Contentment: When Your Soul Is At Rest

Contentment: When Your Soul Is At Rest

Psalm 62


Christian leader and pastor Gordon MacDonald tells the story of a hike he took with his wife through the Swiss Alps. Once, when my wife, Gail, and I were hiking the high meadows of the Swiss Alps, we saw two farmers cutting the high-standing mountain grasses with scythes, a hand-mowing tool that has been around since ancient times. Drawing closer, we noticed that both paused periodically and produced from their pockets something resembling a flat stone. Then in the same graceful manner, they drew the stones back and forth across the scythes’ blades. The purpose? To restore sharpness. The sharpening done, each returned to the cutting. We observed them repeat this process—cut and sharpen, cut and sharpen—several times: ten minutes (give or take) of cutting followed by five minutes of sharpening. [But] why waste five minutes sharpening the blades? We’re talking here about 20 minutes of unproductive time each hour. Why not keep cutting, get the job finished, and head home at an earlier hour? Because with every swing of the scythe, the blade becomes duller. And with the increasing dullness, the work becomes harder and less productive. Result: you actually head home much later. Cutting and sharpening are both part of a farmer’s work.


In my [younger] years, I didn’t appreciate this cutting/ sharpening principle. I’m embarrassed to admit that I usually gave attention to the sharpening (or the spiritual) dimension of my life only when I needed something beyond my natural reach or when I found myself knee-deep in trouble. The cumulative results of a life lived like this became alarming. It led to dullness of the soul. While talking a lot about God, I had very little practice in listening to him …. I tended to become bogged down in matters of secondary importance, neglecting truly important things. I often complained of fatigue: not only physical fatigue, but spiritual and emotional emptiness. Sometimes I became flooded with temptations to envy, impatience, ambition, discontent, wandering thoughts.[i]


How many of us long for a much simpler life? We all long for peace. For tranquility. For contentment. But we’re addicted to busyness. A June 2012 article in The New York Times struck a nerve for many, many people. The article received over 800 comments and was often quoted and retweeted. The article described something called “The busy trap”: If you live in America in the 21st century, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” Busyness serves as a kind of … hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day …. [We’re] busy because of [our] own ambition or drive or anxiety, because [we’re] addicted to busyness and dread what [we] might have to face in its absence.


In Psalm 62, David challenges us to find places of calm. Of peace. Of contentment. The best definition of contentment I have seen is “when your soul is at rest,” and it is a picture of a child of God resting in God’s loving embrace. Unfortunately, few of us know contentment. We might catch a brief moment here or there, but the American psyche is to fight against contentment. That’s what people in advertising do. They create discontent. Our economy is built on discontent, on always wanting, needing, more, bigger, better, faster, newer. We’re the only people in the world who rent extra garage space, we call them storage units, for all of the stuff that we obviously don’t use very often but can’t get rid of. Discontent is an orientation of the heart that lies beneath our propensity for filling our time, and our homes, and an additional garage or two, with stuff. And contentment is an orientation of the heart that lies beneath the spiritual discipline of simplicity and rest. Look at the words of David in Psalm 62.


“For God alone my soul waits in silence.” “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence.” Now, David isn’t challenging all of us to take a vow of silence and never talk again. Your mouth can be quiet with your mind and body still racing. He’s painting a vivid picture of a soul at rest. He’s painting a picture of an inner silence, an inner waiting on God, an inner contentment and patience. And there’s something we need to notice here. Look at Vv. 3-4. Externally, there’s a storm going on. David is feeling battered and weak. He’s being lied about and lied to. Someone is scheming to take him down. Four weeks ago we talked about managing fear, and we talked about David quivering in fear as his own son Absalom and his bodyguard and trusted advisor Ahithophel led a revolt against David and actually caused him to have to flee Jerusalem for a time. There are many who think that this Psalm was written about the exact same episode. Others aren’t so sure. Regardless, there is a storm raging around David. He sees himself as a wall or a fence about to collapse. BUT … he has found a place of contentment deep inside, in his soul. His mind and body are fighting for survival. But his soul is at rest.


