Every believer faces difficulties and struggles that often lure us into discontent. And the fear of the future often lures us into anxiety.
While we know that discontent and anxiety are sins (Philippians 2:14, Mathew 6:25), and that we need to be content and tranquil (Hebrews 13:6, Philippians 4:6), we still indulge.
There is a gap between who we know we need to be and who we are. But God has given us the means of grace (word and sacraments) to close that gap – draw us closer to who we know we have to be.
In the case of discontent and anxiety, one of the means God uses to help us overcome these sins and walk in the righteousness of contentment and tranquility is remembrance.
Sometimes what we need to avoid discontent with the present and anxiety for the future is to remember God’s past mercies.
Psalms 77 is a case in point.
Recovering the Psalms
As a young Christian, I never fancied the Psalms. Not because I read them and found them uninspiring. I didn’t even read them.
Because of how it was used, I tended to see the Psalms as a book for those who are trying to use God. You know those people who do not care about the gospel and are only concerned about their “enemies” and “problems” and the power of God to help them overcome them.
My understanding of Mathew 5:43-48 back then led to a disinterest in the Psalms, as I saw people use it. “What’s it with all these enemies talk?” I asked. “Can’t we just focus on Christ and the command to love.”
However, I once listened to a sermon where the preacher said that our appreciation for the Psalms grows with age – the older we become, the more we appreciate the richness of the Psalms. I kept those words in my heart but it didn’t affect my perception of the value of the Psalms.
That was until I got to the Psalms in my Bible study plan. Actually, I had avoided getting to the Psalms for a long time. After studying through Job, I went over the Psalms and continued with Proverbs.
But after completing every other book in the OT, I had to go back to the Psalms. I came to study through the Psalms dragging and kicking. It was more a sense of duty than a desire to know God or grow in holiness that led me to the study of the Psalms.
Looking back, I am so grateful that the sovereign God led me to study that book.
Some months after the study, I wrote a brief article explaining what I learned from studying the Psalms.
I am currently reading through the Psalms again and they are as powerful, beautiful, and refreshing as they were when I studied through the book.
During the week, I came to Psalms 77. Reading the chapter reminded me of one of the big lessons from Psalms I cannot forget – the importance of remembrance.
Cries, distress, and unanswered prayers
The chapter opened with Asaph crying out to God for help amidst distress.
Like Asaph, we face situations that distress us. And like Asaph, we “take it to the Lord in prayer.” Christ has ascended to heaven and opened the way so that we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence” and “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Is that not what separates us from unbelievers? The desire to trust not in chariots and horses but to remember the name of the LORD our God (Psalms 20:7).
But like Asaph, we sometimes go to the throne of grace and it seems the grace and mercy we seek don’t come.
Asaph “stretched out untiring hands” but he “would not be comforted” (verse 2). Asaph groaned and his spirit grew faint (verse 3). He was in the place of prayer but he couldn’t find comfort for his distress. It was as if there’s a great gulf fixed between him and God.
Asaph’s experience is often ours.
Our present distresses tarry even while we have tarried in the place of prayer. And their persistence often leads to discontent in our souls. Our fears for the future remain even while we have remained in the throne of grace. And the abiding fears often lead to anxiety in our spirits.
Our hopes are sometimes deferred and our hearts become sick (Proverbs 13:12).
Buried and forgotten?
As the distress persisted, Asaph began to meditate on God’s past actions. Notice that Asaph didn’t abandon the throne of grace. He stayed. When he got tired of praying, he meditated. When he was too troubled to speak, he thought (verse 3-4).
What did he think about? The former days.
Asaph began to meditate on the former days when God showed his favour, manifested his unfailing love, kept his promises, displayed his mercy, and disbursed his compassion. Those were the days Asaph had songs in the night (verse 5-9).
But what does the past have to do with the present and the future? In finance, we often say that past performances are not a guarantee of future trends. Does this apply to God?
Will those past favours repeat themselves? What about love, mercies, compassion, and fulfilled promises? Are those buried and forgotten?
Were those historical performances that don’t guarantee future performances? Or perhaps they were just one-off displays of God’s goodness?
The unchanging God
Asaph found his answer.
If goodness, love, mercy, compassion, and faithfulness are attributes of God rather than some acts he performed in the past, then the answer to all the previous questions in verse 7-9 is “No.”
Those past actions were not mere actions, they were the outworkings of God’s nature. God didn’t just love (showed mercy, had compassion, kept his promises), he is love (merciful, compassionate, and faithful).
God wasn’t just faithful to his promises, God is holy (verse 13). God didn’t just do great things in the past, he is a great God (verse 13). He didn’t just perform miracles, he is the God who performs miracles (verse 14). God doesn’t just do powerful things, he is a powerful God (verse 14).
So for Asaph, God’s actions reveal who he is. Therefore, God’s past actions can give us confidence for the present and the future because his nature is unchanging (Malachi 3:6).
The God who displayed his love is loving and since love is in his nature, he will keep displaying his love. Therefore, I can be confident.
