Don’t Let Setbacks Set You Back!
I would invite you to take your pew Bibles and turn to the 28th Psalm. It’s a rather remarkable psalm in many ways because right in the middle of the psalm, there occurs a dramatic change in mood. And I think you’ll see it as we read through the verses of that psalm. I’ll point it out to you as we go. But this is a psalm of David, the 28th Psalm. Begins in darkness but ends in light. “To Thee, oh, Lord, I call. My Rock, be not deaf to me. Lest, if Thou be silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit. Hear the voice of my supplication as I cry to Thee for help, as I lift up my hands toward Thy most holy sanctuary. Take me not off with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors while mischief is in their hearts. Requite them according to their work and according to the evil of their deeds. Requite them according to the work of their hands. Render them their due reward because they do not regard the works of the Lord or the work of His hands. He will break them down and build them up no more.”
Ah, but listen to the change in mood. “Blessed be the Lord, for He has heard the voice of my supplications. The Lord is my strength and my shield. In Him, my heart trusts. So I am helped, and my heart exults. And with my song, I give thanks to Him. The Lord is the strength of His people. He is the saving refuge of His anointed. Oh, save Thy people and bless Thy heritage. Be Thou their Shepherd and carry them forever.” Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, oh, God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The Los Angeles Olympics produced many stories of victory and defeat. Many fantastic stories. But perhaps the most fantastic of them all is the story of Jeff Blatnick. He is a giant of a man. 248 pounds. He’s a member of the US Greco-Roman wrestling team. But he’s not only a giant physically. He’s a giant spiritually. Two years ago, he was diagnosed as having Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer which attacks the lymph tissues and the liver and the spleen and which spreads quite rapidly. He immediately underwent very radical surgery. And there followed then months of grueling radiation treatment. It was a disastrous setback to his athletic career. As a matter of fact, he was not even expected to live, much less to compete athletically again.
But Jeff Blatnick handled cancer the way he handles most of his wrestling opponents. He got a grip on it, and he brought it to its knees. To the utter astonishment of his doctors, he resumed training, and he accomplished what no one believed possible. The result was an Olympic victory. And then there followed a torrent of tears. Tears of joy from a giant of a man. “That’s been the story of my life,” he said. “Something sets me back, and then the Lord comes along and gives me another chance.”
You know, I would say to you that that has been the story of my life as well but to a far lesser extent to be sure. I too have known the sting of setback in my life. My guess is, that’s been the story of your life also, for I’ve been in the ministry long enough now to know that for everyone, sooner or later, something comes along in life and knocks us flat. No one is exempt. Sooner or later, everyone, absolutely everyone, experiences the sting of setback. And that’s why I think it’s so important for us to know how to keep setbacks from setting us back. And, you know, Psalm 28 has the answer.
But before we begin to analyze the psalm, I think a word of background is appropriate. The psalm was written by King David. Now, King David had a son whose name was Absalom, and David loved Absalom with all of his heart. Tragically, Absalom never returned that love. As a matter of fact, the great desire of Absalom’s heart was to destroy his father. David did not know that. And so David was pleased as any father would be when he heard the people of the land speaking well of his son, Absalom. David did not know that Absalom was using his popularity as a way of undermining the authority of his father. David was pleased as any father would be. When he heard reports that the judgments which Absalom was rendering in the courts of the land, that those judgments were being widely received and respected by the people, David did not know that Absalom was, in fact, using those judgments to aid his friends and thus cement their support for the time when he became ready to attempt to overthrow his father. David did not know all that.
And then the time came, and Absalom called in all the markers, all the IOUs as it were and put together a rebel army and then attacked. David and his forces were caught completely by surprise, and within a very short time, the king and his men were driven out of this capital city and out into the wilderness. It was a dreadful moment for King David. A terrible setback. He was on the ropes. He was on the verge of defeat, and he knew it. And he was plunged into profound personal depression and despair. And it was then that he sat down and wrote the first five verses of Psalm 28. And in those words that he wrote, he was, in essence, crying out in despair to God, “Lord, I’ve encountered the sting of setback. I’m down. But please don’t leave me. Please, please help me.”
And God heard that prayer, and God answered. And it was later, on after David had regained his throne that, once more, he took up his pen and added the four other verses to the psalm. And it’s in those concluding verses that David teaches us how to keep setbacks from setting us back in life. He says very simply, “There are some things you have to stop, and there are some things you have to start.” That’s what he says. But let’s be specific.
First this, “You have to stop thinking about yourself, and you have to start thinking about God, Who is already thinking about you.”
