Monday, September 29, 2008

Thirsting After God In Spiritual Desert

Sermon audio may be downloaded from CDPC website and small group discussion questions can be accessed here

We are continuing a series of sermons based on the book of Psalms. The great thing about these ancient hymns is they express the whole range of human emotions as we come before God. They express overflowing joy, lamentations of grief, passion and even righteous anger… The passage of Scripture today expresses desire, longing and thirsting after God in a spiritual desert.

Psalm 63: Thirsting For God in the Spiritual Wasteland
A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah.
1 O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.
2 I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
6 On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
7 Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
9 They who seek my life will be destroyed;
they will go down to the depths of the earth.
10 They will be given over to the sword
and become food for jackals.
11 But the king will rejoice in God;
all who swear by God's name will praise him,
while the mouths of liars will be silenced.

Introduction: Tomorrow is my first wedding anniversary. How time flies! Almost exactly one year ago, I married Grace… we stood in this church and exchanged our marriage vows. So I plan to bring her out to a special dinner (the restaurant name is Cheapo) to celebrate our first year of marriage and look forward to many more years to come. But I won’t be giving her flowers because she thinks it’s a waste of money. But suppose I did…

Suppose that at the dinner I say: “Dear, here is a bouquet of flowers just for you." And instead of complaining about the cost, she replied: “Oh, for me? Thank you so much”…

Now imagine if I were to say to her: “Oh, don’t mention it. It is just my duty as a husband. As a responsible person, it is my obligation to give you flowers on our anniversary. So here you go”… Would she be very happy about that? Why not? Isn’t duty a noble thing to do?

You find it weird or funny if I say that because Grace is not honored by joyless duty. It’s as if I give her flowers because I have to, and not because I want to.

Imagine again a different scenario at the dinner, I gave my wife flowers and she said: “Oh for me? Why so many roses?” And this time I replied: “Dear, because it is my pleasure to give you gifts. I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather spend this evening with than with you.” Ah… is that much better? Why?

Because Grace’s worth as a person is magnified and honored when I delight in her character, her worth, her virtues, her beauty etc. And in case you still want to eat lunch later, I better stop these mushy mushy stuffs. But there is a point to this mental experiment. (This analogy is adapted from John Piper’s poem Then Let Me All My Pleasures Tell)

Many a times we relate to God in terms of rules and regulations, a list of do’s and don’ts, of duties and obligations. Of course, there is right and wrong and holy commandments that God has given us to keep. But God’s worth, beauty and manifold excellencies are not glorified by joyless duty, but by our joyful, willing and obedient delight in all that He is. We obey and serve Him because we want to, because we desire to honor and please Him. Not because we grudgingly have to. God loves a cheerful giver and a cheerful worshipper. To put it another, our duty is to delight in God. (Psalm 37:4)

And the passage of scripture today from Psalm 63 has a lot to teach us about this intimate desiring, intense longing, thirsting and hungering for God. In the life of the early church, it was highly regarded and prescribed for daily public prayers. It was a psalm of King David, whom the Bible described as “a man after God’s heart”. From humble beginnings as a shepherd boy, he was anointed by the prophet Samuel as king. He soon proved himself to be a brilliant warrior with an artistic heart; he plays the harp and composes psalms. As a king, he secured Israel’s borders and established a royal dynasty from which the Messiah the Anointed One would one day come forth. Despite all his achievements, the bible is also brutally honest to tell us that king David has also committed serious sins, not least adultery and murder. He was literally in political wilderness at least twice in his life. The first time, he was pursued by King Saul (1 Samuel 23). And the second time, he was pursued by his own son Absalom who wanted to take over his throne (2 Sam 15). It seems that this psalm was written while David escaped to the desert of Judah, fleeing from his own son. So his life was in danger. He was hiding in a desert where there is no life or water. And that is the context in which Psalm 63 was written.

