Tuesday, 22 May 2018

What to do when you don't desire God (Psalm 84)


Larry Crabb writes about a good friend of his who was dying of cancer.  God had chosen not to answer this man’s prayer for healing.  God didn’t even relieve the pain that he was feeling.  The man didn’t feel God’s presence.  He became angry. 
One day several of the sick man’s friends came to pray with him.  They prayed for peace, healing, a sense of God’s presence, comfort and that God’s glory would be witnessed.  The sick man interrupted them.  He spoke honestly.  ‘God, right now I hate you.  I wish I had a deep love for you and deep gratitude for what for what you are doing.  But I don’t.  I am really upset and mad.  I don’t know of any way to come to you anymore but honestly.  I’m through playing games.  I just can’t do it.  I am coming as I am.  I know it’s awful.’  Then he stood up painfully with the help of his friends.  ‘I’m going to bed now.  I’m tired.’
A few weeks later as that man lay within minutes of death, he asked a friend, ‘will I love Jesus more when I see him than I do now?’  His friend said that he thought so.  To which the dying man replied, ‘I don’t see how that is possible!’
So how did this miracle happen?  How did someone go from honest anger to peaceful praise?  How did someone hang on when God said ‘no’ to his prayers?  How did he love God in the midst of his sickness and pain?  Let’s think about our passion for God.
Do we have as much of God as we want (1-5)?
In his book ‘The Pursuit of God’ Tozer writes, ‘Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God. They mourned for Him, they prayed and wrestled and sought for Him day and night, in season and out, and when they had found Him the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking.’
Right throughout the Psalms we see a passion for God.  ‘Let the light of your face shine upon us’ (4:6).  ‘Apart from you I have no good thing’ (16:2).  ‘One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple (27:4).  ‘You are my God, earnestly I seek you, I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you’ (63:1). 
Are we actually seeking more of God?  Maybe we have as much of God as we want.  We’re comfortable, and would rather not be challenged!  But we don’t really believe that apart from him, this world has nothing to offer.  We haven’t yet realised that compared to him all pleasures are bland and all entertainment is dull.
In Psalm eighty-four, the Sons of Korah are a part of a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.  They sing, ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord, my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God’ (84:1-2). 
Why are they so excited about going to the temple?  It’s not the architectural beauty of the place that enthrals them.  Rather it is because at that time the temple was associated with the presence of God.  The psalmists want to be with God’s people, in God’s place, enjoying God’s presence. 
The Sons of Korah see the temple as a welcoming place.  Even the humble sparrow and swallow find a home there.  How much more welcome are those who place the trust in God?  Elsewhere in the Psalms we read that ‘a humble and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ (51:17b).  God bids you to come to him.  ‘Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before Him with joyful singing … Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.  Give thanks to Him, bless His name’ (Psalm 100:2-4).  ‘The Lord is near to all who call upon him—to all who call upon Him in truth’ (145:18).
In John’s gospel Jesus teaches us that the temple points to him (John 2:21).  He is the focus of God’s presence.  We no longer go to a building to meet with God, we go to a person.  There is no other way to God but by Jesus (John 14:6).  And Jesus promises that he will in no way cast out anyone who comes to him (John 6:37).  In Jesus we are to approach the throne of God’s grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). 
Would it be worth suffering to know him more (6-8)?
However, on their way to the temple in Jerusalem the pilgrims pass through the Valley of Baka.  The location of this valley is uncertain.  It seems to have been a dry place.  But they make it a place of springs—which may mean that they delight in the valley, even though it is dry.  Tim Keller says that times of dryness and difficulty are crucial for progress on the Christian pilgrimage.
So often we are more concerned about being made comfortable than being made holy.  We want God to rescue us from our pains rather than our sins.  Jesus knew his father’s good gift of grief.  He was a man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3).  The writer to the Hebrews said that even Jesus learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8).  Like Jesus, do we want to grow through suffering?  Would it be worth the pain to experience more of God?  Do we want to learn how to rejoice while in the Valley of Baka?  Is it God’s face that we seek, or are we simply looking for the gifts that he might be carrying in his hands?
One Sunday morning Caroline told me that she longed to know God the way she did when she lived in Belarus.  She was also struck that Belarus was also one of the most difficult experiences of her life.  Often it is pain that we know God most intimately.  He is close to those who are crushed and broken in heart (34:18).  Anne Graham Lotz talked of passing through a hard time in her life and them said, ‘don’t give me sympathy, don’t give me advice, don’t even give me a miracle, just give me Jesus.’  Are we willing to ask God to do anything that it takes to help us know him more? 
