Many adults can recall a certain childhood feeling that has now pretty much faded away. Unhappily, one of the things that fades away is a childlike feeling of security in the nest. It's a sense that you are loved, protected, and perfectly safe. It's a sense, above all, that somebody else is in charge. In properly functioning homes, children often have this feeling. Adults do not, and they miss it.

Years ago, on the old Candid Camera television program, a very large and dangerous-looking truck driver—a man of about 50—was asked in an interview what age he would be if he could be any age he wanted. There was a silence for a while as the trucker contemplated the question. What was he thinking? Was he hankering for age 65 and retirement so he could trade his Kenworth four-and-a-quarter semi down to a John Deere riding lawn mower? Or was he yearning for age 18 and the chance to go back and take some turn he had missed?

Finally he turned to the interviewer and said that if it was up to him he'd like to be three. Three? Why three? the interviewer wanted to know. "Well," said the trucker, "when you're three you don't have any responsibilities."

When I first heard the interview I thought this man was trying to be cute. I now think he said something wistful. What he knew was that when you are a child, and if your family is running the right way, your burdens are usually small. You can go to bed without worrying about ice backup under your shingles. You don't wonder if the tingling in your leg might be a symptom of some exotic nerve disease. You don't wrestle half the night with a tax deduction you claimed, wondering whether a federal investigator might find it a little too creative. No, you squirm deliciously in your bed, drowsily aware of the murmur of adult conversations elsewhere in the house. You hover wonderfully at the edge of slumber. Then you let go and fall away.

You dare to do this not only because you fully expect that in the morning you shall be resurrected. You also dare to do it because you are sleeping under your parents' wings. If parents take proper care of you, you can give yourself up to sleep, secure in the knowledge that somebody else is in charge; somebody big and strong and experienced. As far as children know, parents stay up all night, checking doors and windows, adjusting temperature controls, fearlessly driving away marauders. They never go off duty. If a shadow falls over the house, or demons begin to stir, or a storm rises, parents will handle it. That's one reason children sleep so well. Their nest is sheltered and feathered.

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I think children might be alarmed to discover how much adults crave this same sense of security. Adults need to be sheltered, warmed, embraced. Some of us have been betrayed. Some of us have grown old and are not happy about it.

People get betrayed, or they get old or sick. Some are deeply disappointed that their lives have not turned out as they had hoped. Others have been staggered by a report that has just come back from a pathology lab. Still others are unspeakably ignored by people they treasure. Some are simply high-tension human beings, strung tight as piano wire.

To all such folk, the psalmist speaks a word of comfort. It is one of the great themes of the Scriptures: God is our shelter. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge.

The image here is that of an eagle, or maybe a hen; in any case, it's a picture of a bird that senses danger and then protectively spreads its wings over its young. An expert on birds once told me that this move is very common. A bird senses the approach of a predator, or the threat of something falling from above, and instinctively spreads out its wings like a canopy. Then the fledglings scuttle underneath for shelter. The move is so deeply instinctive that an adult bird will spread those wings even when no fledglings are around!

And the psalmist—who has almost surely seen this lovely thing happen—the psalmist thinks of God. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge. The point is that God is our shelter when the winds begin to howl; under God's providence we are defended, protected, perfectly safe—someone else is in charge—someone big, strong, and experienced, who never goes off duty.

In one of his books, John Timmer, my former pastor, tells of his experience as a boy in the Netherlands at the start of World War II. German troops had invaded Holland a few days before, but nobody knew just what to expect. Then, on the second Sunday of May 1940, as the Timmer family was sitting around the dinner table in their home in Haarlem, suddenly they heard the eerie whining of an air-raid siren and then the droning of German bombers.

Of course, all of them were scared out of their minds. "Let's go stand in the hallway," John's father said. "They say it's the safest place in the house." In the hall, John's father said, "Why don't we pray? There's nothing else we can do."

