Psalm 22 has become especially dear to me as I’ve taken several weeks to read and meditate on it thoroughly. I have also been able to see and experience the sovereign timing and grace of God in my own life, as I’ve been challenged in various ways.
The Psalm begins with a lament of David, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” We know David faced many trials, and just when you think he is on the brink of despair, hope comes rushing in and gives the necessary strength to persevere. By the way, aren’t those the words Jesus cried out on the cross? Yes, Jesus actually quotes Psalm 22:1, or I could also say that prophecy was fulfilled in those very words on the cross that day. David was on the run from his enemies. He was tired, worn out, at times maybe injured. As God inspires David to write this Psalm during this time in his life, He also gives us a vivid picture of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In v. 6, David describes himself as “A reproach of men and despised by the people.” He speaks of trouble being near, people surrounding and encircling him, that his bones are out of joint, his heart is like wax, his strength is dried up, and his tongue cleaves to his jaws. In v. 16 we read, “They pierced my hands and feet,” and in v. 18 it says that “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Yes, this sounds very familiar and should, as it is exactly what took place at Golgotha where our sinless Savior was nailed to a cross, forsaken by God, and took the full wrath of God upon Himself that you and I deserved. “God made Him who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus really was our sin-bearer! He took our sin, we get His righteousness, all of this at such a great cost to God, a cost I’ll never truly comprehend on this side of heaven.
David’s response to this agonizing feeling of being forsaken and left alone? Prayer, praise, and worship of God. Throughout the psalm, we see remnants of David’s faith as he contemplates his circumstances against the truths of God’s promises. David remembers that God is holy, that in the past men cried out to God and were delivered, that men put their trust in God. David prays these truths as he recalls the faithfulness of God, not knowing what was to come next in his own life, but believing that God is good. He prays that God would not be far off, prays that God would deliver him, prays that God would come to his assistance. Then David gives praise to God as he trusts that He hears and answers his prayers. David realized that he was not forsaken and that God was always there. Christ was forsaken on the cross so that those who put their faith in Him will never be, for God promises, “Never will I leave you; Never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Near the end of this psalm, we get a glimpse of the resurrected, victorious Christ. God has made due on all of His promises. He heard the cries of His only Son, and He hears the cries of all of His people. We also get a glimpse of Christ’s millennial reign on earth. David looks to a time when God will be worshipped and praised because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. Generations of families will come to hear about and know God through a personal relationship with Jesus, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. (Phil 2:9-11) The reality of this promise, truth, and “good news” was summed up in Jesus’ words, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).
God in His grace saved me in February of 2001. Prior to that time, I experienced what people would call, a “panic attack,” and was sporadically dealing with thoughts and feelings of anxiety. I remember thinking, “I’m so scared and feel alone in this!” Does anyone else experience things like this? What if I’m the only one? How embarrassing would it be to have this type of fear experience in public? If you’ve never experienced anxiety like this, the only way I can describe it is, it’s an overwhelming feeling that seems to come on without any warning, and you literally feel as if you may die at any moment. The heart races, vision changes, dizziness may occur, breathing becomes difficult, and the hands and/or feet may tremble or shake. It is literally a fight or flight response from a physiological effect going on in the body. After coming to Christ, most of my anxiety decreased significantly and I had a peace that I had not been able to experience before. Then these symptoms returned again a few years later.
I remember flying to Atlanta for a conference and experienced some mild anxiety on the plane. I had flown many times in the past without any problems, and actually enjoyed flying, but this was different. Then in 2008, my family and I flew to Florida for a vacation. I recall thinking about and anticipating fear and anxiety on the flight, and that’s exactly what happened. I experienced anxiety and panic just like I had before becoming a Christian. I felt defeated and even questioned the validity of my faith. I would think, “How can you be a Christian and fear these things?” I had been growing spiritually, consistently reading and studying the Word, praying, and involved in various ministries in the church we belonged to in Kentucky. I knew God was sovereign (in control of all things). I knew that the Bible says to fear not, I knew my fear was sinful.