Do we value God more than anything else (9-12)?
So often we approach God like a child approaches Santa at Christmas time.    Could you imagine a child sitting on the lap of Father Christmas and upon being asked what he wants, replying ‘all I want for Christmas is you’?  That is exactly what the psalmists say to God!  God is the psalmist’s ultimate treasure.  Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.  I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than dwell in the tents of the wicked (10),
It is not wrong to ask for good gifts from our Heavenly Father.  God is kind beyond measure.  ‘The Lord bestows favour and honour; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless’ (11).  The apostle Paul explains that having given us his Son, ‘how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things’ (Romans 8:32).  Although look at the life of the only one whose walk was truly blameless.  Jesus was not wealthy—he had no home to lay his head (Matthew 8:20).  He was not always accepted and popular (John 15:18).  He died an excruciating death and tells us to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24).
I have told you before about a woman that was fondly known as Auntie Emma.  Dementia had stripped away Auntie Emma’s short term memory.  She could only hold a conversation for a minute or two before she was unaware of what you had said.  But what was left in the core of her mind was sheer joy.  Jesus satisfied Emma.  She would always quote a song of her youth.  ‘I would rather have Jesus than silver or gold; I’d rather be his than have riches untold.’  Emma had nothing, and yet I have hardly met anyone who was richer.
Conclusion:  How do we develop a passion for God?
Do you remember that dying friend of Larry Crabb?  In the midst of his pain he could not imagine loving God more.  There was a man ready for heaven.  ‘Who have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth I desire besides you’ (73:25). But how did he get to that point of loving God in the midst of pain?
He began with a raw honesty.  That is one of the first things we notice as we read the book of Psalms.  The Psalmists are happy to bring their ‘whys’ and ‘how longs’ to God (e.g. Psalm 13).  God graciously instructs us to put these questions on our lips.  Tell God how you feel!  Bring your cold heart to him.  Remember that the desire to love God is love for God.  Ask him to stir up your passion.  Allow the Holy Spirit blow upon the smouldering embers of your heart.
Secondly, confess that often you have wanted the gifts rather than the giver.  We have wanted to be saved from suffering more than being saved from sin.  Tozer prays, ‘I want to know Thee, but my cowardly heart fears to give up its toys.’  What do you call a child that is given everything they ask for?  We call them spoiled!  Spoiled children don’t grow.   It isn’t a loving thing to spoil your child.
Ask God to help you value him more than even the best things you want from him.  Ask God to help you believe that he knows best when he says ‘no’.  Ask him to become your greatest treasure.  That may be a struggle in this life, but we are on a pilgrimage to a New Jerusalem where there will be no temple because God ‘for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb’ (Rev. 21:22). 
Larry Crabb writes, ‘we cannot count on God to protect us from suffering of any kind or measure.  The worst evil can happen to the best Christian.  But we can count on God to enable us to draw near to him whatever happens and eventually, to experience deep joy when we do.’
Malcolm Muggeridge wrote,   ‘I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man.  People occasionally stare at me in the streets: that’s fame.  I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the highest lopes of the internal revenue.  That’s success.    Furnished with money and even a little fame, even the elderly if they care to may partake of trendy diversions.  That’s pleasure.  It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently headed for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time.  That’s fulfilment.  Yet I say to you and beg you to believe me.  Multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing – less than nothing – a positive impediment measured against one draft of that Living Water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.’
May God enable us to seek him and be satisfied in him!

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Think happy (Psalm 98)


David Murray writes an excellent book entitled ‘The Happy Christian—Ten Ways to be a joyful believer in a gloomy world.’  I normally steer clear of books with titles like that.  It sounds like a self-help book.  But this is a book written by a really sound theologian with a pastoral heart.
Murray points out that our world is wired towards negative thinking.  Look at the news we consume!  Tragedy sells.  We spend hours been told how awful things are.  I am not saying that we bury our head in the sand, but we need to balance all the bad news stories with some really good news stories.  Feed the mind on a diet of sorrow and you will end up felling sad.  As Solomon writes, ‘as a person thinks in his heart, so is he.’
Of course we can be our own worst enemies.  We like to gossip.  We are good at seeing the worst in people.  We have a tendency to put people down.  It makes us feel superior to criticise.  But talking that way about people is like living off junk good: the short term pleasure ultimate leaves us dissatisfied and unhealthy.  Do you ever find yourself in a conversation that leaves you feeling compromised and awful?
Perhaps the healthiest of all thoughts are when we praise God.  God, in his infinite goodness, has tied his glory together with the good of his people.  The Westminster Confession of faith states that the chief end of men and women is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.  The eighteenth-century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, wrote that God made man for no other purpose by happiness.  John Piper teaches that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.  So let’s talk a psalm of praise and allow it show us the God-honouring path to emotional well-being.  
Praise the God who rescues you (1-3)
The Bible commands us to praise God.  I suspect that praising God is more important for us than it is for God.  He had no shortage of praise from choirs of angelic beings.  But because he loves us he values our praise.  In fact we are designed in such a way that our hearts will expand when we focus on God and sing of his greatness.  We are to praise God because he is good, and we are to praise him because it is good.  ‘Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing praise to his name, for that is pleasant’ (Psalm 135:3).  The psalmist tells us to sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvellous things.
Three times in the opening three verses we hear the word ‘salvation’.  God saves his people.  The psalmist doesn’t tell us what saving event he has in mind.  The psalms often speak in general ways like this so that we can relate them to our own experiences.  In what ways has God saved us?  Obviously he has saved us through the cross of Jesus, which we will think about in a moment, but he actually has saved us in a whole variety of ways.
Spend time thinking of the ways that God has saved you!  He has saved you from loneliness by placing you in a family (you may not have much of a natural family, but he has given you spiritual brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters in the church).  He has saved you from an empty way of life that we see all around us by giving us meaning and purpose.  We pray each day, ‘give us our daily bread’, but we rarely give thought to the fact that it is he who provides us with the roof over our head and the food for our bellies.  He has saved us from being in dire need.  He is so kind to even those who refuse to acknowledge him!  We can thank him for good health, and thank him that he cares for us when we are ill.  Count your blessings, name them one by one.
Of course the greatest saving event in the Bible is focused on the death and resurrection of God’s own son for us.  What a focus for positive thinking that cross is!  Look at the cross and remind yourself that this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sin.  When conscience reminds you of past sin and failing, preach the gospel to yourself.  You are to honour God by living as a free person.  There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  When you fall for the millionth time to that besetting sin, bring it to the throne of grace, confess it before God and then accept the cleansing and forgiveness he promises.  It doesn’t please him to see his beloved children wallowing in shame.  He calls us to be happy and free. 
Praise the king who loves you (4-6)
At the end of verse six we get mention of God, the king.  What an amazing king we have.  Self-help books will tell us that we will improve our happiness as we love ourselves more.  But actually the real key to a positive outlook on live is to love and be loved by Jesus.
A friend of mine says that he keeps his mind on two things: the resurrection as proof that all this is true and the character of Jesus as proof that God is good.  What a king we have!  He is a king who leaves his palace to seek and save his enemies.  He is a king that little children felt safe to approach and embrace.  He is a king who serves his disciples as he washes their feet.  A king who prays for those who mock and spit at him and who called for his execution.  He is a king who will return in glory and heal this broken world.  In one of his hymns, John Newton writes, ‘Jesus! My shepherd, husband, friend, O prophet, priest and king.  My Lord, my life, my way, my end, accept the praise I bring.’
It will lift our mood and fill our hearts with positive thoughts to spend time meditating on the splendour of our king.  It will also help us to remember that he is the king who delights to save.  Indeed, while the gospel may seem to make slow progress in this stubborn and hard-hearted culture of ours, don’t fail to see how the church is blossoming in South America and China.  Jesus is establishing his kingdom and the gates of hell cannot prevent it!
Praise him with creation (7-9)
As we come to the end of the psalm we witness the whole of nature praising God.  The rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing for joy.  Romans chapter eight tells us that nature was made to be more alive than it presently is.  It looks forward to what it will be when Christ returns.  So should we!  ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2).  We have the most amazing future to look forward to.  Pray that God would help us overcome our doubt and unbelief about the future and enable us to rejoice in what is to come!
Finally, look at the closing words.  Jesus is coming back to judge the world.  I must admit that I have struggled with the concept of Jesus coming to judge the world.  I have often asked, ‘how can a loving God send people to hell?’  The Bible marvels in the other direction, however.  It answers the question, ‘how can a holy God accept rebels as his children?’  The cross of Jesus gives us the answer to that question!
