Anxiety attack - Psalm 55

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 13th July 2008.

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I wonder if you can imagine the following scene. You are driving with a close friend in a part of the country which is wild and desolate. The road goes on for miles, and you’ve not seen another car for the best part of half an hour. You know the nearest civilisation is miles away, and you’re pretty sure in this part of the world there is no mobile phone reception. It crosses your mind that to break down here would be tricky to say the least. And then it happens. The car shudders, and the engines just stops. The car grinds to a halt. You try and restart the engine, but nothing happens. You look under the bonnet, but you haven’t a clue. You’re stuck, just you and your friend. Five minutes later, a big lorry comes down the road. He stops and offers you a hand. He offers to take your friend to the nearest town so she can ring for help. You both discuss it- you’re not sure. The driver looks OK, but if you don’t accept his help, then you could be stuck for hours. So your friend climbs into the truck, and it disappears over the horizon. You wait and you wait and you wait. Minutes slip into hours. And you begin to worry. She hasn’t come back. You decide to look under the bonnet again and find a small piece of wire has popped out of place. You reattach it, and sure enough the engine starts again. You drive as fast as you can to the next town, to the place where you agreed to meet your friend. But when you ask, no-one has seen her or the lorry or the driver. And that is when the panic really begins to set in.

            It’s a chilling story, and it’s a story that plays on all our natural fears. A lost friend, no clue as to where she is, no-one saying anything. And it’s a story that is explored in the film Breakdown starring Kurt Russell. For Russell, it’s his wife that has been given the lift, and it turns out that she has been kidnapped by a gang that prey on young couples crossing America alone. And what’s interesting as you watch the film is that you find yourself getting more and more emotionally involved. You feel with Russell’s character the desperation, the hopelessness, the anger, the panic. It’s a scary film because you are with Russell every step of the way. He’s experiencing what you would feel in that situation. And the tag line for the film sums up the full horror of the situation. “It could happen to you.” Because the best films, the best stories, are ones which make connections with your emotions, such that what the characters are feeling, you feel it too.

            And that is why the psalms are such treasure chests of spiritual food for weary souls. Because time and again we find the writers expressing feelings which we ourselves often feel. And what is wonderful about the psalms is that they are very realistic. They chart believers’ feelings very accurately indeed. Sometimes we feel happy and joyful. There are many psalms expressing great joy and thanks to God. Sometimes we look back and remember what God has done. There are psalms which do that. At other times we feel alone and desperate, and there are many psalms expressing that feeling too. And sadly we perhaps feel that it is unspiritual to express our emotions to God. It’s unspiritual to feel fed up or annoyed with God. It’s ungodly to feel at your wits end. It’s letting the side down to feel unable to praise or thank God. But the psalms remind us that such feelings are normal- they are the normal emotional reactions of believers in a fallen world. The question is how we manage and deal with those feelings.

Now Psalm 55 is a lament psalm, a psalm which expresses feelings of sorrow and pain. It’s a psalm written by King David and it’s written during a time of great pressure and distress. He says he’s afraid and deeply troubled- he says that horror has overwhelmed him. He feels betrayed and he longs to run away from the situation and go and hide. And I suspect that many of us will have felt David’s pain as we read this psalm through, or even experiencing it now. Like a good story that really gets us in with the characters, this psalm expresses our pain too. So as we look at this psalm this morning, let’s before honest before God as to how we are feeling. And let us see what help David found in his moment of great distress. And we’ll look at the psalm under two simple headings before we see some practical lessons for us.

1) The pain we feel (Vv 1-15)

2) The help God gives (Vv 16-23)


1) The pain we feel (Vv 1-15)

So first let’s see the pain we feel. And the first half of the psalm expresses David’s feelings of pain and distress. And we’ll see that what he experiences, we too to a certain degree experience as well.   

a) David’s Pain- Notice first of all, David’s pain. He cries out to God in verse 1 and he pours out to him how he is feeling: “Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me.” Listen, he says to God. Will you hear what I am saying! And what is the problem? Well we discover that David has two big problems. For a start he is suffering from crippling fear. Verse 2: “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught at the voice of the enemy, at the stares of the wicked; for they bring down suffering upon me and revile me in their anger. My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me;
horror has overwhelmed me.” Here is a man who is worried to death. Clearly David is sick with fear about what faces him. We’re not told the precise historical details as to when this event may have happened. But there were plenty of times when David was very close to death. Just read through 1 and 2 Samuel and it’s a catalogue of near death experiences for David. And we mustn’t think that David was some super hero, who took everything on his large chin and was unaffected, like some sort of spiritual Mr Incredible. Yes he was a fighter and brave. But he was flesh and blood. Even warriors get afraid. It’s natural human emotion. And David was really worried and afraid. It’s very strong language isn’t it? I am distraught at the voice of my enemy, he says. Terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me. In fact verse 4 literally says “my heart writhes in my guts.” This man is really really afraid. He genuinely thinks his death is near.

