Long Distance Spirituality
Years ago, on the advice of an older and wiser Christian, I began trying to pray through the Psalms once every month. Don’t be too impressed—I seldom make it through all 150 of the psalms every 30 days. However, by making that the goal I am able to eventually ponder each one at least several times a year.
One psalm especially has always caught my attention—Psalm 71. It might be entitled a ‘Psalm for Old Age.’ In verse 5 the psalmist says, “For you have been my hope, O Sovereign LORD, my confidence since my youth,” and in verse 9, “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.” This text has been of more interest to me as I have grown older, but I usually think, “no use preaching on this psalm to a young congregation like mine.” And yet, I’ve come to see there is a lesson here for all of us, and especially for the young.
The psalmist says that from his youth he has relentlessly worked at three things. He has “always” taken refuge in God during times of distress (verse 3), “always” praised God as an act personal discipline (verse 7), and “always” put his hope in God for his future. The first practice has to do with how he has processed his suffering and disappointments, and the second practice has to do with daily prayer. He recounts that he has never let anything turn him aside from these disciplines:
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me upC9I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; my lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you—I, whom you have redeemed. (Psalm 71:20,22-23)
The third is the most foundational of all. He does rigorous self-examination regarding the fundamental trusts of his heart. He is careful to know what he actually rests in and lives for, and he continually re-focuses his soul’s deepest hopes on God. Over the decades, the Psalmist has simply not let up on these commitments. As a result, he is literally bursting with desire to let people know what he has found in God.
Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come. (Psalm 71:17-18)
In 1836, Charles Simeon retired after fifty-four years of ministry at the Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, UK. There he had been engaged in a ministry of expository preaching that had sent several generations of young Christian leaders out into British society. He had accomplished far more than 99.99% of ministers ever do. Yet a friend discovered that this elderly man was still rising at 4:00 a.m. every morning to light his own fire and to spend time reading the Bible, praying, repenting, and spending time with God. His friend thought this was over-kill. “Mr. Simeon,” he pleaded, “Do you not think that, now that you are retired, you might take things more easily?” “What?!” replied the old Charles Simeon, “Shall I not now run with all my might when the winning-post is in sight?”
I am neither of advanced age nor a young man, but I know why Simeon could not imagine taking things “more easily.” It was because the praising, the hoping, and the resting becomes better and better if you are willing to give it daily attention for years and years. The one hundredth time through the Psalms or the Proverbs will yield astonishingly sweet, comforting, and convicting insights, because the more you know the Bible as a whole the more sense its particular parts make. And the more you know your own heart the more you know how to work on it, how to move past your discouragement, your peevishness, and your self-pity. But it takes years of relentless discipline. It is similar to how it takes years of practice to enjoy the power of playing the piano beautifully, but what we are talking about goes beyond even that in complexity and depth.
When it comes to the spiritual disciplines, don’t be a sprinter. Be a long-distance runner.
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