In part one, I shared a video of my daughter chasing her shadow and wrote about the fleeting shadows of earthly pursuits that never fully satisfy or delight us. We feel we are close to joy, but we can’t quite catch it. In part two, I will point you to the only antidote to our shadow problem.
Use your imagination for a moment. I was tempted to shoot another video of my daughter to introduce this post, but I would have changed things around this time. In the video from part one, she was chasing her shadow. This time, I imagined that she would run away from her shadow. As hard as she would try, it would always follow. Just as we cannot run after our shadows to catch them, neither can we run away from our shadows to escape them. They chase after us.
Of course, we can no more run away from our sinfulness than we can run away from our shadows. We seek to escape sin through greater determination. We try to identify our sin patterns and avoid situations in which we commonly sin. In spite of our greatest efforts, the reality is that we can’t do it, and our striving leaves us tired and frustrated. The only way to escape the shadow of sin is to hide yourself in a stronger shadow.
Have you ever had the experience of seeing a small shadow swallowed up by a larger shadow? In the plains of Oklahoma where I grew up, if you stand on a small rise in the fields, you can see forever. In the hot afternoon summer’s sun, even a scrub oak can cast a long shadow. When the wind blows clouds in overhead, you can see them coming for miles. They drop a dark shadow on the prairie that marches over everything beneath. When the line of clouds approaches, the long shadow of the trees vanish. The smaller shadows simply disappear into the larger shadow of the clouds.
When we run into the strong shadow of God’s presence, we forget about the fleeting shadows of our lives. Psalm 36 says, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (italics mine).
This is good news. God is available to us and ready to be our joy and our comfort and our protector. What is astounding is that his care is motivated by genuine love for us. He’s not some distant relative begrudgingly mailing us checks from a giant trust fund in the sky. He engages us because he wants to. His comfort and protection are not earned by our goodness or performance or wisdom. Instead, they originate in God’s love. He’s the initiator who offers joy and care to us even as a bird cares for her young before they can leave the nest.
My fear, for some of us, is that we tend to sentimentalize this verse. We make it sugary and sweet. We imagine our moms cross-stitching this verse and putting it on the wall above the toilet in the guest bathroom. This is a Christian-bookstore-coffee-mug sort of verse. And it should be, but only if we truly comprehend the good it offers to us.
There are a couple of obstacles that may cause us to minimize the power of this verse. The first is the word “precious.” When I hear this word, I go in one of two directions and neither of them helps me grasp the magnitude of God’s love. In my mind, precious is either: (1) the creepy and hyper-possessive hiss from Gollum in Lord of the Rings (of course, this may be a personal problem resulting from the fact that my boys are reading LOTR and like to talk like Gollum), or (2) the most common term applied by 16 year old girls to describe pictures of kittens on Facebook. Nevertheless, God’s love is precious, and we need to discover why.
The second obstacle is the idea of “taking refuge.” In a society that exalts independence, strength, and success, we’d rather pretend that things are just fine. Strong dudes and dames don’t like to run and hide, but the gospel says to proud people: “you are desperately in need of rescue.” Sin is a tyrant bent on enslaving you. Underestimate the strength of your enemy, and you will not seek refuge.
THE STRONG SHADOW OF GOD
If you dismiss the refuge of God as mere sentimentality, you will miss the point. The preceding verses (Psalm 36:5-7) show us the strength of this hiding place:
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O Lord.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
Our God is not weak, and this is not mere sentimental love. This is an enormous, expansive, explosive kind of love. Look again at the images used. God’s love “extends to the heavens”–that’s unsearchable. His righteousness is “like the mountains of God”–that’s unshakable. His judgments are “like the great deep”–that’s unfathomable. His protection is big enough for every “man and beast”–that’s immeasurable. God’s love and goodness and care are beyond description. Nothing in our experience can be compared to his majesty, and his majesty. *
Have you piled up sins higher and higher?
God’s mercy extends to the heavens!
Have storms clouds rolled into your life?
God’s faithfulness dwells amongst the clouds!
Have the consequences of sin blown you around?
God’s goodness is stronger than mountains!
Have the opinions of men beaten you down?
God’s thoughts are as deep as the ocean!
Have doubts about God’s care left you lonely?
God’s love reaches to the ends of the earth!
It is only in God that we find the perfect combination of vastness and intimacy. He is bigger than Mt. Everest and, at the same time, more personal than a bird in a nest with her young. God is both “out there” beyond us and “right here” with us. Theologically, we say that God is simultaneously transcendent (above his creation) and immanent (engaged in his creation). We hold on to both of these truths. If you are in Christ, you are personally, gently hidden under the wings of God who holds the entire universe together with his immense power.
C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) writes of God’s care:
“The Lord overshadows his people as a hen protects her brood, or as an eagle covers its young; and we as little ones run under the blessed shelter and feel at rest. To cower down under the wings of God is so sweet. Although the enemy be far too strong for us, we have no fear, for we nestle under the Lord’s wing. O that more of Adam’s race knew the excellency of the heavenly shelter! It made Jesus weep to see how they refused it: our tears may well lament the same evil.” **
It is a foolish evil to refuse the care of God. He wants to bring joy to us. Why would we turn away from him and search elsewhere? Simply stated, sin is our effort to find joy in something more than we find joy in God. Jesus knew this was futile, and he wept for those who attempted life without God.
To take refuge in our God is both humbling and reassuring.*** It is humbling because we must acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient, and, in fact, our attempts at self-sufficiency have put us in grave danger. It is reassuring because we are offered a place of refuge that is as strong as it is good.
If we will not humble ourselves and take refuge in God, then we will continue to deceive ourselves with the idea that we can manage sin on our own. While this path inevitably ends in defeat and despair, the refuge road leads to deliverance and delight in God. We overcome sin as we delight in God’s love, delight in God’s strength, delight in God’s protection, delight in God’s grace, delight in God’s provision, delight in God’s mission.
LEARNING TO DELIGHT IN OUR REFUGE
Psalm 36 goes on to say of those that take refuge in God (vs. 8-9):
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.
I love that our place of refuge is not somber and fearful. No, it’s a place of overflowing goodness. When we take refuge in God, we celebrate a great feast as sons and daughters of the Most High King. He offers us unending drink from the best wine. What comfort that our God is not a tyrannical God! What joy that our God longs to share with us the river of his delights!
When we sin, the problem is not that our delights are too strong. In fact, they are wrong-headed and weak. We are tempted to settle for delights of our own making, when heavenly delights await us. To take refuge in God is to repent from little delights to embrace the enormous delight in God. It’s the greatest swap meet of all: trading the shallow, short-lived mini-joys of our lives for the deep, forever joy of God.
As Jesus’ work of redemption works itself out in our lives, may we hide the fleeting shadows of our sin under the trustworthy and eternal Shadow of the Almighty.
What about this post resonates with you? Do you find is difficult to set aside the fleeting pursuits you are drawn to seek? How committed are you to seek refuge in God? Do you find it difficult to believe that God is the greatest joy?
* Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975): Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Ed. D. J. Wiseman.
** Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol 1: Psalms 1-57 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974).
*** Kidner, Ibid.