God Our Refuge
I can't remember exactly which commercial it was, but I remember laughing out loud because it was so unbelievable. Now I have to admit that I am a skeptic when it comes to most commercials. I often think that they make promises which I am quite sure they can't keep.
We have just read Psalm 91 which promises, according to verse 12, that the person who follows God won't even stub their toe. I am quite sure that even the most faithful followers of God sometimes stub their toe. At a meeting not too long ago, someone read this Psalm as a word of encouragement during the opening. After it was read, we had an opportunity to respond and someone asked the question, "Is this to be taken literally?" This is the word of God, so we don't even want to ask that question, but as we read it we can't help recognizing that certain phrases in this Psalm don't seem, to line up with our life. Is this Psalm like commercials – interesting, but not real? How do we read the promises made in this Psalm?
To help us think about this, I have asked Kristen, our daughter, to share with you her story.
I. Kristen's Story
“If you’ll hold on to me for dear life,” says God, “I’ll get you out of any trouble. I’ll give you the best of care if you’ll only get to know and trust me.
Call me and I’ll answer, be at your side in bad times; I’ll rescue you, then throw you a party. I’ll give you a long life; give you a long drink of salvation!” (Psalm 91: 14 – 16 The Message)
So what the exactly does that mean? Does it mean that we’ll never suffer? Never be in pain? Never come to any harm at all? We know that God can always protect everyone. We know that He has sometimes protected many. We know that He will often protect some. We also know that God is sovereign and wise, not always choosing to do all of that which He is able to do.
As I think back on my life, I see very clear examples of times when there was trouble, and when God was there with me through it. I would like to share with you a part of my life. It’s not necessarily a pretty part, or an easy thing to share. But I truly believe that God has been urging me to share my life…to show the areas where He can be so clearly seen…especially through the times of trouble….to use my life to encourage others, and to show God’s incredibly glory. So here we go!
My life growing up was in many ways idyllic. My parents loved each other and they cared deeply for me and my two brothers. I was the middle child, and the only girl. When I was born, my dad was so stoked that he ran up and down the hospital hallways telling anyone who would listen that he had a baby girl. I was loved.
We grew up in a small town called Cartwright. Now, I’m talking small…like a few hundred people small. My dad was the pastor of a nearby church. I grew up loving God, and LOVING people. I would spend lots of time visiting all of my neighbours. Like the neighbour who lived behind our house…Mrs. Thompson and her dog Ruffles. She was probably around 70 years old, and I would go and sit in her kitchen and chat with her for as long as she’d listen. I was very social and loved to be around people.
We were not rich growing up….we had everything we needed, but we didn’t have all the latest toys. Instead, my dad made us a lot of toys….a play kitchen…a toy box, a wooden train…a marble roller…lots of fun. But there was one neighbour that had toys….get this….FROM THE STORE. Barbies and Barbie houses and Barbie pools…. Everything a little girl of 5 years old could want. I spent quite a bit of time over there playing.
Things unfortunately didn’t go as I had expected. Over time, this person abused my sweetness…stole it from me. Without going into all sorts of details…this person abused me over a span of time. Nobody knew…if I told anyone, I might not get to play with the cool toys anymore. And I might get that person in trouble. And even worse, I might get in trouble and would probably disappoint my parents. These are all very scary consequences for a 5 year old. I don’t believe I knew how wrong it was at the time, but it absolutely changed me. It affected my little character.
I can’t exactly remember time frames etc., but I know that it for sure ended when we moved to Manitou when I was going into Grade 3. Now, the brain is a fascinating thing. I managed to shove all that trauma into a little box and tuck it away. I didn’t remember it for many years and had a great time growing up in Manitou. It was another small town…around 900 people, but bigger than Cartwright.
When I was around 11 years old, I had a dream. I believe that God has been speaking to me in dreams for most of my life. It’s probably because that’s the only time that I’m quiet enough to listen. I’d like to tell you about this dream.
