, however dark or dead we may feel… however Satan may tempt, or corruptions work within us… however feeble our faith, or strong our unbelief… let us still cry out to the Lord and plead His name and grace, that He may quicken us again; thus bringing our souls out of trouble… setting our feet upon a rock… and establishing our goings to the praise of His glory! It is also good to remember that David’s experiences (at least in part) were also for our benefit (1 Cor 10:6, 11), and were recorded for our instruction and encouragement (Rom 15:4).
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man” (1 Cor 10:13). The message is this — there is no such thing as a new trial or new temptation under the sun; none of us are subjected to a “totally unique trial” — they are all common to men. All those men of great doctrinal knowledge down through the ages, who were at the forefront of Christian ministry, had their ebbs and their winters. Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) battled terribly with a depressed soul; he saw his depression as his “worst feature.” He once said, “This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry.” Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) suffered from depression throughout his life. Writes George Marsden in his biography of Edwards: “Even as he kept the disciplines of the faith, he was frequently afflicted by times of spiritual darkness.” Likewise, Martin Luther (1483-1546) also experienced great discouragement in his soul — on one particular occasion he was forcefully reminded of this by his wife, Katharine. Seeing him unresponsive to any word of encouragement, one morning she appeared dressed in black mourning clothes. Luther inquired as to the reason, and she responded, “Someone has died.” “Who died?” questioned Luther. “It seems God must have died” his wife replied. Luther got the point. All of God’s great saints were familiar with the despondency and depression that David and others in scripture experienced. The author of Psalm 42 was downcast and troubled in his soul, because it seemed to him that God had forgotten him — thus he was far more aware of God’s absence than God’s presence… as we often are.
The Testimony of Jesus
During the week of Passover in which Jesus went to the cross, He said to the Father: “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Thy name” (Jn 12:27-28a). It is not possible for us to imagine the incredible anxiety that the Lord was going through. His time had come… this was the culmination of His earthly ministry… something that had been planned before time began. All of human history and redemption hung in the balance of what was going to happen. The sinless Christ was going to pay for the sin of all mankind (Jn 3:16; 1 Tim 2:6; Heb 2:9; 1 Jn 2:2). Everything that was involved is too much for our minds to understand — be it the physical pain, the mocking, the beating, the bearing of God’s wrath, or His separation from the Father (the only time in all eternity the Son was separated from the Father). This short passage in John’s gospel teaches us four important lessons —
1. My soul is troubled — We all experience troubled souls from time to time. Maybe it’s because of our sin or maybe it’s because of life’s circumstances; whatever it is that troubles us, we need to know that we have a great High Priest who “can sympathize with our weaknesses because He was tempted in all points as we are, though He did not sin” (Heb 4:15). One of the central issues here is this: we can be “deeply troubled in our soul without sin necessarily being the cause” (Jesus was greatly troubled in His soul, and He did not sin). With that said, we need to be careful that we don’t attribute “sin” to every pain we experience in our soul, or attribute sin to some other person who is deeply troubled and depressed in his soul.
2. Father, save Me — You’ll notice, the Lord did not ask to be delivered from His trial. No… He embraced His trial and accessed the power available to Him. The writer to the Hebrews said, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). So when you are tempted to sin in time of trouble, seek the One who can truly help… cry out to Him for His help (Mt 14:30-31).
3. The purpose — Just as Jesus had a purpose, we also have a purpose, and it is “this mission” upon which we need to focus. Despite the hardships and trials Jesus experienced, He fully embraced His mission. Our job is also to embrace “our mission.” Whether the message we proclaim is popular or unpopular, our mission is to “preach the message of the truth” (2 Tim 4:2), be “salt and light in this world” (Mt 5:13-16), and be “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:20).
4. Glorify the Father — Why did the Lord Jesus suffer so much shame and reproach from sinful men? Because He was committed to bringing “glory” to God. Sinful man wants nothing to do with “glorifying God” — he is only interested in “glorifying himself” and doing his own thing! Remember, “men love darkness” (you do know what that word “love” means, don’t you?) because their deeds are evil (Jn 3:19-21). Sinful men are one hundred percent committed to embracing the “self-life,” not the “God-life” — anything that is in juxtaposition to the self-life is totally unacceptable to them. On the other hand, to glorify God is to love the light… to love God… to love that which is good and holy… and to hate darkness and everything that is evil. So, being that man is evil and sinful, he naturally hates that which is good and pure — to illustrate this, let’s use the issue of “forgiving someone who has greatly wronged you” — rather than being loving and forgiving toward that person, the fleshly man responds with hate and anger toward him. By contrast, Jesus — the embodiment of all that is good and pure and holy — responded to those who crucified Him with these words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Sinful man actually finds holiness and purity and godliness, restraining, restrictive and unacceptable, because those qualities do not define who he is. As believers in Christ, we are to live “selfless lives” to the praise of God’s glory (Jn 15:8; Eph 1:12; Phil 2:3); sinful man wants absolutely nothing to do with that because he is “self-centered.”