And if you’ve ever been in such a situation it is terrifying isn’t it? Perhaps the fear of an unknown future, the fear of uncertain and unpredictable health, maybe fear of other people and what they will do to you. And fear is often paralyzing. One man who used fear to his advantage was a highway robber called Black Bart. Black Bart was a professional thief whose very name struck fear as he terrorized one particular stage coach route in America during the nineteenth century. Between 1875 and 1883 he robbed 29 different stagecoach crews. But amazingly, Bart did it all without firing a shot. Because a hood hid his face, no victim ever saw his face. He never took a hostage and was never trailed by a sheriff. Instead, Black Bart used fear to paralyze his victims. His sinister presence was enough to overwhelm the toughest stagecoach guard. And fear can paralyze us too, as it did David. And David brings it before the Lord and says to him- I am very afraid.

But notice another aspect of David’s pain, and that is bitter betrayal. Notice what David says in verse 12: “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God.” David has been betrayed. He has been insulted, attacked, by someone who was once a close friend, his companion. And this person even used to go to church with David. They were good friends, a confidant, someone that David used to pray with. Someone that he would confide in, share his thoughts with, someone he would entrust his life to. But now David has been betrayed. That person has turned against David, and that is something David finds very hard to take. It’s just possible that David is referring to the episode in 2 Samuel when his son Absalom turned against him and hounded him out of the city, as Absalom temporarily took charge of the throne. It was a bitter betrayal. And maybe that’s the background. But whatever happened, David was deeply wounded.

And again no doubt many of us can sympathise. Someone we trusted at work suddenly turns on us for no apparent reason accusing us of some wrong or slandering us to someone else. A friend at church betrays our confidence and deeply hurts us or lets us down. A spouse even who breaks a promise of marriage. It is very hurtful. And whilst physical pain made David very afraid, it appears that this personal abuse of trust, this personal betrayal hurts David the most. It’s often the way isn’t it. We might be able to take quite a lot- but the thing which really hurts, the thing which really brings us down is betrayal.

b) David’s Plan- So how did David cope? Well we’ve seen David’s pain. Let’s now look at David’s plan. And again his plan is in two parts. His first plan is a desire to run. Verse 6: “I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest- I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.’” The situation has got so bad for David that he just wants to run away. He would love to be a bird that can just fly away from the situation, that can fly to a bolt hole somewhere out in the desert. That’s what he really longs to do. And that is often our natural reaction to great stress and pain. We just want to run away and hide. We want to curl up somewhere and cut ourselves off, so the problem will go away. Children avoid fear by hiding under the duvet and hoping the nasty monster will go away. And we adults do the same, metaphorically. We try and escape our problems by denying them or by some sort of escapism. Perhaps ploughing on as if everything is OK. Perhaps denying the reality of the doctor’s words. Maybe not confronting the person with whom we have a problem. We just want to go away. But the reality is such desire to run, the desire to escape, however we do it, always ends in failure, because sooner or later, however hard we try and hide, the problem will hunt us out.        

            Just recently I came across a story about John Chapman, the Australian evangelist, who spoke here at St. John’s a few years ago. When he was a young man just recently ordained into church leadership he had to spend a good deal of time debating with other church leaders about various matters. But he always found them to be very antagonistic to his way of thinking. In fact he would go so far as to say that they opposed the gospel. Time and again he would argue with them, time and again they would oppose him and his message, and these were ordained members of the church. Well one time, John had had enough. During one particular meeting he just walked out almost in tears, after a particular nasty attack on him, and he sat outside the building. Well he did have one friend in the meeting, and the friend came out to find him and asked him what he was dong out here. And John said: “It’s just too tough, I cant do it anymore!” And his friend said in a very Australian blunt sort of way: “It’s a great privilege to suffer for Christ. Get back in there and get stuck in!” But John’s reaction is an understandable one. Sometimes we just want to run away, hide behind the curtains or under the duvet. The problem is of course that the problems don’t go away, and sooner or later we will have to face them. Running away may be understandable, but it won’t help in the long run. And whilst I don’t endorse his pastoral tact, John’s Australian friend was right. We need to get back in there and face our fears. Because David’s plan to run was not the right solution.