In spite of many dangers and burning heat in the desert, King David still seeks after God with intense passion:

O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

I’d like to structure today’s message by asking three questions:
1) How do we thirst after God and be people who pursues after God’s heart? How do we seek God in a dry and weary land?

In Malaysia, we may not live in a "dry and weary land" physically, but we do live in a spiritual wasteland. In our urban and prosperous society, we are constantly bombarded with advertising from all over the place telling us that our life is not complete unless we live in a bigger house and drive a fancier car and invest in that blue chip company. Our sense of identity is tied to the things we buy, consume or own. Our slogan today is: “I shop till I drop. Or I shop therefore I am”. And all of us have to struggle daily against the omnipresent sales pitch telling us that "bigger, newer and faster are better!" It’s about “me, myself and I”. Oh, we all know that "money cannot buy happiness" but we still want more stuff that this world can offer. City folks like us have a "standard of living" to maintain. So we are always chasing that elusive fulfillment that the next purchase may bring.

Yet we strangely find many urban people are living lives of quiet desperation. People yearn for meaning and purpose in life and try to satisfy this longing with ‘stuffs’.

Herbert Schlossberg said this: (paraphrase) All true needs, such as food, drink, and companionship, are satiable. They can be satisfied but illegitimate wants - pride, envy, greed - are insatiable. By their very nature they cannot be satisfied. In that sense, materialism is the opium of the people. It’s like drugs/dadah that for a moment dulls the sense of emptiness inside. Enough is never enough. Greater quantities are required for satisfaction and each increment proves inadequate the next time." We cannot be satisfied by materialism.

It seems like we human beings have this infinitely huge hole in our hearts and we try our best to fill it up with things, sex, music, success, health, football, religion, you name it… but it leaves us empty as before. Many people think they will be really happy when something happens to them… Hit lottery… Retire… Make a million dollar… Marry this person… “I think I’d be truly happy when I’m a rich and famous superstar”.

But even celebrities are often the most unhappy people around. Because they work so hard to get to the top, thinking that they will be happy when they get there but they are utterly disappointed to find that they are still the same when they do reach the top.

Interview with Thom of Radiohead about what are his ambitions after achieving so much success in the music scene:

“Ambitious for what? What for? I thought when I got to where I wanted to be everything would be different. I’d be somewhere else. I thought it’d be all white fluffy clouds. And the nI got there. And I’m still here.”

Then why are you still making music?

“It’s filling the hole. That’s all anyone does”.

Interviewer: “What happens to the hole?”
Pause… It’s still there. (From Christianity Explored, Rico Tice)

In the movie The Matrix, Neo the main character works as a respectable programmer by day and a computer hacker by night. He lives and thinks that the world he lives in is real but it is actually an illusion, a virtual reality (called the Matrix) created to imprison his mind while his body is used as a battery to generate energy feeding the Machines. But he is blissfully unaware of it…

One day, a guy named Morpheus entered the Matrix to rescue him and leads Neo to himself:
“Let me tell you why you are here. It’s because you know something. What you know you can’t explain but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. There is something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”

Perhaps you too have this splinter in your mind. Perhaps you have thought about the big questions of life: Where do we come from? Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? There’s got to be more to life than this. Something is radically wrong with this world. It’s not supposed to be like this.

But if there is no God and everything is just ‘survival of the fittest’ in a dog eat dog world, then this world is exactly what you would expect it to be. It’s natural. “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless” (Bertrand Russell)

But we instinctively know it is not right. It’s not supposed to be this way. What’s wrong?

It’s the question that drives us. Like a hole in our hearts or splinter in our mind.

According to C.S. Lewis, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it… Probably, earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing." These longings are clues that point us to the God who truly satisfies.

You may say: “Just because I feel the desire for char koay teow doesn’t mean that I will get it.”