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John says he has long ago forgotten the exact wording of his father's prayer—all except for one phrase. Somewhere in that prayer to God to protect his family from Hitler's Luftwaffe, Mr. Timmer said, "O God, in the shadow of your wings we take refuge."

God spreads his wings over us. Here is a picture that all the Jewish and Christian generations have cherished, in part because it invites us to recover our childhood feeling of security in the nest. Or, to discover it for the first time if we have had a terrorized childhood. It's a picture that offers sublime comfort, and only a pretty numb Christian would fail to be touched by it.

How true
is the picture of a
sheltering God?
How secure are we in the nest?

Still, a disturbing question pricks us. How true is the picture of a sheltering God? How secure are we in the nest? I wonder whether in 1940, on the second Sunday of May, some other Dutch family begged God to spread his wings over their house. I wonder if the bombs of the German air force pierced those wings and blew that house and its people to rubble.

You read Psalm 91 and you begin to wonder. It offers such comprehensive coverage. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge. … You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Really? I need not fear any of these things? I can sleep in a dangerous neighborhood with my windows open? I shall not fear the terror of the night? My child's temperature soars and his white blood count plummets: I shall not fear the pestilence that stalks in darkness? I can plunge into my work at an AIDS clinic: I shall not fear the destruction that wastes at midday? Really? Is there a level of faith that can honestly say such things even after all allowance has been made for poetic exaggeration?

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas L. Friedman writes of his years in the Middle East. One of the terrors of life in Beirut during the civil war there was the prospect of dying a random death. Long-distance sniping and shelling made it hard to tell where bullets or shells might land, and the people who launched them often didn't care. You never knew whether the car you walked past might explode into a fireball, stripping trees of their leaves so that in the terrible silence that followed, scores of leaves would come fluttering down in a soft shower on top of the dead and the maimed.

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No one kept score. Police would even lose track of the names of the dead. "Death in Beirut had no echo," says Friedman.

I shall not fear the grenade that flies by day. Could a believer say this in Beirut?

Let us face the truth. Faith in the sheltering wings of God does not remove physical danger or the need for precaution against it. We cannot ignore Beirut tourist advisories, or feed wild animals on our camping trips, or jump a hot motorcycle over a row of parked cars and trust God to keep us safe. We cannot smoke cigarettes like the Marlboro man and then claim the promises of Psalm 91 as our protection against lung cancer. A person who did these things would be a foolish believer and a foolish reader of Psalm 91.

You may recall that in Matthew's gospel Satan quotes this psalm to Jesus in the temptation at the pinnacle of the temple. "Throw yourself down," says Satan. After all, it says right in Psalm 91 that "God will give his angels charge over you." And Jesus replies that it is not right to put God to the test. God's protection is good only for certain events, and restrictions may apply. Jesus was teaching us that we cannot act like a fool and then count on God to bail us out. God may do it—and some of us can recall times when we acted like fools and God bailed us out. But we may not count on it.

But, of course, some believers get hurt, terribly hurt, by no folly of their own. Suppose a drunk driver smashes into your family car. Suppose an I-beam falls on you in a storm. What if you make the mistake of visiting a great city during tourist-hunting season?

Or suppose you are a devout middle-aged Christian woman who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One June you start to feel sick. So you visit your primary-care physician, who sends you for tests, and then a visit to a specialist, and then more tests. Finally you go back to your own physician, and she says, "Ma'am, I'm sorry to say that you had better get your affairs in order." She says more, far more, about treatments and research and making you as comfortable as possible—on and on with all kinds of stuff that is well-meant. But you have grown deaf. All you can think is that you are 46 years old and you are going to die before your parents do and before your children get married.

Whatever happened to the wings of God? Can you get brain cancer under those wings? Get molested by a family member? Get knifed by some emotionless teenager in a subway in New York? Can you find, suddenly one summer, that your own 17-year-old has become a stranger and that everything in your family seems to be cascading out of control?

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Where are those wings?

