How do you find strength in God when your world is in ruins?
SOURCE: Discipleship Journal/J. I. Packer
The scene is familiar: You see it with heartbreaking regularity on TV.
A strong, rugged man stands beside a pile of burnt-out rubble that was once his home. He is in tears. He does not know where his family is or even if they are still alive. He has nowhere to turn for food or help. We find him pitiful and pathetic, but we are glad we are not in his shoes.
Where is this scene? Beirut? Baghdad? Dubrovnik? No, we are in Ziklag, a little Philistine town some forty miles southwest of Jerusalem. It is just over three thousand years ago, about 1015 B.C. The man is David, who later will be Israel’s king. But at this point he is in his late twenties—a refugee, an outlaw, and a failed leader who seems doomed.
What has happened? The story is this. (See 1 Samuel 30:1–6.)
David, fleeing for his life from King Saul, had offered his services and those of his six hundred men to King Achish, a local Philistine potentate, as a kind of Foreign Legion. Achish had given them Ziklag for their home, and they had all brought their families and settled there. They had marched with the rest of Achish’s troops to a pan-Philistine muster against Israel. But Achish’s colleagues had refused to trust David and his men in a battle against their own people and had sent them packing.
Already depressed (for no army can be told it is not trusted without damage to its morale), they had trekked back to Ziklag and found it a smoking ruin. Desert raiders, Amalekites, had sacked it, burned it, and taken captive as slaves everyone they had found there. Six hundred homes and families were simply gone; hence, the tears of fury and pain. “David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep” (1 Sam. 30:4).
When people are smarting under an unexpected hurt, they want to relieve their feelings by finding a scapegoat, someone to blame. It was so here. David’s men got ugly and turned on their leader. They blamed him, one supposes, for being so preoccupied with pleasing Achish that he had marched every single able-bodied man to the muster, thus failing both them and their families by not leaving a guard to fend off raiders. Think of living in the old Wild West where Indians and bandits roamed; men went armed; and women and children never traveled save in the company of someone with a gun. It was that sort of world, and David’s error of judgment had been real. So we move to the point where “David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters” (v. 6).
Despair among the Ruins
We can see what was going through David’s mind as he stood, alone and tearful, by the ruins of his house. His great distress was compounded by several things.
There was personal loss: His own home and his own two wives were gone. But that was only the start of it.
There was, for sure, the recognition that through lack of forethought he had failed his men and their dependents. Nothing is more distressing to a good man or a real leader (David was both) than knowing you have let down those who trusted you.
There was his total isolation. Now not only Saul and the Philistines but his own men, too, had turned against him. Universal hostility, leaving you with no one to whom you can even talk on equal terms, is hard to bear.
There was the apparent hopelessness of the situation. The Amalekites had come on camels, and David and his men were on foot. They were already exhausted from their three-day, forty-mile march. What hope was there of catching the raiders, even if David could be sure where they had gone?
Also, there was, quite certainly, a crushing sense of God’s judgment. For David had played a double game with Achish. To curry favor with his Philistine patron, he had plundered villages, massacred their inhabitants, given Achish the booty, and told him the raids had been made in Israelite territory. In fact, the raids had been against people who had nothing to do with Israel, including—yes!—Amalekites (1 Sam. 27:8). While the deception prospered, David had doubtless assured himself that he was being super-smart and that killing Amalekites was the Lord’s business anyway (see Deut. 26:17–19). But deep down, he knew that this callous, Machiavellian banditry—for banditry is what it was—merited God’s vengeance. And when he saw what the Amalekites had done to Ziklag, his conscience told him that this poetic justice was in fact the vengeance he had provoked.
David, then, was in a state of distress of a kind that might well have destroyed him. The shock of disaster, grief at one’s loss, collapse of one’s life-strategy, and a sense of undergoing just retribution can each of them have paralyzing effects, and here they were all together. “Heartache crushes the spirit” (Prov. 15:13); “a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Prov. 18:14).
Misery is the natural consequence of calamity, and apathy is the natural child of misery. David’s surrender to grief was an entirely natural reaction to what had happened. In his shoes, we would have done the same, and many can testify that in similar circumstances they did exactly that.
Had David stopped there, however, it would have been the end of his career as a leader and probably of his life. But he did not stop there. Challenging and finally overcoming the paralysis that grief was generating, we now see in David the spiritual reaction of faith. “But”—it is one of the great Bible “buts”—”David found strength (RSV, “strengthened himself”) in the LORD his God” (v. 6).
How did he do it?
The Secret of Strength
“He prayed,” suggests someone. Yes, in due course, he did. But that, I am sure, was not what came first. When feelings of despair overwhelm you, rational prayer is beyond you. You are like a person being swept downstream towards the falls; you must recover your footing on the stream bed or you are lost. The secret of recovering your footing spiritually at such a time lies in the little word think, and that was undoubtedly where David began. He thought. He did not wait to feel better, but argued with the emotions that were telling him all was lost. He made himself recall what he knew of God and thought out how it all applied to him at that moment. Thus he “found strength” in the Lord; thus he calmed his soul; thus he prepared himself to pray.
“Strengthened by thought” is the formula that fits. The medievals would have called David’s action meditating, and the Puritans would have described it as preaching to oneself. Less important than deciding what to call it is learning to do it. It is a discipline we all need to master.
Every time we pray, it is wise first to remind ourselves, deliberately, of who and what God is and how we stand related to Him through His covenant love. Never is this more necessary than when we are reeling under the impact of some shock or being deafened by the inward screams of desire or panic or pain. David acted on this wisdom. Setting himself to think, he made his rational faith reassert itself over his runaway feelings. He let his faith tell him what to think, and when he knew what to think, he could see what to do. He was a model of godly wisdom.