Now consider what that time must have been like for the Lord Jesus as He agonized over the shame that was set before Him… in spite of all that, He willingly went to the cross that He might save those of us who would believe in Him. The question that cries out to be answered is this: “Who am I that He would consider me in the hour of His suffering, that I should be saved?” It is not true that I have benefited beyond anything that could possibly be imagined? Keep in mind, yours and my salvation was not the “primary reason” why Jesus came to this world… it was to glorify God! We were the “secondary reason.” And that we cannot fathom — such truth is simply beyond us. Even though we are believers, and will one day experience what it means to be “co-heirs with Christ” in eternity future, we have no idea what it is like for God to be the recipient of endless praise, forever and ever (Rev 4:8-11; 7:11-12)… in truth, we actually have a tendency to recoil at the thought of “endless praise” because of our inherent sinfulness… for us as humans, we are more inclined to think, “Okay, God, enough of all this continual praising, let us now go out and enjoy heaven and eternity, because at some point this praise thing is getting a little boring.” That is how sinful we really are… redeemed? yes… but still sinful nonetheless. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like to be “completely clothed in absolute purity, holiness and righteousness”? No, it’s not possible, because there is still so much in us that is sinful, and “our sinful inner self” is still continually conniving to keep itself on the throne and be its own lord and master. Yet in spite of all this — GOD LOVES US EVEN IN OUR BROKEN CONDITION!!! UNCONDITIONALLY!!! Obviously, such love is simply too wonderful for us to comprehend (Job 42:3; Ps 139:6; Rom 11:33).
The Clouds of Faith
In Mark chapter nine, we read the story of a distraught father who brought his “demon possessed son” to Jesus to have Him exorcise the spirit from him (Mk 9:17). His disciples were unable to cast out the spirit. When the child was brought to Jesus, the evil spirit “immediately threw the boy into a convulsion” (v. 20), prompting the boys father to plead with Jesus to “take pity and help him” (v. 22). Jesus responded to the man saying, “All things are possible to him who believes” (v. 23). The boy’s father cried out, “I do believe — help me in my unbelief” (v. 24). The man had faith, but acknowledged that he also possessed a degree of unbelief. Such is the faith of every believer — there is an element of “doubt” as well as an element of “faith” in us. We hate this inward, unreasonable contradiction, and we all fight it in vain (that’s because we inhabit sinful flesh). Though the depth of this father’s faith had its deficiency, yet it enabled him to realize that Jesus was the Lord; as such, he placed his reliance upon Him — in the presence of Christ, in the midst of great despair, the man “in hope believed against hope.” Some unbelief lingered, though faith was supreme. Regarding such faith, the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon had this to say: “A measure of doubt is consistent with saving faith; [though it is] a weak faith, [nevertheless] it is a true faith, and a trembling faith will save the soul” (www.spurgeon.org/sermons/1033.htm).
Spurgeon mentions a number of things that cause “unbelief” to trouble the heart — First, is a sense of past sins; as believers, we receive a far deeper sense of sin after we are forgiven than we ever had before. The light of the law is but moonlight compared with the light of the gospel, which is the light of the sun. In the light of God’s countenance we discover the filthiness, the abomination, the detestable ingratitude of our past conduct; as such, we loathe ourselves in our own sight, and this casts suspicions into our mind as to whether or not forgiveness is actually possible. Satan as the “accuser of the brethren” causes Christians to dwell on their past sins; as such, we can expect the hound of hell to persistently work at destroying our faith by reminding us of such sins. Second, is a consciousness of our present feebleness — if we indeed are saved, we reason, then why isn’t my conduct radically different than it is? Surely if my sins are forgiven, I should act differently than I do. When the soul gets near to Jesus it perceives His perfection, and becomes conscious of its own imperfection… it sees His glory, and becomes aware of its own nothingness… it sees His love, and blushes at its own unloveliness. The problem is having a “self focus” rather than a “Christ focus” — when our eyes are on our own performance, we will suffer incredible disillusionment, because our lives don’t come close to measuring up to that standard that is Christ. Third, is a fear of the future — we become afraid that we will not hold on, because it is written that a Christian “must persevere to the end.” So we reason, “Suppose I should put my hand to the plough and should look back and prove unworthy of the kingdom.” This line of reasoning ignores the passages that speak to the believer’s security in Christ — “I will never leave you or forsake you”… “I give unto My sheep eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of My hand”… “He who began a good work in you will perfect it unto the day of Christ” (that means it’s not yet perfect). It should also be remembered that it is the presence of the “Holy Spirit” in our lives that causes us to persevere to the end; in truth, if it were left up to us, we would all fail to make it… none of us can boast of a great faith. The marvelous good news is this: God is doing a transforming work in us, and He is not going to stop doing that work until we safely reach heaven’s shores in glory! Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” speaks mightily to these issues —
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabbaoth, His name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
Overcoming the Troubled Soul
Pastors, church leaders, and laymen are often overwhelmed with ministry. Scott Thomas, the director of Acts 29 Network, a church planting organization, recently spoke to the widow of a pastor who committed suicide. “It was sobering,” writes Thomas. “She said that her husband didn’t just come home one day and kill himself… instead, his soul faded out slowly… just like the song says by Casting Crowns” —
It’s a slow fade when you give yourself away
It’s a slow fade when black and white have turned to gray
Thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid
When you give yourself away
People never crumble in a day
Many pastors, says Thomas, are out of balance… it is rarely intentional, but pastors can find themselves pursuing “ministry worlds” over the nourishing of their soul. They normally enter into ministry with a focus on the gospel’s work, which can be extremely demanding, and often their soul slowly fades away until their focus becomes the “gospel’s work in the lives of others” without consistently nourishing their own soul. This is a very common experience for people involved in ministry. To restore the troubled soul, Scott Thomas suggests taking the following steps (www.acts29network.org-blog/the-troubled-souls-of-pastors) —
1. Renew your mind with prolonged Scripture reading — A faded soul is often the result of listening to one’s own advice and ignoring God’s promises. Remember, nothing happens instantaneously, but rather is a “day-by-day renewal” of your inner self (Ps 16:8-9; 2 Cor 4:16).
