God is all we have, and all we need – Psalm 73

(This devotional today is an article that I wrote in the late 90s for a magazine about a health crisis situation in our family in 1996.)

When your doctor takes it upon himself to personally call you first thing in the morning, you know it marks the beginning of a really bad day. “I hate making calls like this,” he began. “The X-rays picture a large abnormality in your son’s leg – possibly an aggressive benign tumor, but I must honestly tell you it looks to me like a malignancy called Ewing’s Sarcoma.”

How does one absorb such a call? You simply do not expect to hear such a thing about yourself, let alone your 14-year-old son. Just the day before, Nathan had begun his freshman year in high school. Having been homeschooled all his life, entering high school was to be the launch into a great new adventure.

An adventure, indeed! But not one of our choosing!

An occasional sharp pain in his leg and knee had consistently increased in intensity. Originally written off by the family physician as “typical growing pains,” successive tests tended toward a confirmation of the worst. The “C” word – “cancer” – crept almost innocently into the naturally flowing discussions of the specialists.

The most brutal test to observe was the bone scan. One of my elders – a nuclear medicine technologist – sat with us as the radiographic dye pulsated quickly through Nathan’s system. The problem area was painfully obvious on the screen. Even a three-year-old could have pointed to the large, bright, radiating spot of concern. My elder friend displayed a wonderful pastoral presence, but I noted how infrequently he looked at the screen, and how much he gazed distantly at the floor.

I pressed for numbers. I wanted to hear percentages and know what we were facing. “Only a biopsy will determine the nature of this with certainty,” they said. “But we feel there is sufficient clarity in the MRI and other tests to identify it as Ewing’s Sarcoma. We honestly don’t expect to hear something different.” Sounded like 99% to me!

I pressed for more numbers – survival rate figures. “About 50% survive past five years, some with amputations, and some able to salvage the leg.”  I secretly embarked on an Internet research crusade on the subject. The results were so discouraging that I chose to not tell my wife what I discovered, nor even that I had done it. I had reason for special concern for Diana. Just two weeks earlier, she sat with her sister as she died from cancer – leaving eight children behind.

Ewing’s is a rather rare form of cancer, and we were referred to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Regarded often as the foremost medical facility in the world, gaining an appointment is very difficult. We would have to wait a month – a month to live in a condition one author has aptly entitled, “God’s Waiting Room.”

Our family attempted to live a normal life as we waited. One night we attended the local minor league baseball game in our city – a favorite outing for us. There I saw a man whom I’d noticed at the ballpark practically every time we’d been there. He was a very loud, foul-speaking, verbally obnoxious person of about age 65; a man who had quite obviously lived a foolish life of hard drink and personal abuse. Yet there he stood, basically healthy, out in public enjoying a recreational event, while my eight nieces and nephews mourned the loss of their godly mother and my son wrestled with the issues of a deadly cancer. It didn’t just seem unfair; IT WAS UNFAIR!

I was driven into the Scriptures for any hint of perspective. My reading soon brought me to the 73rd Psalm, which served as the anchor for my soul in the weeks to follow.

The Psalmist wrestles with the age-old question of the prosperity of the wicked. He writes, “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills” (Ps. 73:4-5). This sure sounded like a description of the guy at the stadium! And the following verses roared even more graphically, “From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. They scoff and speak with malice. They say, `How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?’” (Ps. 73:7,8,11)

The horrific injustices of this world may sometimes cause us to ponder the benefit of our efforts at righteous living. The Psalmist verbalized this sentiment by stating, “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence (Ps. 73:13).” Why do we bother to live for God when the gunk of this world finds its way to our door as indiscriminately as to the home of our wicked neighbor? Do we, as Christians, possess any real advantage?

But suddenly in the Psalm, perspective comes crashing upon the scene. Yes, there does exist an advantage in being numbered among the people of God! In fact, the Psalm writer speaks of three great perspectives for those days when the inevitable sorrows of this world claim squatter’s rights on our turf of our soul.

  1. God is really, really good at keeping score!

The Psalmist says, “I entered the Sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.  You cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you” (Ps. 73:18,19,27). The perspective is this: God is a good scorekeeper, and in the end the righteous always win.

Vince Lombardi, the famous Green Bay Packers football coach, said, “Sometimes the clock runs out, but in the end, we will win.” Even championship teams suffer some regular-season defeats. The ultimate goal is to win the playoffs, and such becomes our guarantee as believers. That really is an incredible knowledge to possess! How much else in life are we able to know with such certainty? We know the final score before the game concludes, and we know we win and the wicked lose.

  1. When sorrows move in, God doesn’t move out!

The Psalm writer pens a second great perspective as he considers the nature of his relationship with God, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:23,24,26).

God pledges to us His constant presence, counsel and strength extending into eternity. The weight and pain of the sorrows we experience may seem to suggest that God has vacated and an ugly stranger taken up residence, but such is far from reality. Amidst such times of frail incapability, God often reveals his most real presence – at a time when there is absolutely nothing we can do but rest in Him.

  1. We just plain don’t have anyone else to turn to!

The pinnacle of the Psalm is scaled in verse 25, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” The fact of the matter is that we ultimately have no other options as a refuge for inclement times. But the great truth is this: we don’t need anybody else! Doctors may help, loved ones may support, but only God will pour an eternal peace into our empty and hurting souls.

My month in God’s waiting room provided the opportunity to uniquely experience the reality of His sufficient peace. I also gained a new appreciation for the incredible blessing and assistance of the prayers of God’s people. Reports of prayer support came to us from as far as Kazakhstan. Heaven surely resonated with the supplications of friends and family.

The orthopedic specialist at Johns Hopkins looked at the various magnetic images and X-rays and said, “Could be Ewing’s Sarcoma – it would look like this. But let’s not cross that bridge until we have to.” “Too late,” I thought. I was already across that bridge and well up the other side! “My gut feeling is that this is an infection rather than cancer,” he said. “A biopsy will tell us immediately what we are dealing with. If it is cancer, we’ll close it up and come back to fight another day. If it is an infection, we’ll begin cleaning it out immediately.”

An excruciating pain wracked Nathan’s leg the last several days before surgery. But an hour after sending him off, the doctor announced it was indeed an infection. The news dropped us into a limp emotional heap. It caused great excitement and rejoicing for friends and family, and left our local medical community stunned. The hospital radiology technicians posted some of the images and ultimate results on a bulletin board with a label that said, “Can You Believe This?”

Some folks have suggested we were on the receiving end of a miracle. I don’t know. Such is surely possible. The worst thing that could be said is that we received a huge answer to prayer. The greatest knowledge, however, was the experience of knowing God’s sufficient grace in some very dark days of life. He is all we have, and He is all we need!

Psalm 73

A psalm of Asaph.

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth.
10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.
11 They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”

12 This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.

15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children.
16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.

18 Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

21 When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.

23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.