When I returned from that trip, I took a week to pray and ask God to give me wisdom about this fear. I also read a pamphlet by a well known Biblical counselor named Jay Adams on the subject of fear. I learned a few things about myself, or maybe better said, a few things about my thinking and my heart. One thing I’ve come to realize about fear and anxiety is it almost always begins with my thoughts, which eventually trigger more thoughts. These thoughts were and are motivated by a desire to protect myself, and often are from anticipating a threat or situation that may not be real at all. Although flying at 35 thousand feet could be a little scary to anyone, my thoughts were producing a fear that resulted in anxiety and panic. On the plane, I can’t just get off, can’t get away from the situation. I’ve often felt stuck– I have no control! I begin to think irrationally, and if I’m honest, sinfully. Another thing I’ve learned is that I actually fear the potential fear experience more than flying itself. Yes, it’s the fear of fear!
Why do I mention these personal struggles and how does it relate to Psalm 22? First, I would never compare myself to Christ and the struggle He went through in the garden leading up to His death, or His feeling of loneliness on the Cross as He was forsaken by God. But the Scriptures do say that Christ was tempted in every way, just as we are. He knows and understands our temptations and struggles. David was struggling with fear, the anticipation of threats, and a sense that God was not present. As mentioned before, David’s response was one of prayer, praise, and worship of God. Over the past 10 years, I’ve had many opportunities to fly to various places. How have I dealt with fear and anxiety practically? One way is consistently drawing near to God through His Word, remembering His promises and character, and growing in my trust of His plans. I memorized verses about God’s sovereignty, such as Isaiah 40, and his commands to not fear, such as Joshua 1:9 and Isaiah 41:10, which also speak of God being near, and verses such as 1 Corinthians 10:13 that tell me that “no temptation has overtaken us that’s not common to man.”
These temptations and struggles are common to all of us, this just happens to be mine and God has used it to grow me in trusting Him more fully. Consistently studying and memorizing the character of God and His attributes helped me to grow in my trust that God is bringing about good in all He does and allows (Romans 8:28). What does it mean by “good”? These struggles, temptations, challenges, and trials are all used, ordained, or allowed by a loving Heavenly Father to conform us to Christ-likeness– that’s the good! So when my family and I recently flew to New York City, I didn’t allow myself to think about or even to avoid the fear of flying. Trying to avoid the thoughts of fear is not fruitful, because it’s already there. Another way that I’ve responded is to repent of any sinful fear when it comes and to recall the promises and goodness of God, regardless of what happens, or might happen. Just as David prayed to God for help, I have prayed God’s promises, that He is with me wherever I go (Psalm 139). Fear and anxiety often result in thoughts or feelings of being alone, but God reminds us that He is with us, and even more, He will never leave us nor forsake us.
I am learning that, although fear and anxiety can sometimes feel like a powerful force that can’t be stopped, there is one force greater– love! The Bible says, “…perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, John 3:16. One reason that I repent of this fear and call it sin is because it is so selfish. It’s all about me, what might happen to me, how might something affect me? I could have avoided going on a family vacation to New York City for my daughter’s birthday recently, but that would be choosing myself over them and her, and that would be selfish. I could have avoided flying to Guatemala last year on a mission trip where I had the opportunity to serve others, but that would be selfish. When I choose to try to protect myself by avoiding something I’m fearful of, and neglect the responsibility and opportunity to serve and love others, I’m too focused on self. Jesus told us if we want to follow Him, we are to die to self. A growing love for the Lord and for others is one of the most significant ways that we can overcome fear and glorify God. It begins to take our thoughts off of ourselves and toward God and others.
Lastly, there is one type of “fear” that is acceptable, healthy, and good– the fear of the Lord. Proverbs 19:23 says, “the fear of the Lord leads to life, so that one may sleep satisfied, untouched by evil.” There are many verses that we could quote regarding the “fear of the Lord,” but this is one of my favorites. Anyone who has struggled with fear and anxiety, especially on a severe level, will appreciate the thought of rest, sleep, and protection. Many people find it difficult to sleep, and when they do sleep, it’s not restful. There is no peace. Fearing the Lord, or we could say in other ways, as mentioned above, growing in our trust of Him, learning His attributes, and having a genuine reverence for Him, doesn’t mean that we will be excluded from trials and hardships. It means we are strengthened and comforted by a heavenly Father who knows every detail of our lives, and gives us hope and strength in the midst of them. It means we grow in our understanding that fear, anxiety, sickness, trials, etc. will occur in a sin-fallen world, but we look forward to an eternal glory that far outweighs anything on this earth. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)