Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

I Am in Desperate Need (Sep-Dec 2004)

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by Mike Cope
September – December, 2004

Listen to my cry, For I am in desperate need. (Psalm 142:6)

Let me begin by being honest about this theme, desperate: there’s a problem with it. I got a note from one of my best friends, a bona fide English professor—actually he’s an English professor who’s currently masquerading as an administrator—who pointed out that the root origins of the word “desperate” mean “without hope.” He asked if we really wanted to be the Christian magazine holding up hopelessness as a cause. Well, I thought, at least it’s a niche that is wide open.

His point is well-taken. We’re not going to be advocating hopelessness.

And yet, sometimes the most faith-filled people are the ones who come within a few inches of hopelessness and then throw themselves into the arms of God.

Remember Jeremiah? Not a big fan of birthdays: “Cursed be the day I was born! … Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, ‘A child is born to you—a son!’ . . . Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14-18). What Hallmark birthday card would you select for someone like that?

Yet right before that outburst are these words of trust: “Sing to the Lord! Give praise to the Lord! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked.” You can imagine what fits that has given to biblical interpreters who prefer that a writer stay on the same topic. But Jeremiah is on the same topic: desperation.

So we’re not talking about the utter “despair” of desperation; rather, we’re exploring that other definition that grew out of the first—having a great desire or need.

Psalm 142 is one of David’s two “cave psalms,” along with Psalm 57. A cave is not where he expected to be. He was supposed to be in a palace, but instead he’s confined to a place that is dark, dismal, disillusioning, and depressing. He’s the king of nothing as he runs from Saul. We’re used to seeing the civil exchange of presidents on the front lawn of the White House. For David, it wasn’t quite so antiseptic.

His fellow cave dwellers are a bunch of malcontents. “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader.” What a fine party that must have been.

The cave is a place where all your spiritual assurances, your emotional scaffolding, get stripped away. It’s where the video you had prepared for your life (in your mind) gets erased. It’s that dark place where you wind up because of divorce … or death … or illness … or failure … or mental illness. It’s where you hold your breath and ask questions like, “Does God even care?” and “Will I die here?”

But David’s cave also became a sanctuary of sanity. In it, he had to strip away all the honors of his life and ask about ultimate meaning. Gene Edwards puts it so well in A Tale of Three Kings: A Study of Brokenness:

Caves are not the ideal place for morale building. There is a certain sameness to them all, no matter how many you have lived in. Dark. Wet. Cold. Stale. A cave becomes even worse when you are its sole inhabitant … and in the distance you can hear the dogs baying.

But sometimes, when the dogs and hunters were not near, the prey sang. He started low, then lifted up his voice and sang the song the little lamb had taught him. The cavern walls echoed each note just as the mountains once had done. The music rolled down into deep cavern darkness that soon became an echoing choir singing back to him.

He had less now than he had when he was a shepherd, for now he had no lyre, no sun, not even the company of sheep. The memories of the court had faded. David’s greatest ambition now reached no higher than a shepherd’s staff. Everything was being crushed out of him.

He sang a great deal.
And matched each note with a tear.
How strange, is it not, what suffering begets?

There in those caves, drowned in the sorrow of his song, and in the song of his sorrow, David very simply became the greatest hymn writer, and the greatest comforter of broken hearts this world shall ever know.

The cave was a place where David could be honest about his plight. He was quite literally between a rock and a hard place. Saul’s army was nipping at his heels. With that, he could only cry aloud to the Lord, lifting up his voice for mercy (Ps. 142:1). “Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need.”

It’s the cry of desperation Abraham found at an altar, Hannah found at an unoccupied cradle, Jeremiah found in a cistern, Daniel found in a den, Paul found in a prison, and Jesus found on a cross.

In our pampered Western environment, we sometimes expect everything to go smoothly in our lives. We expect to be sheltered, well fed, employed, entertained, and provided for at retirement. When that happens, spiritual amnesia begins to overtake us: We forget that we are made by God and for God. It’s the same thing that happened in the history of Israel. They kept forgetting: forgetting that God made them; forgetting that God saved them; forgetting that God called them to be a light for the nations; forgetting that God wanted to guide them with his law. Some of God’s saddest words to utter must surely be these: “My people have forgotten me” (Jeremiah. 18:15).

In the cave, David’s memory returned to him. He was not special because he had slayed a lion; nor because he’d planted a stone on Goliath’s forehead; nor because the oil of Samuel’s flask had flowed down his head. He was special because he was made by God for God.

The cave, then, was a place where David could be honest about his desperate need for God as a refuge: “I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’” It’s the truth expressed so beautifully in the hymn “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”:

Other refuge have I none;
Hangs my helpless soul on thee.
Leave, ah, leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.

In these cave psalms you can almost sense David’s strength returning. Not the strength of self-confidence but the strength of God-confidence. The fatigue that came from self-reliance began to leave as he sang his way back, remembering that God is truly in control.

Ironically enough, David’s cave was a place of sanity. Who knows how different the story of Israel under his leadership might have been had he not resided there with a lunatic church around him.

In the best sense, then, he became desperate. “I am in desperate need,” he confessed as he turned to God, who alone could satisfy his desperation.

Whenever I get up to preach, God has before me the faces of many people who are eager, even desperate. There’s a woman who worries constantly about her beloved son who’s in and out of prison. And a couple still grieving the loss of their child so many years ago. And a third grader who’s worried that her mommy and daddy have recently started living apart. And a widow who’s lost three husbands to death and who is still in the midst of child-rearing. And a couple whose son is in Iraq someplace—near Baghdad, they think. And a university student who’d really like to meet “the one,” whose friends are all getting married, but who hasn’t had a date in years. And a recently retired saint who was hoping to enjoy his retirement years but has had a sudden reversal of his health. And a woman who has to wait another month before a return to the oncologist to find out if the cancer has returned. And the middle-aged man who has always wanted some close “guy friends,” but it hasn’t ever worked out.

As I begin to speak, I realize that in their own ways, worship has become a cave of desperation, a holy dwelling place of sanity. For there they remember that God is the one who fills our deepest places. There they sense their strength returning to them again (or is it the power of the Holy Spirit?) as they realize that God is their shield and their refuge.

One thing that strikes me about God is how he can find something dead in a cave and give it life. It is this life-out-of-despair, light-out-of-darkness God for whom we are truly desperate.

Gene Edward’s A Tale of Three Kings: A Study of Brokenness

Philip Yancey’s Rumors of Another World

Eugene Peterson, The Busy Pastor

What do you think of when you hear the word, “desperate?”

Describe a time when you felt desperate.

What does Scripture say about desperation?

Look at Psalm 52: What is the story behind the Psalm?

In what ways did Paul face desperation (Acts 12)?New Wineskins

Mike CopeMike Cope is preaching minister at Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas and co-editor of New Wineskins. [Mike’s blog]

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