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Finding Ourselves in the Psalms: When God Seems Absent

June 9, 2013

Sermon:  Finding Ourselves in the Psalms:  When God Seems Absent
Text:  Psalm 13

Today we continue our study Finding Ourselves in the Psalms, which we began last week.  I want to invite you to read the entire book of Psalms this summer.  That may seem like a daunting request, but you will not have any trouble if you read one or two chapters a day.  Read the passages slowly, and let the words sink into your mind.

You will notice that in most of the sermons I preach on the book of Psalms, I will not use all of the words in every verse.  I am cherry-picking, selecting, the words and phrases that seem to speak to my own heart.  I would invite you to do the same as you read the book.

This morning in our series we are going to consider the topic “When God Seems Absent.”  Before we turn to our text in Psalm 13 though, I would ask you to listen carefully to the words of this prayer:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me, the child of your love? And now I’ve become as the most hated one, the one You have thrown away as unwanted, unloved. I call; I cling; I want: and there is no One to answer, no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark and I am alone, unwanted, forsaken. The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. Where is my faith? Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. My God, how painful is this unknown pain? It pains without ceasing. I have no faith. I dare not utter words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me. I am afraid to uncover them because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me. [I] trust that all will end in Heaven with Jesus. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my soul. Love – the word – it brings nothing. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Before the work started there was so much union, love, faith, trust, prayer, and sacrifice. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the call of Christ?

Have you ever felt the way this person felt?  Have you ever prayed this kind of prayer?  Have you ever experienced a time when you thought God was totally absent from your life?  You may be amazed to learn that Mother Teresa of Calcutta is the author.  She wrote this prayer in her journal after her confessor suggested she write a prayer to Jesus.  In the book about her life and her darkness, Come Be My Light, published by Doubleday, she made startling revelations about long periods of time in her life when she experienced the absence of God.  Doubters and believers alike can draw something from her prayer.  This same type of experience Mother Theresa described happens in the lives of Christians so dedicated and devoted.

The letters in Come Be My Light cover a span of sixty-six years in which Mother Theresa corresponded with her superiors and a few others.  The secret letters reveal that she did not feel the presence of God in her life for a combined total of approximately fifty years.  Can you imagine this woman, who is on the path to sainthood and who has already been deified, feeling this despair?  The revelation is astounding to those who knew her because she always seemed to have a cheery appearance, working with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India.

Members of our church who encountered Mother Theresa on an airplane once described her as being so inspirational.  One person said to me, “When I recognized her I could see the Spirit of God in her life.”

Yet Mother Theresa had this dark side to her, this feeling of such emptiness.  She herself tried to understand this absence, saying that she felt that God allowed her to go through this experience because the people to whom she was ministering felt the absence of God.  She wondered how she could ever identify with them, how she could ever have any sense of solidarity with them, if she, herself, did not feel the painful agony of the absence of God.

Atheists and agnostics see the darkness of Mother Theresa’s life as proof that God does not exist.  They argue that she finally realized this fact but could not change her path and admit the truth.  They also claim that she continued to deceive others with her words and work.  Some doubters have even called her a fraud, proposing that she was just pretending to be holy.

Believers, however, can find encouragement in Mother Theresa’s torment.  The absence of Christ’s voice in her life never swayed her from her mission.  She remained committed to him and to the work he gave her, faithfully and without question. Remember that this perseverance may be as important in the ministry she rendered to this world as was her ministry to the poor of Calcutta.  With her journal, she ministers to all of us.

We might ask if others have been through this experienced the absence of God.  If we are honest with ourselves and honest with each other, every single one of us has.  My take is that it is a part of the journey in life.  If we strive to live the Christian life and engage ourselves on this pilgrimage of following God, we will have times like this.  Sometimes the path will take us through dark places, through the wilderness, when we do not experience the living water.  Our throats become parched, and we long for God.

Others have certainly experienced this wilderness.  St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul” in his wonderful devotional book written out of his own feeling that God was absent.  The question of whether David experienced this absence brings us to Psalm 13.  Listen as I read just a few verses.