But doesn’t the appetite for food in us mean that food exists somewhere? Isn’t it true that innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them, such as sexual desire (corresponding to sex), physical hunger (corresponding to food), tiredness (corresponds to sleep) and relational desires (corresponding to friendship)? We have a longing that no amount or quality of food, sex, friendship or success in this world can fulfill. (Reasons for God, Tim Keller)

That is a clue that the hole in our hearts is God-shaped, only a relationship with the infinite God can make it whole again. We are made for another world.

And King David knows that! For him God is not some distant Supreme Being or impersonal Force faraway, not involved with the world. He cries out: “O God, You are my God”. This God is personal, not an “It”, He can have a covenant relationship with us.

And if we long and desire for God, then we need to seek him actively and earnestly. To be earnest is to be serious and determined. It’s not a hobby you do when you got nothing else better to do. Do we eagerly seek God with all our emotion, intellect and will? How serious are we in growing our relationship with God?
We are sometimes like the little boy who plays with dirty mud by the drain (longkang), and Mommy comes along and says, “Come, Ah Boy, don’t play in the mud. Come, Mommy bring you play at Sunway Lagoon instead.” And the boy refuses (I don’t want, I want to play by the longkang) because he cannot imagine how wonderful playing by the sea or Sunway Lagoon is like. The problem is not that his desire is too strong, but it is too weak. He settled for far too little.

Some people think of God as a cosmic policeman who frowns every time people have fun and goes around making sure that people never enjoys themselves.

But that is far from the truth. Think about all the promises in the Bible. Jesus says I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:34-36). At God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore. Those who lose their life shall find it. Crown of glory… Eternal life…

CS Lewis says: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at sea. We are far too easily pleased.” We settle for too little…

Do we have a covenant relationship with God today? Are we too easily pleased by the temporal pleasure of this world? Or do we thirst for the infinite joy of knowing the Creator God himself? Only Christ alone can satisfy the deepest longing for meaning and love in our hearts.

Saint Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee."

2) What can we do when we experience spiritual dryness and we don’t feel any passion for God?

When we don’t feel any passion for studying the scriptures, coming to church, pray or witness, does that mean that we don’t need to do these things because God is not honored by joyless duty. Do we stop doing our duty because we have no desire? What can we do then?

The answer is: No, don’t just sit and wait for the passion for God to come. We do what we need to do out of obedience anyway. But doesn’t that make us a hypocrite – I don’t want to do it but do it because I have to?

John Piper has this advice: “No, you will not be a hypocrite, if you know that joy is your duty, and repent that you don’t have it, and ask God earnestly to restore the joy even as you do good deeds. That is not the way a hypocrite thinks. That is the way a true Christian thinks in the fight for joy.” (When I Don’t Desire God: How To Fight For Joy)

That means we still do them but do so with a heart of repentance, asking God to restore our joy in Him. Because the value (preciousness) of water is not only glorified when we drink it and are satisfied. The importance of water is also glorified when we thirst and long for it when we don’t have it yet. In the same way, we honor God when we yearn for Him (even though not fully satisfied yet).

Some of us have been Christians for some time already but somehow we still don’t feel satisfied in God. What could be wrong? And we all experience seasons of spiritual dryness when we don’t feel like doing what we know we should. Very often, it could be due to willful sins in our lives or idols in our hearts. We need to turn away from them.

Sometimes before lunchtime, I have the habit of eating tid-bits or junkfood lying around the office. While waiting for the clock to hit 12 pm, my hand gets itchy and can’t resist grabbing that candy bar or munch on Pringles. So when it comes to having the proper meal, you have already lost appetite for real, nourishing food. You cant eat what you really need to eat because you are already stuffed on junkfood.