Notice that the coming king will judge the world in righteousness and with equity.  We can trust the judge because we know his character.  His judgement will be a positive for change.  When we see the suffering that people inflict on people, when we see the corrupt prosper, when we witness neglect and abuse, when the most vulnerable in our society are no longer protected, we may cry, ‘what are you going to do about this God?’  God answers by showing us that his king is coming to judge with righteousness and equity.  The judge of this world will do what is right!
Conclusion
God commands us to think good thoughts.  We are told to think about whatever is lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:9).  But positive thinking is not just biblical, it is good for you.  Scientists who study happiness found that you could improve your mood by only ten percent through improvements in your circumstances.  In other words, that new car, house, job or body is only going to give you a minimal improvement in happiness.  However, how you think and act determines your mood by forty percent.  Heathy ways of thinking can have a really significant impact on the way you feel.
Remember that Solomon taught that, ‘as a person thinks in his heart, so is he.’  The apostle Paul commanded us to think about whatever is excellent and praiseworthy.  If your thoughts are always negative you cannot expect to have a positive emotional life.
There are things that you can do that will, over time, make a radical change on your mood.  Start seeing the positive in people rather than just the negative.  Speak well about your church, without being na├»ve about the things that need to improve.  Learn to compliment people and praise them.  Avoid gossip.  While I don’t want you to be uninformed, there is no need to spend hours obsessing over every detail of every tragedy.  Let your prayers be dominated by thanksgiving and praise.  Read Christian biographies and other good Christian books.  Learn to enjoy nature and music.  Spend time meditating on how wonderful Jesus is.  A friend told me to write a daily list of things I am thankful for—apparently this has proven to change people’s mood.  Most of all may God enable us to praise him.  May he enlarge our hearts and minds as we thank him for all that he has done for us!  May the many ways he has saved us thrill our hearts!  May we realise that he will bring an end to all that is wrong with this world!  May we be glad that no matter what direction our society is going in, he sits on his throne and remains in control!  May we grow the faith that can look beyond this world to the beautiful future that awaits us!      

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Psalm 73 ‘Come to terms with a world that seems unfair’

You might remember that I have been telling you the story of Jerry Sittser.  Jerry lost his mother, his wife and his four-year-old daughter when a drunk driver swerved across the road and careered into their minivan.  He writes about it in a brilliant book called, ‘A Grace Disguised.’

Eight months after the accident the alleged driver was charged with manslaughter.  Jerry had to attend the court proceedings as a witness.  He dreaded having to see the accused in court.  In fact he was so anxious about it that it caused him to throw up.  He did not want revenge, but he did want justice.
The defence attorney claimed that no one could actually prove who the driver was, since both the accused and his wife had been thrown from the car in the accident.  The burden of proof lay upon the prosecution.  A witness was brought forward who saw the accused get into the driver’s seat ten minutes before the accident.  Another person testified that the accused had admitted to being the driver after the accident.  However, the defence created suspicion of these two witnesses and so the accused was acquitted.  Jerry was enraged.  No one had been brought to justice for the reckless death of three of his family.
During the next few months a legitimate anger at injustice turned to bitterness.  Jerry fantasised of reading that the accused had died horrendously in an accident or committed a crime that put him behind bars for life.  He even imagined been in an accident, that was the accused fault, and was witnessed by hundreds of people who would testify against him. 
Asaph, the writer of Psalm seventy-three struggled with a similar sense of bitterness.  He wanted the wicked to get what they deserved, but instead they prospered.  Asaph eventually realises that his soul had become hardened against God.  Yet God shows him great grace and gives Asaph a new perspective that enables him to be content in life and assured that justice will be done.
Be glad that we don’t get what we deserve (1-9)
Asaph begins this psalm by admitting that when saw the prosperity of the wicked he almost lost his foothold.  I envied the arrogant.  But such envy, as Tim Keller points out, is rooted in self-righteousness.
Do you really want what you deserve?  What do you deserve as someone who has been an enemy of God?  What do you deserve as someone who did not care that he had sent his Son to die for your guilt?  What do you deserve as a person who has repeatedly let God down?  We deserve nothing!  In fact we deserve less than nothing.  Yet God in his grace is good to all that he has made.  He gives us life and breath and joy in our hearts.  In his grace he shows infinite love towards those who trust in him.
When we suffer we ask, ‘why me?’  When others suffer we don’t ask ‘why not me?’  Do we deserve our health?  Why should someone else struggle with cancer when we don’t?  What did we ever do to live in a part of the world where we have a high life-expectancy and so many luxuries to take for granted?  Most of all look at all the influences in our lives that led us to experience the forgiveness and love of God.  The world might not always seem fair, but we cannot deny that we have been treated far better that we deserve.