What troubles us is not so much the sheer fact that believers suffer along with everybody else. C. S. Lewis once pondered this. If the children of God were always saved from floods like believing Noah and his family; if every time somebody pointed a gun at a Christian, the gun just turned to salami; if we really had a money-back guarantee against hatred, disease, and the acts of terrorists, then of course we wouldn't have to worry about church growth. Our churches would fill with people attracted to the faith for secondary reasons. These are people who want an insurance agent, not a church. For security they want Colin Powell, not God. We already have people becoming Christians because they want to get rich or get happy. What would happen to people's integrity if becoming a believer really did give you blanket protection against poverty, accident, and the wages of sin?

No, it's not the fact that we have to take our share of the world's suffering that surprises us. After all, our experience and the rest of Scripture have taught us to expect hardship. What worries us is that Psalm 91 tells us not to worry. It says "a thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you." This is advertising that sounds too good to be true. In fact, the psalmist says, "Because you have made the Lord your refuge … no evil shall befall you." And the statement troubles us. What about Paul? What about Stephen? What about our Lord himself? He wanted to gather the citizens of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks. What some of those citizens did was to take him outside of town one day and nail his wings to some two-by-fours.

So what is going on in Psalm 91? How are its extravagant promises God's Word to us?

What Psalm 91 does is express one—one of the loveliest, one of the most treasured—but just one of the moods of faith. It's a mood of exuberant confidence in the sheltering providence of God. Probably the psalmist has been protected by God in some dangerous incident, and he is celebrating.

On other days, and in other moods—in other and darker seasons of his life—this same psalmist might have called to God out of despair and a sense of abandonment. Remember that when our Lord was crucified, when our Lord shouted at our God, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"—when Jesus shouted this in astonishment, and with maybe even a note of accusation, remember that he was quoting another psalm (22). Despair or astonishment at what can happen to us under God's providence—that too is natural and biblical.

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Psalm 91 gives us only part of the picture and only one of the moods of faith. With a kind of quiet amazement, the psalmist bears witness that under the wings of God good things happen to bad people. You need another psalm or two to fill in the picture, to cry out that under those same wings bad things sometimes happen to good people.

Psalm 91 says no evil shall befall us. When we have cashed out some of the poetry and then added in the witness of the rest of Scripture, what we get, I believe, is the conclusion that no final evil shall befall us. We know that we can believe God with all our heart and yet have our heart broken by the loss of a child or the treachery of a spouse or the menace of a fatal disease. We know this is true—everyone in the church knows it. And yet, generation after generation of bruised saints have known something else and spoken of it. In the mystery of faith, we find a hand on us in the darkness, a voice that calls our name, and the sheer certainty that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God—not for this life and not for the life to come. We may be scarred and shaken, but, as Lewis Smedes says in one of his luminous sermons, we come to know that it's all right, even when everything is all wrong.

We are like fledglings who scuttle under the wings of their parent. The forces of evil beat on those wings with everything they have. The pitchforks of the Evil One, falling tree limbs in the storm, merciless rain and hail—everything beats on those wings. When it is finished, when evil has done its worst, those wings are all bloodied and busted and hanging at wrong angles. And, to tell you the truth, in all the commotion we too get roughed up quite a lot.

But we are all right, because those wings have never folded. They are spread out to be wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. And when the feathers quit flying, we peep out and discover that we have been in the only place that was not leveled. Yes, we have been bumped and bruised and hurt. Sometimes badly hurt. But the other choice was to be dead—the other choice was to break out of the embrace of God. If we had not stayed under those wings we could never have felt the body shudders and heard the groans of the one who loved us so much that those wings stayed out there no matter what came whistling in. This is the one who protects us from final evil, now and in the life to come—the life in which, at last, it is safe for God to fold his wings.

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He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge. It's not a simple truth, but it is the truth. And we ought to believe it with everything that is in us.

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., is dean of the chapel at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans).

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