Out of the pit and back again

(Originally written May 9, 2015)
During my devotional time this morning I hit Psalm 40. It’s a familiar psalm, recognizable especially for the first three verses:

I waited patiently for the LORD, and He inclined to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a terrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth—praise to our God; many will see it and fear, and trust in the LORD. 

These verses ring out as beautifully triumphal—from the pit to the mountain stronghold, from desperation to praise.

David uses wonderful imagery to convey the depths of feelings he experiences during a low point of his life. The “terrible pit” is a sort of cistern. Years ago, I went to Yemen to visit a friend, and we went together to Thula, where I saw the town’s cistern. As an open-air water storage space basically at ground level, it was pretty horrible; scum floated over the surface, and it was a deep murky green color. We also went to Dar al Hajjar, the “House on the Rock,” a dwelling place of sheikhs for hundreds of years, and now a tourist attraction. At a certain floor of the house is a clear panel, looking down far into the depths below the house—its cistern. Likely this is more the sort of pit David is describing—a low place, in the dark, with a thick, viscous layer of scum at the bottom. This is the “miry clay.” We know that this kind of mud could get pretty awful; the clearest biblical description shows us that it took 30 men to hoist Jeremiah out of the muck of the king’s cistern. It was a trapping, cloying, sucking mud that left its victim suffocating and immobile in the darkness.

David sees his unnamed personal struggle in exactly these concrete terms. The poetry evokes feelings of helplessness, lostness, being forgotten, stuck, walled in, surrounded, in the dark, sinking, trapped and smothered, with no way out. Just these descriptions make my throat close up a little. No one knows what David is struggling with, and he feels forgotten.

God doesn’t forget David, however; instead He instead bends down, hears David’s cry, and descends to the pit to bring him up. God hears in the place of forgetting and reverses David’s situation. No longer waiting, David is free. His feet are on the mountain stronghold instead of stuck in the clay; his steps are established, now that he is out of the horrible pit. Instead of a cry for help, he has a new song in his mouth, praise to his God.

The psalm soars higher and higher as David reflects on God’s goodness, the incredible number not only of His works on our behalf, but also His thoughts toward us (4-5). He revels in the freedom of not having to come to God by good works, and he approaches God with delight (6-8). He steps out and shares who God is and what He has done. He can make an incredible claim: “I do not restrain my lips . . . I have not hidden Your righteousness in my heart; I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly” (9-10). This is the psalm’s crescendo. How many of us can say the same, without a twinge of doubt or worry about the people we haven’t spoken to, the opportunities we’ve missed, the times we haven’t been bold enough? What an incredible testimony!

Suddenly the psalm takes a turn. In verse 11, David pleads for God’s mercies. In verse 12 he says, “My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head; therefore my heart fails me.” Wait, what? What happened? How is David drowning again? The rest of the psalm has David seeking help and deliverance and fearing his enemies. He ends, “Let all those who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; let such as love Your salvation say continually, ‘The LORD be magnified!’ But I am poor and needy; yet the LORD thinks upon me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God” (16-17).

What has happened? Suddenly David is so ashamed that he can’t even pick his head up. He wallows in the guilt of uncountable sins. He feels he has to beg for mercy. He describes himself as “poor and needy.” He’s back in the pit, waiting again, right where he started.

I think this is a universal Christian experience, but it may be especially intense for ministry leaders, and, speaking from personal experience, it is definitely so for the foreign worker. The horrible isolation rings true; it is easy to feel forgotten in a foreign land, alone with the terrible responsibility of presenting a good testimony—perhaps the only testimony people may see. It’s a tremendous pressure, even if we’re not supposed to feel that way.

Sharing the gospel is a high; proclaiming who Jesus is, and seeing a glimmer of understanding in someone’s eye, provokes an incredible feeling of joy, awe, and humility at being included in God’s work to touch souls. The struggle with sin is incredibly intense in the midst of this. For me personally, last week I found myself having terrible, unwanted dreams. I woke up with a feeling of horror at what my own mind is capable of, and I felt so dirty, so ashamed and isolated. For hours I felt like everyone could see inside my head. Thankfully, God gave me a brake failure to distract me from thinking about myself so much (weird, I know, but that’s what happened), and then followed it with crazy, beautiful opportunity to share the gospel—an answer to a desperate prayer I had spoken that morning, feeling so very ugly and useless. But it was frustrating to be back again in the pit. I felt defeated, like I should be beyond this by now, and why am I still struggling?

That struggle wasn’t my first, and it won’t be my last. I’ll never be a perfect worker; David was never a perfect king. Like David, though, I can wait on God in the pit, and I can keep moving forward.

Encouragements from David’s pit-filled life:

  • God is still using David’s life in His story today. 
  • We still honor David, despite all he did. 
  • David is still part of Jesus’ family. 
  • The pit wasn’t the whole pattern of David’s life. No pit lasts forever. 
  • God still used David in his own day, despite his struggles, despite his rollercoaster of actions and emotions. 
  • David’s transparency is why we keep reading his psalms. Perhaps there’s something here for the foreign worker as well. 
  • God has always used broken people. Would it be too bold to say that broken people are all He uses to build His kingdom? 
I can say with confidence that someone who is reading this is in the pit right now—maybe for the third, fourth, fifth, or sixth time, or more. The temptation in the pit is to give up and go home, to assume that you are useless and will never touch people for God’s kingdom, because you struggle. I can only echo Paul:

“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)

Like David, we all live in the unknown of the present. David didn’t know his legacy would include Jesus. He didn’t know that people across the world would be reading translations of his poetry. He had no clue what an encouragement he would be in his own transparency. God has a wonderful way of turning the craziest parts of our life into something good. And we can’t judge that, because we can’t see it during our lives. We just have to hang in there and trust Him, even in the pit.

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