On a childhood road trip, my family and I stopped in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to tour the underground caverns at Ruby Falls. In retrospect, I’m surprised my mom, who obsesses about safety and shuns risks, agreed to this detour because it involved riding an elevator down into the earth in order to reach the caves. Of course, a guide accompanied us, and different colored lights filled the caverns so that we could see the stalactites and stalagmites, some of which appeared as interesting formations. I remember one that looked like bacon hanging from the ceiling. At the end of the walk, we entered a tall, soaring part of the cavern, and gazed in amazement at an incredible waterfall. I absolutely loved the experience in that cave.
I suspect the cave in which David found himself in the Bible was not beautiful and thrilling like the one I “explored” as a child. David was on the run from his enemies, and he poured out his prayer in Psalm 142 “when he was in the cave.” David said, “I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.” Psalm 142:1. David felt anxious and scared hiding in a dark, cold, cramped, miserable cave calling out for the Lord’s help.
While flipping through to another section of the Bible, I’d noticed that David wrote Psalm 142 when he hid in the cave. About the same time, I read a quote from author Michael Kelley: “It’s a journey of trying to embrace the fact that God is our refuge but not a comfortable one to hold on to.” I was startled by the concept that God’s refuge might not always provide comfort because to me the concept of refuge equated to comfort, calm, and peace. When I think of refuge, I picture an island paradise with me lying on a beach with a view of the ocean or a mountain retreat curled up with a cozy blanket in front of a fireplace with a good book and hot chocolate. To me, refuge conjures feelings of happiness and rest.
David searched for a refuge. He said, “I have no refuge; no one cares for my life. I cry to you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need.” Psalm 142:4-6. When I looked up the definition of refuge, I was a bit disappointed that it did not involve calm, comfort, or beautiful surroundings. Instead, the dictionary defined refuge as “a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble.” (lexico.com). While none of us, including David, would wish for a sparse or unpleasant refuge, technically the cave, in fact, provided refuge for David giving him safety while his enemies pursued him.
When I pray for God’s refuge, I don’t expect or want a cave. But I started to wonder if God’s concept of refuge is different from mine. Maybe the cave marks the first, temporary step on the way to a better, more peaceful refuge. Perhaps the cave is a necessary stop in which we’re supposed to learn a lesson or two. In the cave, we are safe from immediate trouble, but we are probably not comfortable. We don’t want to stay forever in the cave. Like David, we will most likely pray to get out of the cave and find serenity elsewhere, but maybe increased prayer is part of what we need to find in the cave’s shelter. The cave can give us a break from the howling wind, the raging storm, the extreme heat or cold, and the real and perceived enemies who trouble us, so that we can regain our footing and find God’s path forward out of the cave.
We will find relief in the cave, but we will not relish our time there. We will want to move on to the next, better stage of refuge instead of remaining in the cave indefinitely. The refuge in which we find ourselves may not always be perfect and may not be a glorious, spectacular tour of God’s wonders like the cave I saw as a kid. But God can use this time, even in the starkest of caves, to further his relationship with us and demonstrate his ever-present love.