June 23, 2016
by Dr. Matt Friedeman
Remember the country comedy show “Hee-Haw” and its greatest hits? Probably not, but one of them started like this:
Gloom, despair, and agony on me
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery
If it weren’t for bad luck,
I’d have no luck at all
Gloom, despair, and agony on me
That was the chorus. The verses detailed in humorous and week-by-week fashion just how woeful was the singers’ situation. That song comes to mind when I consider King David and his expressed plight across life. Four times in the Psalms he calls himself “poor and needy.”
Yet I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, do not delay. (Psalm 40:17)
Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay. (Psalm 70:5)
Hear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. (Psalm 86:1)
For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me. (Psalm 109:22)
One might imagine that the poverty of which David speaks isn’t exactly financial, and the neediness not necessarily about where his next meal comes from. Actually, from the Psalms you get the feeling that declaring one’s “Davidic poverty and neediness” is one of the most spiritual things one can do.
E. Stanley Jones used to hold his famous “Ashrams”—basically, spiritual retreats and would challenge the participants to write on a piece of paper the needs to which they wanted God to respond.
And for those who didn’t have a perceived need? Then THAT was their need: to recognize the places where they were lacking.
A LITTLE DEEPER IN THE PSALMS
The poetry of the Old Testament is brimming with neediness. Frequently the Psalmist encourages God along (some might say, to the point of bossiness). I have noted the instances where the directive of a Psalmist is accompanied by the phrase “O Lord” (God’s covenant and most intimate name in the Old Testament).
“Give ear to my words, O Lord” or “O Lord, attend to my cry” or “Incline your ear, O Lord” or words to this effect are heard some fifteen times in the Psalms. “Listen to me, Lord!” is one of the leading pleas of the writers of the Psalter.
The next most frequent pleas are “Arise O Lord” and “Be gracious to me, O Lord” which can be found some six times each.
There are many, many more instances of the Psalmists imploring God to act. But these are the top three, and their insights ought to inform our prayer life. “I am poor and needy, so… Listen! Arise! And be gracious to me!”
THE LIFE OF POVERTY
When Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” there were two word choices for “poor.” One meant “really poor” and the other meant “absolutely, completely broke.” The latter was used by our Savior. All the rest of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (and, indeed, all the rest of the high calling of the gospels) seem contingent on this initial mountaintop teaching of Jesus. The riches of the Kingdom come to those who are absolutely empty of themselves. Fullness of God and of His Spirit come only to those who are first empty.
Growing up, Jesus would have been impacted by the Psalms as He and His faith community and family sang them regularly and most certainly had them committed to memory. Over and over He would have sung “I am poor and needy,” and the import of those words would have seeped deeply into His own soul. No surprise that He leads with the concept in the most famous sermon of His life.
THE LIFE OF KNOWING HE IS LISTENING
Marriage counselors tell us that the way to a great marriage is to make sure your spouse knows you are listening to them when they speak. David, addressing the Lord, wants to know the same thing about the One who is the most intimate in His life.
Is God listening? Is He even there? Does He care?
The key to the confident, victorious life in Christ is the answer to these queries. In fact, for many of us, an affirmative response to these questions constitutes the stuff of our conversion. He IS listening! He IS there! He DOES care!
It thus builds our faith to re-articulate these concerns for God’s apparently open ears. He wants us to want them and their inclination to our lives of faith.
THE LIFE OF GOD ARISING
A TV network in France recently visited our church, asking the congregation about the new religious liberties bill passed by the state legislature. Being interviewed as the pastor, I articulated that the Great Commission movement across America doesn’t need favorable laws or helpful politicians. Indeed, God is most active in the world today where exceedingly few helpful laws or politicians exist for the aid of evangelicals. Take China—it’s hard to suggest that the political clout of that nation has been lined up in favor of the house church during the past five decades. Yet some are saying that there are more Christians in China today (or soon will be) than in America with tens of thousands of people coming to Christ each day.
For the first three hundred years of church history, the Roman Empire gave Christianity no political advantage in the halls of power. Yet, against all odds, that faith swept across the Empire, usually to the deep chagrin of politicians.
Why? Both the modern church in China and the early church in the Roman Empire asked God with great expectation to arise. And He did. Over and over again, in the lives of men and women, boys and girls, and in response to expectant prayers, He did.
THE LIFE OF AMAZING GRACE
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey tells the story of C. S. Lewis walking in on a conference on comparative religions. An international crowd of experts was debating which belief was unique to the Christian faith.
Could it be God becoming Man? No, other religions had that.
Resurrection? Other religions had various accounts of that, too.
The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount? It, too, existed elsewhere.
On they went for some time, trying to discern the distinctive Christian tenet.
And then C.S. Lewis reportedly arrived. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard that everyone was discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among the world’s many religions.
Lewis didn’t blink: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” And there it was.
The Psalmists plead for God’s grace on their lives. The Psalms present a picture of consistent prayer for unmerited favor and the blessings of life that only God can bring. To keep grace uppermost in the prayer life is not only a plea to God but also a reminder to the intercessor of the need for humility.
But there is something else. In a “graceless” world, God wants to bestow His grace on us so that we can help Him pass it on to others. David’s nation was “blessed to be a blessing” and the Psalmists pick up on this in the form of “graced to be bestowers of grace” in the Psalms.
What is the poverty in your life? Your need? To know this on a spiritual level is one of the most critical pieces of information for personal spiritual formation. Not knowing our poverty and need is a sure set-up for little spiritual growth in the future. So, here is a key prayer, it would seem:
“Lord, I am impoverished and needy. Here is how… (fill in the blank!).”
To fill in that blank the same way the Psalmists did is never a bad idea.
DR. MATT FRIEDEMAN
Dr. Friedeman brings a multi-faceted ministry to his teaching at Wesley. He has authored books on evangelism, discipleship, and methods of Bible study. He has written a regular newspaper column and been a talk-show host on American Family Radio. His most recent book is Swallowed Up in God: the Best of Francis Asbury’s Journal and Letters (Teleios Press, 2014). Dr. Friedeman regularly leads students in various types of outreach, such as prison ministry and ministry to the unborn. Matt is an ordained Nazarene minister who serves as the founding pastor of Day Spring Community Church in Clinton, Mississippi. He and his wife, Mary, have six children. He has been a member of the WBS faculty since 1987.
Read this and more stories in the 2016 Summer Compass!