Fortress God

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

Be still, and know that I am God. -Psalm 46:10

As someone who has had a lifelong experience with anxiety, living through its dark rhythms and running from its haunting shadows, Psalm 46 has been a promise of immense comfort.  But like many good verses that are often quoted it has descended into a sort of staid cliché, a platitude offered to the disquieted as a sort of prescription for their ailment: “Take this and you’ll feel better; come back in see me in a few weeks.” Well intended no doubt, but not very helpful. God’s Word must be more than an answer to a question, more than just a fill-in-the-blank. It is a living Word and therefore it must enliven me. The clash of Word and brokenness must result in something more than an answer to a question.

The Psalm begins with a promise: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of sea.” That’s nice. Really. But as an anxious sufferer I have to admit that even though I understand that God is a place of refuge and strength, I still fear. How can I claim this promise as my own when this promise appears in my experience to be inapplicable? 

There are a few ways I can answer. I could be misunderstanding the point of the text, I could qualify the promise (X has to happen before Y takes effect) or I could be “not trusting enough.” But all of these are bad answers. The text isn’t hard to understand, it plainly says that God is present in our troubles, assisting us and helping us. There is no mention of a cause-and-effect that has to happen to make this true, and to argue that I need to “believe more” makes God’s promises conditional upon me. Not only is that ridiculous, but it would mean that God doesn’t act unless we do things right. So again, what’s going on?

I think this is a common experience for many Christians, that God’s promises seem too good to be true or don’t seem to be true at all. But can I suggest something? Maybe the problem isn’t with God’s promises, or with our faith, but with our knowledge.  Let me explain.

What does it mean for you that God is your refuge and strength? Chances are you have a rather specific answer to that. For me in my anxiety, God being a “help in trouble” definitively meant God was going to stop my trouble. In other words, I was reading God’s promise of help to mean, “God will do specifically X in my life and situation.” But that’s not what it says. It says God is a refuge, a source of strength and a helper. It does not define how he does these things. Inadvertently, I conditioned God. I insert very specific conditions into God’s promises and then get mad when my conditions don’t pan out. Maybe God being my refuge is him showing me I have to come to the end of myself? Maybe God being my strength is letting mine fail but seeing him show up? Maybe God’s help comes from the grace I experience in weakness? But certainly God’s promises are not authenticated by my expectations of fulfillment.

That’s the point of the clichéd verse 10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Everyone likes the first part—be still, but they often forget the second, and know. This knowing is really a strong way of saying, “remember!”  Remember that the God who gives this promise is the God of the Gospel. Remember that the God of the Gospel is Jesus Christ who gave himself up for you, the God who is for you not against you, the God who sealed his promises in his own sacrificial blood. But also remember that the God who makes these promises is the God of surprises. How often do we see in Scripture Jesus astonishing everyone from the religious elite, the crowds, the disciples and the Romans? Even his silence has shock effect (MK 15:5). 

God will keep his promises (Deut. 7:9) but how he keeps them is often quite surprising (Rom. 11:33). The Psalmist wants us to be still so that we can listen to God’s promises, so that we can remember that despite our circumstances, despite our negative thoughts, despite our rationalizations, deductions, forecasting and negative thoughts, despite the apparent encroaching reality that says, “I can’t handle this and God isn’t coming,” we are invited into the stillness of God so that we can be fed by the Word of truth.

And that’s the gift of faith, it gives us eyes to see beyond our experience , past the ever-threatening-now so that we can grab hold of a greater reality, a reality where God’s promises are proved authentic by a Man upon a cross. We might be tempted to accuse God of many thing but him not keeping his promises cannot be one of them. The cross simply disqualifies that argument. To live out our faith is simply to live as if God’s promises are true (even if we have doubts).  Our faith grabs hold of God’s Word and finds life there. God is our fortress, a refuge, a very present help. This help is sometimes an insight, a disclosure into truth. I feel forsaken, I feel my sins are too much, I feel rejected, I feel unloved—But the Gospel says this is untrue! The Gospel says that God sees me as he promises.

Friends, take heart. Be still—but also know. Know he is a Fortress-God. He may not act in ways we anticipate or envision. But he will act. He is acting now. Now here’s one more promise for you to send you on your way. Go outside and look at the flowers and birds (Mat. 25-34). Remind yourself of what you already know, that the same God who takes care of them, is taking care of you. The same God who took care our of sin, can take care of your present evil. And what do the birds and flowers do to deserve such care? Nothing. They are recipients of Divine grace. Sound familiar? 

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC