Preacher: James Armstrong
Scripture: Psalm 22
How pleasant it would be to live in the paradise described in the 23rd Psalm: green pastures, still waters and us anointed with oil and sitting at a table prepared for us by God. Too often, however, our lives are not characterized by the peace and security of Psalm 23. Instead, we feel insecure, harried and even alienated as we go about our daily routine. And, when things are at their darkest, we may find ourselves identifying with the author of Psalm 22.
Like Psalm 23, Psalm 22 is one of the poetic masterpieces of the Bible, but it paints a bleak picture of a believer’s life. Far from being calm and secure, that life is filled with pain, powerlessness, abuse and abandonment. It is also filled with doubt and uncertainty about God and God’s good intentions.
Doubt is my subject this morning, and before going on, I’d like to explain the kind of doubt I mean. I am talking about profound questions concerning God’s existence and God’s character. Such questions arise, for example, when we consider issues of suffering and evil. If God is good and all-powerful, why does God permit the vilest dictators and terrorists to wreak havoc around the world? Why do some people suffer so terribly, while others, much less worthy, prosper? Why is God silent in the face of urgent need?
Clearly, having doubts about God is a grave matter, one that we need to consider seriously. But is it a bad or a good thing? I think it can be either. There is a risk that doubt will lead to a loss of faith in God. On the other hand, if doubt compels us to engage with God and come to grips with what we really believe, then it will ultimately result in a stronger faith.
In any case, doubts about God seem inevitable. Frederick Buechner put it this way in his volume Wishful Thinking, “. . . if you don’t have doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Doubt is expressed throughout the Bible. Read Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations or Habakkuk. Jesus’ disciples doubted, as can be seen in the resurrection stories. John Wesley had crises of faith, when he was convinced of his unbelief. In her letters Mother Teresa wrote about similar crises: “The place of God in my soul is blank – There is no God in me . . . I just long and long for God.” How strongly her words echo the beginning of Psalm 22!
The psalm opens with a cry of suffering and doubt: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus repeated these words on the cross as he was dying; they are an unforgettable expression of heartbreak and abandonment. Verses 1-2 continue, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” In his misery the psalmist desperately asks – and keeps asking – where is my God? But God stays silent.
Why is God sometimes silent when we pray? I suggest that it may be due to our inability or unwillingness to hear what God is trying to tell us. This may be because of sin in our lives, our Christian immaturity or our lack of readiness to confront some vital issue that God wants us to deal with. Whatever the cause, such silences are hard to bear, and we can easily understand the psalmist’s uncertainty. What can we do to withstand the trials in our lives when God is silent?
What does the psalmist do? In verses 4-5, he argues. He argues that God has been faithful to his people. “In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.”
However, he has been put to shame and is now the object of mockery and derision, as we see in verses 6-8: “I am a worm and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me . . . ‘Commit your cause to the Lord [they say]; let him deliver – let him rescue the one in whom he delights!'” He is treated with hostility by people he probably once claimed as acquaintances and friends. We can see from the words they use that they are, in fact, religious people, maybe good temple-goers, good “church” people.
How do we, as good church people, react to those among us who are in trouble and express their honest doubts about God and the Christian life? Not with scorn, I am sure; but have we created a safe place for people to speak their doubts aloud, where their concerns will be taken seriously and where they will be supported prayerfully? I strongly believe that this is part of what it means to be a church: to be a place of listening and support, especially when doubt has the upper hand in a believer’s life and the way ahead is dim.
As we return to Psalm 22, the author next remembers when times were good, and reminds God that he is God’s child. Verse 10 reads, “On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me, you have been my God.” Why is God treating a beloved child so poorly?
In verse 11 he pleads, and you can almost hear the child in his voice, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” The danger is described metaphorically in verses 12-13, “Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me, they open wide their mouths at me like a ravening and roaring lion.” The psalmist reveals in verses 14-15 that he has lost all his strength: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” In verses 17-18 his enemies eagerly anticipate his death: “They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
What perils do we face that threaten the security of our faith? Severe, debilitating illness in one we love or in ourselves? The death of a loved one? The horrors of war? Doubt often has less dramatic causes. Lauren Winner refers to the loss of certainty about one’s faith as “losing Jesus” in her book Still: Notes on a Mid-faith Crisis. She observes, “. . . you [can] lose Jesus because you have departed from Jesus’ norm, from his path: you begin to take for granted that he is next to you; you . . . just assume that the direction in which you’re walking is the direction in which he’s walking, and your assumption, it turns out, is wrong.”
Of course, the triggers for doubt are different for each of us. For me, it was watching my father descend into the chaos of Alzheimer’s disease. A college professor and an engineer, he was also an articulate, musically-gifted and involved Christian. I railed inwardly at God as I saw what his life had become. His fingers still remembered the old songs and hymns as he comforted himself on the piano and accordion, but finally even the music left him. I grew angry and bewildered as my once-knowledgeable and creative father disappeared before my eyes. How could God allow a committed, faithful servant to lose his very humanity? Where was God, anyway?
