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Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: In Times of Stress

June 2, 2013

Sermon:  Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: In Times of Stress
Text:  Psalm 4

 

Finding Ourselves in the Psalms is the title of our series for the summer months.  My contention is that so many times we see our own lives reflected in the book of Psalms.  We begin this series today by addressing the issue of dealing with stress.  We will focus on Psalm 4. 

Much that we know about stress comes out of war.  Stress was known as shell shock in World War I and as battle fatigue in World War II.  During the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, Peter Bourne wrote the definitive book on stress, Men, Stress, and Vietnam.  We learned much about stress response during that particular time in our history.  The term post-traumatic stress disorder has come out of Desert Storm, out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We use the word “stress” when we feel that everything has become too much, when we feel overloaded, when we wonder if we can really cope with the pressures of life.  Stress undermines both our physical and mental health. 

Dr. Hans Selye, a renowned endocrinologist, has done more than perhaps any other researcher to help us understand the nature of stress.  Our bodies produce a hormone in the pituitary gland located in the middle of our brain:  adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).  This hormone sounds like something NASCAR drivers put in their engines.  ACTH prompts a response in us, stimulating our adrenal glands and causing us to produce cortisol and adrenaline. 

Dr. Selye says that our bodies are equipped with what he calls the fight-or-flight syndrome.  This mechanism allows us to react to what we perceive as danger by either fighting or running away from the problem.  In our current day and time, neither fighting nor fleeing is usually appropriate when we face stress.  We cannot just knock someone in the face because we do not like what is happening to us.  Neither can we just run away from our problems.  Though our bodies build up this hormone and prepare us to fight or flee, we can do neither. 

What happens in the body when a person experiences stress?  Blood pressure rises, and heart rate increases.  Breathing becomes shallower and more rapid.  The digestive system slows down, muscles become tense, and sleep becomes difficult.  The immune system eventually becomes compromised.  We must do something to disperse this hormone and deal with this tension.  Otherwise, our bodies quit, both emotionally and physically; and we eventually face burnout.

We can manage stress in a variety of ways.  Physically, we can eat the right foods, exercise the large muscle groups in our body, and get enough sleep.  We can deal with stress emotionally by establishing good friendships and having a soul mate.  Other helpful suggestions include cultivating relationships of intimacy, crying, and venting our anger before it becomes rage.  We must deal with the anxiety and tension of life rather than withdrawing.

We can also deal with stress in mental ways.  We have both a right brain and a left brain.  Clare and I knew a woman who solved her stress problems by working calculus problems.  Not me!  I might work a crossword puzzle but not calculus problems!  I cope with stress by looking for some sort of diversion like reading for enjoyment, listening to music I like, or playing and singing with my grandchildren.  One of the best stress relievers of all is humor.  The book of Proverbs gives us this prescription:  “A cheerful heart doeth good like a medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).  As far as I can tell laughter is a tranquilizer with no harmful side effects.

No one is exempt from stress.  If what we know about stress has come out of the experience of war, perhaps we should look to a warrior to learn more about what the Bible has to say about this subject.  David, called the “sweet singer of Israel” and “a man after God’s own heart,” was a soldier before he was a king.  According to I Chronicles 3, he had seven wives and at least nineteen sons and one daughter, Tamar.  The Chinese symbol for trouble is two women under one roof.  You can see that David, with seven wives in his household, was under tremendous stress.  David was so busy acting as king and soldier that he was inattentive to his own family.  Their dysfunctional relationship was his fault. 

I would suggest to you that our lesson on stress from Psalms today comes from a man who was heartbroken. 

I announced Psalm 4 as our Scripture today, but I want you to look first at Psalm 3.  Notice the subtitle under the heading for Psalm 3:  “A psalm of David when he fled from his son Absalom.”  Here is the situation.  Absalom, David’s third son, was born at Hebron.  He was a strikingly handsome young man. II Samuel 14:25 describes him as the most handsome man in the kingdom.  He had a beautiful head of hair and a handsome physique.  Ladies, think Fabio. 

Absalom lived a grand lifestyle, owning a magnificent chariot and fifty men who served as runners.  He was a favorite of his father and of his people as well.  His charming manners, personal beauty, and insinuating ways, together with his love of pomp and royal pretension, captivated the hearts and minds of the people of Israel from the very beginning, which he set out to do.  Absalom could have been heir to his father’s throne.  We also know that Absalom had three sons – who all apparently died in infancy – and one daughter named after his sister.

II Samuel provides the account of David’s oldest son, Amnon, raping his sister Tamar.  Absalom waited two years, then avenged his sister by having Amnon slaughtered at a feast to which he had invited all of the king’s sons.  After this deed Absalom fled to Geshur, seeking refuge there with his maternal grandfather. 

Three years later Absalom was reinstated into his father’s favor.  When he returned, however, rebellion was in his heart.  He had built for himself great popularity among the people and led a revolt that started at Hebron.  Four years later when he decided to declare himself king, he had already amassed many followers, so many, in fact, that David fled with his few loyal supporters, crossed the Jordan River, and took refuge in Jerusalem.  It was at that time that David wrote these lines taken from Psalm 3: 

 

Lord, how many are my foes!
     How many rise up against me?
Many are saying of me,
     “God will not deliver him.”
But you, Lord, are a shield around me. 
     My glory, the one who lifts my head high. 
I call out to the Lord
     and he answers me from the holy mount. 
I lie down in sleep; 
     I wake again, because the Lord sustains me. 
I will not fear though tens of thousands
     assail me on every side. 

