“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” –Psalm 34:15
Certain words in the English language sound like what they describe. Words like “buzz,” “cuckoo,” “BOOM!” “ooze,” and “screech.” These are called onomatopoetic words. Onomatopoeia is a noun that refers to a word formed by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent. “Buzz” sounds like what it does…buzzzzz. “Crush,” also, is onomatopoetic. You can almost hear that word as an old car is crushed between giant steel jaws in a scrap yard…CARUSHHH!…or even when you wad up a piece of paper. Crush!
In Psalm 34, the psalmist speaks of being “crushed in spirit” – a vivid phrase in describing one “whose courage is broken…whose spirit is crushed” (NEB). The Psalmist pretty well describes what many of us are feeling today. We feel that our assurance and courage is being broken down by this pandemic.
Last week, the President warned, “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.” The President was alluding to a report released by the White House last Tuesday, with estimates of a staggering death toll from the Coronavirus spread, predicting anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths even if Americans do their best to avoid social interactions. “This is going to be a very painful, very, very painful two weeks,” the President said at the White House. “This is going to be a rough two week period.”
We are in that two week period now. In the days ahead, many of us may feel “crushed in spirit,” as the Psalmist described. All of us have or will experience perplexing circumstances when our spirits are crushed. In many of these situations, there are no pat answers. Back in 1990, my father was dying, lying in a bed in a mentally confused state, with one leg amputated and the possibility of having the other amputated. As much as I would have liked to believe otherwise, my father was not going to get any better. For my family “hope was not just around the corner.” But my family is no different from many other families who will be losing loved ones in the days ahead. Many people today find themselves “crushed in spirit” by situations for which there are no simple answers. Rather than offering a cheap and false hope to those of us crushed in spirit, I want us to explore and see if there is anything salvageable when we find ourselves in crushing circumstances. As terrible and unpleasant as it is to be crushed in spirit, sometimes tragedy and misfortune have a way of opening our eyes to what is really important about life.
A timeless poetic statement of a human being crushed in spirit is the Old Testament figure of Job. It’s the story of a wealthy man who lost his wealth, his family, his whole world and came within “the skin of his teeth” of losing his faith. It’s a universal statement. Archibald MacLeish updated the theme of Job in his smash broadway play J.B. In this modern drama, the character of Job is recast in the form of a wealthy banker-industrialist who is identified only by his initials, J.B. The opening scene of the play shows J.B.’s family around a dinner table about to begin their annual Thanksgiving feast. They bow their heads and J.B. offers a short blessing: “Our Father which art in heaven, give us this day our daily bread,”and the five children all quickly chime: “Amen!” J.B.’s wife, Sarah, is not satisfied with J.B.’s table grace; it seemed too quick and glib, so she halts the children from their eating and asks them if they really know what day it is. With eyes riveted on food, one child after another says, “Turkey day, Cranberry day, Succotash Day, when we can have white and giblets to bite, and two kinds of pie and squash in your eye.” Sarah pursues it and finally gets one of the children to say seriously, “Today is Thanksgiving, the day we give thanks to God.” Now standing off on the sidelines of the stage are Mr. Zuss and Nickles who are reading the parts of God and Satan, just like in the original story of Job. Mr. Zuss, who plays God, says: “That’s our Pigeon. That’s Job, he has wealth, the wife, the children, position in the world.” Mr. Nickles, who plays the devil scornfully says, “A rich man’s piety stinks. It’s insufferable…You know what talks when that man’s talking? All that gravy on his plate–his cash–his pretty wife–his children! Lift the lot of them, he’d sing another canticle to different music.”
And so it happens. J.B.’s oldest boy is killed in military service; a son and daughter are killed in a car accident, his youngest daughter is molested and killed by a psychopath, and his remaining daughter is taken in an explosion of his factory, which also puts him out of business. And, finally, his wife Sarah turns against him. J.B., like Job of old sinks to the bottom. He is utterly crushed in spirit. He is seen sitting on an ash heap, his skin darkened and his clothes in rags, saying, “I cry out of wrong but I am not heard…I cry aloud but there is no judgment.” He has descended to the depths of despair. But, it is precisely in this crushed state that Job and J.B. found the true basis of gratitude. And it was a far cry from the we-love-our-life-because-it-is-good-approach. In truth, it wasn’t until all the gravy of their lives had been wiped away that they saw the true beauty of life and their true relationship to God. It was only when they had been crushed, stripped to their bare souls that they began to see the basis of a true appreciation of God.
Adversity and misfortune often can have that effect on us. They can at the very least help us to distinguish between the trivial and the significant, between the minor and major. Adversity also has a way of focusing our attention upon God. In John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Grapes of Wrath, he has the central family named Joad (note the similarity to Job) finding their true identity after they had lost everything in the Depression. The basic theme of the book is that the more you have, the less grateful you are. One of the heroes of the book, Jim Casey, the itinerant preacher, put his finger on it when he said, “Maybe the good Lord takes things away from us to get our attention.” Now while I don’t believe that God “takes things away from us,” nor that God causes suffering, I do believe that adversity can sometimes actually bring us closer to God. It’s no accident that in times of prosperity, people tend to become spiritually distant from God, and that it is often only in the hard and difficult times that people tend to become more religious and conscious of the Almighty. But not only do people tend to move closer to God in times of adversity. More importantly, God moves closer to us in difficult times. There is a good reason for this. Through Christ’s death on the cross, God identifies himself with the suffering, the powerless, the broken and the dying. It is in those times when we are crushed in spirit that God is closer to us than life and breath itself. And while the tragedy or misfortune may not be removed from us, we do not have to suffer alone. For we are not alone. In those crushing times of death and defeat there is one with us who has tasted of death and defeat. And it is when we realize this, that we don’t have to remain crushed in spirit. We don’t suffer alone. We don’t grieve alone. We don’t face an uncertain future alone. Jesus takes our fear, our failures, our loneliness, our pain, our sorrows, our suffering and our tagedy upon himself. Let’s remember this. Through the cross, Jesus takes on our pain and suffering. And through his resurrection we have victory over whatever we may have to face.
O God, we live in a very frightening and uncertain time. Everywhere we look today, on TV, on the internet, in emails and media we see disease, suffering and death. All these threats tend to break our spirits and rob us of courage. On this Holy Week, help us to remember that there is no resurrection without a cross and no Easter without Good Friday. Help us to look to You as the One who can heal and renew us when our spirits our broken. This we ask in Jesus name.
Questions for Reflection
1. What tragedy or misfortune in life left you brokenhearted and crushed in spirit?
2. The Psalmist assures us, “I was a nobody, but I prayed, and the Lord saved me from all my troubles. If you honor the Lord, his angel will protect you” (Psalm 34:6-7). What does it mean to honor the Lord? How do you honor Jesus with your life?
3. “Through Christ’s death on the cross, God identifies himself with the suffering, the powerless, the broken and the dying. It is in those times when we are crushed in spirit that God is closer to us than life and breath itself. And while the tragedy or misfortune may not be removed from us, we do not have to suffer alone. For we are not alone. In those crushing times of death and defeat there is one with us who has tasted of death and defeat. And it is when we realize this, that we don’t have to remain crushed in spirit. Isaiah described this in Isaiah 53:7, “But he was pierced for our transgressions,he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Have you allowed Christ to take your fears and failures, your pain and suffering upon His cross? How has your crushed spirit been healed through Christ’s wounds?