            He did have a second plan though and that was a desire to avenge. David was angry and he wanted to get even with his enemies. See what he says in verse 9: “Confuse the wicked, O Lord, confound their speech, for I see violence and strife in the city.” Or again verse 15: “Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave, for evil finds lodging among them.” It’s very strong language isn’t it? He wants God to confuse his enemies, just as God did to the people around the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. And he wants God to kill his enemies, to let them go down to the grave alive, just as Korah and his accomplishes did in Numbers 16 when he opposed Moses. God opened up the ground and it swallowed the rebels whole! That’s what David wants for his enemies. It perhaps sounds very bloodthirsty to us, but do such thoughts not go through our heads from time to time. The people who oppose us, Lord, won’t you just take them out for me. We might not want them dead, but we certainly don’t think much good towards them. For all Jesus’ words of “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” that’s certainly something we struggle with isn’t it? And more often than not our thoughts slip into vengeance and retaliation when we’ve been wronged. How can I get them back, we think to ourselves, perhaps not openly, but in the dark recesses of our souls. Our thoughts become bitter, our language evil, our actions ever more driven by anger and vengefulness. And it’s what David thought too.

            You see David’s pain is in many ways our pain. We know the experience of crippling fear and bitter betrayal. And these are real feelings, genuine pain that each of us feels. There’s nothing wrong with them, and we mustn’t be ashamed of them. The question is how will we deal with them. And often our reaction is either to want to run away or to avenge those who hurt us. But is there another way, a more godly way to deal with these very real pains and fears?

2) The help God gives (Vv 16-23)

Well thankfully there is, and that brings us to the second half of the psalm in verses 16-23. And this section teaches us about the help God gives. So notice what David says in verse 16: “But I call to God, and the Lord saves me.” David’s solution is to pray to the living God. One writer has put it like this, that David’s enemies have over-stretched themselves at this point, because they have forced David to go to God in prayer. In other words, in praying, David is doing exactly the right thing. And notice what form David’s prayer takes in verse 17: “Evening, morn and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.” In other words, David is praying regularly. When he gets up, he prays. When he has dinner, he prays. When he goes to bed, he prays. It’s a sign that he is trusting God. Despite everything the world can throw at him, David has a lifeline that he is holding on. Or rather, the person at the other end of the lifeline is holding onto him in these dark days. But we might well ask, “Is that all the help we have? Just pray! Is that it? After all, look what I’m going through! Like David I feel terrified by what’s happening to me. I’ve been betrayed. And you’re telling me just to pray!” Well that is exactly what David is telling us. So listen to him as he shows us how God answers his prayers. Because it’s through David’s prayers that God gives him the help he needs.

            So notice first that David’s prayer gives new strength. See what David says in verse 22: “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.” David knows that when he prays to the Lord, God sustains him. He will never let David fall. He will never let him go. Through prayer, God gives David strength to persevere. It’s like a rock climber scrambling up some rock face. At the top is someone else who is holding the rope. So if the climber falls, then what happens. He’s secure, he’s safe, because tied to the other end of a rope is someone else who will not let go. The fact is that David felt like letting go and falling down. In fact, to all intents and purposes he’d run out of strength. But he knew that God was at the other end holding on to him. And as David committed himself to God in prayer, as David cast all his cares on God, so God sustained him. Do you remember what Peter says in his first letter, no doubt echoing this verse: “Humble yourselves therefore under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” God cared for David and David found that in his distress when he prayed to the Lord, God sustained him. But notice something very interesting in the way God sustains David. It does not mean that all David’s enemies and problems instantly disappeared. So in verse 20 the betrayer is still lurking in the shadows. In verse 18, David says many still oppose him, despite the fact that he says God answers his prayer in verse 17. You see David knows that God does not promise to take all our problems away. But he does promise to sustain us and stick by us in tough times. And as David prayed he knew the sustaining power of God. He gave David new strength to battle on.