Averell Harriman, the statesman, was undertaking diplomatic missions for the United States. As his eightieth birthday approached, he was asked the secret of his vitality. He said in reply, “If you want to have vigor and vitality at eighty years of age, then you better make sure that you have good ancestors and a lot of enthusiasm.” Well, you know, that was an apt, even a witty response. And certainly, we cannot discount the impact which a family and a family tradition make upon the shaping of us, who we are, and what we become in life. We cannot discount that. But, of course, the problem is, we can’t choose our ancestors. Do you ever stop to think about that? You know, what’s one of the few things in all of life that we can’t choose. We can’t choose our ancestors. We can’t make sure that we’ve got good ancestors unless we are willing to go all the way back to the ultimate ancestor, to the Father Who is eternal and almighty, to the Father Who made us and who breathed into us the breath of life.
That’s the good news of the gospel. That is an ancestor we can choose. We are free to accept His fatherhood. We are free to say, “Lord, I want to be Your child. Speak, and I shall listen.” And in the moment that we make that choice, in the moment that we acknowledge God to be the ultimate ancestor of each of us, in that moment, wonder of wonders, in the moment we start thinking about God, we discover that God is already thinking about us. How does the Bible put it? You remember. “Even the number of hairs in your head, He has numbered.” Ah! Do you remember how it was with the disciples on that occasion when they were in a small boat out on the sea of Galilee? Jesus was not with them. He was alone up in the mountains praying. And a storm came up, and the disciples were filled with fear. And the Bible tells us, in that moment, the disciples cried out, “If only the Master were here.”
We know what that’s like, don’t we? I mean, aren’t there times in your life as there are in mine when we encounter some great bone-crushing decision? Maybe it has to do with a family crisis or a business enterprise. But we encounter some bone-crushing decision, and we don’t know which way to go, and we cry out in that moment, “If only the Master were here.”
Or we stumble into some deep emotional trauma. Maybe it’s the loss of a loved one or maybe the loss of a job. And in that moment, the strings of our hearts begin to draw so tightly that they almost snap, and we are racked with stress and tension, and in that moment, we cry out, “If only the Master were here.” Or there is the time when we confront some fierce temptation, and we feel ourselves bending and beginning to break, and in that agonizing moment, we cry out, “If only the Master were here.” Oh, yes, we know how those disciples felt, don’t we? We know how they felt in that boat out on the lake in a storm at night. But do you remember how the story ended? The Scriptures tell us Jesus, though He was absorbed in communion and conversation with His Heavenly Father that Jesus, at that moment, somehow sensed the plight of the disciples. And immediately, the Bible says He went to them walking on the water in order to deliver them.
Do you get the point? At the very moment when the disciples were thinking about Jesus, Jesus was already thinking about them.
David understood that. That’s why David wrote the words that he wrote. “Blessed be the Lord,” he cries, “for He has heard the voice of my supplications.” David understood that the moment he began to think about God that he discovered God was already thinking about him. That’s the first thing to remember. If you want to keep setbacks from setting you back, you’ve got to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about God. Ah, but then there’s this.
You’ve got to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and you’ve got to start serving others.
David also understood that. He wrote in this psalm, “The Lord is my strength and my shield.” “I am helped” – he cries – “and so my heart exults.” You see, David suddenly realized what God was doing for him. He suddenly realized that God had surrounded him with all of His protective power, and in the secure grip of the power of God, David’s heart began to exult. He began to exhibit the fruit of an exultant heart in his life. And what is the fruit of an exultant heart? It’s service. David, knowing what God had done for him, knowing how God had helped him, David proceeded then to try to seek to help others. Oh, what a great biblical truth that is.
You see it, again and again, all the way through the Scriptures. Mary, you remember her? Mary whom Jesus lifted out of some dreadful sin by the power of His great forgiveness. And so what did Mary do? When Jesus was contemplating the agonies of a death that was just hours or days away, at that moment of great personal need, Mary took her valuable alabaster jar and shattered it and proceeded to anoint Jesus’ feet with precious oil and with even more precious love. Or four men who were profoundly helped and touched by Jesus. And so what did they do? They proceeded to tear a roof, the hole in the roof of the house in order to get their friend down into the presence of the Jesus who had helped them. Or Matthew, the tax collector. At the tax tables, that’s where he first encountered Christ, and there, Christ proceeded to shadow the chains of silver shackles that had enslaved Matthew for all of his life. And so what did Matthew do? He spent the rest of his life trying to help other people break free of the same chains.
Father Damien lifted by Christ out of a life of terrible loneliness and despair. And what did he do? He gave himself in ministry to those who had leprosy so much so, in fact, that he contracted the disease himself and ultimately died from it. So anxious was his helped heart to help other hearts.
