The Comfort Psalms
By Brent Lanigan
The psalms are some of the most beautiful books written in the Bible. They articulate many emotions that people experience throughout their lives - both in times of contentment and in crisis moments. There are many psalms that reflect people’s praise to God: their joy, worship and adoration of him. But did you know that there are also psalms that express peoples’ honest and raw emotions: their fears, anxiety and hopelessness?
During this COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps you or your family are feeling overwhelmed in a way that you have never experienced before. The beauty of these “comfort psalms” is that they don’t leave us feeling emotionally helpless. Instead, because these passages beautifully reflect pictures of God’s caring character, we are reminded of how much God loves us. Comfort psalms give us hope, peace and assurance that God is always with us and fully understands all the emotions that we feel deeply during times of crisis. Are your ready to discover God in the comfort psalms? Let’s get started:
Day 1: God is our Protector
Psalm 3: 1-6 (King David sang this psalm when his son Absalom was trying to kill him) “Lord, I have many enemies! Many people have turned against me. Many people are talking about me. They say, “God won’t rescue him.” I will pray to the Lord. And he will answer me from his holy mountain.” “Lord, you are my shield. You are my wonderful God who gives me courage. I can lie down and go to sleep. And I will wake up again because the Lord protects me. Thousands of enemies may surround me. But I am not afraid.
Historical Tidbit: In ancient Rome, soldiers in the Imperial army were well trained in the use of their shields. Roman armies used their shields with great ingenuity. One maneuver they used was called the testudo (tortoise) formation. This formation involved cohorts of Roman soldiers using their shields to create a protective cover over themselves like a turtle. A group of soldiers would create a protective canopy by having every soldier either hold his shield in front of him or over his head, depending on where he was in the square formation. When all the soldiers did this at the same time, it created a wall in front and a roof over the entire cohort, protecting them from any projectiles their enemy would throw or shoot at them. Today’s reading focuses on God as our protecting shield.
Scripture Study: For the first time in his life, King David was really afraid. His son Absalom was trying to kill him so that he could be king instead of David. Knowing his son was literally trying to kill him truly frightened David. In addition, David was very troubled in heart because many of his people had turned against him and were doubting that God would help him. So David did what he had always done: he prayed to God and told him how afraid and discouraged he was. And though we don’t know the specific answer God gave him, we do know that David came away from this experience fully confident and assured that God would be his Protector.
Sadly, there are many people who think that God does not care about them enough to hear their prayers and protect them from their fears. Especially now during the COVID – 19 pandemic. But we can rest in peaceful confidence knowing that God does hear our prayers and will protect and shield our hearts and minds from all anxiety and fear Satan tries to attack us with. How do we know this? David tells us in the simplest way possible: “I will pray to the Lord and he will answer me…Lord you are my shield. You are my wonderful God who gives me courage…and protects me.” God is our Protector! Isn’t that a wonderful promise?
Questions to Discuss Together:
1) The Merriam Webster dictionary defines shield as a “device that serves as a protective device or barrier.” Have you ever thought of God as your “protective barrier” from fear?
2) When you think of God as a Protector, what do you imagine him protecting you with? A shield like David personifies? Or does another word picture come to your mind?
3) With that word picture in your mind, how do you imagine God specifically protecting your heart whenever you feel anxious, or troubled or overwhelmed about things like COVID - 19?
Prayer Guide: Thank you God for being our Protector. Thank you for hearing our prayers and protecting our hearts and minds like a shield whenever we feel anxious, troubled or overwhelmed. We praise you for caring about us and loving us so much. Amen.
Day 2: God is our Shepherd
Psalm 23:1-3 (a psalm of David) The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need. He gives me rest in green pastures. He leads me to calm water. He gives me new strength. For the good of his name, he leads me on paths that are right.