Asaph tells us that the wicked don’t see their need for God.  They believe that if there is a heaven, they have earned their place in it.  Their mouths claim heaven (9).  Beware of such pride that is evident so deep within us.  We should ask, ‘who am I that you should be so good to me?’  We were among the boastful wicked.  We foolishly thought we were good enough for God.  We were ignorant of the holiness of God and the wickedness of all people.  But God opened our eyes to the beauty of the cross.  He changed our hearts so that we would love him.  He has given us the pearl of great price!  Thank God, that we have got what we did not deserve and have not got what we did!  As the song says, ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one.’
Be glad that God has given us that greatest of gifts (10-28)
Asaph reveals a fundamental flaw in his spiritual life.  Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence (13).  He believes that God owes him.  ‘His obedience was not a way of pleasing God but rather a means of getting God to please him’ (Keller).  Do you remember the accusation that Satan made against Job?  ‘He only serves you because you are good to him!’  Is that true for us?  There is a deep problem in our Christian lives when we say to God, ‘I will serve you if you bless me.’  It shows that like the prodigal son we do not love the father, we simply want the stuff that he can give us.  May God change our hearts so that he becomes our treasure and joy!
Change comes to Asaph’s resentful heart as he turns to worship.  In the presence of God his sight begins to clear and he sees the long-term perspective.  He realises that justice will be done and he becomes glad that God has given him the greatest of all treasures—he has given us himself!
One day those who have become rich by evil will become poor through justice (18).  All the world’s wealth and favour are like a dream (19).  They are short lived, and there is a much more significant reality to be faced.  This world may seem unfair, but we are heading to a great day of justice.  On that day no slippery lawyer will find a loop-hole to let the guilty go free.  On that day no-one will be able to claim that they deserve heaven.  Living in the light of that day enables us to sing, ‘the things of this world grow strangely dim in the light of your glory and grace.’
Asaph also becomes aware of his own wickedness.  He realises that he had become embittered, senseless and ignorant.  I was a brute beast before you (22).  He had already realised that his attitude could hurt those around him.  If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children (15).  How often we hurt those close to us because our words are full of self-righteousness, self-justification, bitterness and pride?  How we damage those who look up to us when we fail to let the gospel of grace shape the way we speak?
Yet the whole concept of grace now dawns upon him.  Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand (23).  In his amazing mercy, God holds on to his bitter, envious and accusing children.  But he will not let us stay in a state of bitterness.  He leads us into an understanding of grace.  Do you really want what you deserve?  Look at the cross and see Jesus take the punishment of your sin upon his shoulders.  Hear him cry out ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  Then realise all the grace that was poured out for you so that you could have him.  God treats us as we do not deserve, even as we demand that others get what they should deserve.
A day is coming when justice will be done.  Thank God that Jesus has satisfied justice for our guilt.  Those who thought that they could earn their way into heaven will be in for a terrible fall.  But not only will the day of judgement sort everything out, in this life those who trust in God are infinitely blessed.  We may be accused of hoping for pie in the sky when you die, but we actually enjoy stake on the plate while we wait.
You see we have the great treasure of friendship with God.  Who have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you … as for me, it is good to be near God.  I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge, I will tell of your deeds.  There is no better thing in life and death than peace with God.  We should never envy those who are spiritually poor, even if they are materially rich!  There may be pain in this life, but put it in the perspective of eternal bliss.
Conclusion
When Jerry Sittser realised that he was descending into bitterness, he decided he needed to change his way of thinking.  While he knew that he had done nothing to deserve the death of three of his loved ones, he also knew that he had done nothing to deserve the blessing they had been to him.  He continues to mourn.  The pain doesn’t simply disappear.  The injustice still hurts.  It is right to grieve.  But there are still many things to be thankful for.  He learned to give thanks for the happy memories.  He learned to be thankful for the many friends who stuck by him in spite of the fact that he really struggled.  He was glad for the friends who cared enough not to give him loads of advice.  He had a new appreciation for his remaining children.  He now makes a point of tucking his children in as they go to bed, and before he goes to bed he sneaks into their rooms and prays a blessing over them (something his wife used to do).  Most of all he is thankful that since the accident he has experienced God with a reality that he had not known before.  He feels less of a burden to prove himself to God and more of a delight in serving him.  While he might not be able to explain why tragedy struck at his door, he has learned to trust more in the God of grace.        

