img_5709

No Evil Shall Befall You: What Real Rescue Means

Woman with COVID-19 Mask

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
    the Most High, who is my refuge-
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.

Psalm 91:3-6, 9-10

President recommends Americans wear masks in public. That’s the headline of the day.

Fear is at fever pitch. There were more Google searches for prayer in March than in the last 5 years that comparison data has been available. People are afraid.

Then this.

No Evil Shall Befall You

He will deliver you from the deadly pestilence. Those words from Psalm 91 sound like a perfect fit for these COVID-19 days, don’t they?

People recite it when they wash their hands or as they go to the grocery store. Many are clinging to these verses for health- and for life. The words, for some, are like a Christian incantation, a hex on the deadly coronavirus.

And that makes me very uneasy.

But the Psalm does say, No evil shall befall you, no plague will come near your tent.

So what does that mean? Does it mean that if I have faith, or better yet, if I have faith and wear a mask and wash my hands and self-quarantine I- and those in my tent- won’t get COVID-19?

Is that what Psalm 91 really means?

Real Fear

Faith, by cheering the heart, keeps it free from the fear which, in times of pestilence, kills more than the plague itself…

Charles H. Spurgeon, Commentary on Psalm 91:3

Abby, I’m really scared. My caregiver does not wear a mask. That’s how my friend Jean started our call. Jean is physically fragile and homebound. She paused, then added, I feel guilty for being scared because I believe in God.

Jean, about the guilt: You can’t stop a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair. You can’t stop the fear that tenses your gut. But you can keep fear from nesting in your head. She liked that. I went on.

May I share two things I try to do when I’m really scared? She agreed.

Here’s what I told Jean.

Reality Therapy for Real Fear

What is the worst thing that could possibly happen if my worst fear comes true? I try to ask myself that the moment fear springs up. Whether I hear a bump in the night or I feel a lump in my chest- I ask, what it the absolute worst thing that could happen? Then I sit with that answer a while. And usually, Jean, if I’m honest, my worst fear is death.

But the second thing more important. As I sit with the worst case in my mind, I try shine God’s truth on it. It might be lyrics that buck me up, like I fear no foe with you at hand to bless Or, Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. (I didn’t tell Jean, but I’ll tell you, if you’re so frozen in fear you can’t find this light, please won’t you ask a friend to help you?)

Or it might be a truth like all things work for good and nothing can separate us from his love

Like, no evil shall befall you.

How can you be so sure, Miss Abigail? That’s what you’re thinking, right? Because faithful Christians will die of COVID-19. Pestilence and plague will befall us. Death will come near our tents.

They may have done everything right and may have even prayed Psalm 91 each night.

What Does Psalm 91 Mean?

Not to burst your bubble, but unless Jesus returns first, you and will die. We’re mortal. We must.

So what does, No evil will befall you mean? We’ve got to understand rescue the right way or we’ll be greatly shaken when good folks get sick or when we have to look death in the eye.

Charles Spurgeon ministered through a deadly cholera epidemic in London. He explained “no evil” like this:

It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward…Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honour, death is his gain. No evil in the strict sense of the word can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good.

Let that thought nest. Actually, go you rest under his wings.

Because one way or another, God will deliver all his children. He will rescue us from the fangs of COVID-19 and bring us safely into his kingdom.

One way or another, in life or in death, he will.

Real Rescue

God does not say no afflictions shall befall us, but no evil.-Thomas Watson.

The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. These are some of the very last words Paul spoke. They’re at the end of the last chapter of the last book he penned in prison shortly before he died, probably by beheading at the hands of evil Nero.

He had just mentioned Alexander the coppersmith who did him much evil and he knew his days were short. What most of us would call evil was “befalling” Paul. Then in 2 Timothy 4:18, he writes,

The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.

We must understand this to understand what Psalm 91 really means. Real evil was is that Paul’s faith would wither. Real rescue was being brought safely home to Jesus.

That is it! If we make the Lord our refuge, then fear won’t cripple us- because we know that the worst- even disease and dying- brings the best.

Because real rescue means God bringing us safely into his kingdom.

When Death Sounds the Retreat

Faith is endangered by security, but secure in the midst of danger, someone said. If there’s an upside to COVID-19, this is it.

I know the Puritans paint a rosier picture of death than we’re used to. But tell me this isn’t true:

Friend, if you were prepared, death would be to you a change from a prison to a place, from sorrows to solace, from pain to pleasure, from heaviness to happiness. All your sins and sorrows would be buried in your grave and the ship of your soul…and you would arrive at a blessed and everlasting harbor. Death would sound the retreat, and call you out of the battlefield- where the bullets fly thick in your combat with the flesh, world and wicked one- to receive your crown of life.