2. Pray with an unhurried heart — Obviously, a troubled soul has difficulty praying, and the pressures of ministry and the demands of those around you are also barriers to prayer. Prayer is essential — you must not only pray, you must really pray. Get away from all the busyness of life, and allow God to speak to you as you sit quietly beside still waters (Ps 23; Ps 42). Real heartfelt prayer requires an absolutely quiet heart before the Lord — no distractions.
3. Confess the hidden sins of your heart and repent — Remember, God is after your heart, your thoughts, and your deepest desires. Learn to once again trust Him with every little thought and feeling and desire. “Draw near to God… and purify your heart” (Jam 4:8). “Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet 3:4). Don’t make your “sinfulness” greater than the power of the cross… God is well aware you are but dust… only a proud heart keeps itself on the throne.
4. Live in true community with others and allow them to completely know you — How many people really know you — the private person, not the public person (finances, marriage, anger, and sins)? We all need [someone] to help us in the battle against sin and self (Heb 3:12-13) — this battle is common to every one of us. Paul David Tripp said that “without a [true] community, one listens to [his] own lies and buys into [his] own delusions” (Instruments in the Hands, p. 54). Only a proud heart will keep us from community — “God gives grace to the humble” (Jam 4:6; 5:13-16)… and we all need all the grace we can get!
5. Renew your calling by God — Os Guinness said, “Calling is the truth that God calls us to Himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, and direction lived out as a response to His summons and service” (The Call, Word Publishing, 1998). The notion of calling is vital because it addresses the two most crucial questions in life: Who am I? and Why am I alive? Church leaders and pastors have a tendency to fall into the trap of superimposing their ministry titles over their sonship with God — what they “do” over who they “are” — and this performance orientation ends up clouding their relationship with God. Beware, all of us fall prey to this at some level.
6. Learn to Sabbath — Most people involved in ministry do not properly Sabbath. God gave a Sabbath to us as a gift (Mk 2:27) — He wants us to rest and to stop striving long enough for Him to build us, strengthen us, renew us and form us. The typical Sabbath day (Sunday, for arguments sake) can be an exhausting day for the typical pastor, so he needs to find another day to completely rest. Peter Scazzero in his book, The Emotionally Healthy Church Planter, wrote: “Keeping the Sabbath is like having a heavy snow day every week. You have the gift of a day off to do whatever you want.” God gives you 52 snow days every year with no obligations, pressures or responsibilities. Are you listening? or stubbornly making excuses as to why you can’t take a day off? — “The world will fall apart if I don’t keep working!” (?)
7. Review the goals and strategies you have for your life — You may have “impossible goals” or you may lack a “practical strategy” to fulfill them. Both of them need to be reviewed regularly to keep you from wandering, and help keep your life on track. It is also true that many pastors waste huge amounts of time doing things that have absolutely NOTHING to do with their calling or their stated objectives. View your life in terms of “whole-life stewardship” for the glory of God.
One troubled soul asked a friend, “What shall I do in all my troubles?” As the two of them stood out on a beautiful ranch watching a cow look over a stone fence, the one with the troubled soul was asked, “Why is that cow looking over the fence?” He answered: “Because she cannot look through it.” When believers face trials and tribulations, they can be like stone fences blocking our view of any hope or resolution. True genuine hope and resolution allowed the hymn writer Ray Palmer (1808-1887) to write the words to that famous hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” It expresses well the believer’s heart when it is turned in faith toward God in hope —
My faith looks up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine;
Now hear me when I pray, Take all my sin away, O let me from this day be wholly Thine!
May Thy rich grace impart, Strength to my fainting heart, My zeal inspire;
As Thou hast died for me, O may my love to Thee, Pure, warm and changeless be a living fire!
While life’s dark maze I tread, And griefs around me spread, Be Thou my guide;
Bid darkness turn today, Wipe sorrow’s tears away, Nor let me ever stray from Thee aside.