Opening Tidbit: In an article on the website Modern Farmer, Craig Rogers writes about 10 things he’s learned in his experiences of being a shepherd. In one of his points he shares that the work of shepherding feels like a humble occupation because it is so looked down upon by others. He says that this is because the work of shepherding has always been viewed as the work of the lowly, the down- trodden, and the disrespected. Another observation Rogers makes? That the more concern the shepherd has for each individual animal, the healthier the entire flock will be. He emphasizes shepherds learn quickly that the path to success in shepherding the whole flock depends on having compassion for each individual lamb. Do these two qualities about shepherding sound familiar? Today’s reading focuses on God as our Shepherd.
Scripture Study: In the farming world, a shepherd is responsible for the well-being of his flock. How does he do this? By protecting sheep from wild animals, preventing them from getting lost, making sure the sheep have enough to eat and drink, ensuring each ewe mother gives birth safely to each lamb and by compassionately tending to any injured sheep or lamb in the flock. In Psalm 23, probably David’s most well-known psalm, David pictures God as a Shepherd because he gives us everything we need to ensure our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being: rest when we feel weary (green pastures), peace when we feel anxious (calm water), spiritual strength when Satan tempts us (new strength), and guidance to help us do the right things (paths that are right). God is our Shepherd and while his Church is a vast flock, he has compassion for each of us as a precious, individual lamb!
Questions to Discuss Together:
1) When you hear the word shepherd, what word pictures do you think of that would describe what a shepherd is and what he does?
2) Do you think our world values the occupation of shepherding?
3) In what ways is God your Shepherd? How has he shown you compassion?
Prayer Guide: Thank you God for being our Shepherd. Thank you for giving us what we need in all situations: rest, peace, spiritual strength, guidance. Thank you that you give us these things abundantly because you love us as your lambs very much. Amen.
Day 3: God is our Caring Shepherd
Psalm 23:4-6 (a psalm of David) Even if I walk through a very dark valley, I will not be afraid because you are with me. Your rod and your shepherd’s staff comfort me. You prepare a meal for me in front of my enemies. You pour oil of blessing on my head. You give me more than I can hold. Surely your goodness and love will be with me all my life. And I will live in the house of the Lord forever.
Opening Tidbit: I had the privilege of growing up a pastor’s kid, which always makes for some fun stories and remembrances. One of my favorites is the summer my dad was asked to be the speaker for children’s week at a Bible camp. It so happened that the lesson my dad was speaking on one day was about Jesus as our Shepherd. In order to help bring perspective to the kids’ understanding of what qualities a shepherd like Jesus should have, my dad asked them this question: “what kinds of shepherds are there?” Fully expecting their answers to be words like good, faithful, and loving, what my dad got instead from one little boy who put up his hand was: “a German shepherd!” Somehow, my dad got things back on track and managed to express to the kids what today’s reading focuses on: how God is our Caring Shepherd.
Scripture Study: Sheep are not content and relaxed until they know that they are free from fear and hunger and that they are cared for within the flock. That is why it is so crucial that sheep have a caring shepherd to watch over them, not just a caretaker looking to collect a pay cheque. As we discussed yesterday, a successful shepherd makes sure that the sheep have enough to eat and drink, are protected, don’t get lost, have help in birth and whose injuries are cared for. Now an uncaring shepherd can try to fulfil this role but will not have success because he will only see them as tasks. Only a caring shepherd will be successful in carrying out these responsibilities because he has a genuine interest in the sheep.
Do you know God sees us the same way? He has a genuine, caring heart for us. He understands how we feel during this pandemic. How do we know? Because David writes that God gifts us with his presence when we feel fearful or anxious (I will not be afraid because you are with me), he blesses us with food to eat and a safe place to sleep (you prepare a meal for me), and he gives us his perfect peace when our hearts are churning (your rod and your shepherd’s staff comfort me). Not only that but his love for us never runs out (your goodness and love will be with me all my life). That’s why God is our Caring Shepherd. Let’s always remember to praise God for how he cares for us so lovingly!
Questions to Discuss Together:
1) How does God gift you with his presence?
2) How has God blessed you with food to eat and a safe place to sleep?
3) How does God make you feel loved and cared for?
4) Name a time when God gave you his perfect peace during this pandemic
Prayer Guide: Thank you God for being our Caring Shepherd. Thank you for your presence, for freeing us from fear and giving us peace. Thank you for always making us feel loved and cared for by you. Amen.