George Swinnock, The Fading of the Flesh and Flourishing of Faith, 1662

We are under his wings. Evil cannot touch us there!

And, if it seems to, as John Piper wrote, there must be a glorious deliverance we can’t see. What else can we conclude when we put these two Psalms together:

Psalm 44:22 – “For thy sake we are slain all day long.”
Psalm 34:19 – “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”

Remember how Jesus talked to his disciples this way?

Luke 21:16 – “…some of you they will put to death.”
Luke 21:18 – “But not a hair of your head will perish.”

Jesus doesn’t tell lies and he doesn’t speak out of both sides of his mouth. He speaks truth. He is the truth.

So Jean, this all means that you might- I might- get infected with COVID-19 and Psalm 91 is still true.

No evil will befall us.

What is our hope in life and death?
Christ alone, Christ alone
What is our only confidence?
That our souls to him belong
Who holds our days within his hand?
What comes, apart from his command?
And what will keep us to the end?
The love of Christ, in which we stand

Christ Our Hope in Life and Death

Words and Music by Keith Getty, Matt Boswell, Jordan Kauflin, Matt Merker, Matt Papa

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.

Romans 8:38-39

img_5709

Go Bold

And I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying
“O LORD GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours?    Please let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, that good hill country and Lebanon.” 

But the LORD was angry with me and would not listen to me.  
And the LORD said to me, “Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again. Go up to the top of Pisgah and…look at it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan.” 
Deuteronomy 3:23-27

How do you handle NO? Does self-protection keep you from asking? Do you resist requesting to avoid the dreaded monosyllable? 

Stop, Mom, please!  Can we stop and talk to Emma and Isaac?  Please, mom?

That request interrupted our drive home a few nights ago. The boys had spotted their friends’ whole family out in the yard. I wasn’t in a particularly friendly mood. Besides, it was dinnertime.

But Christ’s love compels, and I turned around. Maybe they’d like to come to Vacation Bible School with us, I said off-handedly as we pulled up the driveway.

After reintroducing myself, I got the scuttlebutt on the boys’ school. We discussed 20-inch bike tires needed by our lengthening sons. After a few more minutes we said good-bye. Then, as we reached the van, Gabe blurted (at about 75dB),

Mom, aren’t you gonna ask them to come to VBS?   

I hadn’t sensed an openness during our visit, and honestly, I didn’t want to risk the NO. But.

Ohhh…yes, okay.  (Followed by an awkward about face toward the house.)  

Hi again. Gabe reminded me that I wanted to ask if Isaac and Emma could come to Vacation Bible School with us next week. I mumbled times and places; they smiled and nodded. Would you be interested?  

Then: No thank you.

My friend Lisa is insightful. She intuits the counter-intuitive.

So being meek and making such bold requests can go together? Moses was the meekest man on earth. Yet he dared to ask God to change his mind. 

Prima facie, making bold requests is not meek. The Bible study group had been discussing the meek acts of Moses. Among them were some mighty big favors. Like asking his brother-in-law to stay and play wilderness scout for 40 years. Asking God to relent of the punishments he’d decreed for Miriam and the Israelites is very bold.  His requests were fearless and daring, pushing brash.

Atop the gutsy list was Moses’ plea to God to reconsider his own punishment. He had struck the Rock, profaning the LORD before the congregation (Numbers 20:10-11). God’s just decree was heart-wrenching: despite 40 years guiding this beloved, provoking people, Moses would not lead them into the Promised Land. Joshua would.

Canaan was so close Moses could-probably had-tasted it; it’s gargantuan grapes, pomegranates and figs. Then with arms outstretched, he’d seen the Amalakites fall. The kingdoms of Sihon and Og had already been conquered. Just across the Jordan.

The Child’s Story Bible is succinct:

This was a bitter disappointment to Moses.  He begged God to let him cross the river so that he, too, could see the longed-for promised land.  God did not give Moses what he asked for.  

“Be satisfied with what I have decided,” God said to him. “Do not speak about this any more.  Climb this mountain, and I will show you the land. Then you are to die here on this mountain. For you are not to cross the river.” 

What a blow! If meekness is strength under control, this must be its pinnacle. In the face of bitter disappointment, the meek man of God managed his emotions. Moses didn’t stomp off in self-pity. He went bold to God, trusting the Judge of the earth to do right. Then, he took NO.