I had a great friend growing up in Manitou named Sherri. In the dream, Sherri and I were living in a house in BC. This house was beautiful…it overlooked the mountains and there was a small stream wending it’s way along the bottom. There were tons of glass windows. I remember that Sherri and I were going to be throwing a big party that we were extremely excited about. I remember sitting on Jesus lap…now, you remember sitting on your parent’s lap as a child, and how there was always enough room. Have you tried it recently? Not so good…always falling off….just not comfy. Jesus lap was comfy. It was big enough and I felt complete peace. I told Jesus that I was scared, because I thought that Satan was coming to get me, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Jesus told me that all I had to do was tell Satan that in Jesus name, he was to leave. And then I had to shoot him with a bazooka….yes. It’s still a dream. So the party started and everyone is having a great time. That’s when I notice Satan. He’s all red and I notice something shiny that he’s holding behind his back. It’s a knife. He’s coming to get me…he’s going to kill me and take me away. I’m yelling at him to get out of here. To leave me alone. He’s not leaving…he just keeps getting closer and closer….I’m terrified now. That’s when I remember the bazooka. I scream at him to get out of my house in Jesus name…then I pull the bazooka out of my pocket (obviously) and shoot him. He turns into a big fiery ball, smashes out the window and is gone.
I’m sitting on Jesus lap again, and I’m crying. I’m telling Jesus that that was so scary and that I never want to have that happen again. I beg Jesus to stay with me…because I know that I’m safe with Jesus. Jesus tells me that he has to go now, but that he’ll always be there for me. No matter what happens in the future…he will never leave me.
That’s when I wake up. Sweating, and crying and so terrified, and yet so comforted by Jesus presence. I don’t believe that I have a memory in my whole life that is as clear as that dream. I can remember the smells, the feel of lying on Jesus lap, how bright white Jesus was, how terrified I was. It is as vivid as if it just happened today. I have no other memory like this…including things that actually happened and weren’t just a dream.
It was shortly after this that I was given another dream. This one, not quite so fun. I suppose it was more of a nightmare than a dream. It happened when I was around 12 years old. Again, I woke up sweating and scared and crying and just plain old petrified. This dream was more than just a dream…it was reality. It brought back to me everything that had happened when I was 5. The childhood trauma that I had no idea what to do with. I felt like I was out of control. There was no point in telling anyone…what could they do about it now. No one would think it was a big deal anyways. I figured I just had to accept as a part of who I am, and move on. And that’s what I tried to do.
It doesn’t always work out though. Throughout high school, I remember feeling so awkward in my skin…like I just didn’t fit in anywhere. And I was angry…and getting more and more angry by the day. I was mad at my parents, and I was mad at God. I didn’t really understand why….I just knew I was angry.
So what does a teenage girl who needs to control something control? Weight. Yup…I’m the perfect textbook case of an anorexic. Luckily, I grew up in the baggy, grunge era, so no one could really tell. And I’ve always been kinda small. It was easy to hide. I somehow think I felt the need to control something as well as felt the need to punish myself. What happened when I was 5 was obviously my fault. I could have told someone…and I didn’t. That makes it my fault.
So now, I hate my parents, I hate God and I truly hate myself, and graduation is coming up. All I knew was that I had to get out of there…asap. Maybe if I got away I could just forget everything that’s confusing me and move on. Start again…and do better the second time.
I decided to go on a mission trip. I have never been super interested in academics, nor had I ever excelled in them, so a mission trip seemed like the perfect thing. Back in the day, when MBMSI was called Youth Mission International, I joined a team called the Mobilization team. There were 10 of us on in the group and our job was to travel around the States and Canada doing dramas and leading worship in different high schools and youth groups. It was such a good time. But in the midst of that time, I was still struggling. My group really focused on having everything right with God. For me, things weren’t quite right. I was still destroying his temple with my anorexia, and I was still angry about unresolved issues from my childhood. I kept getting told to pray about it, and things would get better. And they didn’t. Where was God? Why wasn’t he helping me? Why couldn’t I love myself?