Day 4: God is Our Fortress
Psalm 46: 1-3, 7, 10 (of the Sons of Korah) God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Historical Tidbit: One of the most impregnable fortresses in history was a fortress named Janjira Jal Durg (Sea Fort). Completed in 1567AD, with walls close to 40 feet high and 19 towers supporting as many cannons, it remains the only fortress in India to have never been conquered by any army. Now a modern day tourist attraction, the fort remains almost completely intact today, with not even the everyday forces of wind and waves able to topple it. Even today, to history buffs the world over, it remains a monument to the marvels of ancient engineering. But what is the only thing better than an impregnable fortress? God as our Fortress.
Scripture Study: Have you ever seen a fierce ocean storm portrayed in a movie or tv show like Deadliest Catch? Being caught in that kind of a storm is a no win situation. Why? Because of the destructive force and power of the wind and waves and the realization that nature cannot be controlled by anything people say or do. The Sons of Korah were a choir that created temple songs for King David and his people to sing. They had songs for all kinds of occasions, including the one reflected in Psalm 46. The nation of Israel was constantly under attack by enemy nations and so songs were often written to remind the people of who they could turn to when they felt the storms of life swirling around them.
Like Israel, this psalm song reminds us that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Though our world feels like it is falling apart and our daily lives are being altered because of COVID – 19 (though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging), we do not need to fear because the Lord Almighty is our fortress. And as our Almighty Fortress, God will still our churning, swirling emotions of panic and anxiety caused by the storm of this pandemic. How? By whispering to us to “Be still, and know that I am God.” So don’t let fear and panic overwhelm you. As our Fortress, God has everything under his control, even this pandemic. As our Fortress, nothing can overwhelm or topple him. What a fantastic promise!
Questions to Discuss Together:
1) If you were building an impregnable fortress, what would it look like and where would you locate it?
2) Does picturing God as a Fortress make sense to you? Why or why not?
3) How can God calm any stormy emotions like fear or panic that may be swirling around you because of COVID - 19?
Prayer Guide: Dear God, thank you for being our Fortress and having everything in our world under control including COVID – 19. Thank you that nothing can overwhelm or topple you. Help us to be still and trust you during this pandemic and remember that you have everything under control. Amen.
Day 5: God is our Shelter
Psalm 91: (writer unknown) Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the…pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. “Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.
Opening Tidbit: In the 50’s and 60’s during the Cold War, air raid shelters were all the rage in North America as people grew paranoid about the potential use of nuclear bombs. From do it yourself home shelters to vast governmental bunkers, building a bomb shelter became a primary priority for many people. The one problem is that they seem to have forgotten what kind of total annihilation occurred in Hiroshima when the atom bomb was detonated over that city to end WWII. But panic and fear will convince people to do the craziest things sometimes. Conversely, here is why God is our Shelter:
Scripture Study: I first encountered this Psalm about 20 years ago during a dark and discouraging time of my life. I say dark because I was experiencing intense anxiety and panic attacks. I was not yet married and I lived in another province away from my family. So during this difficult period, my mom would send me daily Bible verses reminding me of all the different ways in which God cared for me and desired to deliver me from my fears. The passage of Scripture that I clung to more than any other in that time was Psalm 91. Why? Read on.
According to the internet dictionary, a shelter is “something that gives you temporary protection from bad weather or danger.” Thus, the author of Psalm 91 pictures God sheltering us from danger that makes us fearful. The only difference is God’s shelter is permanent! What kind of danger does God shelter us from? The kind that COVID – 19 is producing (the deadly pestilence that stalks in the darkness, the plague that destroys) But when God is our shelter we can find peace for our hearts and minds (whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty). And what kind of shelter is God exactly? Interestingly, the author chooses to picture God as a bird (He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge)!
Yet it’s not just enough to think of God as our shelter; we have to trust in our hearts and minds that he will shelter us from the things that make us fearful (I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”) Because in the end what matters most is that we show our love for God by trusting him to shelter us from all our fears, anxieties and panic - whether because of COVID – 19 or something else. For when we do, God’s promise is thus: “Because they love me I will rescue them; I will protect them…they will call on me, and I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble.”
