Talk by Jon Larsen

CMF Conference 2005

 “A Cheerful Heart Is Good Medicine”

 The Psalms of David and the Attitudes of Godly Leaders

Prof Jon Larsen


Larsen Jon


Bible Study 1: Maintaining the Vision

Before we begin with our readings, I wish to share a prophetic word that the Lord gave me this morning for this conference:

“My people, I want you to know that I love Africa.  I call you out of her despair, for I am raising up a people in her who are my treasured possession; a people whom I love and whom I will spare.  I will pour out my Spirit upon them. I will make them a godly people who shine as lights as they hold out the word of truth.  I will make them a compassionate people, ready to suffer with the needy, ready to flow with me in healing the broken.  Do not be dazzled by the ways of this world. I call you to be where I am, a people who are fruitful because you are dependent. Without me, you can do nothing.”

My fascination with the psalms of David began in 1968, when EMBlaiklock, a classical scholar and Christian apologist, pointed out toa group of us at Kalk Bay Bible Institute, that David’s psalms werewritten out of deep personal life experiences. They were not just random ecclesiastical compositions, but the accounts of the Spirit ofGod dealing with a man with a teachable heart who was in the midst of spiritual conflict. My first project on retiring this year has been to write a devotional booklet on David’s psalms, assigning each according to its content to David’s life events as found in 1 and 2 Samuel. What we will share is a selection from these meditations, expanded for the purposes of this conference.

Psalm 8 (prayed)

Supplementary readings

1 Samuel 16:1-13

1 Peter 2:4-12.

We begin with a psalm of wondering adoration, a poem of praise out of the lips of a youth suddenly favoured. David was the youngest son, a herd-boy smelly with sheep, not even considered by his father when Samuel brought his curious and dangerous request to anoint one of his sons as king. David’s safety probably dictated that he had to return to the sheep when it was all over, hardly understanding what had happened.

It is quite possible that, in the solitude and silence of a night brilliant with moon and stars, he responded to the enormity of God’s choice with exultant praise and adoration. God, the Creator of all this fabulous glory, had called forth praise from his lips, from him who was little more than a child. He was exultant, but deeply humbled by the calling upon his life to engage with the enemies of God, to silence the foe of oppressed Israel. Like Mary and Zechariah later, he was overwhelmed by grace – the grace of God in choosing him, the grace of God in reaching out in salvation to his people. This humble, faith-filled response to grace was the characteristic which his brothers did not have, but which God saw in him. It made him suitable for great things – open to anointing with the Holy Spirit.

Very often God begins our call with a clear vision. Often that vision comes while we are young. In my case, it came as a 16 year old matriculant, and it was to serve as a medical missionary. Visions and callings must be tested. Often our families, in their love for us, are good instruments in God’s hands to do that. But once tested, we must not let go of that vision when we are confronted by the difficulties of living with, and serving people, employers and health departments – to consign what we first saw to the idealism of youth. Hanging on to what God has called us to, can also be difficult when circumstances change. It became confusing for us when our mission hospitals were taken over by government. We could only hold on when we recognised that we are not called to serve men and their systems. It is God we are called to serve, and his people in obedience to him. David never let go of his vision and his persistence and endurance was amazing.

Vision has a lot to do with understanding what our God is like – that he is a God of grace, who kindly and compassionately empowers those he calls. Vision has to do with how fully we understand that his kingdom is about all of life – indeed, that life is all about God. An old nun said it like this: “Everything is about God – everything, everything, everything.” When we see that, we can also see that the American vision of the good life which most of us subscribe to in our culture is an idol. And the definition of normality as the absence of struggle and pain, as unending prosperity defined in materialistic terms, is a myth. We can only hold onto vision when, like David, we acknowledge that life is difficult and mostly unfair, simply because we live in a war zone, and we are called to fight the good fight of God’s people against the kingdom of darkness. Scott Peck’s book “A Road Less Travelled,” begins with a profound statement when he writes, “Life is difficult.” That fact is not a call to give up and opt out. It is a call to let our faith be proved genuine that it may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:7).

