Monday 3 June 2013

Stressed Out?

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Answer me when I call to you,
my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer...
Let the light of your face shine on us...
In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, LORD,
make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4:1, 6, 8

In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe conducted a study with over 5,000 patients on the connection between significant life events and illness. The resulting chart – known as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale – which contained 43 causes of stress in 1967, was updated to 55 causes in 2006. It appears we are finding more ways of feeling stressed! Not far from the top of the list are finances, work, family, personal concerns, relationships, and death – issues that many people face, regardless of how secure they may appear.

Stress spans the ages too, as this Psalm makes clear. Although the cause in this case is not immediately apparent, David’s prayer has a very human and contemporary feel to it – ‘Give me relief from my distress’.

But note how he addresses God – ‘Righteous God’, or ‘God of my right’. Here, as elsewhere in Scripture, God’s righteousness is bound up with his covenant love and faithfulness to his people. It’s because he is the God who does what is right, who makes things right, that David can pray, ‘Give me relief from my distress’. It’s this God alone who can provide the compassion which David seeks. He prays on the basis that God is a righteous God, and has mercy on his people. Ultimately, we have no other source of hope, no other means of deliverance.

It’s completely of a piece with God’s covenant faithfulness that towards the end of the Psalm, David can use words from the priestly blessing of Numbers 6, to ask God to shine on the people, and confess that he will enjoy peace, shalom, the well-being that the priestly blessing goes on to ask for. It’s the Lord alone who does this, he says; only the Lord counts.

And so he lies down to sleep. It's not apparent that the situation has changed by the end of the Psalm, or that the cause of the stress has been removed. But praying it through has somehow put it in perspective. Prayer to the covenant-keeping God has a way of doing that. Here as elsewhere, the Psalms are unrelenting in pointing us back to the one who stands at the heart of our faith – the one who still promises that his peace, which passes all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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