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Dear God, 'Why have you forsaken me?' (Psalm 42)

n my last sermon I told you of the terrible tragedy that was experienced by Jerry Sittser.  Jerry lost his mother, wife and four-year-old daughter when a drunk driver careered across a road and crashed straight into their car.

Over the next few years Jerry would often relive those awful moments.  He would ask the haunting question, ‘why me?’  ‘Why did we have to be in that precise place and that precise time?’  He thought, ‘if only we had left on our journey just a little later.  If only we drove just a little bit quicker or slower.  If only we had paused just a little bit longer at a stop sign.  Then we would not have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
One of the questions that come up repeatedly in the Book of Psalms is ‘why?’  Why would this happen to me?  Why do you stand so far away?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble (10:1)?  For you are the God of my strength; why have you rejected me (43:2)?  Arouse yourself, why do you sleep, O Lord (44:23)?  O Lord, why do you reject my soul?  Why do you hide yourself from me (88:14)?  In this morning’s psalm the sons of Korah ask, ‘Why have you forgotten me? (42:9).
The importance of hope
This morning’s passage opens with some very famous words.  As a deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you, O God.  The psalmist is clearly in distress.  My tears have been my food day and night.  He is been taunted by his enemies who are asking, where is your God?  His soul is downcast.  Tim Keller points out human beings need a sense of God’s presence and love as much as the pants after water.  So why does he seem so absent when we need him the most?  In a following psalm the sons of Korah ask, why do you hide your face and forget our affliction and our oppression (44:24)?
During a time of depression one of the things I struggled with was a sense of hopelessness.  I hadn’t experienced depression in quiet the same way before, and I feared that maybe it was going to become a permanent part of my life.  I tried everything to find hope.  I ordered books that would help me work my way through my problems and I made appointments to talk with people.  But I was gripped by the fear of hopelessness.  However, the deepest parts of depression do lift.  People need to realise that they will not always feel this way.
The psalmist clings on to such hope.  He speaks to his soul and assures himself, I shall again praise him, my salvation (5) and I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (11).  Your life may remain broken.  You don’t want or need to forget your loved one.  Your marriage may never be repaired.  Your infertility may leave you without children.  The diagnosis may be terminal.  But you will again praise him.  There will be times when the sorrow is less acute.  There will be moments when you can breathe.  There will be times when the clouds will part.  Even in the darkness you may learn to praise him.  Even if your life seems to be tragedy followed by tragedy, God has an eternity to put it all in perspective. 
I don’t want to be simplistic here.  One of the psalms ends with the words, ‘darkness is my closest friend’ (Psalm 88).  But even in the pain we need to cry out to God to show us that he loves us.  In his book on depression Ed Welsh writes, ‘Just think what it would be like to be certain that the God of this universe loved you.  That alone would probably change the contours of depression.’  ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with the power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all God’s people what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:16-19).
The need to preach the gospel to ourselves
We have something very unique in Christianity.  We have a suffering God.  We have a God who knows what it is to cry out with a ‘why’ question.  On the cross Jesus screams in agony, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me (22:1)?’  Jesus knows what it is to be bewildered by suffering.  He has experienced the silence of heaven.  In fact he was forsaken by his heavenly Father, in order that we never would be, even if we feel that God has turned his face away.  It was as if he was forgotten so that we would always be remembered. 
Look at how the Psalmist preaches the gospel to himself!  He talks to his downcast soul.  ‘Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God’ (5).  His soul is downcast, so he resolves to remember God, even while he is literally in the wilderness (6).  He tells his downcast soul, ‘hope in God … my salvation and my God’ (11).  I can’t guarantee that it will always lift your emotions, but it is good to seek to sing when you suffer.  It is noteworthy that the title to Psalm 88, the darkest of all the psalms, is actually a song.  We please God as we lean on him in our suffering.  We may get a new sense of hope as we remember the love of our suffering Saviour.
I remember one Easter a member of our last congregation chocking with tears as he read the following words from theologian Sinclair Ferguson.  ‘'When we think of Christ dying on the cross we are shown the lengths to which God’s love goes in order to win us back to Himself.  We should almost think that God loved us more than He loves His Son.  We cannot measure His love by any other standard.  He is saying to us, “I love you this much.”  The cross is the heart of the gospel; it makes the gospel good news.  Christ died for us; He has stood in our place before God’s judgement seat; He has borne our sins.  God has done something on the cross which we could never do for ourselves.  But God does something to us as well as for us through the cross.  He persuades us that He loves us.' 