I figured the best way to handle this was to toss out a fleece. Side note, I’ve learned it’s not the best idea to test God. We were playing at Missionfest in Vancouver at Canada Place. I was performing with a big band playing bass guitar in front of 1000’s of youth. It was a riot. In between sets, I went outside. Now, we’re in Vancouver and it hadn’t rained in about 5 days, which is crazy. Clouds were rolling in, so I asked God to make it rain. If he made it rain in the next 24 hours, I would know that he was there and that he still loved me. Well, I think it was the longest stretch of sun they had had in years, because the rain didn’t come.
So that’s it. I was done with God. He abandoned me, so now I was leaving him. I couldn’t very well carry on with my group touring around telling people about the love of Jesus. So instead of kicking me completely off of the team, I got asked to leave the touring group and start working in the YMI offices, as well as to help the director at the time by being a nanny for his growing family. They set me up with my own place and I had free use of one of my team mate’s car. Total independence for the first time in my life. And I don’t really love God. Essentially a complete recipe for disaster.
I began to work out at a nearby gym in my spare time, and for reasons that I couldn’t see at the time, I got asked out. A lot. Like every time I went to the gym, some dude would try to get my number. I was somewhat selective in giving it out, but not really. I wanted to get taken out….I wanted to experience life. To have real freedom.
I met one gentleman (and I use that term loosely) who I started to like quite a bit. He had a smidge of bad history….you know, things like, being a Hell’s Angel, a big time drug dealer and who knows what else. He was exciting, but he also hurt me. Took something from me that I would never get back. Somehow, I believed that this is exactly what I deserved. Being abused is what I’m worth. I deserve it. And that’s why I didn’t leave after the first time he forced himself on me.
I had cousins living in the area at the time, and they mentioned this dude’s name to one of their cop friends. His response was that he immediately knew who this guy was, and that he would never let anyone he knew near him.
I loved the danger….and I knew I was in danger. I don’t really think I cared though. My worth was so low. The worst case scenario to me was death….and sadly, that didn’t bother me.
My team mates were terribly concerned, and called my parents on a number of different occasions. They begged me to stay away from him, but I was listening to no one.
After a few weeks like this, my dad gets a call from another pastor that he knows. We’ll call him Russ. All Russ knows about me is that I’m in BC on a mission trip, and that things aren’t going well. I don’t know exactly what Russ said, or how he knew to call at that exact time, but it was enough to get my mom and dad in the van to start their trek out to Vancouver to get me that day.
I get a call one afternoon from my dad asking if they can swing by for supper. Supper? Where the heck are you guys? Shortly after, they were on my doorstep. You know what the first thing they said was?
“Kristen, we love you. We don’t care what you’ve done. Please come home with us.”
Grace. That’s what that is. I somehow decided to let them take me home, Away from danger, and freedom. Back to judgment and rules, in my eyes. I wasn’t happy to go home, but I suppose the self-preservation part of me knew that if I wanted more from life, it wouldn’t come from here.
Unfortunately, that’s the end of the story for today. It doesn’t end perfect or happy, but here is where it ends for now.
I believe that you can clearly see God protecting me throughout my story. Does that mean that I didn’t go through hard things? No. But he was there with me through it all. From a seemingly small thing like giving me a dream of comfort right before reminding of my trauma. He knew that I’d need that dream to make it through.
A beautiful vision someone gave me at that time was of me standing there beating on God’s chest….trying to push him away. And him standing there, taking it, with his arms wrapped just barely around me, waiting for me to embrace him back. He was never gone. He never abandoned. I just wasn’t seeing.
Another time where I clearly see God’s hand is when my parents showed up. I am quite convinced that I would be dead if they hadn’t listened to a wise friend and trusted a God who hasn’t ever let them down. The grace they showed me has always brought tears to my eyes. I wish to be that gracious one day. There was no judgment. There was just forgiveness, love and grace. God helped my parents know how to deal with the situation, and He softened my heart just enough to leave with them. Do I believe God helped me out in that situation? Yes.
