Awake, and rise to my defense!
Contend for me, my God and Lord.
Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God;
do not let them gloat over me.
Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!”
or say, “We have swallowed him up.”
What to do when it really hurts
I’m a big fan of competitive swimming. My fascination began as a high school swimmer of little acclaim, but it became an obsession as some my own children grew up to compete at a very high level in college. I would not only cheer for them and their team, but I would follow what was happening nationally and even internationally in the swimming world. I loved it. Every four years, the pain and suffering of another presidential campaign could be tempered a bit by watching the best of all sports events–international swimming competition at the Summer Olympics!
Those days are behind us now, but I still try to follow swimming whenever I get the chance. Last week, while everyone was busy watching March Madness, I was also tuned into the NCAA Division 1 National Swimming Championships. One of the things that caught my eye was a world record in the 200 freestyle by a Harvard swimmer named Dean Farris. In an interview following that event, the young man smiled, recounting his historic 1:29.15 in the water. “I was hurting really bad, so I knew I must be doing something right!”
As long as the race is happening, our pain is the only way to measure our progress.
In Psalm 35 David the worshiper is definitely feeling the pain of his race, and he doesn’t like it. He begins by crying out for God to come to his aid:
Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid. Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me. (Psalm 35:1-3)
What are the specifics of his struggle? People are seeking his life and plotting his ruin (v. 4); they are bringing false testimony against him (v. 11); they are betraying their friendship with him (v. 11-16); and worst of all, they are actually taking delight in David’s distress (v. 19).
And so, David not only asks the Lord to help him in the struggle, he also pleads for justice and judgment on his enemies:
May all who gloat over my distress be put to shame and confusion;
may all who exalt themselves over me be clothed with shame and disgrace. (Psalm 35:26)
Bible scholars identify Psalm 35 as one of the “imprecatory psalms,” a song that not only asks God for help and deliverance, but also prays curses over the songwriter’s enemies. Imprecatory psalms such as this raise a lot of questions for us as Christians. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? (Matthew 5:44) And doesn’t Paul reiterate and re-emphasize Jesus’ words as instructions to the persecuted Christians in Rome? (Romans 12:14) So what are Christians supposed to do with these kinds of imprecatory psalms—ignore them, pray them, adapt them? It’s a great question. And I would encourage you to think about that as you read and meditate on psalms like this one. (For a good perspective, check out this article by William Ross).
But maybe you are experiencing a lot of pain in your “race” right now. Maybe you are being confronted with the kind of plotting, gloating and betrayal that David was experiencing. Maybe you’re even wondering whether it’s all still worth the effort…wondering if God even cares. If that’s where you’re at, simply praying for your opponents to lose doesn’t seem to satisfy; it doesn’t really capture the whole point of the race!
If your race is challenging today, I invite you to pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are praying for RELIEF. We pray for the Father’s promised kingdom to come on earth. The reign and rule of Christ changes everything, bring relief from our enemies and our hardships. But we live in a time when his kingdom is not fully realized. So in this time, we pray, and we celebrate the One who promises his disciples both struggles and deliverance (John 16:33). It can actually be comforting to know that when it really hurts, we may be doing something right!
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are praying for CHANGE. We pray for the Father’s will to be done. We pray that God will change our enemies and that God will change us. Paul reminds us that God works in all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). It’s possible to pray for our spiritual growth even when we are feeling overwhelmed. It’s possible to pray for our enemies in this world even as we pray against the work of God’s Enemy in this world.
As long as the race is happening, our pain is sometimes the only way to measure our progress.
But above all, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are reminded that we BELONG. We belong to a Father who loves us and a Father who is in complete control of everything; a Father who provides our daily bread and who delivers us from the Evil One.
Wherever you are in the race, you are not alone. Jesus is right here with you. He knows your pain and he knows the victory that awaits you in the end. And he is the fulfillment of the Father’s promise:
The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; and do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)
Even in the struggle of life, know that your belong to Jesus. Be strong, live in hope, and always stay thirsty for the Living Water he gives!