The comfort that God is in control
Finally, we have to come to terms with the fact that God is in control.  Sometimes that is a comfort.  During my depression I was helped by words of John Newton, who said, ‘everything is needful that he sends, and nothing is needful that he withholds.’  I knew I was suffering whether there was a meaning to it or not, and I found help in the fact that God would use it for good.  However, in the case of tragic loss, the thought of God being in control raises unbearable questions.  Jerry Sittser said that he could not even bring himself to consider the sovereignty of God after the tragic death of three of his family.  How could God let this happen?  A woman who had struggled with infertility for years got pregnant.  Then she miscarried.  She was angry with God.  She said to her husband, ‘my earthly father would never treat me like this, but my heavenly Father has.’
God is in control.  The psalmist says to God, ‘your breakers and your waves have gone over me’ (7).  Many factors would have contributed to the psalmist’s agony, but he knows that God is on his throne.  All things ultimately happen according to God’s will.  ‘If I had anyone to turn to for help,’ explains Jerry Sittser, ‘it was God.  Then again, if I had anyone to blame, it was also God.’  The questions were troubling.  ‘If God really was God where was he when the tragedy occurred, why did God do nothing?’
Jerry hasn’t got all the answers he would want.  God graciously permits us to shout our ‘why’ questions to him.  But often heaven is silent in reply.  That doesn’t mean there is no reason, but simply that we cannot know the reason for now.  Yet Jerry took comfort from realising that God does not relate to us as one who knows nothing of our pain.  He comforts us as one who has experienced death, rejection and abandonment for our sake.  He may not give us answers that satisfy.  We might see some of the reasons, but not enough to satisfy us.  But God is not aloof, and one day we will receive an explanation.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Is it possible to know joy in the sorrow? (Psalm 77)


Jerry Sittser lost his mother, wife and four-year-old daughter when a drunk driver careered into his car.  He writes about this experience in a wonderful book, entitled ‘A Grace Disguised.’  The idea behind this book is that the Christian can actually grow through suffering. 
Following the crash he experienced depression, grief and fear.  He worried that he would not emotionally survive and that his faith would not be able to take the strain.  He thought that he would live in darkness for ever.
He asks, ‘Is it possible to experience sorrow for the rest of our lives and yet experience joy?’  In this broken world sorrow is inevitable.  You may not be struggling now, but pain lies just over the horizon.  Suffering is only a matter of time.  But suffering can change us for the good. 
We are faced with a choice.  Suffering can fill us with empathy towards others or harden us in self-pity.  We can allow ourselves be vulnerable and real or we can become closed and distant.  We can cry out to God and seek to know him more or we can shut ourselves off from him and spiritually wither.  We can work through our pain or we can seek to become numb to it (but beware that the person who is dead to feelings of pain is also incapable of feelings of joy).
This morning, as we look at the seventy-seventh psalm, we look to see what Asaph, its author, did in his day of trouble.
I cry aloud to God (1-4)
What causes your pain?
You struggle with a crippling sense of loneliness.  You are grieving a loved one or watching an aging parent enter in to the valley of death.  You fear your own mortality as you age.  You struggle with depression or/and anxiety.  Your marriage has not lived up to your dreams.  You can’t fathom why God is not answering your prayers.  You live with memories of emotional, physical or sexual abuse.  You have job or money worries.  Your children are rebelling against you.  Your health, or the health of a loved one, is failing.
Notice that Asaph does not give us details of what is causing him his pain.  He simply talks in vague terms of his day of trouble.  This is on purpose.  This ambiguity enables us to incorporate our particular pain into this psalm.  This prayer is flexible enough adapt itself to whatever it is that is breaking us.
So what does Asaph do?  I cry out to God.  But his soul refuses to be comforted, and when he remembers God he moans.  Sometimes when we feel that we need God most he seems strangely absent.  Asaph is so troubled that he cannot sleep.  He can’t even speak—which presumably implies that his prayer life also dried up.
Yet he is crying out to God!  You may feel nothing as you pray, but that does not mean that God is not listening.  You may feel helpless as you call out to him, but that does not mean God is not answering.  What joy it must bring our heavenly Father when we ignore our feelings and trust him in the darkness!
He thinks badly (5-9)
Unfortunately our thinking can make our pain worse.  At the start of this year I went through a time of depression.  I had not experienced a depression quite like it.  Despite what I read, I feared that it would never lift.  This is a lie.  Don’t give up hope.  No matter what you are feeling, you have to realise that this darkness will lift.  It may take time, but it will. 