I’ve sometimes questioned that whole verse about ‘God not giving you more than you can handle…’. In the dark moments, it seems as though he abandons…but when I look back and see the whole picture (which God sees from the beginning), I can see how God’s hand has protected me time and time again. I have not been given more than I can handle…I have been given the grace and strength to handle what I have. His promises from Psalm 91 continue to hold true.
Sometime I’ll have to fill you in on the ending to my story. Because the ending is filled with as much of God’s love, grace and help as the beginning.
There’s no question in my mind that God’s hand has led me for these many years—sometimes willingly and sometimes having to be dragged along like a dumb sheep. I praise the Rock of Ages that His will is stronger than mine and that He has the persistence to put me in my place—which is a much better place when He chooses it!
II. God Who Is Our Refuge
As we think about Psalm 91, in light of what we have just heard, the question is, "What is our hope?" The answer of this text is that our hope is in God. It is important that we look first of all not at the promises of God, but at God Himself.
There are four names for God in this passage, some of them are used several times. Each of them invites us to recognize who God is and why we can put our hope in Him.
The first name, used in verses 1 and 4 is, "Most High." We can put our hope in God because He is above all else. He sees from a much different perspective than we do. There is no one who is higher and so there is no one who can manipulate or control God. He is in the heavens and He does what He pleases. This is good news.
The second name, also in verse 1, is translated "Almighty." A number of years there was a song recorded by Amy Grant called, "El Shaddai." That is the name of God in this verse. It means that God is all powerful, the mighty one. God is not out smarted or out powered by anyone or anything and that is why we have hope in Him.
The third name for God is Jehovah and is used in verses 2 and 4. It is the name by which God introduced Himself to Moses at the burning bush and the name by which Moses was to introduce God to the people. It is a name which speaks of God's covenant keeping love for His people. God makes and keeps promises and so we can count on Him.
Verse 2 also uses another name for God, which is Elohim and tells us that He is the creator God who is Lord of all.
It is in God, as revealed by these names that we put our hope.
III. Conditions For Refuge
As we listen to this Psalm, we also see that the promises in them are conditional. God is extremely gracious and often extends His goodness far outside of the bounds of these conditions, but it is under the conditions presented here that we can count on God to keep these promises.
In verse 1, we read that this is addressed to those who "live in the shelter of the Most High" and "abide in the shadow of the Almighty." The language in these verses is the language of home. The words "live" and "abide" speak of those who habitually spend their time in the presence of God. These promises are not for those who reject God or even for those who occasionally visit God, but spend most of their time far from His presence. These promises are for those who make their home in the presence of God and thus demonstrate their trust in Him.
In verse 14, we read that God helps those who love him and those who know His name. Earlier we talked about the names of God. To know His name means that we know who He is, how He acts and what we can expect of Him. Such knowledge comes from a relationship with God. If we love God because He has first loved us and if we greet as friend the creator of the universe, then we will receive the help of God.
The other condition which God mentions in verse 15 is "when they call to me." God does not force Himself into anyone's life. He responds lovingly, quickly and helpfully when we call upon Him. That is why this is another condition. It is a condition which recognizes with humility that God is God and we are His creatures. He does not come to us for help, but we go to Him and when we do, He helps. It is the attitude which says, "I can't solve it, I need God!"
Twice in this passage, the person writing declares such trust. When we read the Scripture earlier, reader #2 said, "I will say to the Lord, 'My refuge and my fortress.'" Then in verse 9 we heard, "Because you are my refuge." This is the place we need to come to. When we do, God will be at work in our lives.
IV.Promises Of Refuge
A. Words Of Encouragement
Verses 5, 6 speak about night and day, darkness and noonday. They speak of terror, arrows, pestilence and destruction. Trials and difficulties can come at any time in our life. They can come when we are young or when we are old. They can come when we are feeling at peace or when we are feeling vulnerable. They come in all kinds of ways.
