October 13, 2013
A friend of mine told me about a very powerful, very spiritual moment in their life. Some months after losing a parent, they were driving one day, alone in the car, when the sense of loss suddenly became overwhelming. Stopping the car in the middle of the road, they got out and started yelling at God, even banging a fist on the car while doing so. My friend was angry with God, wondering why their loved one had to experience so much suffering and eventually, death.
As we continue our series of messages on the psalms – From Our Heart to God’s, this morning we come to the 42nd psalm, which asks the question Is God Absent?
There is not a name attached to the authorship of the psalm. We simply don’t know who wrote this psalm. But we do know that the psalmist was not in his usual place, which was Jerusalem. He was in the area of Mount Hermon, far to the north. It sounds as though he was there against his will. Perhaps he was there because he needed to go into hiding or perhaps an enemy had carried him away to this region. Being so far from his place of worship, and far from his home in Jerusalem, made him feel far from God, and made him feel that perhaps God had moved far away from him. And it’s not just being away from home that is difficult; he is being taunted. Listen to verse 3 – My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"
There is a four critical dynamics that we see in this psalm –
One of the most amazing passages of Scripture, to me, is John 11:21. Jesus and his disciples are traveling to Bethany, the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. As Jesus and his disciples are traveling, they receive word that Lazarus has died. John says that when Martha heard that Jesus was coming to visit them, she went out to meet him. It may be unwise to try and read between the lines of Scripture, but I get the impression that Martha had a few things on her mind to tell Jesus. I picture her coming to Jesus with that look about her. Do you know what I mean when I mention the look. A friend of mine in Alabama invited me to speak at his church. I decided to open my message with a joke. I thought it was a good joke, and quite funny. Most everyone in the congregation thought it was funny. One woman did not. After the service, as I was greeting people, I could see her coming. She was walking past everyone standing in line and I believe she had steam coming from her ears. Before she got to me she lifted her finer into the air and began shaking it at me. She was not happy and she very plainly expressed her unhappiness. I think this is exactly the manner in which Martha approached Jesus. Martha walks up to Jesus and she tells him, very pointedly, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. There’s a lot of emotion in that statement, and one is discouragement. Discouragement is really tough, and it will lead to many other difficulties. It will lead to anger and frustration, which we see spilling out of Martha.
Discouragement is like a vortex that draws us further and further in, and the further in we are drawn, the more difficult it is to pull ourselves out.
Discouragement can then lead to –
In this psalm we find an atmosphere of discouragement, which leads to depression. Depression is very real, and very common. Depression is not something that is the fault of the person, it’s not something you can “snap out of,” and it is not something you are imagining.
There are 19 million people in this country struggling with major depression, and millions more who struggle with other levels.
There is, unfortunately, a stigma that remains about depression. Do not allow the opinions of others to keep you from getting help. Depression is very real, and it is very difficult, and I would estimate that every one of us here today knows someone with depression, but we may not know it, and they may not know it, in a diagnosed capacity.
This psalm is interesting because this is not a skeptic charging that God is absent; this is a person of belief asking the question of whether or not God is absent. It is a psalm that combines doubt and faith at the same time, which seems contradictory. In verse 9 the psalmist says I say to God my Rock, "Why have you forgotten me?” How does one feel forgotten by God but in the same sentence refer to God as my Rock? It’s similar to the father who brings his son to Jesus to be healed. Jesus says, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). It seems contradictory to say I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief, but that is what struggle does to us – it allows doubt to creep in to our hearts and minds.
Doubt about God and his presence with us is not a sign of losing your faith; it is a sign of being human. We find this mixture of doubt and belief all through the Scriptures, and especially in the psalms.
I think many people believe it is wrong to ask difficult questions of God. Part of the reason may be a result of how skeptics often use suffering as evidence of God’s absence and any doubt we may express as an acknowledgement of that absence.
Many people believe it is wrong to express doubt. But this psalm, psalm 42, certainly demonstrates that it is legitimate to ask questions of God. All through Scripture we find people asking questions of God. We find people expressing doubt that God is present. This is part of the beauty of the psalms, as they express the full range of human emotion. We are emotional creatures, and there is nothing inherently wrong with expressing those emotions.
But our feelings are not an adequate measure of truth about God. Just because we feel that God is absent does not mean that he is absent. Just because doubt at times creeps into our lives, it doesn’t mean that God is not present in our lives.
Most people would classify doubt as a mental position, as when people compare evidences and arguments and then make a rational decision. I believe doubt to be more of an emotional condition than one that is based in rationality and thinking.
Doubt is not an expression of uncertain or shaky faith, but an example of healthy faith, because healthy faith is not afraid to entertain difficult questions, it is not afraid to ask difficult questions, and it is not afraid of uncertainty. On the contrary, it is a less secure faith that is afraid to ask questions, afraid of challenging points of view, and insists on absolute certainty.
4. Determination or denial.
We often talk about “crossroads” moments in life; those moments when we know something must change. We think intently about one choice versus another and of the repercussions to our choices. What will we do?
The situation for the psalmist came down to a choice – was he going to hold on to his faith or was he going to abandon faith? He made his choice for faith, but recognized there was still a tough road ahead. He ends the psalm on a note of optimism, but one that is also tempered with some realism – why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (verse 11).
Life is not always easy. Life can be very, very difficult, and the difficulties that visit us in life can wear us down and can even bring us to the point where we consider abandoning faith, and may think we are justified because it seems God has abandoned us.
Going back to my friend, whom I told you about at the beginning of this message; in spite of the fact that he argued with God, pounded on his car in anger, and shouted to God, was not losing faith, but expressing faith, although in a way that is much different from how we generally do so. I think what he did that day was actually saving his faith.
God never abandons us. In spite of how difficult life may be, we can affirm that God is ever with us. The psalmist, in the midst of life’s terrible difficulties, says put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.