It was not a sad day when my son moved away with his family to the other side of the country. So much promise went with them–a new job, new sights and experiences, the opportunity to make new friends, standing on their own as a family. They were already six hours distant before the move. Getting together was doable and we tried to make use of our nearness as often as possible. I got to see my grandchildren grow up. But the move across country would surely necessitate a more intentional effort to be together.
We have the same modes of instant communication that we had before: phone, e-mail, Skype, Facetime. What makes a relationship remain the same during times of physical separation is mutual intentionality of good will toward each other. To intend to keep in communication and to love each other well with encouragement and everyday concern. To not forget each other in sharing the things that matter in life. It is as if there is no physical distance at all when the distance in spirit is small.
But what if one party not only removed in body, but also in spirit? What if the communication grew sparse or ceased? Further, what if an animosity or distrust sprang up from one party toward the other? Relationships can be distant even if they are your next-door neighbor, or even if they are in the same household. Distant relationships, especially if they once were close, are some of the hardest to endure. They hurt more than physical distance or suffering.
In fact, so far away were we in our sin as humans that we were once every one of us under God’s wrath (Romans 3:23; Romans 2:5-6; Matthew 25:46; Proverbs 24:12; Romans 1:18; Revelation 19:15; Hebrews 10:31). Not because of any individual sin or collection of sins (actions), but because of our nature of sin that covers our whole being. We are sinners not because we stole the cookie from the cookie jar, but because we want to please ourselves instead of pleasing God (James 4:1-4). Sin is in our very nature from birth. God is grieved even more than any human parent would be grieved at the distance in relationship.
The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) gives us a picture story of God’s stance during the separation: he stands at the top of the hill and waits to see our willing return. He waits with open arms to receive us when we come. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to remove the penalty of death for sin and to draw us near again to the Father, if we will but come (John 3:16-17; 1 Timothy 1:15).
Why did the prodigal leave? God’s holiness either draws us toward Him or it repels us to turn away from him in self-pride. We can’t abide perfect holiness; our natural inclination, born from our sin nature, is to be repelled by it. We feel our own lack and try to make up for it in self-work rather than humble obedience. We strain at the yoke. Even those who desire holiness can’t sustain it for long. What the Bible calls our “flesh”, or the cravings of our physical senses coupled with our spiritual pride, longs to be indulged. We delay or procrastinate obedience; our wills war between drawing near to God or stepping away for a moment of weakness and “giving in” (Colossians 1:21-22; Ephesians 2:3).
In Resh, the psalmist has caught the anger and danger of the wicked who have distanced themselves so far away from the holiness of God that their running has turned to malice with intent to harm those who represent him. The closer the psalmist draws near to God and His holiness, the more he draws the fear and animosity of those who are running away. It is as if the Lord Himself is chasing them.
There are two characters in this psalm: the wicked persecutors and the persecuted believer. We know the course the persecutor should take (repentence and reprieve), but what of the suffering one? The psalmist has found his course of action. He, too, must offer up his pride and self-righteousness, his fear of harm, and his anger at the injustice and turn intentionally toward God for help: “See my suffering…” He closes the relational gap by a “phone call” with the Father. When we are far away, whether “distant” or only a few steps away from the intensity of God’s perfect love, we can draw near to Him (James 4:5-10).
If you’ve ever noticed, birds generally sit on the telephone wires in the same direction. Depending where they are on the wire, they face the same way. When I investigated this, I learned that the birds, in order to gain flight away from the wire, must turn and face into the adversarial wind. This gives them the resistance (thermals) they need to gain height on liftoff or to cushion their descent below for food.
In times of trouble, I have learned the same lesson. When I am at my guiltiest, my safest course of action is to stop running away and close the distance with God. I face him in prayer and ask for forgiveness. When my blood is chilled in fear, sickening my whole body, or bitter anger constricts the free flow of blood in my heart and heats my inner core to volcanic proportions, my safest place is to come, kneel, and melt into the very presence of God and receive his leadership in place of my own self-will. Not that my sinful nature doesn’t cause delay in this, but eventually I know this is my best course. I, like the psalmist, have found peace there. God gives me the thermals of his grace to help me rise above my circumstances and also to cushion and companion my temporary descent below if further suffering is needed for my own or others’ good.
Lord, I know and feel within myself the distances caused by my neglect of your Word. I get busy with the things of this world, my own pleasures and ease, and let the intensity of your counsel pass me by all day long. And I get my feathers ruffled. When I take off, I fall. I can’t obey when I can’t know or hear your commands. I can’t defend myself or your honor when I am persecuted. I take on guilt (unable to differentiate what is true guilt and what is false blame) and it is too heavy for me. It saps my strength and dilutes my testimony of your goodness. Worse still, I lose hope and am lost in a vast sea of despair; I sink. Lord, let me come kneel beside the Chief Cornerstone and offer myself again to your wise counsel and tender mercy. Teach me to wait patiently for your deliverance. For you alone are my hope. When I can’t feel it or see it with my earthly eyes, I can know it from the truth of your word. Your word is true from beginning to end and all your promises are as good as done. Thank you, Father, for standing on the watch for my humble return, accepting me as your child, and bringing me into the fullness of joy again. In the name of your Son Jesus, so be it.