When the Troubles of My Heart Are Enlarged

I’m feeling my great need for God’s wisdom and guidance keenly these days. This has been a season of life where the Lord, in his wise providence, has been pleased to call me to a confluence of various difficult, confounding, confusing, and in some cases deeply painful issues and events. Each one exceeds my capacities; collectively, they feel overwhelming.

It’s not that I actually need the Lord’s wisdom and guidance more now than at other times. It’s just that the more troubling, perplexing, and overwhelming a situation feels, the more desperately I feel my need for him. I know from past experience and the repeated testimony of Scripture that this kind of desperation is a mercy. But the emotional experience doesn’t feel like a mercy. It feels demanding, which presses me to pray more (part of the mercy).

And what I find myself praying regularly in this season are portions of Psalm 25. In fact, I’ve memorized it so I always have this prayer with me when I need it (something anyone can do in a couple of weeks by just following a simple routine). It’s become one of my favorite psalms because of the way David pleads with God for wisdom and guidance at one of the (many) desperate moments of his life when “the troubles of [his] heart [were] enlarged” (Psalm 25:17).

David’s Desperate Situation

Few of us can identify with the kind of mortal danger King David was in. Being a king in the Middle East three thousand years ago was not for the faint of heart. There were always treacherous enemies without and traitors looming within, gunning for your position, prestige, and power. Seeming friend and foe conspired in order to undermine and destroy you.

“David is not obsessed with the source of his problem; he’s fixated on the Source of his solution.”

Most kings dealt with such enemies (and their families and friends) with brutal ruthlessness. But not David. Beginning with King Saul, his predecessor who for years tried his best to assassinate him, David determined not to take vengeance on his internal enemies. Because if he did, how could he claim that his trust was in God’s power, not in his own? We can only imagine how this emboldened his enemies, who didn’t have such spiritual scruples. Resolving to let God take care of his enemies took great faith and great courage.

But David didn’t always feel full of faith and courage. We have a portion of his prayer journals to show it, of which Psalm 25 is one poetic entry. And this psalm is a veritable clinic on how to pray for the wisdom and guidance to navigate a difficult, confounding, even dangerous situation. He begins by describing his situation, but listen carefully to what he says.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
     let me not be put to shame;
     let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
     they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. (Psalm 25:1–3)

What’s David asking for? Of course, he’s asking for God to protect his life, but he’s also asking for more, something deeper than that. When he prays, “Let me not be put to shame,” and declares by faith that “none who wait for you shall be put to shame,” he is asking God to protect the glory of his name in protecting him. If David, while trusting God, is overthrown by a treacherous tyrant, who will then say, “O my God, in you I trust”?

We may not be able to identify with the reason David felt desperate, but we sure can identify with desperation. And as we pray in our desperate situations, what are we asking God for? Is there a deeper reason than just our desired outcome?

What David Needs

Then David pleads with God for what he needs. But remember the context: David is aware that his life is in the balance.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
     teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
     for you are the God of my salvation;
     for you I wait all the day long.

Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love,
     for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
     according to your steadfast love remember me,
     for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! (Psalm 25:4–7)

What’s missing in these lines are any mention of his enemies. In this psalm, David is not obsessed with the source of his problem; he’s fixated on the Source of his solution. So, he makes two requests.

First, he asks God for guidance. David, like us in our troubling, perplexing, even overwhelming situations, is not sure what to do. No doubt there were layers of complexity involved, just like those we encounter. There were crucial things riding on how he handled what he was facing, like there are in what we face. What he wanted was not vengeance on his enemies. He wanted God to reveal his ways and lead him in his truth, since he was the God of David’s salvation. (Do you hear in this prayer a prescient anticipation of John 14:6?)

Second, David asks God for forgiveness. David, like us, doesn’t see himself as guiltless before God. He, like us, is a sinner in need of God’s mercy. He, like us, must bank on God’s steadfast love and goodness. So, he humbles himself and asks for God not to remember his sins.

As we pray in our desperate situations, what do our requests reveal about what we’re fixated on? Are we more consumed with our problems than with God’s presence and promises?