Each of us is a sinner chosen by grace. But we are too, chosen by God and precious to him. I am a royal priest in Christ Jesus. I am given the task of declaring the praises of him who has brought me out of darkness into his marvellous light. What does God see in my heart? Am I humbly adoring of the God who calls me in Christ to the work he has given me? Do I think of that work as part of his plan to deal with the enemy of evil and oppression in our world, as kingdom work? Have I held onto the vision, serving God and not looking for my reward from men, or have I let go of the vision, and am I serving another? Have I ever asked God to show me his vision for my life?

Prayer: Lord, forgive me that I find it so difficult to hold onto what You have shown me and called me to. Help me to flow with your purposes for my life, in Jesus Name.

Group Discussion

1. Did you have a vision for medical practice when you completed your training? How has it changed as you have faced the realities of your work situation?

2. What does it mean to be a Christian medic, who is an alien and a stranger abstaining from sinful desires in our culture? Share ways in which God has helped you be comfortable with that calling.

3. A humble, faith-filled response to God’s grace was the characteristic which made David suitable for great things.Technological expertise, recognised intelligence and wealth often make doctors arrogant. Share ways in which God has helped you value an attitude like David’s.

4. Is there joy in living such a good life that it stirs up pagans to question what we do (1 Peter 2:12)? Share events in your experience which illustrate how God works.


Bible Study 2: Godly Ambition

Psalm 131

Supplementary reading:

1 Samuel 18:8-19

Matthew 6:25-34

Saul had promised that he would give his daughter in marriage to the man who killed Goliath. Then, as his paranoia grew, he began instead to scheme how to get rid of David. Some of his schemes were not very subtle – like hurling a spear at him. Some were more devious, like giving him more than his share of military duty. David’s response was quite extraordinary. He continued to do what the Lord had given him to do – to serve his king and his people conscientiously and willingly. He refused to stand on his rights. He refused to try for power and prestige. That seemed to give Saul the excuse to give his daughter Merab to another – an open snub before the whole nation.

Godly ways may do that: they may seem to open the door for evil men to take advantage of us. That is never an excuse to cease to be godly. Rather, it is a call to faith and perseverance – to be wise as serpents but harmless as doves. And so the reasons for David to be offended and to begin to fight for his rights grew. What was it that kept him so steady? Psalm 131, like Psalm 124, is one of the songs of ascent which David wrote and which later came to be used by pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. They were songs used to prepare the heart to see and hear God in faith.They tell us about David’s heart.

“My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”David knew he was not yet ready to become king. That is because he understood the difference between aspiration and ambition. I am not talking about respiratory physiology here. I’m using aspiration as the noun that comes from “aspire” – that act of reaching for something. In this case, the reaching for the achievements and competencies God has for the believer. Aspiration is God-given, and meant for us to be available to God for his kingdom purposes.Aspiration survives when we walk in humility before the Lord, and like David, let him set the pace and choose the place and means of our service. That is a deep thing. It is about deliberately limiting the demands of our selfish natures to let God determine our circumstances and the agendas of our lives. It means having a humble spirit. That is not something we can engineer in our hearts.That is supernatural work done by the Holy Spirit. It is part of the work the Bible calls sanctification. Robert Browning said it like this: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”Men like David understand that and live it out. Ambition, on the other hand, distorts aspiration to “Reach for the skies and grab everything that is not nailed down.” (Eugene H Peterson in “A long obedience in the same direction,” p. 149).

Ambition converts aspiration into a combination of a lust for power and prestige and a love of self. Calvin wrote: “Those who yield themselves to the influence of ambition will soon lose themselves in a labyrinth of perplexity.” Ambition makes MacBeths and Napoleons and Mugabes, not men who serve God’s purposes in their generation. In our generation, we have exalted ambition. We think men should get ahead at any price. We forget that the price may be their soul’s damnation, may be judgement on lives lived for self and self-expression, and not for Christ and Christ-expression. But the reverse of ambition is not to be a doormat Christian. It is to mature as a believer until we are no longer like a child at the breast of God, demanding He meets our needs. Our culture has spawned many mewling spiritual infants who are offended at a God who refuses to be their servant. A parody is the kind of pastor who once wrote to us to say that God had told him he must have a white Mercedes, and could we please help him get one?

