We think of the term “psychological breakdown” as thoroughly modern. But do not the opening words of this psalm describe a man on the verge of a physical, emotional and spiritual collapse? He cries out, “I am overcome by my trouble; I am distraught because of the noise of the enemy . . . My heart is in anguish, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” Does he not describe a thoroughly modern condition? He admits to trembling before the abyss of a threatening future. Like many of us in horrific situations, he fantasizes about leaving everything behind and escaping to some idyllic utopia: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest!” But when the daydream ends he knows himself to be living in an ominous environment whose oppressive hostility is taking a great toll on his personality. Nevertheless, amidst his turmoil, he knows an avenue for escape from anxiety: “Cast your burden upon the Lord and he will sustain you; he will not allow the righteous to be moved.”’
How does the Psalmist know to take advantage of God’s liberating freedom? Only through experience, spiritual experience! This is not the Psalmist’s first time in the valley of dire adversity. He has been through dark and threatening times before and is able to draw upon a history of God’s providence for him. The Psalmist has learned through a long spiritual life full of danger that the profound theological truths upon which we base our lives must be gleaned through the surrender of our lives unto God. His knows from experience that he does not have to bear his burdens alone; he can cast his burdens upon the Lord. The Psalmist knows that he has been granted the freedom to surrender his troubles to a God who is able to bear them in his stead. In frank acknowledgement of his own weakness and frailty, the unction of experience has taught the Psalmist to practice the freedom of surrender, casting his burden upon the unfathomable strength of the Divine in absolute trust.
Last week I told you the story of the French journalist Andre’ Foussard, an avowed nonbeliever, son of a prominent French Communist, who casually entered a sanctuary and found himself instantly filled with the reality of God. He entered the church an indifferent atheist; he walked out a giddy believer, stunned by God’s irrefutable presence. I share with you now this young journalist’s first attempt at evangelism. An acquaintance of this recent convert was struck by his joy, by his irrepressible lightness of being, the pervasive shine of his witness. He wanted such light and joy within himself. “How can I find God?” he asked. The young journalist, speaking with the surety of a new convert said, “Oh, if you will go to a certain cathedral for 6:30 AM mass for the next thirty days, at the end of that time you will surely find God’s reality.” Daily early mass was quite a difficult challenge for this man’s disposition and schedule, but he envied the peace and joy of his friend, so he made it a point to do as he had been counseled. About three weeks later the young convert and his friend happened to meet again. “How are things going?” “Not so good; I haven’t missed a mass in three weeks, but I must tell you in all honesty, I have not found God. I’m no more a believer now than I was when I started this regimen.” “You must stay with it,” the young believer advised him, and his friend did. But after three more weeks, the two friends met again, and the man confessed that God was no more real to him now than the first day he had begun his routine. The young journalist had to admit that his plans had been completely ineffectual. For a variety of reasons the two friends didn’t meet again for several months. When they did next meet, the young convert was amazed to find that his friend was still going to mass. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” said the man, “I have not found God. But I have found that I can’t live without going to mass. I guess I’ll never find God. But being in that spiritual place every day feels like the right thing to do.” Then, within a few more months, that man came back to the young convert beaming with joy, saying, “Shortly after I surrendered the idea that I could find God by means of my own efforts, God found me. Now I know what you know!”
The prophet Elijah challenged the wicked king Ahab and his equally wicked wife Jezebel, only to find himself rewarded for telling the truth with the royal decree of a death sentence. Fearful Elijah escaped out to Mount Horeb, feeling himself abandoned by God. He had championed God’s cause, but all he felt was God’s absence. He wanted to know, ‘Where are you, Lord?’ The Spirit of God set Elijah high on a mountaintop and sent before him a series of natural phenomena: first came a great tornado-like wind that rent great rocks before his eyes. But God’s presence was not in the tornadic wind. Then a powerful earthquake shook the mountain to its roots, making the world tremble. But God’s presence was not in the earthquake. Then God sent a horrific fireball to pass before Elijah’s eyes – but God’s presence was not in the searing fire. Once these great external forces passed, the prophet surrendered himself to the still small voice inside his soul. When he had surrendered himself completely to God, he found that God spoke to him.
Theology is ultimately a descriptive enterprise. All theological statements describe what people have learned through experience. When the Psalmist cries out, “Cast your burdens upon the Lord; he will sustain you,” we can be sure that he speaks from the heart of his own experience of God’s deliverance. He is not stating a theological axiom gleaned through rational intellection. That is not to say his statement is irrational. No, he has used his reason and analytical powers to describe accurately the truth that he has learned through living.
But this truth could not have been discerned simply by means of rational argument. The Psalmist could have spent a lifetime trying to argue himself into a position of faith. “Can I truly cast my burdens upon God? Is God truly able to sustain me? Does my faith truly offer liberation?” Sheer intellect alone would have only suggested possibilities: “Maybe yes; maybe no.” The fundamental truths of our lives are only found through the risk of casting our lives upon God’s strength in faith. The fundamental truths of faith are found not through intellectual rationalization but in the absolute surrender of our being amidst anguish. God’s love for us is only found through the freedom of surrender of those burdens too great for us to bear.