            And notice another result of David’s prayer. And that is that it gave David a new perspective. When David turns to God in prayer, David is able to see his enemies in a new light. So notice what David says in verse 18: “He ransoms me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me. God, who is enthroned forever, will hear them and afflict them, men who never change their ways and have no fear of God.” Do you see his new perspective. He knows that God is in charge of his life and that God will ransom him from his captors. And he also knows that God has David’s enemies in his hands. He will hold them to account. God is the one who is enthroned in heaven- he sees everything that is going on. People who have no fear of God, who attack God’s people will be held to account. So listen to what David says in verse 23: “But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me, I trust in you.” Whatever David is going through now, and it’s definitely hard, yet God will bring his enemies to justice. When David prays he is able to see everything in perspective. He is able to see that God is on his throne. He is in charge of David’s life.

            Now let’s take a moment to think about those wonderful truths, because like David prayer for us gives us new strength and a new perspective. You see the danger for us when we go through hard times is to deal with the situation ourselves. Our natural tendency is to revert to self defence, to curl up in a ball and try and get through the trouble as best we can on our strength. But David challenges us to bring our concerns to God in prayer. Because when do that God gives us strength. He will not necessarily take the trouble away, but he will enable us to deal with the trouble. It may be that we find prayer extremely difficult when times are hard- maybe we fell angry with God even. Well why not adopt David’s strategy of praying just three times a day- when you wake up, when you have dinner, and when you go to bed. Three short prayers, maybe just a minute or so, asking God to get you through the day. It’s a sign that you know you cannot get through the day on your own. A sign that you are trusting God however weak your grip on him. Be assured his grip on you is as strong as it needs to be. Hold on to him as he holds on to you. He will not let you fall. And as we pray we will see our prayers for strength answered. Look back over this past week in all that we have been through. For some it will have been a great week, for others ups and downs, for others pretty grim. How have we got through? Only by the strength of God. So keep praying, even when it’s hard. Because God promises us to give us strength.

            I was reminded of that this week as I discovered an answer to prayer which I never knew about but which happened ten years ago. Ten years ago I was involved in running a holiday camp for young people, just like our young people are going on this summer. And that year was full of the usual difficulties. It was hard work, it was often discouraging with young people rejecting the gospel, things went wrong. But as a team we prayed and asked God for strength each day. And he got us through. But what I didn’t know that as a result of that one camp a young girl had become a Christian. And she has grown in her faith throughout the last ten years and is now a wife of minister helping him to serve in a local church. What an amazing thing for God to do! And humanly speaking it all started with a rather haphazardly run camp ten years ago when in weakness and desperation we cried to God for help. How amazing is our God that he should use us in our weakness. Truly he does give strength to the weary, and often he will use us in ways we cannot imagine, ways we might not become aware of for years.

            And that is why we constantly need to have our perspective changed to become more like God’s. That’s why we need to keep praying- to see things from his point of view. To see that the wicked will get justice one day. To see that God is in control. Because when we go through pain and trouble as David did, he needed to see the bigger picture, the greater horizon. And that is why he can say at the end of verse 23, “but as for me, I will trust in you.” And God has proved himself worthy of trust time and time again.

            So as we finish, I want to suggest to you three particular lessons from this psalm. The first is that we should not be ashamed to bring before God our emotions. It’s a lesson we’ve seen often in our study of the psalms. But frequently we forget it. David here is in great pain. He is seriously afraid. And yet he brings those emotions to God and lays them before him and that enables him to cope. If you’re feeling very worried, bring it to God. If you’re feel greatly blessed, bring it to God. If you are feeling angry with God, bring it him. He is big enough to take it, and he will sustain you through the trouble.

            Secondly we should stand by Christian friends going through tough times. David’s closest ally betrayed him and it hurt him very deeply. And one of the dangers when our friends go through hard times is that we feel afraid to stand with them. We wonder what we will say, what we should do. Well there are no easy answers, but the last thing a friend needs is betrayal. Often no words are best, just a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold. It was the apostle Paul who said, “rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn”.

            And then finally, this psalm urges us to look to Jesus. Because as the anointed one, David points us to Christ. Who is it that felt this pain the most? Who is it that could say in the Garden of Gethsemane “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow even to the point of death”? Who is it that was betrayed by one of his closest friends? Yes, Jesus knows in all fullness the pain of crippling fear and bitter betrayal. But he also knew that his Father sustained him, that God would hold the enemies of Christ accountable. Yes Jesus our Lord Jesus Christ has walked this path before us. And he did so even unto death on a cross, all for our sakes to forgive our sin. He knows what it feels like and so he is the one who can walk with us as we go that way too. So never think you are alone or forsaken. Never presume to trust yourself. For in Christ we have one who is worth all our trust and confidence. For he will never let us down. And that is why we too can say with David, “I call to God and the Lord saves me… As for me, I will trust in you.”

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