Psalm 40: What do you do when you’re in the pit?

Image result for pitThe first time I heard the words to Psalm 40 was not in a sermon or a Bible study.  It was from the lips of U2’s Bono.  U2 put the first three verses of this psalm to song in “40” on their album War.  I learned it in church before I was a Christian in fact.  (You can watch a live version of “40” at the bottom of this post).

Since then Psalm 40 has become a favorite of mine. It highlights what David does when he needs divine help.  David remembers God’s past mercies (40:1-10) while imploring God for more mercy in his present time of need (40:11-17).  This two-step dynamic is crucial as Christians learn to walk with Christ during trials: remembering gives hope and builds faith; imploring puts words to our needs and welcomes God’s timely grace.

I want to take some time to explore this Psalm in the coming weeks and months.  Today let’s consider the first three verses…

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

These verses present a beautiful picture of God’s deliverance.  David lies in a pit which will destroy him if left alone.  It’s like a miry bog – a muddy, sticky place.  In other words, David is stuck!  His movements are limited and he can’t get out.  And he desperately needs help.  There is no indication that this was a particular historical situation for David.  Of course we can recall many times when David was stuck and hurting and needed God’s rescue, whether that’s when King Saul was hunting him or years later when his son Absalom was trying to kill him.

Maybe you feel stuck in life right now.  Maybe you feel trapped and unable to make progress with Jesus.  As if your feet are trudging through thick, sticky mud and you can’t get to where you need to be.  Or you’ve fallen into a pit and you’ve tried to claw yourself out.  But it’s just not possible.  We’ve all been there.  It might be the pit of debilitating depression, that sort of nagging, endless sense that we can’t go on.  It might be the muddy bog of bitterness from a painful relationship.  It might be lingering disappointment over dashed dreams.  Maybe we’ve fallen, yet again, into the pit of our besetting sin, a pit we have created for ourselves.  We wonder, will God help me even now?

What do you do when you’re in the pit?  And what will God do for us when we’re in the pit?  Let me point out 3 things we can do.  (In the next article I will reflect on 4 things God does for us).

Three Practices for Pit-Dwellers

#1  Remember.  Notice that all of the verbs in these verses are past tense (I waited…he inclined…he drew me out…). David is remembering a season when God pulled him out of the pit.  Remembering is a powerful practice.  Notice David doesn’t just remember vaguely, he remembers specifically.  He remembers the painful experience of pit life, the crying out, and the waiting.  And he remembers specifically the movements of God’s grace – inclining, hearing, drawing out, setting upon, giving a song.

If you’re in the pit, can I suggest to you this particular practice?  Remember specifically a season when God cared for you.  Journal about it.  Thank God for it.  Talk to a friend or spouse about it.  Write a song to convey it.  Set aside unhurried time to linger in God’s presence as you consider his past faithfulness.  Don’t rush this.  Learn to remember, because without it you may sink further into the mud.

Remember too the ultimate pit of destruction that God has pulled you from.  Through Christ, God rescued us from the pit of sin and wrath that we all found ourselves in.  His death and resurrection guarantee that repentant sinners can escape this pit and find sure footing all the way to the Promised Land.  And friends, if God can pull you out of that devastating pit, he can surely pull you out of your little pits along the way!  So remember the big pit and all the little ones afterwards that God has rescued you from.  Let these specific remembrances fuel your faith as you wait for YHWH to deliver you.

#2  Cry out.  In the pit David humbly cried out to God.  Sometimes we think it’s unspiritual to lament to God about our difficulties.  Sometimes we believe that if we truly trusted God then we would not lament.  After all, God is sovereign, we tell ourselves. So this pit of ours is according to his plan!  God will work this out for the good.

Well, that’s all very true.  But last I checked we are all still human!  The Bible never calls us to be anything other than human.  And in our humanity we hurt sometimes.  Expressing this hurt to God isn’t necessarily sinful communication; it can come from a very deep place of trust in our Father’s tender care.  Kids who scrape a knee and then bury their tearful faces in mamma’s lap communicate profound trust in mamma.  Likewise, God’s children run to their Father when they hurt too.  This is child-like trust, not godless defiance.

But Godwin, doesn’t the Bible teach that it’s wrong to grumble and complain?  Yes it does (see Philippians 2:14).  Grumbling is indeed sinful, but groaning is not.  Grumbling rebels against God’s hand and arrogantly believes God’s rule is inadequate.  Groaning accepts God’s hand while humbly crying out for relief.  Learn to groan in the pit, but never grumble!

Another angle on this: one-third of Psalm hymnal could be classified as laments!  That is truly remarkable.  One out of every three songs in the very first worship book express groaning to God.  Much like praise and thanksgiving, lament is an important prayer in our arsenal of godly expression.  Don’t neglect it!  You’ll need it when you find yourself in the pit.

#3  Wait.  The first three words of Psalm 40 often given me pause:  I waited patiently.  No one likes to wait for anything – whether it’s waiting for a cheeseburger or waiting to use the restroom.  Most situations of waiting aren’t so bad.  But waiting patiently for relief from chronic pain?  Waiting patiently after your best friend throws a grenade in your relationship?  Waiting patiently for the next cancer scan?  Waiting patiently for a job as you barely scrape by?  Waiting patiently for the grief to subside?    

But that’s exactly what David did.  Those three words – I waited patiently – tell us that there might be a long time between our cries to God and the rescue rope out of the pit.  Maybe weeks or months.  Or years.  Sometimes the darkness is stubborn.  Sometimes the clouds don’t break quickly.  So we learn to wait patiently.

But Godwin, what do I do as I wait?  The lesson here is more of an awareness and acceptance than a new action.  What you do is remember and cry out to God and cling to him and his people as best you can.  In doing that you will have enough wind in the sails to keep going another day.

While we wait, God is still works.  Let that sink in because it is crucial.  While we wait, God is active.  As one Pastor has said: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of only three of them.”  What we see is only a tiny fraction of what God is doing in our lives.  And the part we see may not even make sense to us!  But our job isn’t to make sense out of divine providence; our job isn’t to know the in’s and out’s of divine providence.  Our job is to simply believe in divine providence – to trust that God is working out good things despite the dark clouds.  As William Cowper has said:  “behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.

May God bring you comfort, peace, and even joy as you dwell for a time in the pit.   May he, like a good father, hear your cries and tenderly turn towards you.  And in his good timing, may he pull you out of that pit and bring you to a new place of security.  May his love for you be unmistakable – a love that is better than life.

U2 singing 40 at Red Rocks in 1983…