I was sick this last month or so. I wasn't terribly sick, just a touch of pneumonia, and it was swiftly dealt with. While I was sick, my sleeping patterns were all askew and I, frankly, was sleeping less than two hours a night for five or six nights in a row. That led to disordered thinking - disordered by exhaustion. There was nothing outrageous except I developed a sense of the near approach of death, and it was troubling. As I have recovered, the ability to rest has been slowly returning and the troubling fear has been receding from everything but my memory.
The only reason I confess this so publicly is to talk about the consequences of that experience. While the disquiet of my mind gripped me, I had the opportunity to re-examine prayer and the consolations of the Scriptures. When the first wave of this irrational fear swept over me, my first thought was to turn to prayer. I knew that I have no particular reason to fear death. I have never felt that fear before. I am confident that my Redeemer lives, and that He will be with me through the gates of death, however He may choose for me to approach them. Jesus has won my salvation, just as surely as He has purchased yours at the price of the Passion and the Cross and His death and resurrection. But the fear was there anyhow. That is how I identified that my thinking had become disordered.
So, I prayed. I prayed long prayers and I prayed short prayers. I read prayers, and I made them up out of my heart and faith. I also began to consider how limited my prayer life has been. I recognized that because, while I was sick, I was praying most constantly and earnestly. I found that there is comfort in prayer. I have always known that, and have found it many times in the past as well, but each time you discover that comfort feels almost like the first time! Thank God for the gift of prayer! Thank Him also for the comfort that He pours out when we call upon Him.
I also found myself with a renewed appreciation for the Psalms. I have always enjoyed them and found comfort in them, but when your heart is quaking in fear, perhaps particularly when you know that your fear is irrational and you have no control over it, the Psalms cry out to God with your spirit in a way no other portion of Scripture does. There was a time when I would read a psalm and think about it, and that was that. During my sickness, mild though it was, I found myself reading psalm after psalm, with just a brief prayer between them, and finding comfort and peace, and a sense of being grounded in God's Word to stand firm in the battle with the old evil foe, the source of the irrational fear.
Psalm 23 is such a joy. It is a confession of faith and a witness by the Holy Spirit that God is with me. It always led me right to Psalm 139. The comforts there for one being tormented by fear are so abundant. Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Thy hand will lead me, And Thy right hand will lay hold of me.
He is with me! If you have never experienced it, it would be hard to describe how it felt. I was not able to manage my feelings as I usually do, but in this Psalm was such tender comfort. How precious also are Thy thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand. When I awake, I am still with Thee. You see, theologically, I know that God is with me, and that His will for me is good. That had very little power to silence the sense of dread that had arisen in me, but the words of the Psalms spoke not just to my mind, but to my quaking heart and brought comfort and peace. I particularly like the last verses, when I read the Psalm I felt like shouting them out! Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.
Psalm 27 also came to mind, and I read it with a renewed appreciation for it. Many of you know that this is my favorite "hospital Psalm". I found renewed comfort in it as I was reading it again and again. The LORD is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the defense of my life; Whom shall I dread? David laid it on the line there. I knew and confessed that my fear was wrong. It may be natural to fear dying, but I also know that these sorts of fears are not to dominate. God is greater than my fears, and the Word of God brings solace and comfort. He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also freely give us all things?
Aside from the comfort that the reading of the Psalms brought me, it also caused me to remember and rehearse the comforts of the Gospel. The fear would speak to me that I was not such a great Christian and certainly did not deserve God's grace and blessing, but then the Gospel would counter with the confession that my salvation was not mine because I deserved it somehow. All that I hope for and confess in Christ is because of Him alone. God has chosen me, a miserable and unworthy sinner, and called me by the Gospel, claimed me in Baptism, forgiven me for Christ's sake, and not my own, and fed me with forgiveness and love in the Holy Supper. God is good to me for the sake of all that Jesus Christ has done, and for His sake the Father has forgiven me all my sins and accounted me as precious as His only-begotten Son.
Of course, all of this is true for each one of you that believes as well. I don't know for certain, but I suspect that my experience is not unique. Several of you have gone through harrowing health issues. I have not heard if anyone had such a striking time of disquiet, but knowing the issues you faced makes me confident that facing them was not easy. When we are physically weak, the Tempter draws close and tries to derail our faith. For such times, it is important to know that prayer and the Psalms can be a source of real strength and comfort.
One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD, And to meditate in His temple. For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; In the secret place of His tent He will hide me; He will lift me up on a rock. And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me; And I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the LORD.
