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.