What God Remembers That We Forget
December 2, 2008
“He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14).
Have you wondered what God really thinks about you?
Our greatest barrier to knowing God better may be how much we know about how much God knows about us. We struggle with God because we feel so bad about ourselves, and if we know the truth about ourselves, think of how much more God knows us!
We can’t fool him.
Sometimes we don’t want to pray or read the Bible or think about God because when we look in the mirror, we feel like saying, “You’re a big disappointment” or “You ought to be a lot better by now.”
We’ve all felt that way from time to time, and I imagine that many people reading these words feel that way right now. It’s been a hard week, or a bad month, and now we’re near the end of what seems like a wasted year. Sam Storms captures the truth in one simple sentence:
I think we run from God rather than to him because we know our own hearts all too well and his barely at all.
I probably don’t need to spend any time convincing you that you are a sinner. You probably know the truth about yourself all too well. But it’s the other side that we need to talk about. We don’t know God’s heart very well.
You probably know the truth about yourself all too well.
That’s where Psalm 103 can help us tremendously. Perhaps no other chapter in the Bible so clearly reveals God’s compassion for his people. If you’re wondering what God thinks about you, let’s take a journey through Psalm 103 and discover seven liberating truths about God’s heart.
1. He Loves to Help the Needy.
“The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel” (vv. 6-7).
The “oppressed” are those who can’t help themselves. In the Old Testament the word especially referred to widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. When we are tempted to take advantage of others because we are strong and they are weak, God says, “Think about that first.” He takes the side of the weak. Our God keeps his eyes on the helpless, and when others hurt them, he moves to balance the scales of justice. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arm of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” There are days and times when this is hard to believe, especially in light of events like the terrorist bombing in Mumbai. But this truth stands like a solid rock for the believer. If all of history is a book, we haven’t reached the final chapter yet. We’re somewhere near the end, but we’re not sure how far away we are. But we know this much. Eventually God will bring everything to light, and he will judge with impartiality. In that day there will be no hiding, no excuse-making, no bribes, and no way of escape.
Eventually God will bring everything to light, and he will judge with impartiality.
All those who labor for a better world and a more just society and those who stretch out a helping hand–you have to believe this or you can’t go on. The words of James Russell Lowell come to mind:
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,-
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
Are you needy? The answer is yes whether you know it or not. You are needy and God is on your side. That’s a great place to start.
2. He Shows Mercy to Those Who Don’t Deserve It.
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (v. 8).
See the four great attributes of God in this verse:
1) The Lord is compassionate-He pardons us.
2) The Lord is gracious-He gives us what we don’t deserve.
3) The Lord is slow to anger-He is patient with us when we fall.
4) The Lord abounds in love-He loves us more than we can imagine.
There’s no fishing like fishing in the sea.
There’s no eating like eating at the king’s table.
There’s no love like God’s love.
When he saves, he saves completely.
When he forgives, he forgives all my sins.
When he sets free, we are free forever.
The King James Version translates the last phrase of verse 8 by saying that God is “plenteous in mercy.” Spurgeon (in The Treasury of David) takes that phrase and offers this application (italics added):
All the world tastes of his sparing mercy,
those who hear the gospel partake of his inviting mercy,
the saints live by his saving mercy,
are preserved by his upholding mercy,
are cheered by his consoling mercy, and
will enter heaven through his infinite and everlasting mercy.
I like that! Six kinds of mercy in just one sentence. That’s plenteous mercy for anyone who needs it.
3. He Tempers His Wrath.
“He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever. He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (vv. 9- 10).
Have you ever known anyone who loved to argue? We all know people who love to keep a quarrel going because they are so angry. God is not like that. He is willing to end the quarrel and welcome us back home. Sometimes the real problem is that we want to keep fighting him.
He’s more ready to forgive than we are to be forgiven!
When we forget to pray, he remembers to feed us.
When we forge to give thanks, he sends us restful sleep.
When we idle in sin, he sends his Holy Spirit to convict us.
When we refuse to give, he keeps on giving still.
When we fall, he lifts us up.
When we disappoint ourselves and others, he still calls us his children.
God even blesses those who don’t believe in him.
He even blesses those who don’t believe in him. An unbeliever like Christopher Hitchens writes a book called “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” and sells a boatload of copies, along the way merrily debating every religious-type person he can find. He is clever, witty, a gifted wordsmith, widely read, quick with a comeback, and completely committed to debunking religion of every type and even more committed to the concept that God is simply not necessary. But see the mercy of God. Instead of crushing him like an empty eggshell, the Lord feed him and nourishes him and gives him health and love and life. It is the longsuffering of God that allows Christopher Hitchens to deny him. And why would God show such kindness to someone utterly dedicated to eradicating his influence in the world? Because if there is a God at all, he is not in the least intimidated by Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. If you think of them as part of the atheist artillery, they shoot at God on ground he provides from them. And the fact that God withholds punishment to his enemies, that too is evidence of his mercy for “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance” (Romans 2:4).
