Psalm 18:1-6 & 2 Corinthians 4:8-9
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 3, 2023

Sometimes well-intentioned Christians, particularly those with a righteous evangelistic fervor, sell the life of faith by making false promises.

Certainly, no one can oversell or overestimate the blessedness of heaven.  But one can easily misrepresent the blessedness of following Jesus in this world.  While doing so brings rich inner rewards such as love and integrity, joy and peace, the faithful followers of Jesus are as vulnerable to failure and frustration, pain and trouble, as anyone else.

Jesus in fact told would-be disciples that following Him would increase the adversity they’d have to face; and Acts explicitly says Jesus’ disciples must go through many hardships to fully enter God’s kingdom.

The Bible’s introduction to today’s Psalm tells us that David has just undergone the hardship of being targeted for murder by many enemies, including Israel’s King Saul.  After God delivers him from their evil designs, David is moved to sing thanks to the God to whom he’s entrusted his life.

Over half of the Psalms attributed to David speak of his having enemies.  They are a constant for him.  So, while he trusts God to save him from them, he never thinks God will eliminate them from his life.  While he believes “goodness and mercy” will “follow” him all his days, he knows he’ll still walk down “the valley of the shadow of death”.  While he celebrates how his “cup runs over”, he knows he’ll feast, not in the absence of any enemies, but “in the presence of my enemies”.  While he “fears no evil”, not even his own murder, he knows would-be killers are always around.  Despite much danger and difficulty, David knows peace because he’s confident God will in the end preserve him.

That’s why at its very start today’s Psalm bursts forth with David’s exuberant exclamation, “I love you, O Lord!”  David uses there an unusual Hebrew verb, raham, that expresses the emphatic, whole-hearted love a mother has for her baby or a young man for his first love.  David then applies one metaphor after another to depict God’s faithful protective care.  David calls God his “strength”, “rock”, “fortress”, “deliverer”, “refuge”, “shield”, “horn of salvation”, and “stronghold”.

This does not mean that distress and pangs of fear are foreign to David. With anguished memory, he recalls how “the cords of death encompassed me” and “the cords of Sheol entangled me” – “Sheol” being the mysterious, foreboding after-world in which David thought the deceased continued to exist in some shadowy, ghost-like form.  But also with joyful gratitude David recalls how he “called upon the Lord” and “cried for [His] help”, and how God “heard” and rescued him.  Because of such experiences, David declares he’ll always “call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,” and expect to “be saved from my enemies”.

David then both admits the reality of his vulnerability to stress and struggle, hurt and scares, and asserts the reality of his invincibility due to God’s grace.

This sense of vulnerable invincibility, of indomitability  despite much adversity, is echoed in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians when he says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”  Paul has no thought that pain and trouble will never touch the faithful or that such distress will never be as awful and prevalent as it might first seem; but Paul does have the conviction that God’s grace is the strongest power there is and will see the faithful through all their difficulties and dangers.  The Bible is telling us that those who entrust their lives to the Lord may be hemmed in, but are not hamstrung; may be endangered, but are not demoralized; may be knocked down, but are not knocked out; may be battered by storms, but are not broken in their hope; may be attacked by evil-doers, but are not abandoned by the good God who makes even what’s bad serve His loving purposes.

One loving purpose God has all the time for all His people is to develop our character and to make our soul beautiful.  But beautiful people don’t just happen.  They’re forged in the fires of suffering, struggle and loss.

In a Leadership Journal article a dozen years ago, John Ortberg, convinced we need a good deal of hardship to become the best version of ourselves, suggests a hypothetic thought experiment:  Imagine you’re handed a script of your newborn child’s entire life, given an eraser, and told you have five minutes to edit out whatever you want.  You read that she will have a learning disability and will struggle to keep up in school and avoid cruel taunts from other kids. In high school, she will make some wonderful friends, but her bestie will die of leukemia.  She will enter her preferred college, but in her junior year she’ll lose a leg in a car accident, which will put her into a deep depression.  She will get a great job, but will get laid off in an economic downturn.  She will fall in love and wed a fine man, but their marriage will end in an acrimonious divorce.

When he reflects on this scenario, psychologist Jonathan Haidt wonders if, out of love for your child, you should edit out all the awful stuff.  Would you then be doing her a favor or depriving her of what would motivate her to seek God and grow in character?  Might she need adversity and trauma to reach her full potential?

Maybe it’s because God loves us that He refrains from protecting us from all pain and strain.  Maybe such is essential to our developing into deeply and truly beautiful people who make the world better.

Ortberg admits, “God isn’t at work to produce the circumstances I want, but at work in bad circumstances to produce the me He wants” – and many others want as well!

Maybe God is wise enough to give us enough tears to make us empathetic and compassionate, enough hurts to make us kind and generous, enough trials to make us reach out for help from beyond ourselves and to invite God’s transformation of us – even while God also gives us enough joy to keep us bright in spirit and hopeful of heart, enough progress to keep us determined and persevering, enough affirmation to keep us bold and brave.  Just maybe God is smart enough to make us, if we trust Him, the “vulnerable invincible”, beautiful people who bless others!

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