I brought all of this up because one of the prayers we pray most frequently is, "Thy will be done". Yet, when we are in the midst of the struggle, that can be one of the most difficult prayers to pray. At such times, we really don't want His will done, we want OUR will to be done. We really want to be healed, grow stronger, feel the fear dissipate, and to receive whatever will relieve our situation. But that is just our flesh talking. Those are the moments when we need to drag out our theology and remember what is true about our God.
We need to remember that the will of God for us is always for our welfare and for our salvation. From God's perspective, the way to those things is not always what we appreciate. Let me illustrate: we say in one of our prayers, "In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek comfort but of Thee, O Lord?". That particular line comes from the Order of the Funeral at the Grave, in the old Pastor's Companion. Our experience, however, is not so starkly negative. We can go on for years and not think, or at least think deeply about death. We live life boldly, as we should, without any real concern for death, even though it is around us all of the time.
While my mind was troubled by this fear, I found it impossible to ignore or avoid death. It was on the news. It filled the television dramas that I saw. When I watched an old movie, it was spoiled by the realization that so many of those who were on the screen were gone now, dead. Everything around me invited me to contemplate death - and how it must be to die. I was called back by such thoughts to the Psalms and to prayer, and to thinking about what God's Word taught us about death. The only comfort in the face of death is God's Word.
The Scriptures teach us that death of the body in this world is unavoidable, at least until Jesus returns. It also tells us that death is not the end. On that last day, everyone who has ever lived shall rise to stand before God, as Jesus divides all of humanity into two groups; those that are His, and those who have refused God's grace. That thing we fear has been defeated and ultimately destroyed by Christ. We have the hope - that is the complete assurance of that which we do not see or sense yet - that the death of our bodies is not the end of our lives or our consciousness. We will be with Christ in glory (whatever that may be like) for good and for joy and forever. And there is a resurrection coming!
Without reminders which bring us to focus our minds and hearts on God's Word, those realities are easily forgotten or underappreciated. God allows the trouble of life to stir us up to give us pause and re-discover the beauty of our faith. I can pray more clearly now for others who are wrestling with illness and other great troubles because I have been reminded both of how difficult real trouble really is, and I have come to understand afresh just how comforting and powerful prayer and God's Word is when we face these problems and fears.
My little problem, which did not seem so little at the moment, opened my mind to the pains and fears that those I serve may be feeling when they are stricken by illness or injury. I see that what I need to bring is more of the Word and more prayer, and perhaps less cheerful chat. I have a renewed appreciation of the power of those disturbing thoughts, and for the welcome comforts that the Word, those Psalms in particular, brings. I find it has helped me to pray more earnestly for those around me that I know are facing specific challenges, and just to pray more for you all in general. I did not need to be sick, by my accounting, but God used my brief moment in the dark to refresh in me those passions for His Word and prayer, and my compassion for those who are suffering.
He has similar good reasons for each trial and testing He puts each of us through. One of the purposes for our testing, I am convinced, is to teach us how to pray "Thy will be done". It isn't easy to pray when that will seems to point to greater pain or difficulty, or to death itself. When the shadows gather around our spirits, it is hard to let go of yourself and allow yourself to willingly rest in the hands of God. It helps to remember that those hand have nail holes in them, punched into them for your blessing. The wonderful good of salvation did not come looking like good or feeling good, but it came looking and feeling like pain and torture and cross and death. Still Jesus prayed, "Thy will, not mine, be done."
Teach me Thy way, O LORD, And lead me in a level path, Because of my foes. That is what are praying when we copy Jesus and pray "Thy will be done". He alone sees our true spiritual condition and recognizes the dangers all around us. Every step is planned for our welfare, which is to say, for our salvation. We each need to be reminded, at times, that He alone is God, and we are not. We need to be prepared to walk on the path which lies ahead, and so we need to be prepared for the difficult places that will inevitably come to us as our part in the cross. We need to learn to be humble, and to pray, and to be steadfast in His Word, for therein is great comfort. And God knows just how to teach us.
We have Ascension and Pentecost coming up this month, holy days of celebration. God doesn't want us down and burdened and fearful. That is not the point of what I wrote. But He does want us grounded in reality; both the reality of this world and its troubles, and the reality of His good will and love and grace. So live your life boldly, but keep prayer right at your side, and God's Word at your finger-tips and on your mind. One final Psalm, one I have read a lot lately, and found tremendously comforting, Psalm 42, in particular verse 5 and verse 11, which say almost the same thing: Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance, and my God.
God bless and keep you!
Yours in the Lord,
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