How long, Lord?  Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
And day after day have sorrow in my heart?
 
But I trust in your unfailing love.
My heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praises
For he has been good to me.
 

When we, as individuals or as the church, go through this kind of experience – whether called the absence of God, wilderness, desert, or darkness – what are we to do?  Churches can go through this when members feel that God is not as active in the life of the church as He had once been.  People can both privately and in the context of the church avoid panic.  The motto of the French Foreign Legion is “When in doubt, charge!”  This motto promotes reacting in some way, even when we have no real direction.  A response of running helter-skelter does not help, so what are we to do?  We need to see this period as an opportunity in our life to grow in our faith.

My dad used to say to me, “Kirk, God does in human life pretty much what a blacksmith does when he puts a piece of iron in the fire.  The blacksmith hammers, molds, and shapes the iron into a much stronger piece of steel.”  The truth is that these kinds of experiences temper us and make us stronger.  We must, however, not panic and run away from the experience.  We must stick with it, just as Mother Theresa did.

The disciples came to Jesus following an attempt to heal a boy who had seizures.  They asked, “Why couldn’t we do this?”

Jesus responded, “It is because of your lack of faith.”

People do not like to hear that they lack faith; but according to Luke 17 the apostles responded in a positive way by saying, “Lord, increase our faith.”

Jesus talked with them about faith, explaining, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it will obey you.”

I have mulberry trees that volunteer in my yard, and I can tell you that uprooting one is not an easy task.

Maybe a more compelling passage is the corollary found in Chapter 17, Verse 20, of Matthew’s Gospel.  A similar discussion occurred whereby the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive out the demon?”

Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

That passage, which is difficult for us to understand, is an old saying among rabbis.  It was used to describe rabbis particularly skilled in getting through the recalcitrance of their students.  Rabbis said that a colleague could move mountains if he finally broke through a student’s hard-headed, argumentative, and contentious attitude.

I do not know about moving mountains, but I do know that when I get on Highway 585 near USC Upstate and look off in the distance on a bright sunny day, I can see Hogback Mountain.  I can actually see the whole Blue Ridge Escarpment.  On cloudy days when no mountain is visible, are the mountains gone?  Does it mean the mountains are absent?  No.  We must believe in the presence of the mountains even when we cannot see them.  Likewise, we must believe in the presence of our Father even when we cannot feel His nearness. Experiencing the absence of God gives us an opportunity to grow in our faith.  That was certainly the case with the disciples.

When we go through this experience, we must wait.  We see the instruction to “wait upon the Lord” so often in the Psalms:

          Psalm 27:14:  “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart.  Wait for the Lord.”

          Psalm 37:34:  “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”

          Psalm 38:15:  “Lord, I wait for you.  You will answer, Lord, my God.”

          Psalm 40:1: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.”

          Psalm 130:5:  “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits.”  In his word I put my hope.”

Does this waiting mean that we sit in a corner somewhere and twiddle our thumbs?  Does it mean that we do nothing?  No.  We do wait on some occasions, but while we wait we must be active.

Perhaps you are familiar with the great story about Hudson Taylor’s trip aboard a ship traveling around the tip of South Africa at Cape Horn.  The vessel reached an area often called the doldrums, an area where the wind quits blowing.  That apparently was the occasion behind Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.  The ship in that poem sat still when it reached an area without wind.

When Taylor’s sailing vessel ran into the same predicament, the captain approached him and pleaded, “Dr. Taylor, I understand that you are a man of prayer.  Would you please pray that God will send favorable winds?”

Hudson Taylor replied, “I will, but first you must hoist the sails.”

The captain protested, “I can’t hoist the sails with no wind!  My crew will think I am crazy!”

“Unless you hoist the sails I will not pray for wind.”

The captain reluctantly hoisted the sails, and Taylor prayed.  The winds soon came and provided the means to sail across the Indian Ocean and on to China where Taylor served in the China Inland Mission.

Our Call to Worship this morning, which came from Isaiah 55:6, addresses active waiting:  “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.”  We must seek the Lord when we wait actively.  David clearly, in Psalm 13, is seeking God.