In the same way, the God who showed me mercy is a merciful God by nature and he will keep showing me his mercy in the present and the future. His past actions show us who he is and give us guarantees for the present and the future.
Meditate and Remember
Therefore, when we are in distress and we have prayed to the point of tiredness, we can, like Asaph, switch to meditation.
When our spirits are faint, we can draw some encouragement from meditating on the past.
Remember all the times God came through for you. Cast your mind back on his displays of love, mercy, compassion, faithfulness, and favour. Remember all the testimonies you once gave. Bring back to mind all the times God came through in unexpected ways.
Don’t remember those times as one-off instances of love, mercy, compassion, faithfulness, and favour. Remember them as manifestations of an unchanging nature. All the goodness of God in the past proves that God is good (loving, merciful, compassionate, faithful, etc.).
Let who God is in his unchanging nature encourage you in the present and for the future.
Goodness is his nature and so he can’t help but be good. It’s in his nature to have mercy and so he can’t but show you mercy and compassion.
Consequently, you can trust that the same good, loving, merciful, kind, faithful God who came through for you has never changed.
As the Prayer of Humble Access says, it’s his nature to have mercy.
The way he shows you mercy, love, compassion, faithfulness, and kindness now may differ from the last time, but what he won’t do is refuse to show mercy, love, compassion, faithfulness, and kindness. As Paul says, he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 3:13).
He might have given you a good job the last time but now decided to give you a good business idea. Perhaps he sent a policeman to rescue you the last time but now decided to providentially change the mind of the criminal. Maybe he allowed you to read the exact topic that will be tested in the exam the last time (when you didn’t have time to cover the syllabus) but now decided to give you the strength to read every single thing in the syllabus so you won’t miss that little part that most people ignored. He might have used a visit to the hospital to heal you the last time and now decided to do it through plenty water or the prayer of a friend.
William Cowper was right, “God moves in a mysterious way”
The point is: however he does it, it’s in God’s nature to give grace and mercy to his children. And remembering God’s past mercies helps us to become more confident of that fact.
Even when God allows the trials to persist, he is doing it for our good. William Cowper was right again – the clouds we so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on our heads.
Our present sufferings are only preparing us for far exceeding glory (Romans 8:18). Even unpleasant things are working for our good (Romans 8:28). Our sufferings produce good fruits that deepen our hope and increase our confidence in God’s love (Romans 5:4-5). In fact, our various trials are sent to us so that we can be “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). Our afflictions purify us so we can come forth refined like gold.
So whatever may be the present distress and future fears, we can rest in God because we know it’s in his nature to love and show compassion. We know that however he chooses to act in the circumstances, it is always for our good. And we have our experiences in the past as proof.
Remembering corporate goodness
Asaph’s remembrance of God’s mercies was even more corporate than personal.
His priority was to meditate on the works of God for Israel, the covenant community. He meditated on events in the exodus, particularly the crossing of the Red Sea.
Those corporate actions of God on behalf of his covenant people were further evidence of God’s mercy, goodness, compassion, and faithfulness.
Consequently, while we should remember God’s acts in our personal lives or that of our families, we should also meditate on his redemptive acts and all of his acts of providence on behalf of his new covenant people – the church.
Look at how the church has survived when it seemed persecutions, secularism, internal weakening and corruption would be its death knell. Consider how the gospel has triumphed in the most unexpected places. Remember the testimonies of missionaries that saw God’s mercies in diverse ways.
Meditate also on the gospel – how the triune God saved us in spite of our sins. Consider the goodness, love, and compassion that sent Jesus Christ to die for our sins, then consider the faithfulness of the God who had promised this all along. Let the gospel be a continual remembrance of who God is.
Of course, God may not act in your life in exact ways but he will act in your life to show his mercy and goodness. You may not have the same testimony like-for-like, but you will have testimonies of God’s goodness, even if it is through the furnace of afflictions. Like all God’s people in redemptive history, you will be able to confess that God is good. You will see his providential ordering of your life and confess that God is love.
One implication of this is that we cannot make our Bible studies a mere moralistic endeavour – what practical applications can I get from this text. Rather, the primary focus of our Bible studies (and studies in God’s providence in church history) is to know who God is or remind ourselves of who he is.
The more we know who he is in his unchanging nature, the greater our trust and confidence in him amidst distresses and fears.
It’s normal to be distressed; it’s normal to have fears. But as believers we must not allow present distress to turn to discontent nor fears about the future to anxiety.
When distress and fears are upon us, we should pray and tarry at the throne of grace. But we must also meditate and remember God’s past favours in our individual lives, redemptive history, and the life of the church so we can grow more confident in him for the present and the future. This confidence will encourage our hearts and save us from discontent and anxiety.
The goal is not to expect like-for-like interventions but to grow confident that we serve a God who is love, good, merciful, kind, compassionate, faithful and that ,however he chooses to, he will manifest himself in our lives, for our good and for his glory.
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home;
under the shadow of your throne
your saints have dwelt secure.
Sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defense is sure.
Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received its frame,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.
A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
soon bears us all away.
We fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the op’ning day.
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
still be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home