Five Steps to Recovery
I now offer a reconstruction of the series of thoughts that he forced into his disoriented, despairing heart as he stood in lonely isolation in ruined Ziklag, surrounded by men who, he knew, had mutiny and murder in mind. It is, of course, guesswork, but it is not wild guesswork. The psalms show us the logic of David’s faith clearly enough to warrant every suggestion I shall make.
I believe that David ran before his mind five thoughts, as follows:
1. My God reigns. He thought of God’s sovereign power. He reminded himself that God is in total control of all that happens on earth, and that having brought him into this extremity, God was certainly able to bring him out of it. Remembering God’s omnipotence was the first step in recovering his footing.
The psalms are strong on God’s sovereignty and dominion. “The LORD does whatever pleases Him” (Ps. 135:6; cf. 115:3). “The seas [emblem of chaos] have lifted up, O LORD . . . their voice . . . their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea—the LORD on high is mighty” (Ps. 93:3–4). Or, more simply, “The LORD reigns” (Ps. 93:1, Ps. 96:10, Ps. 97:1, Ps. 99:1, Ps. 146:10). All Scripture agrees that a God who is only in control of things half the time is a figment of a disordered imagination. The beginning of stability for us all is to know that God is on the throne, that His eye is on us and His hand over us all the time. Nothing comes our way apart from His will. In the deepest sense everything is under control.
2. My God forgives. David thought of God’s pardoning mercy. He recalled that “with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” In other words, right-minded reverence is rooted in a knowledge of God’s mercy in the remitting of one’s sins (Ps. 130:4). My guess is that David’s first breath of prayer was a plea for forgiveness for the callous killings involved in his bamboozling of Achish. Certainly, he dwelt on the truth that it is God’s glory to forgive the penitent and that no sin is too great to be forgiven. He knew that no chastened transgressor need ever forfeit his hope of restoration and a future with God. And as David thought along these lines, his footing grew firmer.
All Scripture confirms what David knew. “The blood of Jesus . . . purifies us from all sin . . . If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just [in keeping His word both to us who sinned and to the Son who died to save us] and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness . . . He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn. 1:7, 1 Jn. 1:9; 1 Jn. 2:2). For any who feel themselves under God’s judgment, there is forgiveness just as soon as they confess and forsake the acts that provoked the judgment.
3. My God cares. David thought, too, of God’s covenanted protection. “The LORD is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). Himself a shepherd, David knew that the shepherd’s job is precisely to look after the sheep, keeping them well-fed and safe at all times. So he must not suppose that men’s alienation from Him meant that God had abandoned him. Even in ruined Ziklag, God was with him to love and bless him. As David dwelt on this, his despair (I am sure) dissolved like melting snow.
All Scripture confirms what the Shepherd Psalm proclaims, namely the covenant care of God for His servants. “In all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Ro. 8:28). God’s shaping of all that happens to believers so as to promote their “good”—that is, their holiness and joy—is a fact, even when it does not look or feel so. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life” (Ps. 23:6). God’s commitment to me, to be my God who shepherds me home, guarantees that.
4. My God is consistent. Having proved His love to me in the past, He will do so again. David thought of his previous experiences of God’s goodness and reasoned that, as John Newton puts it in his sublimely straightforward way,
His love in time past
Forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last
In trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer
I have in review
Confirms his good pleasure
To help me right through.
David had reasoned this way before Saul—”the LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37). So now he told himself that his God, who saved him from the lion, the bear, Goliath, and Saul’s spear (1 Sam. 19:9–10) would surely act again on his behalf in his present nightmare situation. For God does not lose interest in those He has once begun to love and bless.
Ebenezer was the name of a stone memorializing God’s past help (1 Sam. 7:12). Every Christian should live by the Ebenezer principle—storing up memories of past mercies and bringing them to mind whenever reassurance about God’s love is needed, as does the exile of Ps. 42:4–6 and the invalid of Ps. 77:4–12. In this way, David found strength to face the pressures of the present, and so may we.
5. My God is faithful. He keeps His word. David thought of God’s explicit promises, such as (perhaps)Ps. 91:14–15:
“Because he loves me” says the LORD,
“I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges My name.
He will call upon Me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.”
David found strength in trusting the fidelity of his promise-keeping God.
Mapping the Christian life in Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan pictures despair as a giant imprisoning believers in Doubting Castle; but the Christian gets out of despair by using “a key called Promise.” Exactly! Knowing that God’s promises to us in Scripture are certain of fulfillment frees us from doubt and gives us strength to face the future.
God My Strength
The strength (power) of God (Ps. 24:8, Ps. 31:2, Ps. 62:11) is what theologians call a communicable attribute—that is, a quality of God that in exercise imparts its own analogue or image to man. Thus, God’s wisdom makes us wise; God’s strength makes us strong. “The LORD gives strength to His servants” (Ps. 29:11, cf. 84:5). The strength given is a capacity “to do and to endure,” as the hymn puts it; a capacity that without God’s empowering we would not have. As Giver of this strength, God is called “my” or “our” strength (Ps. 28:7, Ps. 46:1, Ps. 59:17, Ps. 73:26, Ps. 118:14, cf. Is. 12:2).
We have been watching God give David strength at Ziklag by stirring him to the resolute thought through which he “found strength.” It was gratitude for such experiences that David was expressing when he declared, “I love you, O LORD, my strength” (Ps. 18:1). And one way in which we in 1992 learn to love God is through being strengthened at crisis times in this same manner.
Just for the record, after David had “found strength,” he got guidance that enabled him, against all expectations, to restore the situation completely (see the rest of 1 Samuel 30). God does not always resolve our crises this way, but He always gives strength to cope to those who will learn to think as David thought. And that, for us, is what really matters.