In the same way, satisfaction will never come if we claim to trust in God, but then quench our souls on the short-lived, inadequate pleasures of this world. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God said, "My people have exchanged their glory for that which does not profit… For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13)

If we do not feel a hunger/thirst to know God more (not just know about Him but a deeper personal encounter with Him) could it be because we have lost appetite by eating too much junk food? Maybe we need to go on a fast of TV, shopping, bak kut teh or whatever substitute or idol we may have in our hearts that hinder our relationship with God (Bulan Ramadhan) Something about desert is that there’s almost nothing there. There you have no one to turn to but God. Maybe we need to make a trip to the desert.

Sometimes, a season of spiritual dryness may not due to any particular sin. Some mystics call it ‘the dark night of the soul’. For example, you go for prayers and God touched you and you fell down on the floor. Wow, a wonderful spiritual experience. But then we can give too much attention on that experience, the drama of it, the pleasing sensations rather than focusing on the Savior. When we do not feel God’s presence, sometimes it may be a work of the Holy Spirit. When you feel God is far away but actually He is near you, He is weaning us away from our attachment to the pleasing, spiritual experiences so that we can love God for who He is, not for what He can give.

In the darkness of night, when he can’t sleep, King David remembers God… “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.” He actively recalls the spiritual encounters he had in the past… “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.” These memories at the temple kindle in his heart a desire and longing for God.

Why do you come to church? Is it out of habit? Because my parents bring me here? Out of obedience to Bible’s teaching? Because you like the cool music and songs? Because of the sermons? For fellowship with friends?

When it comes right down to it, there is only one reason for coming to church. It is the reason of the psalmist. We come to church, first and foremost, to be in God’s presence and seek His face. We come to church, first and foremost, to meet with God. God speaks and meets with us through our worship together, the sacraments, the preaching of the Word, prayers and the fellowship we will have later over lunch. To behold his power and glory. It’s not about us. It’s all about God.

Tun Mahathir always say “Melayu mudah lupa”. Sometimes Christians also can be quite forgetful. We also “mudah lupa”. When we experience God’s mercy or grace or answered prayers, do we store them up in our memory? Can we look back at these precious moments and when things are difficult, we can say to ourselves, “God has been faithful… God is good… He has done great things”? Do you remember?

Like King David, we need to come into God’s sanctuary with a focus to behold His power and glory and remember His grace and mercy and goodness during long seasons of darkness and loneliness.

3) How can we praise and glorify God even in a spiritual desert?

King David’s spirituality is not a form of escapism from the real world but the very essence of practical living. His situation was one of conflict and danger, enemies are bent on killing him. But this passion for God kept him going. He is assured that God is able to protect and vindicate him. He is confident his enemies will ultimately be destroyed by the sword and the mouths of liars will be silenced.

King David decided to praise God no matter what happens. Even while in danger and in the desert, there is mutual commitment: My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Despite the circumstances around him, he says: “with singing lips my mouth will praise you”, “I will praise you as long as I live, in your name I will lift up my hands”, “My lips will glorify you” and so on.

But how can He praise God when his life is in danger and his throne taken over by force?

If you ask him why? He would say: “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.”, “My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods with singing lips my mouth will praise you”, “Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings, My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”

In short, praise is the overflow of someone who is satisfied in God. All enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. Those of us who watch football will know this. Sometimes we watch champion’s league football at 3 am in the morning, and when our favorite team scores an exciting goal, we want to shout out: Goal! We want to sing “Glory Glory Man United!” Or “You’d never walk alone” We want to praise the scorer, turn to our friends: That was a wonderful pass from Rooney or Gerard. That is overflow of our enjoyment of the game. Imagine if you watch the game alone and you don’t dare to shout because you dun want to wake up your parents/wife. Something is missing… No umph… The joy is not complete… it didn’t lead to its climax.

So praise is the natural and joyful response of someone secure in God’s protection and satisfied in His greatness.

Our delight in someone or something is brought to completion by praise. When we see a very beautiful sunset or scenery, we just naturally feel like wanting to shout “Wow, that’s so amazing!” That praise completes our joy…

C. S. Lewis said: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.” When we praise the one we love, we are completing our joy.

