Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Night's Bible Study on Spiritual Warfare - January 29, 2012 - Session 3

Where Is God When We Lose the Battle?

Psalm 44


            Inherent in warfare is the idea that there are winners and there are losers.  One of the most frustrating things in war is when both sides reach a stalemate.  In the trench warfare of the American Civil War and World War I, many soldiers wrote that they would sooner accept defeat than remain in a deadlock.  No one wanted to continue trading death for death, neither winning nor losing, moving back and forth to conquer a couple of miles of muddy ground.

            Sometimes the Christian life feels like a stalemate.  Some days you win the spiritual battles of temptation, or you see victory in the lives of the loved ones you’re supporting in prayer.  Other days, it seems like you’re losing ground.  At times you’re walking in God’s blessing, and then something happens that makes you feel utterly defeated.  Many believers wonder what makes the difference between win, lose, and draw.

            Like Job’s friends[1], the author of Psalm 44 seems to believe that if things are going well then God is favoring you, but if you’re suffering, God must have removed His favor.  If you’re blessed, it’s certainly because you have been faithful, but if you’ve been defeagted, you must deserve it in some way.  Yet this runs contrary to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:45, that God “makes His run to rise on the evil and the good.”  He underscores this by saying, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12).”  In many other passages, Jesus indicates that sometimes the righteous suffer, and sometimes the wicked seem to prosper.  But the psalmist doesn’t see it that way.

            Psalm 44 is a cry for God’s help.  Verses 1-3 recall the way God was always faithful to the psalmist’s ancestors.

1We have heard with our ears, O God;
our fathers have told us
what you did in their days,
in days long ago.
2With your hand you drove out the nations
and planted our fathers;
you crushed the peoples
and made our fathers flourish.
3It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them. 

            The psalmist remembers the days of God’s favor, when enemies were driven out by God’s hand.  He attests to God’s greatness, stating that it was not by human power that enemies were defeated.  Instead, it was God’s power that won their battles for them.

            In verses 4-8, the psalmist recognizes God’s sovereignty.
4You are my King and my God,
who decrees victories for Jacob.
5Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.
6I do not trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
7but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
8In God we make our boast all day long,
and we will praise your name forever.       Selah

            Verse 4 points out that all victories are by the decree of God, and not because of human action.  In verse 5, it is God who pushes enemies back, and it is through the Name of God that we trample on our foes.[2]  Note that verse 5 has God pushing back enemies in the present tense, and God’s people trampling foes in the present tense.  Verse 6 continues with the psalmist not trusting his bow in the present tense and his sword not bring present victory.  Verse 7 draws out the theme, with God giving victory and putting adversaries to shame—all the in the present tense.  God is God of the present, giving present victory in the battles of life.  Because of this (verse 8) we make our boast all day long, in present-tense, continual action.  This continues even into the future, for “we will praise your name forever.”  (And don’t forget to ponder this at the end of verse 8—selah.  Perhaps if we pondered this longer, we’d never need to go on to the rest of the psalm, for we’d have a better understanding.)

            Beginning with verse 9, we see a change in the psalmist’s attitude.  Where there used to be a sense of victory, all of a sudden, now that the story of his life has changed, his outlook has also shifted.  Military defeat has got him living in spiritual defeat.  Rather than remembering God’s faithfulness in the past, he wallows in self-pity.  Instead of glorifying God for His present deliverance and worshiping God and trusting God for the future, the psalmist allows the current troubles to cloud his faith.  Believers who engage in spiritual warfare need to remember that God is always faithful—in the good times and in the bad.  If Satan can keep you in a defeatist attitude, he has already won.  So the following verses are an example of how not to think, when things get tough.

9But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
10You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
11You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
12You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.
13You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
14You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
15My disgrace is before me all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
16at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge. 

            It’s natural to feel that God has abandoned you when things get tough.  Even Jesus felt abandoned when He hung on the cross, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Mark 15:34)?”[3]  We have to understand verse 9, not as a statement of fact, but as a statement that this is how the psalmist feels.  God does not reject His people.  Psalm 94:1 says, “For the LORD will not abandon His people, nor will He forsake His inheritance.”

            In verse 10, the psalmist goes on to blame God for their retreat and for being plundered.  Verse 11 has God giving them up for devouring and scattering.  In verse 12 the psalmist accuses God of selling them into slavery, and bemoans the fact that God didn’t even get a good price for His people.  God bears the blame for the reproach, scorn, and derision the people feel in verses 13-16.  Surely the psalmist has not only lost a physical battle, but he is losing the spiritual battle as well.

            Often it’s difficult for the spiritual warrior to understand why painful things are happening to them, when they perceive that they have done nothing wrong to deserve it.  The psalmist indicates this kind of confusion in verses 17-22.

