This is a series of reflections which I wrote for “Sunday Link”, a weekly news sheet published by Redemptorist Publications. I’ve often found that the psalms put very powerfully into words many of my thoughts and feelings especially at those times when I feel most alone and separated from a God who seems to have abandoned me. They also offer hope and reassurance in the faithful loving kindness of God and his wish to forgive, heal and restore us.
“My adversaries trample over me all the day long” (v.2)
It seems everyone and everything is working against you. You’re under pressure with too many demands being made of you and too little time to catch your breath. You’re constantly tired and ratty. Your mind is racing so fast it’s hard to relax. Sleep is not refreshing. Your anxiety levels are hitting the ceiling because you don’t know what’s waiting for you round the next corner.
You’re stressed. Why not try taking some time out, just a few minutes each day, to read this psalm and reflect on what God might be saying to you?
Jesus came that we might have life in all its abundance. Living in a constant state of stress is not God’s will for us. He hears our groaning and sees our tears. He calls us to trust in him. He wants to shield us from harm and to heal our shredded minds and weary bodies. He longs to free our suffocating souls and lead us into fresh healthy air.
It may seem impossible to stop and let go but we do need to take that risk, to trust in God who cares deeply about us and who will be with us through the struggle.
“Be still and know that I am God” (v.9a)
In our first reflection we thought about how it may seem impossible to stop and let go when we’re under stress. In this psalm God asks (or perhaps he commands) us to “be still and know that I am God”.
In the first verse the psalmist says “God is … a very present help in trouble”. Like the psalmist we might feel that our life is trembling, raging and quaking around us. We daren’t stop for a moment in case we fall apart completely. But “the Lord of hosts is with us” in this chaos and “is our stronghold”.
The message of this psalm is that God is far greater than all the things causing us stress. This is not to minimise what troubles us. When you’re under stress because of problems in relationships, finances, health, housing, employment (or unemployment), bereavement (the list is endless) then life does become overwhelming and frightening. That’s exactly why we need to risk being still and quiet. We need to know the presence with us of “the Lord of hosts”, “the God of Jacob”; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose resurrection reveals the triumphant victory of love over all that life does to us.
“For you yourself created my inmost parts” (v.12a)
God said “Be still and know that I am God”. Now we hear that God knows us inside out; he knows everything about us and our lives because we are his children, created in his image and we cannot be separated from his love.
Stress can be a healthy response to an emergency or threat. We need the adrenalin for alertness; faster breathing to increase oxygen in the blood; tense muscles ready for action, aroused senses and alert minds to take in and process information.
Stress is a God-given gift to come to our rescue in danger. But it can also be harmful if our bodies stay in “stress mode” for too long. We can be in danger of serious illnesses. So if we feel constantly under stress we need to listen to the warning signs.
If we are reaching that point, this psalm speaks to us of a loving God who will never abandon us and who seeks only our health and happiness. What’s more, his intimate knowledge of us means that he knows what we need better than we do ourselves. We can trust him to search us out and lead us in his everlasting way.
“He shall refresh my soul” (v.3a)
When we’re under stress we can trust the God who knows us inside out. When we feel our lives have got out of control we can trust in the God who is like a shepherd keeping watch and protecting his sheep.
God will guide us to people and places where we can find rest, peace and refreshment for our battered and suffocating soul.
If we’re living under stress, the chances are we’re not paying enough attention to our spiritual needs and so are further drained of the inner resources which are vital for our well being.
It may seem impossible but we do need to find time just to be with God, to rest in his presence, to allow him to attend to our wounds and to nourish our souls even in the middle of the battlefield
We need to make space to be aware of God with us in even the darkest places where we feel most threatened. Stress can make us feel very alone and persecuted. We need to hear again that God’s goodness and loving mercy are always with us and that he longs for us to live life in all its abundance.
“He who watches over you will not sleep” (v.3b)
“It’s all very well talking about taking time out, being still, resting in God’s presence. Have you any idea how I feel? I’m like a performer on stage keeping increasing number of plates spinning on poles. No matter how fast I run, there’s always one plate about to fall and just when I think I can breathe for a moment, another two are added. Do you seriously think I can be still? Get real!”
If you’ve reached this level of stress then please take notice and act, maybe seek medical advice. If you really can’t stop, even for a second, then cry out in your frantic busyness, “where can I get help?”. Your help will come from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
At night ask God to look after all those spinning plates for you while you sleep. He will not sleep. He will watch over you, he will keep you from evil and protect your soul.
Ask him to continue his watching and protecting in the morning. Don’t rush back to your plate spinning. Leave God in charge while you lift your eyes to the hills and reach out to receive God’s blessing of peace.
“For your name’s sake, O Lord,
be merciful to my sin for it is great” (v.10)
Sometimes stress has its roots in our past. There may be things we have said and done which we remember with shame and guilt. These memories and feelings cling to us and we can’t shake them off.
Perhaps we ourselves have suffered harm which has left us with a sense of self-loathing, shame and memories of humiliation and loss of dignity and self respect.
Stress like this can lead us into depression with its symptomatic low self esteem and hopeless despair. We can feel “alone and brought very low” so we cry to God “bring me out of my distress”.
In this state of stress and depression we need healing to help us let go of the memories that accuse or shame us. We also need the love and support of friends who can reassure us of our worth in the eyes of God and of his love for us. Like the psalmist, we need to trust God enough to tell him what troubles us, to ask him, in his mercy and grace, to forgive and cleanse us and then to lead us into his paths of integrity and uprightness, delivering us out of all our troubles.
“My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God” (v.2a)
Stress can build up quite slowly so we don’t always spot what’s happening to us. Then we reach a time when we notice that we are “full of heaviness” and our soul is “disquieted” within us. Now we see clearly that we have become weary, isolated and separated from God. Suddenly we long for peaceful times, for the joy of worshipping the living God in loving fellowship with people we perhaps now don’t have time to see.
This realisation of our stressed state and our longing for spiritual healing and peace leads us to “pour out” our soul to God. Our grief might be expressed in tears as we cry to God “why have you forgotten me?”.
But God has not forgotten us. His longing for us is greater than ours for him. In this time of stress we are the lost sheep, caught up in a tangle of thorns, and the Lord, our shepherd, is searching for us even before we cry out to him.
We may not have the energy to free ourselves and struggling makes it worse. Our longing to be free is enough. God will turn that longing into the longed for freedom.
“O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever” (v.12b)
When we really feel that it’s all getting too much and we’ve “run out of cope” this psalm can give us hope. It reminds us that God is on our side and working to bring us nearer to himself.
We may find it hard to believe in its promise and maybe we can’t imagine ever dancing in gladness again. Somehow, though, joining in with the psalmist, praising and thanking God as if he has already found and rescued us, will bring its own healing strength and power. It can renew our hope and faith and keep us walking towards the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
When we do finally emerge from that tunnel the psalm gives us a joyful song of praise and thanksgiving to the God who healed us and brought us life in all its abundance – the life he wants for us.
Lord, our shepherd, take from our souls all strain and stress. Quieten our hearts and minds to know you as our God. Give us your joy and peace that we may have life in all its fullness and grow daily into the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.