So when God calls us to worship and praise Him, it is not out of selfishness or pride or insecurity as if He needs our praise. God forbid. Rather, the act of God seeking His own praise is the ultimate loving act. Precisely because He loves us so, He relentlessly commands us to pursue the praises of His name in our hearts. It completes our joy in Him. Think of what we would be missing if God did not insist that we worship Him. We would never know the source of ultimate satisfaction.

Jonathan Edwards commented, "The enjoyment of (God) is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied…. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows, but enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean."

All the pleasures and miracles of life – good food, beautiful friendship, the colors of sunset, the gentleness of a mother or a lover, glorious music – all these are good gifts from God that we enjoy, but even they are ultimately clues to a greater satisfaction found in God alone.

Let us pray:

“King David knew what it meant to love God with all his heart, soul and mind, to be a person who goes after God’s heart.

Are you thirsting and longing for God today? When we come to His sanctuary, do we come to meet with God and behold His power and glory?

Are our souls satisfied in all that He is or are we too easily pleased with substitutes that do not last?

Do you remember God and think about Him continually?
Do you recognize His care for you in difficult situations?
Are we following hard after Him?
Can we say, “O God, you are my God?”
Are we thirsting for God the way we should?

Jesus says: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:34-36)”


CDPC Kawan said...

question3 answered my longtime question about why God wanted our worship... he's omnipresent.. now i know its not for Him, it's for our enjoyment.


Stephen said...

Brilliant analogy with the football. Gonna use it in future if U don't mind.

Just nitpicking here but I have to cause its my team.

Gerrard is spelt with 2 Rs

and the song is You'll Never Walk Alone.

U never know. This information could be useful to you someday.


The Hedonese said...

hey kawan, most welcome and yes, cs lewis' observation tat praise completes our enjoyment helped me a lot too...

Stephen, can always count on u to be my fact checker :) thanks!!

Stephen said...

Mr Hedonese,

It finally hit me why U use that as ur nickname.

BTW, just finished reading the full article. Just skimmed through it before.

I just read Desiring God earlier this year and I must say this is possibly the most important lesson I've learned in life.

I think U did a really great job condensing it into 1 article and quoting from so many experts in the area.

Great job Malaysianising the mud pies/holiday by the sea analogy as well.

So if U don't mind, am I free to forward your work to other people? Post links on my own blog? Quote ur work? That kind of stuff?

Let me know.


God Bless.

The Hedonese said...

Hi Stephen,

Where's your blog ar? never tell us wan?

ya, hedonese is a christian hedonist who is also chinese, haha!

When i read desiring god, it's like that 'eureka!' experience when things just fall into place - our deepest longings for joy and God's pursuit for His glory are not at odds, but feeds on each other :D

Actually I have shamelessly plagiarised from so many sources, not least your Dad *so very often*, that i doubt any of the ideas is original lar... so feel free to do anything with it hehe... Joy is multiplied when it's shared rite? So, feed my hedonism, please... kakaka....

Ern Sheong said...

thanks for referring me to your post. i am encouraged by your writing as a testimony that there is hope for Christianity in Malaysia. I'm overseas in the US right now and I only wonder if I can find a good church to return to in the future to continue to grow and to serve. your writings provide some hope that there are still God centered churches and ministries in Malaysia, as opposed to the prosperity gospel churches. God bless :)

Dave said...

Ern Sheong,

Once I was in despair too but since noting an awakening of sorts among pockets of youths like you, I start to have the audacity to hope too!

This happens across many other denominations but just wanna especially single out a few churches you may wanna check out when back in msia...

St Mary Anglican, dataran merdeka
Klang Presbyterian
First Baptist, Jln Gasing
of course, (hehehe)

I'm also hoping to work with a group of passionate people to plant a new church sometime next year too... Can email me for more details at hedonese at yahoo dot com

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this.
With this I have got a new strength in my spiritual life .. GBU