Ashes, Anguish, and a Pathway to Healing – Psalm 31:1-13

Lent begins this year on Wednesday, February 22nd. On that day, churches worldwide will host Ash Wednesday services. Ministers will mark the foreheads of the faithful and say,

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 
Genesis 3:19 ESV

During the forty days of Lent, believers can set aside time to lament their own mortality. In the Bible, the use of ashes signals mourning and loss. Ashes on our skin make inner suffering visible. Christians are reminded that we sin and die because humanity rebelled against God. We must continue to acknowledge this truth.

In Psalm 31, David laments his own suffering as he is relentlessly pursued by King Saul. Examining the first half of this psalm reveals a great deal about prayers of desperation and lament.

1 In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!
2 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!
(Psalm 31:1-2 ESV)

God’s rescue comes about because of His character. What a relief!

God’s refuge is a solid rock of certainty, not an everchanging unreliable aspirational goal. The rescue may not be what I expected, but it always comes in God’s perfect timing.

3 For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name's sake you lead me and guide me;
4 you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
(Psalm 31:3-4 ESV)

God’s presence is the refuge. How often do I seek His presence and spend time there?

Suffering and Surrender

Verse 5 might sound familiar. Jesus intentionally echoes David’s words from this psalm as he is about to die on the cross. Jesus would have had many of the psalms memorized, and the crowd would have to. By using this key phrase, He models surrender.

During Lent, many believers spend time considering the suffering of Jesus on the cross. The gravity of our sin required a sacrifice of extreme and prolonged anguish.

Idol Check

6 I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.
7 I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul,
8 and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.
Psalm 31:6-8 ESV

Before I coast by verse six, I may need to conduct an idol check. I don’t typically feel like bowing down to a large golden cow. So, considering that weirdly specific Biblical allusion, I suppose I’m idol free, or am I?

While I do trust in the Lord, would an inventory of my spent time and treasure reveal some idol influences?

Where do I spend my time?

How do I spend my money?

How do I invest the talents the Lord has blessed me with?

Set aside time to spend alone with the Lord, seeking His wisdom on these questions. Consider asking a trusted friend or family member how she sees these areas in your life.

We live in a society that worships the idol of youth and beauty. People make important life decisions based on public opinion, pleasing the crowd, or external appearances. God looks on our hearts. We all can become obsessed with seeking a life of ease and comfort.  We feel outraged if we believe our rights have been put into question. These goals contradict the transformational call to follow Jesus and carry our cross. We are called to give up our own way, rights, entitlements, and priorities for the sake of the Gospel.

Verse seven reminds me that God sees me and knows my distress and brokenness. In the midst of suffering, knowing that someone sees and knows can help me hang on. A certain isolation weighs so heavily on my heart when I feel like no one understands. Often no human can completely comprehend another person’s journey, but the Lord always can.

Our Bodies Keep the Score

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.
Psalm 31:9-10 ESV

Our bodies bear the brunt of trauma and abuse. Years of verbal abuse may result in migraine headaches or other maladies. Sin takes a toll on our physical bodies. (For so much more on this topic, check out this book: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD)

Neighbor’s Betrayal

11 Because of all my adversaries, I have become a reproach, especially to my neighbors, and an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many— terror on every side!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
Psalm 31:11-13 ESV

When someone in our lives becomes our enemy and seeks to harm us, we expect that person to be a threat. In normal and healthy ways, we draw boundaries and allow that person to experience the consequences of her actions. However, a neighbor’s or friend’s betrayal, inaction, or lack of empathy cuts much more deeply. Social isolation becomes a secondary trauma for those who have been victims of abuse.

Why does this happen?

Recently I heard Rachel Denhollander talk about our call as Christians to bear witness to someone else’s abuse and respond with active compassion. Denhollander warns that this requires so much of us. It is costly and painful. Sadly, the cost is far too great for some, who choose to pull away when others need them most.

How do you respond to those who suffer around you? Do you try to minimize a friend’s experience, or are you willing to be present and sit and hold space for someone to process through a time of grief?

To be able to hold space for others in seasons of suffering, we must seek to be healed ourselves by processing our own trauma and suffering.

Psalm 31 provides a set of prayers for those who suffer. It can provide a way to begin to metabolize grief. In an effort to bring his own brokenness before God, David boldly showed his whole heart to God. Not just the pure and acceptable parts, but he reveals the darkness and the desolation. This is our own path to healing.

Prayers of Desperation

David’s prayers all through the Psalms reveal a willingness to be honest and vulnerable which builds true intimacy in His relationship with God. These steps allow Him to draw near to God on his worst day. When he finds himself trapped, overwhelmed, and hopeless, he hands it to the Lord fully and completely. His prayers are raw without edits or apologies, and ours should be too. He refuses to dress it up as anything other than pure desperation. His heart is failing, and there is no way out in his own strength.

Hope in the Cross

If you can attend an Ash Wednesday service and receive ashes marked in the shape of the cross on your forehead, I encourage you to cling to the hope revealed there.

That cross carries within it an entire story and the foundation of human hope. It is the story of loss and gain, of the incarnation of the truly good one, his glorious life, and triumphant defeat of death. The ashes are not just a reminder of our great failure; but they remind us of God’s victory over sin and death through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.

Esau McCaulley
Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal

How will you navigate the season of Lent this year? What does God have for you in this journey? Lent 2023 begins on Wednesday, February 22nd.

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