“We think in generalities, but we live in detail. To make the past live, we must perceive it in detail in addition to thinking of it in generalities.” ― Alfred North Whitehead
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 103:8)
I think that Whitehead got it exactly right. I need both a “big picture” vision and a magnifying glass for the itsy-bitsy stuff. Every committee that I’ve ever served on has contained Big Picture people and Magnifying Glass people. You need both.
And in my inner life too, I cannot think -or love- in generalities, only in specifics. I can’t imagine that a prayer like “God bless China” achieves a great deal. “Lord take my headache away” may sound less noble, but at least it’s specific and measurable (and thus, perhaps, more faith-full!).
And this is what David is doing in Psalm 103 v8. Having reminded himself of who God is and what God has done in redemptive history, he latches on to specifics.
And he quotes Scripture to do it. Our v8 here is a citation of Exodus 34:6. It’s a verse of tremendous mystery, of the self-revelation of God to Moses, “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”
The same line is reiterated in Psalm 145:8
The point is that the deeper the crisis, the more specific you have to get.
And David, having to mind this text, begins to draw out all its specific implications — God’s anger does not last forever, sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west, God’s compassion will not fail because David is his (see vv 9–19 in this psalm).
And something begins to happen here. And it happens every time we get specific. I don’t mean to suggest that the more specific you are, the clearer answers you get, as if prayer was just a vending machine where you make your selection and receive the desired result beneath.
(And if you don’t, you assume that the whole system is broken. And kick it.)
No, as Kierkkegaard pointed out, long ago: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
So what ”begins to happen”? Well, it’s in the whole shape of the psalm. There’s a change going on in the one who prays. The heart that was faltering is now soaring. A deeply wrought gratitude now swells up to expression. He cannot keep it in: “Bless the Lord, O my soul”.
When you’re talking to yourself (and don’t pretend you never do!), it is good to remind yourself of what God has done for you. It’s good to lay hold of specific texts and not let your own roller-coaster of feelings rule the roost. Find specific texts by which you can fight the fight of faith.
Matthew 28: 20 is a good start. It promises that God is always with you. Even to the very end.
Sometimes you just have to stick your chin out and insist on the truth of scripture despite every appearance to the contrary.
And look at Hebrews 13:5,6. First, the writer quotes that very verse in Matthew, and then he draws the faith-filled conclusion for himself. “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you,’ so we say in confidence ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
So we say in confidence…! Do you see that chin going out? There are many scriptures like this. I love to read Romans 8:26-39, John 10:7-18 or, say Isaiah 41:10.
And Psalm 103 is a perfect example of Scripture using Scripture to “encourage oneself in the Lord.” Surely this is exactly what Paul meant in Colossians 3:16 when he prayed, “May the word of Christ dwell in you richly. . .”
Because when that Word really takes up residence, it creates a toughness and resilience against every pressure of circumstance.
In a Jane Austen quotation that I love, the determined Miss Elizabeth Bennett says, “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
This is a picture of self-determination, but don’t dismiss it as mere pride (or even as prejudice). You have come to know who you are in Christ. You have received His love and acceptance. You are not a servant but a friend. You are loved, cherished, valued.
And you know these things through the Word dwelling in you “richly.” And when something comes against the truth of these things you make the choice whether or not to depend on your own self-determination and pride, or upon the word that has been planted in you.
Help me to get specific,
Let your Word dwell in me richly,
So that I may be encouraged –filled with courage-
and not intimidated –filled with timidity-
When the dark day rises and I doubt my very self.
Teach me that your Word stands firm.
And I stand upon it.