There is, welling up inside of him, a fountain of peace and contentment that finds its source in his relationship with God. St. Paul calls is the “peace of God which surpasses all understanding” in Philippians 4:7. It is this growing awareness that we find our refuge in God. When we look to God, we find refuge. From the beginning, God has been telling his people “look to me to find refuge.” When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God took them to a place in which they were trapped between the seemingly impassable Red Sea on one side, and the pursuing Egyptian army on the other. Pharaoh himself led his best chariots against Israel, trapping them on the shores of the sea. And of course we know that God placed himself, in the form of a cloud of fire, between the Israelites and Egyptians while a mighty wind blew all night long, creating a dry pathway across the sea, and when Egypt pursued them, the walls of water came crashing down on them, drowning them. But look at what God said to the people through Moses when they realized they were trapped: “And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Ex. 14:13-14). Sounds a lot like this Psalm, doesn’t it?


A generation later, when Israel crossed the Jordan River and entered the promised land, again on dry ground because God wanted to remind them of what he had done for them at the Red Sea. He wanted them to know that he was still with them, fighting for them. And they came to the mighty, well-defended, siege and attack proof city of Jericho. And God gave them some pretty unorthodox military strategy. Gather your fighting men, and have them march around the city once a day for six days in silence. And then on the seventh day, march around the city seven times, and then have the priests blow the trumpets. When you hear the trumpets, have everyone shout, and the walls of the city will fall down and you will take this mighty city.


And then, several generations later, in the time of the judges, before Israel had a king, the Midianites and Amalekites would come into the land and take everything that the Israelites had worked so hard to bring forth from the land. The writer of Judges tells us that “…they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in” (Judges 6:5). So God called a man named Gideon to lead his people to victory and security over their enemies. But Gideon wasn’t exactly a great man in the eyes of the people. Later in Judges 6 he says “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man” (Jg. 6:15-16). So Gideon drew a line in the sand, so to speak, and Israel’s enemies called his bluff. “Now all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East came together, and they crossed the Jordan and encamped in the Valley of Jezreel” (Jg. 6:33). Remember, these are the uncountable people who came into the land like a plague of locusts, taking everything Israel produced at every harvest. So Gideon put out the call and 32,000 fighting men answered the summons. But God said, “No, that’s too many people. Tell those who are afraid that they are free to go back home.” This doesn’t make any logical sense! Because 22,000 warriors returned home that day. So now Gideon is down to 10,000 men. Not bad, but not 32,000 either. But God said “No, that’s still too many.” So he had Gideon take the men down to the river to drink, and those who cupped water in their hands and brought it to their mouths would remain. The rest would be sent home. And Gideon was left with 300 men. Against an enemy with too many people to count, God had taken Gideon’s 32,000 men and pared it down to 300. 31,700 men were sent home. If I’m Gideon, I’m saying, “That’s great, God. My army is growing in the wrong direction.” They didn’t have night-vision goggles and radar and stealth technology and high powered weapons. People fought with spears, swords, and bow and arrow. So more men meant stronger army most of the time. Now look at what happens. Not only is Gideon down from 32,000 warriors to 300, that 300 won’t even be carrying a weapon! Read Judges 7:16-18 & 20-22.


Why all the weird strategy? Why was God constantly putting Israel in indefensible positions and fighting in weird ways? If you can even call it fighting. Mostly they walked and watched. Occasionally they got to yell. Because God was making it very clear, crystal clear, that his people were not a self-made people. He was making it very clear to both Israel and to any who would be her enemies that Israel’s God was an unrivaled, uncontested, mighty and powerful God. He was actually reaching out to the nations and peoples Israel encountered, because if God could take THIS people and make them into something, there was no God but this God. And God left NO DOUBT on the battlefield too. Did they ever get to fight a conventional battle. Of course. But God kept reminding them, kept reminding them, kept reminding them … you are my people, I am your shepherd, I will fight for you. You are NOT a self-made people. No one can is supposed to look at the people of God and say, “Look what THEY did.” They’re supposed to look at us and say, “We really can’t figure it out. There’s no explanation for these people but God.”