We are not to be like that. Instead, we are to be like a weaned child.A weaned child has come to trust his mother’s provision for him. He has come to the place where he knows she has his best interests at heart. He knows she will meet his needs at the right time, and he can rest in that knowledge. He considers she is the fountain of wisdom, and is glad to do what she asks him to do. Just as a baby’s transition from breast-fed self-centred dependence to the tranquillity and trustfulness of a 6 year old can be stormy and noisy, so our own maturation can be painful. We need to press in, because the rewards are great. A Christian who has matured is one who knows his security is in the Lord, who has learnt to trust his Master’s judgement, his providence and his heart.

Providence is a good word we don’t often use now. It means the beneficent care of God, and it encompasses his foresight which makes his care timely and wise. Such a Christian is one who has developed some skill in responding to the commands of her Lord and also to the needs of his household. She understands she holds all God has given her in trust as a steward of his possessions, and that the whole world is His, though it may be in rebellion. You see, I can only properly understand this kind of maturity when I accept that I am not my own. I am bought at a price – the price of the precious life and death and blood of Jesus, my Saviour. He has absolute rights over me – my money, all of it and not just the tithe, my skills, my possessions, my position are all given to me in trust to use as his servant, his steward, his friend, his child whose central concern in life must become his kingdom. That is a deep place of contentment, fruitfulness and rest, where we can trust him to meet our needs, knowing that his knowledge and care for us is such that he has even counted the number of the hairs on our heads.

Prayer: Father God, forgive me for the times I am like a mewling breast-fed babe. Lead me into humble, faithful maturity in Christ, I pray. Amen.

Group Discussion

1. Calvin wrote: “Those who yield themselves to the influence of ambition will soon lose themselves in a labyrinth of perplexity.”Share what you have learnt in your life as a doctor, spouse and member of a community about the differences between aspiration and ambition as defined in this study. Use Matthew 6:31-34 to help you think this through.

2. Each of us has some knowledge of a baby’s often stormy and noisy transition from breast-fed self-centred dependence to the tranquillity and trustfulness of a 6 year old. Use it to share about the process of developing a calm confidence and quiet strength which knows the difference between faithful aspiration and unruly arrogance as we grow up in Christ.

3. How do we nurture aspiration rather than ambition in our children?


Bible Study 3: Perspective When Your World Falls Apart.

Psalm 37

Supplementary readings:

1 Samuel 19:18

2 Corinthians 10:3-7a

What should a young man do when his world falls apart? And David’s had – his career was shattered, he was not safe in his own home. He had lost access to his wife. His life was in serious danger.Well, David went to his mentor, to Samuel. Samuel realised this wasserious stuff needing time to work through, so left home with him and took him to Naioth, which means ‘dwellings’, referring to the School of the Prophets at Ramah. David obviously came for advice.He might also have come with a proposal that Samuel help him with a plan of rebellion. Discussion and ministry in a covering of worship was more possible there. And so they talk – the elderly prophet and statesman, and the indignant young man so aware of the calling of God on his life. David did not write up his journal as they went along, as we might do. Instead, he embraced all he learned in a wonderful song which has held persecuted and perplexed saints firm down the centuries. He got 3 central words “Do not fret”, (which means ‘to chafe, distress oneself with regret or discontent’,) “it leads only to evil”. Instead, “be still and wait for God”. The Lord is Sovereign. He is not blind nor is he inactive. He has established his rule in the universe. “Trust in the Lord: do good; dwell in the land.”Samuel was not recommending an inactive pietism. It was active faith he was calling David into. Paul said it like this: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). At that time, it looked to David like a wicked and ruthless man was having it all his own way. But the wicked perish very soon by their own schemes. Their days are short. It is the meek, those who are humble before God and submissive to His purposes, who inherit the land.

