In the summer of 2008, I spent two months in Pakistan. My time was focused on discipleship, through training teachers at a local Christian girls’ school in English and leading Bible studies among nurses at a local hospital, primarily. When I first arrived on a muggy Sunday morning and was retrieved by the airport by a Pakistani driver via a sign that read “Bethany Simpson,” I watched in fascination out the window from the back seat of the car for the 2+ hour drive at the new world in which I found myself. A few hours after arriving at my new home, after a short nap and changing into a shalwar kameez, I accompanied my hosts to a local wedding reception. Upon arrival, we saw a group of men celebrating by shooting guns straight up into the air, and my hosts explained that this was a cultural celebratory tradition, regretfully sharing about the unfortunate deaths that occur from falling bullets.
I lay in bed that night, and listened to gunshots in the distance, and fear seized my heart. I could die here in this place, of all things, from celebratory falling bullets. Oh God, I prayed, I’m so afraid of falling bullets, of all things, in this place. I drifted into a fitful sleep, and awoke to the call to prayer at dawn, realizing God’s protection of me and his sovereignty over my life. In that first week, and the weeks following, the Lord worked in my heart to show me anew of his sovereignty over the events of my life. On June 21, 2008, I wrote in my journal, “I think fear hit its peak for me last week when I realized that it is possible that I won’t see Ben or my family again…this is a very real consideration, but not one to dwell upon. And then I felt a quiet confidence…that I will indeed see them again. If nothing else, most surely in your presence. But I pray that I will be able to return home.” And a couple of months later, by God’s grace and according to his perfect will, I did.
One of the most frequent questions we got about our plans to move to South Africa was regarding our safety, asked out of a place of love and concern for the wellbeing of our family. We typically answered it something like this: Yes, there are real dangers in South Africa. There is a high crime rate. There is HIV. There are many deaths each year from car accidents. But there are dangers in the United States too; different dangers, no doubt, but danger the same. Ultimately, we entrust our lives and the lives our daughters to the Lord, and believe that He is sovereign over our lives.
So, while many of you have likely heard that response, I wanted to take a few minutes to unpack that a bit further here, and share what the Psalms in particular have taught me about safety. Understanding God’s sovereignty over our lives and deaths is applicable not only to cross cultural workers, but after all, to anyone who belongs to Christ.
To begin, we first must recognize that God as our Creator has both given us life and determined the length of our days:
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb… my frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
Psalm 139:14a, 15-16
In his sovereignty, God has both given us this life and determined the number of days we would live on earth. He already knows the day of your death; it will not come as a surprise to him. If your life is rooted in the salvation of God through Christ, you have the great blessing of knowing that you are secure in Christ in both your life and your death! We are able to trust him with both. It is not for me to worry over my safety, or the safety of my husband, or my children, because his love for them is far superior to mine and he sovereignly cares for them.
Secondly, we can entrust our safety to God because he has promised to be our protector. Psalm 91 says:
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday”
Here we can understand several key points. God is the only one who can deliver us; all other illusions of safety are simply that, illusions. He has promised to be our shield, our refuge, our fortress; truly, only he can protect us against the many dangers of this world. One of my favorite passages is found in Psalm 3: “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head… I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” (v. 3, 5). I literally cannot find peace from the danger of this world in any other secure place than in the Lord – who sustains me, day in and day out.
Not only can we learn about God’s promised protection, we can also see how the psalmist demonstrates the active placing of his life under the care of the Lord. He “dwells in the shelter of the Most High” and says to the Lord, “my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (v. 1,2). This psalm continues on, “you will not fear…because you have made the Lord your dwelling place” (v. 5, 9). There is action on the part of the psalmist, a cognitive step of choosing to put his trust for his life into God’s hands; of rejecting fear, because he is dwelling in the Lord. We can trust God with our safety, in the night, by day, in the darkness, in the noonday sun. At all times, through all our days, he is trustworthy.
Finally, we see that only in Christ is true safety found:
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Here the psalmist is expressing God’s words of salvation, which we now understand has been revealed in Christ, who is our ultimate deliverer and in whomGod will protect him who “knows my name,” here on earth, and in ultimate eternity. For those of us who have trusted in Christ for our salvation, our eternity is secure, and this is our ultimate safety. All kinds of dangers may fly around us, may threaten our earthly lives, but because of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross, we are forever secure in him. What glory! What peace!
And so, we can confidently and wisely entrust the safety of our family in South Africa to our loving Father. This does not mean that we will be unwise in the daily things; we will still buckle our children into car seats, we will still be cautious in going out at night, and we will still take extra precautions on the road. But this does mean that though we seek to be wise in these daily things, we realize they do not promise safety, but God promises his love to us and his best for us.
It is also important to understand that by entrusting the Lord with our safety, we are not guaranteed long lives; in fact, in his sovereignty, he may see fit to end my earthly life sooner. This is not a failure on his part to “keep me safe,” but rather a part of his good plan, according to his ultimate purpose, one we may not understand on this side of eternity.
But whether our years are twenty or ninety, there is wisdom in acknowledging the shortness of our lives:
“O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreaths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!”
In obedience to God, we can truly rest in his sovereignty over all the days of life and the day of our death. And then, we are able to pray in earnest with the psalmist, “so teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” and “let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90).
Yes, Lord, establish the work of our hands!
for a beautiful musical rendition of Psalm 4, listen here, by the Psalms Project
originally published on Feb. 24, 2017