What David Believes

Then David declares to God what he believes about him. Not only is what David declares important here, but also where he puts this declaration in the order of his prayer (which we’ll talk about shortly).

Good and upright is the Lord;
     therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
     and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
     for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

For your name’s sake, O Lord,
     pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who is the man who fears the Lord?
     Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
His soul shall abide in well-being,
     and his offspring shall inherit the land.
The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
     and he makes known to them his covenant.
My eyes are ever toward the Lord,
     for he will pluck my feet out of the net. (Psalm 25:8–15)

What is David doing here? He’s confessing his faith. God is good to sinners who humble themselves and look to him for guidance (and for good measure, he asks for forgiveness again). God will instruct such a person “in the way that he should choose,” because he reveals his intimate counsel (a fuller meaning of the Hebrew word sôd, translated here as “friendship”) to those who fear him and trust him to keep his covenant. And David is resolved to keep his eyes on the Lord, who will do as he promised.

But there is one sweeping, stunning sentence I want to highlight:

All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
     for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. (Psalm 25:10)

Remember the situation David was in, and then ponder this phrase: “all the paths.” All of them. David was not unaware of the great evils and tragedies of life. He was more aware than most of us, given the brutal age in which he lived. Still, David trusted his Shepherd to lead him “in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” — even those that led “through the valley of the shadow of death,” where evil lurks (Psalm 23:3–4).

As we pray in our desperate situations, do we believe that all his paths are steadfast love and faithfulness to those who fear him?

What David Feels

Here’s where the order of David’s prayer is telling. After describing to God his desperate situation, pleading with God for what he most needs, and confessing to God what he believes about him, David tells God how he feels.

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
     for I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart are enlarged;
     bring me out of my distresses.
Consider my affliction and my trouble,
     and forgive all my sins.

Consider how many are my foes,
     and with what violent hatred they hate me.
Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me!
     Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
     for I wait for you.

Redeem Israel, O God,
     out of all his troubles. (Psalm 25:16–22)

This is David, a renowned warrior, chief among the mighty men of Israel, slayer of Goliath and victor over “his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7), pouring out his heart as a fearful, weary child of God to his heavenly Father. It’s a tender, touching cry for help. True men and women of valor know they are not more than humble children before God, and they’re not afraid to speak openly as humble children of God (remember, this psalm was written for public worship).

I believe the order of David’s prayer is significant: in this psalm, David declares what he believes about God, based on his knowledge of God’s word and personal experience of God’s faithfulness, before he tells God how he feels.

“David pulled his emotions up into his beliefs — or placed his emotions under the governance of his beliefs.”

Whether consciously or not, I think David, the experienced warrior, knew his feelings of fear were potentially dangerous emotions. They weren’t wrong since the threat he faced was real; they should not have been repressed, but expressed. However, those emotions were powerful and could suck the courage out of him, which is deadly in battle — including spiritual battles. So, David encouraged his soul by remembering and rehearsing what he believed about God, and then pulled his emotions up into his beliefs — or placed his emotions under the governance of his beliefs.

As we pray in our desperate situations, do we regularly confess what we believe about God before we launch into how it all feels? Are we encouraging our souls in faith and placing our emotions under the governance of what we know to be true about God?

Stir Up Courage, Cast Cares

David models for us how to view and pray for what we find difficult, confusing, fearful, and troubling. David took the swollen troubles of his heart to God, asked him for what he needed, stirred up his courage by confessing his faith, and then cast his cares (anxieties) upon God, who cared for him (1 Peter 5:7).

David doesn’t repeat this pattern in all of his psalms. So, we won’t turn it into a prayer formula. However, it’s often necessary to stir up our faith before we cast our cares on God, so that we really are able to cast them and not continue to fixate on them.

David is a good mentor for us. He was experienced in fighting fear and unbelief in the face of overwhelming situations and issues. And as God did for David, he will instruct sinners like us in the way we should choose as we fear him and trust him. And as we do, we too will discover that “all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.”