The Lord makes firm the steps of those in whom he delights. He protects them from falling and upholds them. Catastrophe never leads them to poverty and destitution. In his old age, that is an observation Samuel is content with, even in those days of insecurity. And this song repeats these truths – the Lord loves the just and protects them forever. In the end, they inherit the land. So, repeats Samuel (verses 27 – 34), turn from evil, turn from violent solutions, and do good. Turmoil then becomes an opportunity to learn wisdom, to learn to speak what is just. It was an interlude in God’s preparation of David to lead the nation in submission to the Law of the Lord. Huge patience was required to walk God’s way until he exalted him. But David would see the end of Saul. It may have been very difficult to see then (verses 35-40), but ruthless and wicked men do not survive. It is blameless, upright men of peace who have a future. Their salvation comes from the Lord, who helps, delivers and saves them. They are the people who enjoy the peace that comes from integrity which is intact before God.

But there is a condition: we must take refuge in Him. What does that mean? It certainly means taking refuge in the truth of God, in the things the bible teaches about ourselves and human society. It certainly means using God’s methods in the warfare, and refusing to resort to the methods of the world. That often demands great patience. As you read on in 1 Samuel, you see what that meant for David. It meant refusing to fight and refusing to start a civil war. It meant becoming a fugitive. It meant repeatedly refusing to touch the Lord’s anointed. It meant waiting for years for God to deal with Saul and to vindicate David. But Samuel also said it meant being still before the Lord. That step is essential if we are to let our hearts be garrisoned by his peace. It is necessary so that we can gain his perspective. In my experience, being still before the Lord involves one in contemplative prayer. I urge you to see that prayer is like conducting a love affair. Love affairs begin at the formal acquaintance level, and formal liturgical prayer is like that. Then a love affair moves on to friendship. Learning to meditate on scripture and to use that to inform our praying is like that. As the relationship deepens, friendship moves into the desire to serve the one we have got to love.

Responsive meditation is like that level of love. Responsive meditation is meditation on scripture which leads to obedient action in our lives. But the simile God uses in Ephesians 5 for the relationship of Christ and his church is that of the marriage of a man and a woman. That implies that God is after intimacy, for God is love. The Great Lover wants us to learn to embrace him in love, to be prepared to learn to gaze upon God and to let him gaze upon us and do a sovereign work in our hearts. That is what it means to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Note that that is not a thing dependent on skilful worship teams and anointed songs. It is about the adoring intimacy of one soul with God. Those who practise this kind of prayer bear witness to the fact that it is more effective and more valuable than any explicit, vocal prayers begging for God’s mercy upon our own needs or those of others. That is not to suggest that we must replace that other kind of praying – only that we should seek this kind of intimacy with God because most of us are so busy that the peace of God cannot garrison our hearts. We do not rest from our own labours even when we meet him in prayer.I invite those who wish to know more about this kind of praying to make use of the handout entitled “Be still and know that I am God: the prayer of submission”. I have only one caveat: Some folk who teach contemplative prayer seem well into interfaith syncretistic activity. That is not, however, a reason to throw out the baby with the bath water. So we go back to those 3 central words God speaks into our hearts which will hold us when our worlds fall apart:

Do not fret, it leads only to evil.

Be still and wait for God.

Trust in the Lord; do good and dwell in the land.

Prayer: Father, this is such a word to us when we face graft corruption and oppression. Help me hold onto it and share its wisdom. Amen.

Group Discussion

1. How does one apply this advice not to fret and to refrain from anger because they lead to evil, but still engage in the battle against wickedness in the market place in the Name of the Lord? Spend time as a group considering David’s strategy. Can this strategy also be applied when the problem we face is not wickedness, by an overwhelming tragedy like the AIDS epidemic?

2. Does what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3-7 and Ephesians 6:10-12 apply also to the marketplace? If so, how does that change the way in which we function as Christians when there are difficulties?

3. Share any testimony you may have of God’s provision when you refused to use the world’s methods to resolve a situation in which evil or incompetent things were being done.





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