And if we don’t have that same view of ourselves, no one else ever will. Contentment, the peace that passes all understanding, begins with our willingness to look to God and to God alone. Not God and our own ingenuity. Not to God and our own resources. Not to God and our incredible talents. God and God alone. Artur Weiser said “My soul is still if focused on God alone.”


Look at the number of times the word “alone” appears in this Psalm. V 1. V 2. V 5. V 6. In V. 7 it appears but isn’t translated. The text literally reads “On God alone rests my salvation.” In fact, this Psalm hinges on Vv. 6-7. David isn’t saying that we aren’t to work, or even that we shouldn’t work hard. He isn’t calling for passivity here. But he’s reminding us that we are not a self-made people, no matter how much we’d like to think we are.


Look at Vv. 8-10. Ultimately, we place our trust for salvation in God alone. God alone. Not people, whether it be ourselves and our own abilities or others and theirs. Not in our wealth or the health of our portfolio. Because all of that can be gone in an instant. The people of my grandparents’ generation, those who lived through the great depression, know that all too well. Neither poverty nor riches matter. David isn’t saying that having resources, being wealthy, is a bad thing. As a king, he knew wealth. But he also knew poverty. He fled Jerusalem. He slept in caves. All that he had was enjoyed by another. It can all be lost. It can all be taken away. So don’t let those things rule your heart. I can lose everything this world has to offer – my job, my money, my family, my identity, my health – and still have everything, because I am a child of God. Doesn’t mean it would be easy to lose all of those things. It would be devastating. That’s why we also have Psalms of lament, where the Psalmist, often David, cries out “It’s too much God.” But if I realize that my real identity is “child of God” and absolutely nothing can touch that, I can live with peace in my heart, even as my mind and body are being battered by the storm.


Now, look at Vv. 11-12. Our peace, our contentment, finds it’s source in the character of God. First, in God’s power. Our soul can be quiet, still, at rest, even when all hell breaks loose, because our God is a strong God. He took down Pharaoh and his best chariots with wind and water. He took down Jericho with a lot of walking in circles, some trumpets, and a lot of shouting. He took care of the Midianites and Amalekites with 300 men carrying jars and torches led by a nobody.


But you know, these days, I find that people who at least believe that God exists don’t question his power. They question his love. In a hospital room with a loved one dying of cancer, after the death of a child, after a tragedy or a national disaster, we don’t question whether God CAN heal or intervene. We question whether God WILL. We don’t question God’s power. We question God’s love. So David ends this Psalm of contentment, born in the midst of adversity, by taking us back to God’s steadfast love. Most of the love we know and experience is of the non-steadfast variety, for every human heart has a point beyond which it can no longer love. Every human heart has a point at which its ability to love fails. God’s heart does not have that limitation. There is no line, no point beyond which the love of God will not or cannot go. There is no point at which the love of God will quit, or run out. It is steadfast. Enduring. Infinite.


God asked the Old Testament prophet Hosea to marry a harlot. A prostitute. A very unfortunate calling if you’re Hosea. But Hosea’s marriage would serve as a real-life example of God’s relationship with his people. That in choosing to save us, God was attaching himself to a prostitute who would consistently turn her back on him, sometimes welcoming his embrace, at other times seeking solace in the arms of another. That is how God views his relationship with us. And yet … we are his. And nothing we do or don’t do can change his steadfast love. We see it clearly in Christ on the cross. For there Jesus took the punishment for our unfaithfulness upon himself. And there, Jesus revealed to us the lengths to which God is willing to go to reunite us to himself. Steadfast, enduring, infinite love. And because of that love, no matter what we face in this life or how the storm rages, batters, and bruises us, our souls can be at rest. Content in his loving embrace. Let us pray.

[i] Adapted from Gordon MacDonald, “Cut and Sharpen,” Leadership Journal (Fall 2011)