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.
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.