How do we seek God?  We pray.  As we wait we must pray, just as Hudson Taylor did.  Have you ever prayed but the sky seemed as though it were made of brass?  Have you felt as though your prayers were ricocheting and not getting through to God at all?  Most of us have had a similar experience.

Notice in Psalm 13 that David says he sings “the Lord’s praises.”  We might expect that response from the man known as the “sweet singer of Israel.”  St. Augustine of Hippo says, “He who sings prays twice.”  It may be that the best way we can pray is to sing, whistle, or hum.

The Psalms often speak about seeking the face of God.  Does God play hide-and-seek with us?  Does God deliberately hide Himself and play games with us, making it hard to find Him?

Older brothers and sisters sometimes play that game with younger children.  You might have seen an older child say, “You go hide.  I will count to 100 and then try to find you.”  The little tyke finds a place to hide and then waits and waits and waits.  No one looks for the child.  No one comes to find the child.  What a miserable feeling!  Does God do the same with us?  No.  God does not play hide-and-seek.

Consider the passage of Scripture read earlier in the service, the story of Zacchaeus, a man who seemed to have everything except a relationship with God.  Though Jewish, he was actually alienated and despised in Jericho because he was the chief tax collector.  Because of his small stature and his desire to view Jesus, he climbed a tree.  Jesus saw more than a little man up a tree; Jesus saw Zacchaeus’ heart.  Jesus told this man that he was going to his house for dinner.  What a way to get invited!  “I’m going to your house.”  He told Zacchaeus during their time together, “I came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  After his visit with Jesus, Zacchaeus made reparation to all of the people he had defrauded.

It is not that we are hiding from God or that God is hiding from us.  This is a double search.  We are seeking God, and God is also seeking us.  He wants to find us and have a relationship with us.  He does not play a game of hide-and-seek; He seeks people who seek Him.

Look at just a few verses from Psalm 14, a corollary to Psalm 13.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind
To see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.

Philosophical atheism is rare.  Very few people do not believe in any god at all.  Practical atheism, however, is common.  Walter Brueggemann comments on this Scripture from Psalm 14, saying that the “fool” is not just a few isolated people.  In reality, the fool is all of us.  At times we all act as if God does not exist.  Even the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “About fifty percent of the time I act like an atheist.  I do not have God in the backside of my mind.”

When we treat God as if He were absent, He will certainly seem absent.  Have you ever said, “No hands but our hands”?  Really?  Is God helpless without us?  Can God not get along without us?  If He does not have us, is He unable to be God?  Does He need us?  That philosophy is another version of practical atheism.  I can tell you that He is not dependent on us though He does invite us and want us to be a part of His plan.

Somebody asked Daniel Boone one time if he had ever been lost.  He answered, “No, but I was thoroughly confused one time for about three days.”

The internet offers guidelines to prevent getting lost and guidelines once you get lost.  One suggestion is to carry a map and a compass while hiking.  This Book, this Bible, serves as your map and your compass.  Use it as your guide.  Those who get lost are told not to wander off from the original route, if you know what the original map is.  Mother Theresa is a perfect example of someone who worked faithfully at the task given to her by God, even when she felt His absence.  A third suggestion is to stop walking if you are lost. Wait to be found.  We always told our children when we went to a place like the county fair or Williamsburg, Virginia, “If you get lost, just stay where you are.  We will find you.”  God wants to find us.  He will find us.  He never quits seeking.

One of my favorite sections of the hymn “Just as I Am” is “Just as I am, though toss’d about With many a conflict, many a doubt.  Fightings within and fears without, O Lamb of God, I come!”

When you sense the absence of God, remember the Lord Jesus on the cross.  Remember his excruciating cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Remember that God did not abandon His Son.  Though that place called Golgotha seemed the most God-forsaken place on earth, God did not abandon Jesus.  God will not abandon you.

Have you put your faith and trust in Christ Jesus?  If not, we invite you to do so today.  You respond in whatever way God leads.

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2013
 
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