Questions to Discuss Together:
1) The author of Psalm 91 pictured God as a bird. When you think of God as your shelter what kind of word picture comes to your mind?
2) Talk about what kind of emotions you are experiencing as you live through the COVID – 19 pandemic. Do you trust God to shelter your heart and mind from being overwhelmed?
Prayer Guide: Pray together as a family and ask God to shelter you from whatever fear, anxiety or panic you may be feeling. Remind each other daily of the pictures of God’s character you have learned about this week: how God desires to be our shielding Protector, our compassionate and caring Shepherd, our mighty Fortress and our protective Shelter.
Straining Against the Oars
A Devotional for Finding Peace in a Troubled Time
(John 6:16-24; Matt 14: 22-36; Mark 6: 45-56)
By Paul Taylor, MDiv
The light dims. At the same time a faint roar can be heard in the distance. It is an impending storm and it grows louder as it comes closer. Your heart starts pounding. You lift your sweat-beaded face as the edge of the storm finds and engulfs you. You have moments before all sight is robbed, and in your panic, every breath becomes labored. Normality is obliterated and your world is plunged into darkness where the only thing you seek is the light.
Graphic, yes, but it is the way many of us feel as this storm of COVID 19 has descended upon us. In its arrival, my heart has found comfort in the story of Jesus walking on the water.
After Jesus had feed the 5,000 followers, Jesus sends His disciples off with the mission to meet Him across the lake in Bethsaida. As Jesus disperses the crowd, His disciples set off rowing to make their way to their destination. In the middle of the night as they row, the winds pick up and the waves begin to batter the boat. The disciples are straining against the oars with all their strength. When they first left Jesus on the shore, each stroke propelled them easily forward. But now in the middle of the storm, they struggle to hold their position. Going forward seems impossible.
The spray of the waves mixes with their sweat and stings their eyes, yet they catch a glimpse of an apparition walking on the water. The figure comes closer and their hearts fill with fear. It is then they hear a familiar voice, “It is I, do not be afraid”.
Jesus comes into focus. Peter asks to walk on water and the disciples welcome Jesus into the boat. It is then when the winds cease. It is then when they worship. It is then when they are immediately at their destination. Oh, to welcome Jesus into the boat!!!
This story speaks to the true focus of our laboring in a troubled time.
Too often, we focus our strength on completing the task. We focus on getting to the destination and we fail to see our real task is to welcome Jesus into the boat. We labor to help the needy. We labor to administrate the work. We fill the day with meetings and the grind of practicalities. The fears of COVID 19 alight upon our hearts and we double our efforts to keep all safe. All the while the storm builds, and our strength begins to wane. If we would silence our heart, we will hear His familiar voice “It is I, do not be afraid”.
Let us welcome Jesus into the boat. It is then the storm will cease, and our destination will be reached.
Before going back to your day, I would ask you take a moment to commune with Jesus. Take your hand and place it over your heart. Now, close your eyes and picture yourself with the disciples rowing against the winds. Take time to talk to Jesus about what is weighing down your heart. What are the winds you are fighting against?
Now ask Jesus “what would you say to me”? You may hear in your heart “Fear Not” or “I am with you”. Allow the Holy Spirit to bring to your heart the words of Jesus to you personally.
After listening to Jesus, invite Him into your boat. Surrender those things you have been rowing against. Allow Jesus into the boat. What happens? Do you feel the Lord’s peace? Does the wind cease? What does Jesus want to do with the things surrendered?
And one last question: “Jesus, can you show me how much you love me”?
Lord, I thank you for Your presence in my boat. I give You these things that have weighed down my heart. I receive from Your hand. Your love, peace and joy I take with me today. Thank you. In Jesus Name, Amen!
About the author. Paul Taylor works at Bethesda as a Resource Program Worker in the Supported Independent Living service. He also teaches in ‘Samuel’s Mantle’, a local prophetic school. Paul holds a Master of Divinity degree and has been in the Pastoral Ministry for 30 years.