Asaph remembers that in the past it was not his worries that kept him awake but his joy.  Years ago he had sung in the night.  But instead of realising that such experiences will return, he began to ask morbid questions.  ‘Has the Lord spurned me for ever?’  ‘Had his steadfast loved ceased?’  ‘Are his promises at an end?’  ‘Has he forgotten to be gracious?’  ‘Has his anger shut up his compassion?’  The answer to all those questions is ‘no!’  God is merciful and compassionate.  His promises are for sure and his love will not fail.
There is a very good workbook entitled ‘Mind over Mood’.  This book teaches us that how we think affects how we feel.  It can be very hard to think clearly when we are depressed or in any pain.  We can struggle with catastrophic thoughts.  When my mental health is in a bad place it is like my thinking gravitates to the darkest place.  But we have to ask God to help us think well.  We have to preach the gospel of God’s grace and compassion to our souls.  We have to look past our troubles and hold onto God’s promises.  Good thinking may not lift the darkness quickly, but the darkness will never lift without good thinking.
He thinks well (10-20)
Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High”.  Now he preaches the gospel to himself.  In particular he remembers how God parted the waters and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.
Right throughout the psalms the Exodus from Egypt is remembered.  It was the great saving event of the Old Testament.  But we have a greater saving event to remember.  Jesus actually compared his death on the cross to this exodus.  As he died he rescued us from slavery—a slavery to sin and death.  The gospel of the cross is God’s ultimate proof of love to us.  ‘This is how we know what love is.  Not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave his life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 3:16).  Whatever you circumstances, look that cross and be assured of God’s love for you.
But maybe you are worried that he didn’t die for you.  Well, why not take Jesus at his word?  Why not claim his promise?  Jesus declared that he would never drive away anyone who comes to him (John 6:37).  It doesn’t matter what is in your past.  It doesn’t matter how many times you have failed him.  If you turn to him in trust, seeking to have him change your life, he will never turn you away.  He can’t because he is incapable of not keeping his word!
In a book on depression, Ed Welch writes, ‘Just think what it would be like to be certain that the God of this universe loved you.  That alone would probably change the contours of depression.’  Look at how appealing to the love of God has changed Asaph.  The first half of this psalm was full of grief.  There is nothing to say that whatever caused this to be a day of trouble has disappeared.  But as he focuses on the faithfulness of God, his mouth opens with joy and praise. 
Conclusion
Do you remember Jerry Sittser’s question?  ‘Is it possible to experience sorrow for the rest of our lives and yet experience joy?’  Asaph would say it is.  For even in the day of trouble we can be assured of the unceasing love of God!  Sittser calls his book, ‘A grace disguised’, because in his sorrow and grief he experienced and grew in the grace of God.  You can’t necessarily avoid pain, but you can allow pain be used for good.
The psalms make it very clear that God often leads his people through dark waters.  The shepherd leads his people through the valley of death, yet ‘Thou art with me’.  There are times when the pain is so acute that all you can do is hang in there.  Well done for hanging in there.  Hold on!  God is pleased that you have not given up!  You may not feel his presence but well done for crying out to him.
But allow God use this suffering as a grace disguised that makes you grow.  Don’t allow suffering to harden you.  You may not feel God’s presence, but you are still crying out to him.  Suffering can make you more real, empathetic and caring.  We can actually grow in our faith through suffering.
One morning Caroline was thinking back to when she lived in Belarus.  She remembered how well she knew God then.  Then it struck her that her time in Belarus was very difficult.  It was in the pain that she knew God so well.  That is the testimony of both the Old and New Testaments.  Another psalmist declared, ‘it was good that I was afflicted (119:71).  After Job passed through his time of suffering he declared, ‘my ears had heard of you, but now my eyes see you’ (Job 42:5).  Jerry Sittser says that since the accident he has experienced God with a reality that he had not known before.  He feels less of a burden to prove himself to God and more of a delight in serving him.  While he might not be able to explain why tragedy struck at his door, he has learned to trust more in the God of grace.  I don’t wish pain on any of you, and yet I am not sure that any of us can grow if God does not take us through deep waters.
After Jerry wrote his book about the accident he heard from many readers.  One question kept coming up.  ‘Will my life ever be good again?’  If goodness means going back to the life you had experienced before you pain, the ‘no’, you won’t experience that goodness again.  His wife, mother and daughter aren’t going to return.  Life never will be the same again.  He will always miss them.  But there will be a different sort of good life.  That can be a life with joy.  While nothing seemed good for a long time after the accident, life since the accident has many good features, including an enriched relationship with God.