I love the ironic moments that happen in life. I was in a bookstore recently and had the opportunity to witness one of those wonderfully ironic moments. A woman who was obviously agitated walked up to an employee of the store and said, quite loudly, I’ve been looking all over this store! Where is the self-help section? I found that comment so funny and I really wanted to interject myself into the conversation and say if she tells you how to find the self-help section, wouldn’t that defeat the point?
But I have some sympathy for her – wouldn’t we like for some things to be easier? Wouldn’t we like a bit more help every now and then?
I’ll tell you where I’ve often wanted some help over the years – trying to figure out the manner in which God works. I often want to ask Lord, could I get a little help here? I don’t understand how you work, I don’t understand your timing, I don’t understand a lot of things about you and sometimes I get impatient trying to get answers! Could I get a little help?
This message went through about four titles, five versions, and a bunch of different directions from where I began. I had a different topic in mind but each day it seemed to be going in a different direction until it landed on the title of Waiting On God and I didn’t really want to use that title because it sounds too presumptuous, as though God needs to answer to us about how he works. But then I realized, maybe a lot of people have some of those same questions and would like some help dealing with them.
I told you last week that for a time in my life I was reading some of the psalms every day. Every week or so I would pick different psalms and read them for about a week and then pick some others. I’ve read the psalms all my life, but until I adopted that pattern I didn’t realize just how much raw emotion some of them contained. Listen to some of these passages, one of which is our text for this morning, but I want to add a couple of others –
7 Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
1 Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord.
2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope.
6 My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning; indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption.
8 And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
—Psalm 130:1-2, 5-8
And the psalm that contains perhaps the most raw emotion, and the one that Jesus quoted on the cross, is one that is hard to read, and is our primary text for today –
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
—Psalm 22:1-5, 11
That’s hard to read, isn’t it? That’s hard to hear, isn’t it? But isn’t that where we find ourselves sometimes? We wonder how God is working and we are patiently waiting, but after a while we start to feel that patience eroding away.
How does God work? How do we understand God’s timing? How do we come to understand God’s will? Those are tough questions, and questions that often gnaw away at our souls.
If you have asked those questions – if you are in the midst of some of those questions right now – allow me to offer a few words of advice this morning –
1. Don’t be afraid of the desert.
My first time spent around the desert was back in the mid 80’s when I went to Las Vegas for the Southern Baptist Convention. You really haven't lived until you've spent a week in Vegas with thousands of Baptists. That was really quite a moment.
I was walking along the edge of town one afternoon and it was so hot – I think it was about 115 degrees that day. But it was a dry heat. Have you ever said that – but it’s a dry heat. Yeah, that didn’t bring me much comfort. It’s a dry heat in my oven but I’m not going to stick my head in there. When the temperature gets above 110 degrees it’s just really hot, dry heat or not. On that afternoon the wind was blowing and sand was getting in my eyes and it was a painful experience. I wanted to be somewhere cool and calm and restful, but at the same time I found that moment to be strangely exhilarating. It was a moment to fight back against the elements and prove that you can withstand that moment!
Everyone has their desert moments, where life is tough and gritty and you feel dry spiritually. If you’ve not been in the desert spiritually, I have great admiration for you, because I’ve been there. Or if you haven’t, maybe you’re just not willing to admit it to yourself.
Being in the desert doesn’t mean you are weak spiritually. Being in the desert, actually, often becomes a time of great growth. When the Hebrew people fled captivity in Egypt they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. When I hear the word wilderness, being from West Virginia, I think of forests, with a tree canopy that shields one from the elements, and cool running streams, but the wilderness facing the Hebrew people was much more of a desert. It was barren and inhospitable. It was a place with little shelter and very little water. It was a very inhospitable place. But it was also the place where they became a people. It was the place where God forged them into a nation, a place where their faith was tested and tried and through every trial became strong.
As we wander through our times in the wilderness, our time in the desert, that is where we become a person of greater faith, it is where we understand that God – is his timing and in his way – is shaping each of us into the person he created us to be.
