A psalm for the wandering: how God meets us when faith fizzles.
This article was originally written for Rooted Ministries.
“Finish well” is common parlance in youth groups for “don’t spoil the ending.” It’s a frequent refrain in academic addresses seeking to curtail “senior-itis” among imminent graduates. It is undoubtedly a valid direction to give students. But what happens when they don’t finish well? What happens when one of your students screws up the ending to their academic career? What happens if their faith flatlines? In those instances, I’d invite you to bring them to Psalm 119.
For 175 verses, David — the greatest monarch in Israel’s history and certainly one of the more famous figures in the entire biblical narrative — belabors the profundity of Scripture in beautiful monotony. He sings the anthem of God’s testimonies over and over and over. With richness and freedom, he worships his Lord and praises his sovereignty. Yet as he concludes, he makes a startling confession. “I wander like a lost sheep; seek your servant.” (Ps. 119:176) Perhaps the greatest chapter in Scripture about Scripture ends with nothing but a fizzle of a prayer. But despite how distressing that may appear, even a faith that’s “fizzling” is enough.
David’s admission of wandering from God is given with the sense that he has wandered before and will wander again. This was not a rare occasion of straying, it was a pattern. This pattern is the reason he is singing in the first place. Despite his wandering, he “does not forget God’s commandments.” He prays for God to help him (Ps. 119:173) and seek him (Ps. 119:176) because he knows he will be utterly defeated apart from God’s intervention. “Seek your servant” is literally, “Send out your search party!” His prayer evokes the striking image of the Good Shepherd who carries his wandering lamb back home on his shoulders. (Luke 15) This is his prayer: “Pick me up and bring me close, God!”
What’s more, the closing verse (verse 176) is made all the more compelling when it is juxtaposed with verses 167–168, where he writes: “I obey your decrees and love them greatly. I obey your precepts and decrees, for all my ways are before you.” With only a few lines in between before making the confession, “I wander.” Seems entirely anticlimactic to me. But if you pay attention, this is the tenor of the entire psalm, all throughout which he remains honest about who he is: a lost sheep desperate for his Shepherd. He wanted to love God and his Word above everything else, but there were times (more than he probably cared to admit) when he didn’t want anything to do with God.
If your teens are honest with themselves, they would have to make the same confession. There are moments, hours, entire days even, where their interest in the things of God is marginal, at best. They wander. They go astray. They, like the apostle Paul, are often transfixed between what they know is true and what their flesh wants. (Rom. 7:15–19) And, if you are honest, too, you would have to say the same. We all go “astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way.” (Isa. 53:6) No matter how many times we sing “All to Jesus, I surrender,” we don’t always want God above everything else. Such is the life of a saved sinner.
And such is why we need the gospel.
The truth is that if God only saved the individuals who wanted him above everything else there would be no one in heaven. The good news for you and your teens is that even as we run from God, he chases us down. “While we were still sinners,” Paul writes, “Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8) God does not wait to be wanted before he searches us out. The Good Shepherd does not sit on his hands waiting for his lambs to make their way back to the fold. He initiates the search. (Ezek. 34:11, 16) And so it is that the entire final stanza is the psalmist’s plea to God to continue chasing after him. David is saying, “Don’t stop helping me, God! Don’t stop pursuing me!”
For a demographic of sinners who are predominantly ruled by feelings, it is extraordinarily relieving to hear an announcement that isn’t conditioned on their current emotional state. Come what may, God’s salvation of sinners by grace alone never fluctuates or falters or falls by the wayside — even if your teenagers do. Their lives may be characterized by flightiness, indecisiveness, and worry, but they have a God who is sure and steadfast, and who tenders a grace that is sovereign and strong. The good news of your teenagers’ salvation is established in the unflinching fact of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
When our students come to the end of their days, weeks, even years and find their faith weak, amounting to nothing but a fizzle, that’s okay. That’s enough. It’s not the quality of their faith or the quantity of their faith that matters, after all. All that matters is the object of their faith, the One in whom their faith rests. Your teens may not always love God perfectly — more than likely they won’t — but the gospel declares that he has perfectly loved them. And he always will.