When they come, this Psalm promises the care of God and is filled with wonderful images promising His care.
1. Images of Care
One of the images is given in the language of a safe place. Verse 2 speaks of a refuge and a fortress. These images are pictures of a place of protection. It is a truism that we feel safe at home. The promise of this Psalm is that no matter what the storms of life or when they hit us or where we are, we have a place where we are always at home and can feel safe and that is in the presence of God.
Another image is that of feathers. Verse 4 says that "He will cover you with his pinions." Birds have different kinds of feathers. There are feathers which cover their body. There are feathers which are designed to keep them warm. The strongest and stiffest of the feathers are the wing feathers which are called pinions. The Bible uses the image of protection by wings in a number of places. Jesus' words in Luke 13:34 provide one such image where he said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" If we trust in God, then we are under His wings and find a place of refuge and shelter there.
Another picture of God's care is that of angels who will guard us. The idea of a guardian angel is Biblical, and in fact is a symbol of the protection and guidance of God Himself.
2. Fulfillment of Promises
There are many stories in which God has provided exactly the kind of protection mentioned in this Psalm. Verse 13 mentions protection from lions and the serpents.
David experienced protection from lions and mentions such protection in I Samuel 17:37 as he was about to face Goliath. It was the experience of protection from lions which gave him the confidence to go against Goliath.
In Acts 28:3-6 we have the story of Paul after he survived a shipwreck. We read there about how as they were gathering wood to make a fire, a serpent attached itself to him. He shook it off and nothing bad happened to him. The point is made that God protected him from the serpent.
The accompaniment of angels in protection reminds us of the three men who were tossed into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. When they looked into the furnace they saw a fourth person who was walking around with them in the furnace. The fourth person was an angel protecting them so that when they came out of the furnace alive they did not even have the smell of smoke on them.
All of these stories demonstrate that these promises are certainly intended to be accepted as something God does. Yet the question remains. If God promises such protection and has acted with such protection. Why are there times when he doesn't? How do we take these promises?
B. God Speaks
The final words of this chapter are the words of God. The language changes from "he will" in verses 1-13 to "I will" in verses 14-16. Brueggemann observes, that “it is the ground for confidence that the last word is not spoken by us, but to us.” God comforts us with some important lessons.
First of all, it becomes clear that we will not avoid all trouble. This is a truth that is not only an observation of life, but is also contained in Scripture. The text acknowledges in verse 15 that we will experience trouble. A moment ago I mentioned the protection Paul experienced when he was not harmed by the serpent, but as we read that story, we need to remember that he did experience shipwreck. Even though he survived, as did all on the boat that day, it was still a frightening time of trouble. Clearly the promise is not that we will never experience any difficulty.
Then what is this Psalm promising? The Psalm promises that we can look to God at all times. The promises are written to those who call upon God because they know Him and trust in Him. Whether things are going well, or we are in the midst of trouble; whether we are rejoicing or in fear of what may happen, we need to learn to go quickly to God, calling upon Him at all times and trusting Him.
The importance of this Psalm is the promise that God will not abandon us. In these final verses the words, "I will" appear 6 times with 8 promises attached to them. God promises to deliver, to protect, to answer, to be with, to rescue, to honor, to give long life and to show His salvation. We can trust God and put ourselves into His hands and hope in Him because He has given us these marvelous promises. He will see us through.
I like the way Waltner puts it, "The godly person may not be immune to, untouched by, or insulated from the ills that affect others, but in the end the believer is not abandoned and is enabled to face destructive forces without fear."
Kristen has shared her story. A story in which bad things were done to her and in which she made some bad decisions. Yet throughout her life, she has seen God at work in her life. He has been near even at the worst of times. He has delivered her. He has redeemed situations. He has given her strength and He has always been with her.
Do we take Psalm 91 literally? Yes! if we take it as an invitation to run to God no matter what is happening. Yes! if we take it as a promise that we always have hope in God. Yes! If we understand that He will not fail us!