About his rejection, Matthew Henry comments,

It bore hard upon Moses himself, when he had gone through all the fatigues of the wilderness, to be prevented from enjoying the pleasures of Canaan; when he had borne the burden and heat of the day, to resign the honor of finishing the work to another. We may suppose that this was not pleasant to flesh and blood, But the man MOSES was very meek; God will have it so, and he cheerfully submits

But why was he denied? What about Matthew 7?  You know: Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. Why didn’t Moses win his appeal?  An “unanswered prayer,” post is forthcoming.  For now, let John Piper’s answer suffice:

I think the context here is sufficient to answer this question. No, we do not get everything we ask for and we should not and we would not want to. The reason I say we should not is because we would in effect become God if God did everything we asked him to do. We should not be God. God should be God. And the reason I say that we would not want to get everything we asked is because we would then have to bear the burden of infinite wisdom which we do not have. We simply don’t know enough to infallibly decide how every decision will turn out and what the next events in our lives, let alone in history, should be.

Back to Lisa’s question. Do meekness and bold requests go together? Were Moses’ appeals anomalies; deviations from his meek nature? Or were they part and parcel of it? 

I land on the latter. Here’s why:

The very act of submitting a request, knowing it may be denied is meek. Moses submitted requests. He accepted NO for an answer. This makes him submissive. Therefore, submitting requests, appealing, asking must be integral to meekness.

If I submit an article for publication, odds are it will be rejected. If I request a personal day, it could very well be denied. Big, bold requests get rejected, too: pregnancy, adoption, restored relationships. When they are, sometimes I’m weak without control. Pity parties and ice cream a aplenty. And sometimes, strength under control: spirit gifted power, love and self-control. 

Is it more meek to fear the no so much you don’t go? Or to go bold, willing to take NO? Which is more hopeful and faithful? Which exalts the goodness of God? Scripture is clear: Submit your requests to God. The righteous are as bold as a lion. Come boldly to the throne of grace. The righteous shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back my soul has no pleasure in him. Therefore since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 

Go bold.  In hope. Take NO if you must. You’ll be in good company. Moses, Hannah, and Daniel. Hezekiah plead for his life, and God gave him 15 more years. David appealed for his son’s life, and on the seventh day the child died. David took NO. God will have it so, was good enough for him

It is hard to hope against hope. The urge to protect self looms large. In Allure Of Hope, Jan Myers describes the yearning that wells up. We are just afraid, that’s all. We intrinsically know that hope is a painful process. Yet we want to have the courage to respond in hope anyway. (p. 24) 

Hope in God’s mercy gave Moses courage to appeal his case. But it also empowered him to take NO. And hope in God’s future grace allowed him to transcend his disappointment and stay faithful in all God’s house. 

His exact response to the divine NO is not explicit. But read to the end of Deuteronomy, and you’ll find it. Moses finished strong. He encouraged, warned, blessed the 12 tribes without a hint of rancor.

Hear his love for the Lord who denied, for the people who provoked, in his last words:

“The LORD came from Sinai…he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand. Yes, he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand; so they followed in your steps receiving direction from you, when Moses commanded us a law…Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph!” (Deuteronomy 33:2-3, 29)

Then, the very day he delivered that stirring speech,

Moses went up from the plains of Moab…and the LORD showed him all the land. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 34:1, 4-5)

Say, do you know who buried Moses?

  He [God] buried him in the valley in the land of Moab… 
Deuteronomy 34:9

Addendum: Not so fast, you say. Not all asking is meek and submissive. I agree.  I can think of at least two types of requests that are not inspired by faith, not full of hope, and certainly not meek.

1. Foolish people make bold requests. Like, when, on a whim, Son A asks,

Mom, could I just have $150 for a Millennium Falcon Lego set?  I really like it.

 Or off-handedly, Son B, asks,

Could I pleeeease have another [third] bowl of Caramel Sea Salt Truffle ice cream for dessert dessert dessert?

Silly, not meek. And not of faith. Sons A and B didn’t honestly think Mom would deliver. Or foolish because they don’t really know what they’re asking.  Like when James and John’s mom asked if her boys could sit beside Jesus in his kingdom.
2. Presumptuous people also ask favors. They assume. Their requests are demands, and may be disguised by tag questions.

You don’t mind watching the kids, do you?  or

You wouldn’t mind if we borrowed your tent [canoe, camper], would you? or

You can read this book before book club, can’t you? (Guilty as charged.)

And so submissive requests morph into brash entitlement. Like Rachel envying Leah’s fertility. Give me children or I’ll die, she told JacobNot so meek.