Or I think of men like Kramer and Niemöller and Bonhoeffer, great saints of the German-Christian church who were locked away in concentration camps by the Nazis. But there, the power of Christ came to them. And while the Nazis might have caged their bodies, they could not capture their spirits. And the spirits of those men so touched the lives of so many people in Germany that, until this day, their names are mentioned in Germany only with hushed and reverent whispers. Helped by Christ, what did they do? They helped others. That’s a great biblical truth.
So when the circumstances of life conspire to knock you flat, at that moment, reach out with one hand for God, and God will take hold of your hand, and He will begin to lift you up. But then with your other hand, reach out and begin to lift someone else. I lay this down as true. The very best exercise for a broken heart is bending over and lifting someone else up.
David understood that. “I am helped,” he said, “and so my heart exults.” You want to keep setbacks from setting you back? Ah, you got to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and you’ve got to start serving others. Ah, but then there’s this.
You’ve got to stop focusing on your failures, and you’ve got to start focusing on your future.
Branch Rickey was one of the great men in baseball. For many years, he was the general manager of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, but he was a great Christian man as well. There are many stories told about Branch Rickey, but this is one of my favorites. It’s told by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. It seems that on one occasion, Branch Rickey invited Dr. Peale to come and to sit with him in his box seat at one of the Dodger ball games. The game was very close. It was in the 8th inning. And one of the Dodger players came up to bat, and he proceeded to hit the ball, and he hit it out toward first base. He didn’t make it. He was thrown out. Branch Rickey exploded. He stood up in his seat, and he cried out. “He could’ve made it if he’d wanted to make it. He wasn’t really trying. If he’d been trying, he would’ve made it.” And he wheeled around to Dr. Peale, and he said, “There, preacher. There’s a sermon illustration for you.”
Dr. Peale was completely befuddled. “What?” he said. “What sermon illustration?” “Or didn’t you see it?” Branch Rickey said. “Didn’t you see it?” He hit the ball, and he started toward first base, but he didn’t really want to get there because – “didn’t you see it? He had a huge plug of tobacco in the side of his mouth. And on the way to first base, he took the time to expectorate.” Norman Vincent Peale fell apart in laughter. And Branch Rickey began to smile too. And then Branch Rickey said, “Preacher, here’s your sermon, and here’s your text. This one thing I do, get to first base and then spit.”
There are so many people in life who aren’t getting to first base because they spend all their time spitting out all of the bitternesses and all of the defeats and all of the discouragements and all of the disappointments of their yesterdays. They never really begin to trust the God, the fantastic God who stands ready to open up to them all sorts of new and bright tomorrows.
David understood that. He cried out, “In Him my heart trusts.” He knew that he was not only serving a Lord who would console him in his defeats but a Lord who would then lead him safely and triumphantly into the future. That’s the kind of Lord we serve. We’re called to serve Him. Jeff Blatnick understood that. You remember what he said? “This is the story of my life. Something sets me back. And then the Lord comes along and gives me another chance.” There it is.
In Him, we can trust for He will lead us safely and triumphantly into the future. You can count on that. Absolutely.
So several years ago now, one of the distinguished professors of theology in one of our seminaries was traveling in Korea. He asked there for the opportunity to preach in one of the little village churches. One of our missionaries, a man named Graham Lee made the arrangements for him to preach in one of the little churches there. And Graham Lee offered to serve as the interpreter for the sermon. On the appointed day, that tiny little church was jammed to the walls and the windows and the doors. And this distinguished professor of theology stepped into the pulpit, and he began his sermon with this line, “All human thought can be consistently divided into two principal categories, the concrete and the abstract.” Now, Graham Lee, standing right beside the pulpit, ready to begin translating that sermon into the Korean language, looked out at that little earth-floored church jammed to the walls with people, with toothless old grandmothers and poorly-clothed little children and strong, sturdy, sweat-stained but simple farmers. He looked out at those faces, and he translated that sentence with these words, “I have come all the way from America to tell you that you can count on Christ, your Savior.” And from that moment on, that sermon was in the hands of the angels.
I have come to this pulpit today to tell you as plainly and as simply as I know how that when you experience the sting of setback in your life, you can count on Christ, your Savior, to help you to stop thinking about yourself and to start thinking about God, to help you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and to start serving others, to help you to stop focusing on your failures and to start focusing on your future. My friends, He is the Way to keep setbacks from setting you back in your life.
Let us pray. Merciful and most gracious Father, give us the power of Jesus Christ for the living of these days for we know we can count upon Him, our Master and our Friend. Amen.