 

I selected Psalm 4 as our text for today because sleep deprivation is one of the hallmarks of stress.  It is a poem or song for people who have insomnia.  In this evening prayer David addressed how God would protect him at night.  Verses 1, 4, and 8:

 

Answer me when I call you,
     my righteous God. 
Give me relief from my distress;
     Have mercy on me and hear my prayer. 
 
Tremble and do not sin when you are on your bed; 
     search your hearts and be silent. 
 
In peace I will lie down and sleep,
     for you alone, for you alone, Lord,
     make me dwell in safety.

 

Some have said that our greatest national deficit is sleep in this country.  We are a country deprived of sleep because we just do not want to miss anything.  We stay up late at night watching television and get up early in the morning.  Many things distract us, and we do not get the sleep we need.

The other recommendation I have for insomnia is reading the book of Leviticus.  That Scripture will put you right to sleep.  Try it, and you will see. 

David was an astute soldier, a shrewd military man.  Do not forget that years earlier as a young boy he had killed the giant Goliath.  For a long time he had tolerated the irrational mind of King Saul.  Upon Absalom’s rebellion, his accumulation of a powerful army, and his imminent revolt, David offered Psalm 5, a morning prayer.  Listen to a few verses from this prayer.

 

 

Listen to my words, Lord. 
     consider my lament. 
Hear my cry for help,
     my King and my God,
     for to you I pray. 
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
     in the morning I lay my requests before you
     and wait expectantly. 
 
Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
     because of my enemies –
     make your way straight before me. 
 
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; 
     their heart is filled with malice. 
 
Let all who take refuge in you be glad;
     let them ever sing for joy. 
Spread your protection over them,
     that those who love your name may rejoice in you. 
Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
     you surround them with your favor as with a seal.

Here David again turned to prayer and lifted very honest prayers to God.  His prayers were often punctuated with praise and gratitude.  At other times, though, they were unkind and abrupt.  We see that David could make some rather harsh comments in his conversations with God. 

The two armies engaged in battle called The Battle of Ephraim’s Wood, which probably took place across the Jordan.  Under David’s skill as an excellent soldier, his army, though much smaller than his son’s, completely routed Absalom’s army. 

During one point in the battle, Absalom was riding a mule that bolted and ran underneath a large oak tree.  The branches caught Absalom by his hair, which was his pride, leaving Absalom hanging in the tree when the mule ran out from under him. 

One of David’s men discovered Absalom and reported his whereabouts to David’s general, Joab.  Before this battle David had told his commanders, “Please be gentle with Absalom.”  Joab, however, was not gentle.  He thrust three spears through the heart of Absalom, killing him. 

A runner informed David of the good news that the battle had been won.  David knew that his son was dead when a second runner said, “I have good news.  May Absalom be like all of your enemies.” 

David still loved his son even though Absalom had turned against him, led a revolt, and intended to take his place as king.  With the news of his son’s death, David was consumed with grief, as evident in Psalm 6, the last in this series.

 

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
     heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. 
My soul is in deep anguish. 
     How long, Lord, how long? 
 
Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
     save me because of your unfailing love. 
 
I am worn out from my groaning;
     all night long I flood my bed with weeping. 
     my pillow is soaked with tears. 
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
 
The Lord has heard my weeping. 
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; 
     the Lord accepts my prayer.

We are told in II Samuel 18:33 that after the death of Absalom, David went to the upper room above a gate in the city and cried out, “Absalom, Absalom, my son.  I would have died instead of you!”

Stress is a common denominator in the life of every single one of us.  No stress is more intense, perhaps, than that within the family.  Perhaps the stress is in your marriage or within your own children.  Christians are not exempt from stress.  If you believe that accepting Jesus Christ will deliver you from the stress of life, you are sadly mistaken.  Accepting Jesus Christ, however, will give you the only resource that will enable you to cope with the stress of life.  The question is not how to get around anxiety.  The question is how to get through it. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 4:8-9, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not knocked out.” 

How do we manage stress spiritually?  David offers us the prime example of how we should handle tension and worry.  He turned to God every single time.  This man after God’s own heart spent much time in solitude.  Even after he became king he sought out solitude.  Scripture was important to him.  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).  David wrote about meditating on God’s Word both day and night.  Sometimes people recommend journal keeping as a way of releasing their emotions.  I doubt David would have called his writing journaling, but he did write down his prayers, thus preserving them for us. 

Paul, writing from death row, said in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything; but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which is beyond human understanding, will keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.” 

My favorite prayer for times of stress is one written by the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier.  You will find his prayer, which has been put to music, in our hymnal.

 

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful minds
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence praise.
 
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease; 
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

 

Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior?  Have you turned to him in prayer during times of stress?  David serves as our example.  He always turned to God, and I invite you to do the same.  Accept Christ Jesus as your Savior.  Acknowledge him as Lord of your life.  Invite him to become a companion on your daily walk, the one you follow, the one who sets the example.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2013
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