In his book, The Pressure’s Off, psychologist Larry Crabb uses a story from his childhood to illustrate our need to delight in God through adversity:
One Saturday afternoon, I decided I was a big boy and could use the bathroom without anyone’s help. So I climbed the stairs, closed and locked the door behind me, and for the next few minutes felt very self-sufficient. Then it was time to leave. I couldn’t unlock the door. I tried with every ounce of my three-year-old strength, but I couldn’t do it. I panicked. I felt again like a very little boy as the thought went through my head, “I might spend the rest of my life in this bathroom.”
My parents—and likely the neighbors—heard my desperate scream.
“Are you okay?” Mother shouted through the door she couldn’t open from the outside. “Did you fall? Have you hit your head?” “I can’t unlock the door!” I yelled. “Get me out of here!” I wasn’t aware of it right then, but Dad raced down the stairs, ran to the garage to find the ladder, hauled it off the hooks, and leaned it against the side of the house just beneath the bedroom window. With adult strength, he pried it open, then climbed into my prison, walked past me, and with that same strength, turned the lock and opened the door. “Thanks, Dad,” I said—and ran out to play.
That’s how I thought the Christian life was supposed to work. When I get stuck in a tight place, I should do all I can to free myself. When I can’t, I should pray. Then God shows up. He hears my cry—“Get me out of here! I want to play!”—and unlocks the door to the blessings I desire.
Sometimes he does. But now, no longer three years old and approaching sixty, I’m realizing the Christian life doesn’t work that way. And I wonder, are any of us content with God? Do we even like Him when he doesn’t open the door we most want opened—when a marriage doesn’t heal, when rebellious kids still rebel, when friends betray, when financial reverses threaten our comfortable way of life, when the prospect of terrorism looms, when health worsens despite much prayer, when loneliness intensifies and depression deepens, when ministries die?
God has climbed through the small window into my dark room. But he doesn’t walk by me to turn the lock that I couldn’t budge. Instead, he sits down on the bathroom floor and says, “Come sit with me!” He seems to think that climbing into the room to be with me matters more than letting me out to play.” When I sit with God and wait for Him to unlock the door I learn more about Him than I ever would.
If you have ever gone through a season of trial and adversity then you know what it’s like to feel trapped by the circumstances of life. Perhaps you’ve been confined to a sick bed, placed in financial straits, crushed between conflicting sets of responsibilities at home and work, or just felt like there was no escape from the circumstances that have you hemmed in.
For Larry Crabb his trails were like being locked in a bathroom, for David it was the experience of living in a cave. You remember the story, don’t you? David is the heir-apparent to the throne of Israel. But Saul still wore the crown. In his envy, rage and insecurity Saul began to hunt David like an animal. “Wanted! Dead or Alive” posters with David’s mug shot are posted on every palm tree in Judea. David was a fugitive, who had to improvise. So by 1 Sam. 22 David is hiding from Saul in the cave of Adullam.
Caves are interesting places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live in one. They’re cold and damp. There are dangerous drop-offs and confusing labyrinths where you could easily get lost. I’m sure that David wasn’t tempted to hang a “Home Sweet Home” sign there! And every night he laid his head on the most comfortable rock he could find he knew that somewhere outside, Saul and his army were scouring the countryside looking for him. If they found him, it would mean instant death.
This was not the program that David had envisioned when as a teenager. After all, kings live in palaces, with servants waiting on them, eating good food, and enjoying all the luxuries that life can give. Kings do not live in dangerous caves with the bats and other creepy crawlers! Where was God’s plan in all of this? David felt so abandoned by God that he wrote in Psalm 142:
“I cry out loudly to God, loudly I plead with God for mercy. I spill out all my complaints before him, and spell out my troubles in detail: As I sink in despair, my spirit ebbing away,you know how I’m feeling, Know the danger I’m in,the traps hidden in my path. Look right, look left—there’s not a soul who cares what happens! I’m up against it, with no exit—bereft, left alone. I cry out, God, call out: ‘You’re my last chance, my only hope for life!’ Oh listen, please listen;I’ve never been this low. Rescue me from those who are hunting me down; I’m no match for them. Get me out of this dungeon so I can thank you in public. Your people will form a circle around me and you’ll bring me showers of blessing!” (Psalm 142:1-7, MSG)
Did you catch the last part? David felt like he was in a dungeon. But caves are effective classrooms in the school of faith and prayer. Spurgeon observed that David prayed when he was in the cave, but later when he was in the palace, he fell into temptation and sin with Bathsheba. He adds, “The caves have heard the best prayers.” One of the main courses in the school of faith is learning how to handle trials. So David as a young man, waiting to be king, found out that class met in a cave.
Does God have you hold up in a cave today? Are you feeling like there is no way out of the trial you are in? Then maybe we should take a page out of David’s book. Note that David’s focus is not, “Deliver me so that I will be happy again.” So often, that is the implied (if not stated) aim of our prayers. “I’m unhappy in these trials. Deliver me so that I’ll be happy.” But that’s the wrong motive for prayer. David wants to be delivered “so that I may give thanks to Your name.” Some versions translate it, “praise Your name.”
David wants to extol God’s power and faithfulness and mercy in the company of the saints. In other words, he wants God to answer his prayer so that he can glorify God. In the other psalm from the cave, David twice repeats the refrain (Ps. 57:5, 11), “Be exalted above the heavens, O God; let Your glory be above all the earth.” That is always a solid ground for our cave prayers.
If your troubles do not lead you to go deeper in faith and prayer, you’re missing the lesson of the cave! Let your loneliness, gloom, and despair make you cry out to the Lord to bring your soul out of prison, so that you may give thanks to His name! The Lord knows you’re there. Let the cave hear your best prayers!