4. He Forgives All Our Sins.
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (vv. 11-12).
Consider the greatness of God’s love. Astronomers tell us that the farthest known light source from the earth is ten billion light years away. That means that light starting from that source (a quasar) would take ten billion years traveling at the speed to light to arrive at the earth. By contrast the nearest star is “only” four light years away from us. That’s four years traveling at the speed of light, which is 186,000 miles per second. Light from the sun reaches the earth in a little over eight minutes. So even the nearest star is a vast distance from the earth. And using ion drive propulsion, you could reach the nearest star in a modern spaceship in “only” 81,000 years. You can turn it around any way you like and we are left with two inescapable realities. First, we live in a tiny corner of the universe, and second, the universe is vast beyond our comprehension. But God’s love is greater, vaster, larger, deeper, longer, broader, and bigger in all dimensions that the universe itself. Get in a rocket equipped with any sort of sci-fi system you can imagine. Fly at warp speed if you like. Go as far as you can go, to the end of the known universe and beyond. And when you have gone as far as you can go, look up and smile because God’s love is still going. You will never reach the end of it.
Consider the magnitude of God’s love. Let’s suppose you want to go east until you finally reach the west. So you take off from Baltimore in a hot air balloon. When you land in Lisbon, you get in a Honda Civic and drive across Europe until you come to Varna, Bulgaria. There you hop on a freighter than takes you through the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and on to the Gulf of Aden where you narrowly escape getting caught by the pirates, and on into the Indian Ocean where you finally put ashore in Colombo, Sri Lanka. From there you catch a flight to Singapore and then down south to Perth, Australia. There you hitchhike across the Outback, eventually arriving in Sydney where you join a passenger ship heading for Easter Island. You then fly to Santiago, Chile where you rent a beat-up Jeep and start driving north. It’s a long way but you eventually make it all the way to Nome, Alaska where you hire a dogsled team so that you can run the Iditarod Race in reverse, ending up in Anchorage so you hop on a cruise ship to Vancouver, BC, where you take the Trans-Canada Railway, ending up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And there you buy a high-end road bike and start peddling through New Brunswick, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Delaware. Finally you make it back to Baltimore. Besides having circumnavigated the globe, what have you proved? Among other things, you have proved that no matter how far east you go, you will never find the west.
My sins can never come back to haunt me again.
Never the twain shall meet. The farther east you go, the farther you are from the west.
That’s the magnitude of God’s love. Here is great good news for all the sinners of the world. When God forgives, he removes our sins, he lifts them up, he takes them away, and he puts them so far away from us that we could never find them if we searched for them for a thousand years. They are gone forever.
My sins can never come back to haunt me again.
Even Satan can’t bring them back.
In his sermon on these verses Jim Nicodem says that God has . . .
A long fuse – “slow to anger” (v. 8),
A short memory-“does not harbor his anger forever” (v. 9),
A thick skin-“does not treat us as our sins deserve” (v. 10), and
A great heart-“so great is his love, so far has he removed our sins” (vv. 11-12).
I’m glad we have a God like that because that exactly the kind of God we need.
5. He Understands Our Weakness.
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (v. 13).
I never understood that verse until I had children. When our boys were very young and would have trouble going to sleep, and when Marlene was tired and needed to sleep herself, I would carry the boys in my arms. Sometimes I would sing to them, sometimes (often) I would make up a song. I remember when Joshua was very young, I would sing Scripture verses to him, such as “The wicked they flee when no man pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion” (see Proverbs 28:1). I would sing it over and over again until he finally fell asleep in my arms. I just made the tune up, but as I typed the words, the tune came back to me as if I had last sung it yesterday and not 25 years ago.
When an earthly father has done his job well, he makes it easy for his children to believe in their Heavenly Father.
Earthly fathers-however imperfect-point us upward to our Heavenly Father. When an earthly father has done his job well, he makes it easy for his children to believe in their Heavenly Father. Our children learn that we do not worship a god of stone or an empty idol or a remote deity or an impersonal machine in the sky. We serve a Father God who knows our weakness and loves us anyway.
When our son Mark was a young child, he developed a persistent ear infection that would not go away. After trying antibiotics for a time, our family physician told us we needed to see a specialist so he referred us to Dr. Culbertson, a highly respected specialist in Dallas. After examining him carefully, he announced that Mark needed to have tubes put in his ears to prevent further scarring from the infection. Even though the operation is quick and fairly simple, the doctor could see that Mark was scared. So he picked him up and carried him piggy-back to surgery. That was the last image we saw-the great physician carrying our son on his back so he wouldn’t be afraid.
So it is with our Heavenly Father. The Great Physician knows our weakness and understands our fears. And when we can’t go on, he carries us on his back.
6. He Remembers That We Are Dust.
“For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (vv. 14-16).