17All this happened to us,
though we had not forgotten you
or been false to your covenant.
18Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
19But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals
and covered us over with deep darkness.
20If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
22Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. 

            It would make sense for God to judge violently if the people had been rebellious, but since the psalmist perceives the people to have been faithful, he can’t understand this.  Two answers may be important here.

            First, just because the psalmist doesn’t perceive the people’s sin, that doesn’t mean that they haven’t sinned.  In Joshua 7, Israel’s armies experienced defeat in battle, and they couldn’t understand why.  Eventually, God pointed to the reason:  One man’s sin had caused the nation’s defeat.  By human reasoning, Israel’s leaders would never have figured out that mystery.  It took the Spirit of God to reveal the truth.  Just because you don’t understand the reason God’s judgment falls, that doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing God’s wrath.

            Second, we need to understand that sometimes painful things happen.  There’s nothing you can do about them, and you don’t need to figure out the reason why.  You may never understand why you’re suffering, but you can trust that God is working His purposes out.  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  In Romans 8:37, Paul in fact quotes Psalm 44:22, saying, “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  But then he addresses the attitude of those who complain like this, contradicting the attitude of the psalmist.  “No,” he says.  “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

            Not long ago, I watched an interviewer try to back a celebrity preacher into a corner with the age-old question about suffering in the world:  There are three possibilities about God’s nature.  Either God is good and all-powerful, but doesn’t see the suffering in the world, and is therefore not omniscient; or the good God sees suffering and is powerless to do anything about it and therefore isn’t omnipotent; or God does both sees the suffering in the world, is able to do something about it, and yet does nothing about it, and is therefore not good.  “Which one is it?” asked the interviewer.  But the celebrity preacher refused to take the bait, quickly changing the subject.  In verses 23-26, the psalmist chooses to believe that God is good and that God is omnipotent, yet challenges God’s omniscience.  He believes that God is asleep.

23Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
24Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
25We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26Rise up and help us;
redeem us because of your unfailing love.

            The psalmist believes that if God would simply rouse Himself, lift His face from the celestial pillow, and see that we are brought down to the dust, then God would rise up to help us.  Verse 26 attests to the idea that God is able to help.  God’s unfailing love reflects divine goodness.  So the solution is simply for God to “rise up” from His slumber, breaking God’s sleepy ignorance, and for God to help.  This perspective can’t be further from the truth.  It is simply the way the psalmist feels, much like Jesus saying that He feels like God has abandoned Him when in fact God has not.  Psalm 121:3-4 says, “He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep," 

             In my opinion, the evangelist made a mistake in evading the question.  The interviewer made the mistake of assuming that everything that is painful must also be bad.  In fact, God uses painful things in our life to bring good things about.  Paul gives radical encouragement in Romans 5:3-5 when he says, “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

            The Christian life is warfare.  Some of the warfare is external.  We struggle with sickness, accidents, relationship conflicts, praying for the struggles of our loved ones, and many other things.  But most of our spiritual warfare is internal.  We face temptations to sin, spiritual depression, mental exhaustion, difficult decisions, doctrinal confusion, perplexing emotions, and a host of other soul-level enemies that wage war against us.  Sometimes we win these battles, and sometimes we lose.  Instead of blaming God for our troubles, we need to pray Psalm 44 as if it ends after the selah at the end of verse 8.  Selah means “pause and reflect.”  If you’re a Christian, then you need to pause and reflect on all that God has done for you in the past, so you can have faith that He will sustain you today and into the future.  Then you will be able to pray with the psalmist, “In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever (44:8).”

[1] For more on this, read the entire Biblical book of Job.
[2] See the Name of God, “Yah” in Psalm 68:1-4. 
[3] Many claim that in this verse, Jesus is stating fact, rather than feeling.  They often quote the first part of Habakkuk 1:13 (KJV), which says, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and can not look on iniquity.”  They say, “See, God had to turn His face away from Jesus, so in this instant, God did abandon Him.  They say this because they don’t want to believe that Jesus ever said anything that was factually inaccurate.  But Jesus was not in error when He said this.  He factually felt abandoned at this moment, and He was saying what He really felt.  Proponents of the view that God cannot look on evil should read the rest of Habakkuk 1:13, which says, “Why do you look upon them that deal treacherously, and hold your tongue when the wicked devours the man that is more righteous than he?”  Obviously, the psalmist knows that God can see the evil that’s going on.  His problem is trying to understand why God does nothing about it.  The truth is that God does see evil, and does do something about it.   Genesis 6:5-8 says, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.”  God sees sin.  God judges sin.  But God also offers grace. 

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