This surrender in a sense is a surrender of freedom, but this surrender is ultimately a surrender to freedom. I think of Chuck Colson, Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, who at the height of the Watergate investigation found himself in the company of a Fortune 500 CEO, whom he had known for ages. “What’s going on with you,” Colson asked his friend, “You’ve changed, and I’d like to know what happened?” The CEO laughed and said, “I finally surrendered myself to the power and grace of God.” Colson responded, “Ah, c’mon, you’ve always had things together; you’ve always had life figured out.” His friend laughed again and said, “I’ve worked hard to make a great success of my life in some ways, but for all of my victories, there was always an emptiness in the center of me that I could not fill myself.” These words stung Colson deeply, for here he was, his life in shambles, his existence seemingly devoid of purpose, and it had never occurred to him that his quest might require a spiritual answer. Still, he rebelled against the simplicity of the surrender. “Look, Tom,” he said, “I saw men turn to God in the Marine Corps; I did once myself. Then afterwards it’s all forgotten and everything is back to normal. Foxhole religion is just a way of using God. . . . But now my whole world is crashing down around me. How can I be sure I’m not just running for shelter and that when the crisis is over I’ll forget it. I’ve got to answer all the intellectual arguments first and if I can do that, I’ll be sure.”
His friend didn’t try to argue. He simply picked up a well-worn copy of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and began reading from a familiar spot: “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine they are guilty of themselves. . . The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit. . . Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind. . . . In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and therefore know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; of course as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
Lewis’ words sliced Colson’s soul open like a scalpel. All of his life he had worked to gain a position of superiority, had worked to hear some secretary say, “Mr. Colson, the President of the United States is on the line.” Pride had controlled and fueled his entire life! And what had his pride and ambition brought him? A life of complete despair, a career in ruins. Chuck Colson’s pride wouldn’t let him surrender so easily to his friend or to God, but he admitted that when he pulled out of the man’s driveway, it was as if he was driving underwater, the tears were flowing so freely. Shortly thereafter, he surrendered control of his life unto God and found the joy and peace and clarity that he had been seeking throughout his whole life.
Nowhere in our Scriptures does a verse say, “Cast you burdens upon yourself; you will sustain you in times of trouble.” Yet most of us are guilty of trying to cast unbearable burdens back upon our own slim shoulders. Spiritual liberation comes in surrendering the role of trying to be the engineer of our lives. Spiritual liberation comes in surrendering roles that belong properly only to our divine parent.
How often we “over sell” our spiritual abilities. We think it is our song or our words or our Sunday School lesson or our example or our teaching that makes God real for others. No. Only God can make God real for others. God may use our song or our words or our Sunday School lesson or our example or our teaching to make the divine evident in another life, but that is God’s initiative, not ours. But when we indeed cast our burdens upon the Lord, when we indeed cast ourselves in absolute trust upon God’s providence, we can gain a peace and a calm and a power and a spiritual “shine” and a magnetic faith that God can use to make somebody else wonder what is our secret. Then God can make use of our witness to spur someone else to embark on a pilgrimage of faith.
One of the great stories in twentieth century literature is William Faulkner’s The Bear, where a young boy wants to see the great beast that has dominated the wilderness and region around which he has lived. The boy trains himself even as a child to become a marvelous woodsman, spending hours in the deep forest alone with nothing but his watch, compass and rifle, traversing most every corner of the great forest and coming to know the woods as few of the most experienced hunters did. But he is granted no sight of the great bear. Finally, his mentor explains to him, “It’s the gun.” The boy understands. On his next trip into the forest he surrenders his gun, his compass, and his watch, and he walks through the wilderness with nothing but his wits and passion. Once he has surrendered all of his external aids, he walks into a meadow, and the great bear allows the boy to behold him in all his fierce beauty and terrible majesty.
As we enter into the discipline of Lent, we enter into a process of emptying ourselves of that which is unworthy of us. We use this time of introspection to empty ourselves of that which weighs us down. Lent helps us to see what we do not need. Some of what we renounce we do so but for a season; some of what we release we do so for a lifetime. Let us learn in this season to cast more and more of our burdens upon God’s strength and to avail ourselves of the freedom offered us through faith. Lent teaches us that spiritual growth begins with ignorance, curiosity, failure, penitence, humility, and surrender. Beyond surrender comes revelation, insight, enlightenment and wisdom – faith – and then more ignorance. Conversion is not one event, but a ceaseless cycle of faith seeking understanding, a ceaseless series of failures, struggles and surrenders that lead to more insight, which leads to more struggle and surrender. Lent calls us to recover the insight that growth requires a spiritual restlessness, a ceaseless process of search. That is as it should be. Cast your burdens upon the Lord. You will find that God will sustain you. In the inner peace you come to know a spiritual calm that transcends circumstance, and you will exude a spiritual glow that cannot fail to attract the curiosity of some empty soul anxious to know how a creature such as you could shine. Then, indeed, God may use you, as an instrument to bring another of His children toward the Light.