"I will lie down and sleep in peace"
When our children were small, my wife or (less often) myself, always had to sing a few songs as we tucked them in at night. Each child had a song that Louise had written just for them that expressed delight in them along with a prayer for God’s blessing. But each child got the same simple song from the last line of Psalm 4,
I will lie down and sleep,
And sleep in peace,
I will lie down and sleep in peace.
You alone O Lord make me dwell in safety.
I will lie down and sleep in peace.
It was impossible to leave the bedside until all the songs were sung. So, with four children, we must have sung this one at least ten thousand times! For one daughter, it guarded her heart and mind against fears that a massive old pine tree would fall on her bedroom during a storm. For another, it helped her deal with the fear that an intruder would wander in through the laundry door at night. The lullaby helped with fears of car accidents and of bushfire. And it’s helped their parents, my wife and I, find peace on numerous occasions when there seemed to be good reason to be afraid.
It wasn’t sung as magic. It wasn’t false hope or deception. We made sure the kids knew that singing this to the Lord didn’t necessarily mean the tree wouldn’t fall, or an intruder wouldn’t enter, or our house couldn’t go up in flames. We didn’t expect instantaneous peace or that anxiety would never be a problem – that wouldn’t be true of my own experience or that of the old and new testament saints. But the word of the Lord went down deep into their hearts and led them towards the peace that the author had come to know – peace that God intends for us to experience as we meditate upon his word.
When David spoke the words of Psalm 4, he was in severe trouble – most likely on the run from his son Absalom who had seized the throne from him in Jerusalem. David knew that in a military coup like this, one of them would have to die, and the way things were going it might be him. Despite this, the deep knowledge of his personal relationship with his faithful, ever-present and active Lord, as expressed in the rest of the psalm, allowed him to not only sleep, but also to experience joy and go to sleep peacefully. No trite clichés or mental tricks about things always working out. No ‘faith’ in a hoped-for outcome that God hadn’t promised or ‘trust’ in some sort of prosperity gospel – Jesus promise us trouble in this world. No appeal to probabilities that would try to minimise and then dismiss risks that weighed on his mind. No retreat into mindfulness to disconnect from the pressures without connecting with his God. No quick inventory of his resources that would indicate his superior military might or cunning. No attempt to elicit reassuring words from his frightened allies. No glass or two of wine to help him unwind and sleep. All these things that we might do or teach others to do can help decrease anxiety levels, but they don’t address the most basic issue . . . Do I know that the Lord God Almighty is with me to bless me, and will he stay with me and help me whatever happens? Alternatively, do I have to work it all out alone? Or worse, is God against me?
We couldn’t truthfully rationalise away all our children’s fears or reassure them with our own presence. We know of people who have been killed by falling trees in our shire. We know of intruders in homes. We can point to the places on the roads we travel on every day where people lost their lives in vehicle accidents – including one of my partners in medical practice. We can walk out the back door and look over the paddock that we saw burst into flames from ember attack on Black Saturday – a day when many lost their houses and their lives. And we can still see the burn mark on the vinyl floor of the granny flat where a live ember came under the door. Yes, we do take reasonable steps to mitigate all sorts of risks like these with some basic fire equipment, safer cars and minimising time under trees in strong winds. And we try to think rationally about our lives so that realistic concerns are neither magnified nor foolishly denied, but the world truly is a dangerous place and none of us is exempted from trouble. This is where David’s experience and insight in Psalm 4 is so helpful for us.
The ‘secret’ to anxiety that David had learned by the time he was old is twofold: we were made to find our sense of peace and security in personally knowing our faithful and sovereign Lord, and we won’t truly find it outside of him. This may be the most significant unacknowledged truth about anxiety in the secular worldviews that we live amongst. So, the patient and loving, personal words of a brother or sister who has themselves found comfort from God in their anxieties and in whom the word of Christ dwells richly, are of great value here. David himself speaks from personal experience in Psalm 4 as he reminds himself and his fearful companions of the significance of knowing the Lord:
The Lord had previously brought relief when he was in distress and so he can ask for God’s grace again with confidence. His life’s narrative is one of God’s leading and help, not of random exposure to unmitigated disaster. This changes our view of the future.
As someone who the Lord had obviously ‘set apart for himself,’ David is confident that God listens when he calls to him in great trouble. He is not alone in the world – the maker of heaven and earth is his good friend. He truly has someone with him who is able to help and who won’t let go, and this is likewise true for every child of God.
When all looks hopeless to many, David can call on his faithful Father and say, ‘lift up the light of your face upon us,’ with the expectation that God will do so. We know what it’s like to be brought down to share in the pessimistic outlook of others as anxiety builds upon itself. But hopeful expectations tend to defend against anxiety, and the expectation that God will give his full, personal attention to us in the middle of our dark experiences is about as good as expectation can get.
Crucially, David has also learnt to find his greatest satisfaction and pleasure in knowing the Lord, rather than in the best experiences of earthly pleasures – ‘You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.’ We know that much anxiety stems from excessive or misplaced attachments to all sorts of things that are uncertain or fading. So, finding our greatest value in something that is not vulnerable or under threat in any way is powerfully calming to us. If we know that what we most love and cherish cannot be lost, we are better placed to face lesser potential losses with appropriate concern rather than debilitating anxiety.
And in the final predictive analysis, our God is sovereign and rules over every single experience of our lives – ‘You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.’ No human defensive strategy is impregnable so there is no solid peace to be found there. But no predicament is beyond God’s saving intervention, and since he is our personal, attentive, and powerful Father we can rest in his good will for us.
My wife used to say to our daughter who feared the pine tree when the wind blew, that when God decides it’s time for her to meet him face to face, he will bring that about the way he wants – and that could even include impact from a tree when all seems safe. Knowing the one who alone makes us live in safety, we, like David, are free to attend to what we reasonably can, then take the sleep that he gives - without fear of what may or may not happen.
As we address our own anxiety and the anxiety of our family, friends, congregation, patients or counselees, how well are we working at the deep level that David reached as a mature believer? It’s so natural to just stick with rational thinking, distraction, relationships and medications – all good things that help at times – while practically overlooking the One who made us to find deep and enduring peace only in our personal relationship with him. Can we try to live our own lives more through the wisdom of Psalm 4 so that we can better lead others to the same peace that we have found? There’s certainly room for me to grow further here.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone O LORD make me dwell in safety.