2. The older I get, the less certain I am about how God works, but the more convinced I become that he does.
I was never one of those kids that took everything apart to try and figure out how it works. I guess that’s why I’m not an engineer. I never cared about how things worked; I just wanted them to work. So it’s kind of odd that I spent a lot of years trying to figure out the manner in which God works. I spent a lot of time wondering about God’s timing and what he was doing in the world and what he was doing in my life and those questions used to really keep my mind reeling and caused me a lot of worry and anxiety.
But not any more, because I don’t worry about it very often. I am even less certain now about the way in which God works but I am more certain than ever that he does. I’ve come to the realization that I don’t need to know how God works, I just need to know and trust that he does. That’s a wonderfully freeing point at which to arrive.
Living in such a scientific and technological age puts within us the idea that we must have an answer to every question and that we must understand the inner workings of everything, from the largest to the smallest questions of the universe and life.
But must we really understand everything? Can we not live with some element of mystery? Of course we can! Anyone married learns very quickly the reality of living with mystery. Tanya and I will celebrate our 31st anniversary in May and I can guarantee you that she is still a mystery to me in some ways – and I am to her as well.
To not understand God and to not know the manner in which he works does not in any way lessen the reality of God or of his way. Last week I read a portion of Isaiah chapter 55, and in verse 8 we read “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. That doesn’t mean we have to stop asking questions or wondering about God’s ways, but it does remind us there are some mysteries that will never become clear to us until we enter eternity. And I’ve learned to be okay with that.
3. Let your head and your heart work together.
It’s never a good idea to let either your head or your heart run your life. We live between two extremes in life – there’s the very logical, scientific dimension and there’s the romanticized follow your heart attitude. Sometimes we need to be a bit more logical and thoughtful about a decision or an action, so we need to use our head more than our heart. But there are times we need to allow our hearts to overrule our head so we don’t become an emotionless zombie who doesn’t feel anything.
Please know this – God’s presence is not tied to our emotional feelings, nor is it tied to what we can see and understand. The skeptics of the world, who want us to weigh everything on a scale of what can be seen versus what cannot be seen, everything that can be measured in a lab versus what can be measured by the heart, miss so much of this truth – that we cannot see or comprehend a lot of spiritual truths with our minds. Sometimes, thankfully, the heart will take control and will sense something that the mind cannot comprehend.
The human heart, Robert Valett says, feels things the eyes cannot see, and know what the mind cannot understand.
You might not recognize the name of St. John of the Cross, who was a Spanish Catholic mystic who lived in the 16th century, but you probably know the title of one of his works, a poem, and then later the title of a lengthy treatise he wrote on that poem – The Dark Night of the Soul. The poem and book were written when he was imprisoned because of his desire to bring reform to the monastic order of which he was a part. Three times a week he was allowed out of his windowless cell where he was imprisoned in order to receive a meal of bread and water, and afterwards he was whipped because of his refusal to recant his beliefs. He wrote that in those dark confines he was able to have a certain realization and foretaste of God.
Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and wanting, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose
All in the dark went right,
Down secret steps, disguised in other clothes,
(O coming of delight!)
In dark when no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose.
And in the luck of night
In secret places where no other spied
I went without my sight
Without a light to guide
Except the heart that lit me from inside.
It guided me and shone
Surer than noonday sunlight over me,
And lead me to the one
Whom only I could see
Deep in a place where only we could be.
O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
Lover and loved one moved in unison.
And on my flowering breast
Which I had kept for him and him alone
He slept as I caressed
And loved him for my own,
Breathing an air from redolent cedars blown.
And from the castle wall
The wind came down to winnow through his hair
Bidding his fingers fall,
Searing my throat with air
And all my senses were suspended there.
I stayed there to forget.
There on my lover, face to face, I lay.
All ended, and I let
My cares all fall away
Forgotten in the lilies on that day.
Remember that even when you feel as though you are waiting on God, when you feel like shouting I could use a little help here Lord, that he is with you, and he is never going to leave you.