Help when I feel abandoned by God

A sermon by Rev Rod Benson, 29 September 2019

Psalm 10:1, 12

 

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One of my favourite fiction writers is William Golding, best known as the author of Lord of the Flies. One of his other novels, The Inheritors,tells the story of Lok and his family, the last surviving Neanderthals in a world where another primate species, Homo sapiens,is about to reign supreme.

It’s beautiful and ingenious, but not a happy tale. One by one, members of Lok’s family die or are killed, until only Lok remains. And for Lok, the loss of his family represented not only physical but existential abandonment on a scale impossible to render in words – except for the fact that William Golding, prose master that he is, succeeds in putting words to the experience.

Have you ever felt abandoned? Abandoned by parents in a busy shopping centre? Abandoned by those who used to be good friends? Abandoned on the sports field? Abandoned by business partners? Abandoned by God? Perhaps “abandonment” puts a name to a feeling you have right now. You are not alone.

If you think about it, there are several reasons why you might feel, deep within, a sense of abandonment by God. Due to circumstances or events outside your control, you may feel abandoned by God despite praying for divine intervention.

You may feel that the God of your childhood, or the God of your parents, no longer fits comfortably with who you are today, and you feel abandoned by God just when you need him most.

You may have made poor choices in life, and taken wrong paths, and cultivated bad habits, and compromised your character, and now you realise your errors, and perhaps remorseful, but abandoned by God.

Or in the widest sense, you may watch the news, and read the opinion pieces, and the social media chatter washes over you, and you wonder how the world you thought you knew so well could so quickly have disintegrated into the moral quagmire it is today.

Where is God in the midst of natural disaster, climate emergency, avoidable tragedy, a looming health crisis, the sudden death of a loved one, lawlessness, corruption, structural economic injustice?

And you feel abandoned by God.

You are not alone. Countless people at this very moment, and millions throughout history, on every continent, have shared those feelings.

The Bible testifies to the reality of this common human experience, especially in the lament psalms in the Old Testament, in the anguish of prophets like Jeremiah (e.g. Lam 1:12; 2:5-7); in the agonised prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he reflected on his impending violent death (Mt 26:36-39); and in the later prayer of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46).

In Psalm 10:1, David, “a man after God’s own heart” (Ac 13:22), cries out, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

And that anguished cry of abandonment echoes down the centuries, in the hearts, in the minds, and on the lips, of others who have known God, and put their trust in God, and yet have felt abandoned by God. Psalm 10 voices an emotion that many of us feel, and a complaint that many of us make, against God in very difficult times.

What are we to make of such blunt honesty in Scripture? Psalm 10 has all the elements of a biblical lament psalm: urgent pleas in the face of extreme calamity; portrayals of the godless and their denials of divine presence and justice; and finally a statement of personal trust in the living and merciful God of heaven.

But Psalm 10, it seems, was originally the second half of Psalm 9. They are to be read as one psalm. Together they form a slightly imperfect acrostic or alphabet psalm using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet from aleph totaw. “As in the Western tradition of poetry the ends of lines may rhyme, in this form of verse the beginning of lines follow a sequence.”[1]

Other acrostic psalms in the Bible are Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145.

Reading Psalms 9 and 10, we might initially assume that the Israelites, in editing the Psalms for publication as we have them today, got the order around the wrong way. Surely we should move fromthe darkness and confusion and helplessness of Psalm 10, with its erosion of confidence in God, and its feeling of abandonment by God, tothe light of faith and assurance that God is good and sovereign and present with us.

But the psalmist, and ancient Israel, assuredly got it right. As biblical scholar Michael Wilcock says, David

had enough ups and downs in his life to recognize how often they come in that order. When he was down in the dark, and wickedness swelled to fill the whole picture of 10:1-11, how he must have valued the providence that had first lifted him up into the light, to be reassured in advance about the way things really were. And, of course, still are.[2]

If you feel the way David felt in Psalm 10, and the words of Psalm 9 seem hollow, hang in there. This too shall pass.

In 1944, C. S. Lewis wrote an important book, The Problem of Pain, which in his opinion at the time succinctly solved the age-old riddle of why a good and all-powerful God would permit terrible suffering.

But in 1961, when his own wife was dying from cancer, the answers he had proposed 17 years before no longer made sense. The God who had been so intimate and sustaining now seemed to have abandoned him. Lewis was frustrated and angry. As he witnessed his wife’s suffering, he called God a “cosmic sadist” and came to doubt everything he had ever believed about God.

Then one morning, Lewis woke from sleep to find that both the grief and doubt had vanished. From this bewildering and painful experience, he learned a vital life lesson: “You can’t see anything properly when your eyes are blurred with tears.”[3]

Lewis, and Jesus, and Jeremiah, and perhaps some of us here today have found the same. In the darkness, in the strong pain, in the grief, God appears to have abandoned us, but he is always near.

Wait in trust and confidence, and the grim facts of the present experience will change, and this too shall pass, and your experience of God’s true nature, his presence and goodness and love, will return.

In the darkness, what we feel is expressed in the words of 10:1; and what we desire and long for, but often feels out of reach, is the thought behind Psalm 9:19-20:

Arise, Lord, do not let mortals triumph; let the nations be judged in your presence.

Strike them with terror, Lord; let the nations know they are only mortal.

For David, it was the threat of foreign encroaching powers that led him to feel abandoned by God when he needed God most. For you and me, it will be different. But the feeling will be the same, and the consequences of such feelings can be disillusioning and devastating.

Psalm 9:9 speaks to us all: “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.”

Psalm 10:16-18 assures us that God hears our prayers, the prayers of the afflicted, and God comes to the defence of those who are vulnerable and mistreated. And in God’s perfect providence, there will come a time of judgment, and healing, and justice and peace.

In the darkness, you may not feel God as present, but know that God is certainly with you. Pray the Psalms. Find a good book of prayers, and pray the words to the God whom your feelings tell you is not there.[4]  If you can do so, sing hymns and spiritual songs, to revive your soul. Where it is possible, keep up the rhythms of spiritual vitality that have served you in the past: gathering as a church, personal prayer, Bible reading, Bible study, ministry activities that are not draining.

The psalmist of Psalm 10:1 rehearsed what he knew of God and God’s ways in Psalm 9. When your feelings lead you to question the presence or even the existence of God, fall back on your faith.

Know that countless thousands of people of faith before you – people of strong, robust faith as well as those of mediocre faith – have experienced similar emotions during hard times, and held similar doubts and fears.

And God goes on being God, and supplying his amazing grace indiscriminately, and without measure, and his mercy is limitless, and his love endures forever.

We walk by faith, not by sight, and not by feelings.

 


Sermon 767 copyright © 2019 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 29 September 2019. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72 (Leicester: IVP, 2001), 41. For comment on the imperfections in the acrostic pattern of Psalms 9-10, as suggested by Craigie, see page 42, n73.

[2] Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 1-72, 44f.

[3] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed(New York: Seabury, 1961).

[4] I recommend books like Jeanie & David Gushee, A Morning and Evening Prayerbook(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018).

Image source: https://themighty.com/2017/08/art-rivka-korf-anxiety/

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