This past year, my seven-year-old son has been plagued by nightmares. Though he had experienced them many times before, they increased in regularity and we noticed him becoming anxious as bedtime approached. He became fixated on my prayers for good dreams, re-checking if I had already prayed, insisting that I do it a certain way—only when he was in bed—and even posing that these prayers might be causing more nightmares.
Eventually, he shifted from trying to prevent the nightmares to grappling with the reality that they would likely happen. One evening as he was peppering me with suggestions that would allow him to avoid going to bed, I began to sing “On Eagles Wings” to him.1 It is a song I grew up hearing at family weddings and funerals that included the words of Psalm 91:
You need not fear the terror of the night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day…
Though thousands fall about you, near you it shall not come.
“But I am afraid!” he responded. “And I don’t want to go to sleep. What if it happens again?” And these words came to me: “Our nightmares have the same ending as Jesus’ story. His death was like a nightmare, but did it last? What will happen to the things in your dreams when you wake up?” My son, who’s been hearing the words of The Jesus Storybook Bible since his birth, replied, “They will be gone forever, and everything sad will become untrue.”2
For some reason, this thought hadn’t occurred to me before. Like my son, I had vacillated between strategizing ways to prevent his suffering (monitoring his exposure to scary media, trying to address his anxiety about the day’s events as it came up, etc.) and ultimately feeling powerless to protect him. Hearing the words of Psalm 91 brought me back to a few realizations (ones I speak with counselees about all day long!):
- The terrors of the night and the arrows that fly by day are inevitable. The psalm does not suggest we work to avoid them.
- The psalm begins and ends with a focus not on our troubles but rather on our relationship with God. Our safety comes from dwelling in his shelter and holding fast to him, and our job is to look to him for protection and deliverance.
- Jesus was given over to danger and his enemies at the cross, yet his resurrection revealed that he was not ultimately overtaken by them, and our experience will mimic his as we share in his sufferings and glory.
- Like Jesus, we need to express our anguish and hatred of this suffering to God, all while resting in the position of “Thy will be done.”
Maybe even more revealing was the fact that many things in my life felt like an unending nightmare, or as I call it, a “lifemare.” Ongoing overload and uncertainty resulting from the pandemic, combined with the loss of loved ones, numerous personal health issues, my husband’s recent cancer diagnosis, and relational breakdowns have kept me in a constant state of limbo and sadness. I was worn out from strategizing how to fix these things and felt an increasing sense of despair and hopelessness. And while I knew that I would make it through this season, I didn’t know how to connect that with the sorrow and distress of each day. In expressing his anguish, my son was simply beating me to the punchline, reminding me that when we express our helplessness and despair to God, our ears open to hear his promises for the journey through our lifemares:
You are headed into battle, but I will be your shelter and will shield you from devastation.
Destruction and danger will come close, but never close enough to overtake you.
You will hear the hiss of your present enemy, but he will not succeed.
I will always answer you when you call for help.
I will always be with you in trouble and deliver you to safety.
I will give you a glorious, everlasting life.
Does my paraphrase of Psalm 91 ring true for you? Where do you stand with these realities? What lifemares are you walking through or anticipating? Are you weary of striving to end them, or bracing as you anticipate them? Where do you need to cry out to God about your experience? Where do you need to hear these words from God? Do you believe the Lord’s promise to his children that, eventually, everything sad will become untrue? As you wrestle with these questions, I hope this benediction from Philippians 4:7 will bless you:
[May] the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
1 Michael Joncas, “On Eagle’s Wings,” 1977.
2 Paraphrase of Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zonderkidz, 2007), p. 347, referencing the promises in the book of Revelation.