Here is a truth we all understand, especially in this season of the year. Yesterday’s green leaves soon turn brown. It is an inexorable law of nature that the green leaves of spring end up in a pile on your lawn. In October Marlene and I spent a few days on Prince Edward Island, home of the famous “Anne of Green Gables” books. We happened to be there near the peak of the fall foliage season so as we traveled the narrow country roads, we saw leaves in every hue imaginable-scarlet, orange, pink, bright red, russet, maroon, bronze, yellow, purple, and every possible shade of brown. We especially noticed it in the evening, when the low angle of the sun seemed to backlight the entire forest and set it ablaze in a kaleidoscope of color. Why do the leaves lose their green? There is a scientific explanation having to do with the loss of green chlorophyll, but that simply means the leaves are slowly dying. Their beauty comes from their death.
Who remembers each leaf? Not the tree. One by one the leaves fall to the ground where they disintegrate and return to the soil from which they came. No one names them or numbers them or even thinks about them. And by now on Prince Edward Island most of the leaves are gone from the trees. It is the way of nature, the way God arranged the changing of the seasons.
Twenty years ago Marlene would sometimes tease me by saying, “There’s a little gray in your beard.” She stopped that a long time ago because the little has become a lot. Just this morning I realized that I hadn’t shaved in two days. And when I looked in the mirror I saw little bits of gray stubble all over my face. I think if I let my beard grow, it would be mostly gray. When God puts gray in your beard, it’s like the leaves turning brown in the fall. It’s God’s way of saying, “You won’t be here forever.”
Every now and then I’ll run across a bit of cemetery humor that makes me chuckle. I was driving down a major thoroughfare in Chicago next to one of those cemeteries that seems to go on forever. Because it is a long stretch of road with no stop lights, people tend to break the speed limit routinely. So I laughed when I saw a billboard sponsored by the cemetery that said, “Slow Down. We’ll save a place for you.” I’m sure they will.
If that’s all there is, if we are here today and gone tomorrow, if that’s the end of the story, then there isn’t much hope. But let me share something with you. If you don’t have anything else to be thankful for this year, here’s something you can hang your hat on. Our hope is not in man or in anything man can do.
Our hope is in the everlasting God!
7. He Links Us With Eternity By Linking Us With Himself.
“But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children- with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts” (vv. 17-18).
Our hope is in the everlasting God!
There is nothing we can do about our frailty. We come from the hand of our Creator stamped, “Fragile: Handle with care.” We are like the dust devils that blow across the desert. We make a big scene and then suddenly we disappear. Try as we might, we can’t cancel our humanity. Nothing can change what we are. Vitamins and exercise and clean living may slow down the process. Positive thinking may improve our mood. But for all of us, the end is the same:
Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust.
Psalm 103 offers us one strong ground of comfort that lifts us up above the transitory nature of this life. It is the “but” of verse 17, the blessed “but” that changes everything. That one word offers an eternal contrast between
The fading flower and the everlasting God,
Our mortality and God’s eternity.
That one word-that little “but”-stands at the demarcation between this life and the next. Here is our real hope of life that never ends.
God’s tender mercy.
His unfailing love.
His abounding grace.
Someone has said that life without Christ is a hopeless end, but life with Christ is an endless hope. And this endless hope is not only to us but to our children’s children. What will we leave our children? A vast estate? A large inheritance? A huge life insurance policy? Whatever we may say about earthly possessions, they pale next to the privilege of passing down a godly heritage, a tapestry of truth, and a pattern of believing that our children and grandchildren can claim as their own.
We are richer than we think, we are more blessed than we know, and we have more than we realize.
In a transient and passing world where everything fades away, we have the promise that we are linked to the future even after we are gone by the faithfulness of God to our children to our children’s children. This, too, is the mercy of God.
Take Me to the Cross
What is Psalm 103 telling us? We are richer than we think, we are more blessed than we know, and we have more than we realize. We frail, mortal sinners are rich in the mercy of God.
And we have found that mercy–or rather, that mercy has found us-i-n the cross of Jesus Christ. During one of his sermons Billy Graham told the story of a patrolman on night duty in a town in northern England. As he walked the streets, he heard a quivering sob. Shining his flashlight into the darkness, he saw a little boy in the shadows sitting on a doorstep and tears were running down his cheek. The child said, “I’m lost. Please take me home.” And the policeman began naming street after street, trying to help the boy remember where he lived. He named the shops and the hotels in the area but the little boy could give him no clue.
Then he remembered that at the center of the town there was a church with a large white cross that towered above the rest of the city. The policeman pointed to the cross and said, “Do you live anywhere near that place?” The little boy’s face immediately brightened up. He said, “Yes, sir. Take me to the cross and I can find my way home.”
Go to the cross and you will find your way home to God.
All that we believe, all that we have, all that we hope for is found in the cross of Christ. Go to the cross and you will find your way home to God.
Are you weak? So am I.
Are you needy? So am I.
Are you guilty? So am I.
Are you frail? So am I.
Are you like dust? So am I.
And God says to us, his weak, needy, guilty, frail, dusty children, “I know you through and through, and I love you anyway. Come to me. Rest in me. Make me your Rock.” God’s mercy in Christ is more than enough for all of us. Amen.