Returning to the psalm, we hear another plea in verses 19-21, “But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! . . . Save me from the mouth of the lion!” The psalmist reaches out yet again to God. Though riven by doubt, he continues to wrestle with God and refuses to give up, insisting that God pay attention.
And then . . . and then . . . Well, let me read verse 21b, straight from the Hebrew, “From the horns of the wild oxen you have answered me.” Translators have worried the second half of verse 21 to death, believing that something must be wrong with the Hebrew, and no two translations are exactly the same. However, the word which translates as “you have answered me” is clear. And so after a long, difficult silence, we know that God has answered the prayers of God’s child.
God also answered Lauren Winner, whom I introduced above, after her extended struggle with doubt. This happened at her church’s Easter Vigil service on Saturday night of Holy Week. She was antsy, she says, and rather than stay in the service, she went to the kitchen to help prepare the Easter Vigil feast. She returned to worship to partake of Communion, after which she sat down. As she waited she heard a voice say, “You can stay here now.” She writes, “Just five words, and I know that this voice is God and what God means is that there is ground beneath my feet again, that this is the beginning of sanity and steadiness; this is the beginning of a reshaped life.” Of course, there are other explanations for the voice she heard, but as she says, “. . . I still will tell you that one night, while sitting in church, I heard God’s voice, naming a resurrection of sorts, telling me I could stay.”
I felt God answering me, as well, after a long period of anger at God on behalf of my father. It was more like pressure than audible words, but in effect God said, “Look at your mother.” I had been so focused on my father’s deteriorating condition that, to my shame, I hadn’t really seen my mother at all. When I finally looked at her, I saw Jesus. My mother was modeling Christ in her patient love and care for my father. God truly was present in the middle of an awful situation, and God’s loving will was being carried out – by my mother.
In the psalm, what follows God’s answer is joyful celebration, beginning with verse 22: “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him!” Verse 26 adds, “. . . the poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever!” Why such exuberance? Why such a complete turnaround from the misery and loneliness of the psalm’s opening words?
The author tells us in verse 24, and this is apparently also the substance of God’s answer to his prayers: “for [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me but heard when I cried to him.” He has realized that God was present in his affliction. God was always there.
God is always there: when we are abandoned and scorned, when we are weak and hurting, and whatever our doubts. We worship the God who is always there, even in our darkest hour. Sometimes we cannot hear God’s voice. Nevertheless, God is still there – God is not hiding – and when we are ready and able to see and hear, God’s face will come into sharper focus and God’s voice will become clearer.
The psalm’s extravagant praise extends for several more verses, but we will leave the passage here, and consider what it can tell us about dealing with doubt.
We have seen that the psalmist continues to reach out to God, despite the lack of an immediate response. He pleads. He prays into the silence and keeps on doing so. He argues with God; he wrestles with God like Jacob wrestled with God at the Jabbok River, demanding to be blessed. He also remembers earlier days, when his relationship with God seemed to be closer. Do we sometimes give up too soon when things aren’t going our way? I know I do. The psalmist teaches us to engage with God and persevere. He shows us how to endure.
If you are struggling with doubt, I would also like to suggest sharing your questions with a trusted friend. Let another’s faith support you if your own is not up to the task. The call to the supporting friend is to share faith, prayer and empathy. It is never to rebuke or judge. When Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, Jesus did not rebuke him, but he shared what Thomas needed in order to believe. I hope you have friends in our church who will listen without judging and help uphold you through difficult times.
Finally, I urge you to put down roots, deep roots that will nourish and anchor you. Nourishment, anchorage and support are necessary when you face the stresses of doubt and uncertainty. Put down roots in church; be an active part of this congregation; develop a support network of Christian friends. Grow roots deep into your Bible. Learn where you can turn – for example, to Psalm 22 – to find answers and gain strength as you confront the questions that inevitably will arise. Also, develop roots in your prayer life to anchor yourself as closely to God as possible. After all, you are in the process of building a relationship with God, and your relationship will be weak if you never talk. Such communication will help reassure you when you face the periods of silence and doubt that every Christian encounters.
Psalm 22 opens in uncertainty and abandonment. It concludes in joy and adoration. Why the change? It comes down to one essential truth, expressed in the Hebrew name Emmanuel, in English, “God is with us.” The psalmist came to understand this truth and it changed his life.
Jesus is our Emmanuel. Do you want the life-changing assurance that God will always be with you? Then, if you have never done so before, I invite you to accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord. If you would like to talk further about this, it would be my privilege to meet with you after the service, or you can speak with Pastor Allie when she returns next week.
Sisters and brothers, wherever you are in your Christian walk, I urge you to take this truth to heart: in all circumstances and conditions – in darkness and doubt, in suffering and affliction – God is with us! May we explore what this means for our lives as we grow together in Christ. Amen.