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The Help of His Face

September 21st, 2018

Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance. (Psalm 42:5)

The psalmist knew what it was like to be on the mountaintop of successful ministry and to be in the valley of blame of failure. Anyone who serves the Lord very long will experience these two deceptive moments and must be prepared for them. Rudyard Kipling wrote: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.”

This type of thing happens in the careers of most people. Rarely, whether you are in business, education, medicine, or military, do you always go from success to success, from triumph to triumph. And it happens to those who serve the Lord as well.

The deception of triumph

Certainly it is more fun to be successful in any venture, than to seem to be less than successful. But success rarely depends on one single person alone. It comes due to a combination of realities – timing, mood, opportunity, chemistry, and unseen thoughts. Often the Spirit moves among a people, like the wind blows (John 3:8), and people respond to Christ and to His call to serve. And some situations there is less movement by God and less faith by people.

There is a scene in the film The Bear that depicted for me the reality of ministry. The film tells the story of an orphaned bear cub trying to survive in the wilderness. In a dramatic moment in the film a mountain lion chases the young vulnerable cub across the hilly terrain until the cub is cornered. But rather than cowering in panic, the cub stands its ground, letting out a brave roar, and the mountain lion stops its charge and runs away. Just as we think that the cub had successfully defended itself, the camera widens its view and we see a full grown bear standing behind the cub growling as well.

I thought to myself, how often we are like the cub, thinking that we in our courage, or creativity, or cleverness, have been successful in our lives, when in reality it was God who stood behind us and orchestrated the entire matter. He sent the right people, and the Spirit blew among the society, and success happened from His hand. We were just a simple part of a much larger work of God.

Christ told His disciples, when they returned rejoicing from the success of their mission: “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). All that we have is really is what the Lord has prepared for us in heaven. And that is what we are to hold on to. In the heady moments of successful ministry we can delight too much in the fruit of our efforts and not enough in the Lord Himself.

The help of His countenance

We could also speak of the deception of disaster, to paraphrase Kipling. Keil-Delitzsch points out that it is the spiritual man that must comfort the natural man in our hearts. It is the new nature in Christ that is given us at salvation that must grow and lead within our hearts, and not our old fallen nature with its focus on outward results. The “help of His countenance” is the look of mercy from our heavenly Father. It is the nurture of the merciful face of God that lightens our burdens and enables us to rediscover our joy.

In many ways, the relatively fruitless times of ministry become greater blessings to our hearts than the seemingly successful times, because they require us to turn our thoughts to God, to look up to Him, to commune with Him and to rest in Him. Success in any field tempts us to take our eyes off of Christ, and seeming failure teaches us to look at Him afresh.

The New Testament speaks often of “bearing with one another” (Col. 3:13), meaning to endure and to continue even when it seems pointless and difficult. People who are agreeable and pleasant and enjoyable to be with are easy to serve alongside of, and it takes no special amount of character or spiritual discipline to do so. But we reveal that we have been with God when we are able to graciously endure difficult people and difficult circumstances.

We all need, in our souls, to spend time looking at the merciful face of God, to remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of life and service to God, and just in isolation commune with Him. The psalmist was dealing with a period of his life that seemed relatively fruitless. In His younger years he had been with the multitude, leading them in excited worship, but now he felt forgotten by god, a source of reproach by his enemies. The only way out of this depression was the renewed vision of the merciful face of God.

This treasure in earthen vessels

One of the most meaningful passages of scripture to me is the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians. There Paul explains how he kept going in service: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Then he goes on to say that we are “hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed” (4:8), because the life of Jesus is within us.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (4:16). God is constantly at work within us. And it is exactly this reality that makes the Christian message compelling – not that everything is always pleasant, or easy, but that God is constantly at work. If we will let Him, I believe God can turn these seemingly dark times into beautiful periods of light and life, times in which we rejoice in Him and grow in Him more than ever before.

After all, the only problem we really have is with our earthen vessels we call our human bodies and minds. We have no problem with the power and grace and mercy of God. The Father is always at work (John 5:17). Our need is to slow down long enough to listen to Him and to experience the salvation that comes through seeing His face.

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