On a sticky, steamy night last summer, I sat on my back porch in the dark and stared at a gangly potted cactus. This Epiphyllum oxypetalum, commonly known as the “Queen of the Night” was a gift from an elderly gardener friend. He promised me that there would be spectacular, if short-lived, nocturnal flowers. “And it’s really easy to take care of,” he assured. “I get seven or eight blooms at a time from my other plant.”
And yet, five years later, I had only seen a single, spent bloom, hanging between the scalloped stems like a deflated balloon. It was not for lack of trying. I watered the cactus regularly, but not too often. I adjusted its position for indirect sunlight. I fertilized, and I pruned. I brought it inside faithfully before outside temperatures dropped. Its tentacle stems grew rapidly in all directions. But the promised late-summer buds never appeared.
Then, last spring, as my family floundered in wave after wave of traumatic loss, I stuck the plant on the corner of the front porch and turned to care for other, more pressing needs. So on that late summer evening, it was to my utter surprise that I found two swollen buds sheathed in twisting, pink sepals, ready to bloom.
The well-known instruction of Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” is a popular refrain. It appears on bumper stickers, hand-lettered signs, and shareable social media content. We invoke it as an encouragement to slow our frenetic pace and trust God to care for us. But the CSB translation offers a slightly different take: “Stop your fighting, and know that I am God.”
Psalm 46 begins by describing a context of cataclysmic upheaval. Declaring that God is our refuge, strength, and helper, the psalmist holds to this truth even when the “earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, though its water roars and foams and the mountains quake with its turmoil” (v. 2). The text offers pictures of world-shattering destruction and violent conflict, both natural disasters and political chaos.
In the third and final section of the psalm, the psalmist describes God’s intervention using wartime imagery: “He makes wars cease throughout the earth. He shatters bows and cuts spears to pieces; he sets wagons ablaze” (v. 9). In view of the whole psalm, it seems that verse 10 is not telling us to simply take a break from life’s hustle and bustle. Instead, it is a counterintuitive command to cease desperately fighting for our own security and survival.
Last year my family’s world did, indeed, feel like it was toppling into the depths of the sea. Everything in our lives was upended by the sudden deaths of two young friends and the fallout from those traumas. Every day I desperately fought to find safety, and to protect my children from darkness that threatened to pull them under. I trembled and raged and felt myself in deep need of refuge.
With so much at stake, how could I possibly follow the psalmist’s injunction and stop my fighting? And yet, Psalm 46:10 insists that the middle of a battle is precisely the time to be still. The command is coupled with a call to contemplation: “Know that I am God.”
God does not pledge to keep tragedy and turmoil away from us—we would not need a fortress if that were the case. Instead, he vows to be the strong tower that keeps us safe in the midst of the fiery battles and raging waters. Secure in that knowledge, we no longer need to punch and scrape and struggle on our own.
Lent does not deny our heart-piercing, bone-tired, chest-constricting reality. It does ask us to cease our struggling—not because we are giving up, but because we are choosing to bear witness to God’s promise to his children.
On that muggy summer night, I sat quietly and watched the cactus’s blush-colored sepals arc up and back, then stretch out like sun rays around the soft, unfurling petals. In the darkness, the pale blooms shone like stars, guiding me back to the God who says, “Be still.”
Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt is an author and associate professor of art and art history at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.