“Where is God when it hurts?” is what Philip Yancy calls the question that will not go away. It’s a theological question… In the face of evil, how can God be both all-powerful and good? It’s a justice question, ’Why do bad things happen to good people?’, it’s a faith question and it’s a life question, as we confront suffering and sorrow, tragedy and trauma. AS I said last week we could address it at an intellectual level, maybe reduce it to a series of bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, but It does not honour how all of who we are can get caught up with this question, and neither does it do justice to how Scripture deals with it. Scripture handles it in poem and prayer, in lament, in crying out to God. Over this month of November we are going to look at some of these laments and hopefully as we explore these treasures that have given voice to both suffering and hope, we will know more fully “where is God when it hurts?”
Today we are going to look at Psalm 31. And I love this psalm because it expresses the reality of the human condition and the life of people of faith; It captures both the Psalmists emotional reaction to suffering, and his assertion of trust in God. When you read it, it feels like a roller coaster. It oscillates between acknowledging God’s goodness and sovereignty, which speaks to that Theological Question we have, but also vividly expresses the depths of human suffering and sorrow. I feel like refuse, like broken pottery no good for anything simply thrown on the rubbish heap, and I find refuge in you O God… But I will trust in the Lord, In to your hands do I commit my spirit, my times are in your hand. I don’t know about you, but that’s often how I find myself reacting when confronted with pain or sorrow.
The Psalm’s heading says it’s a psalm of David, we don’t know when it relates to in his life.. The suffering that the psalmist is going through seems to be physical, and emotional and in regards to his relationship with the people round him. In verse 9-13 he pours out his suffering to God. It has the feeling of physical illness, or even the aging process, eyes weakening, joint pain, failing strength. It is exacerbated by the way people react. His enemies have seen this as a sign of God disfavour, and so he is gossiped about and shunned. In the Ancient Near East, the prevailing wisdom was that if you did something wrong or sinned against God that God would punish you. That’s what people are saying about the psalmist. The whole book of Job, is a polemic against that way of thinking. It is actually one of those questions we ask ourselves isn’t it that like with the psalmist saps our strength… “What did I do to deserve this?’” For David it also has political ramifications, just like today, when someone in power, has done something wrong the knives come out, in David’s case they were often real knives, that is part of the psalmist’s distress.
It is easy for us to get caught up in some of the same thinking of the people in David’s day. Our western society is built round the pursuit of Wealth, Health and Happiness. We are often influenced to think that this is the norm. This is what we should expect all the time, that we have missed the fall and gone hang gliding instead. There is also a popular stream of theology that backs this up, what’s called prosperity Gospel. That God wants to give us those things, and if we don’t have them well maybe our faith isn’t strong enough, maybe we are not doing what God wants… Like giving enough.. Strangely that one comes up all the time. It easy for us to forget that just like we had read from John’s gospel today, that Jesus said in life there will be trouble … but find peace in the fact that I have overcome the world’. In fact in the world today the majority of Christians live in poverty and the majority are in danger of persecution. It is so I found out on Friday, an international day of prayer today for Christians being persecuted for their faith. We live in what some Jewish scholars are calling the worst genocide since the holocaust, Christians dying in the Middle East and Africa and elsewhere because of their faith.
In his book about wrestling with unanswered prayer and serious illness, ‘God on Mute” Pete Grieg includes an appendix called “heroes of the faith and unanswered prayer” which lists quotes from biblical and historical heroes of the faith as they have wrestled with suffering and the seeming silence of heaven. Missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, on hearing about the massacre of 58 of his missionaries and 21 children… ‘I cannot read; I cannot think; I cannot even pray; but I can trust” St john of the Cross “the Dark Night of the Soul… in this time of dryness, spiritual people undergo great trials… they believe that spiritual blessings are a thing of the past and that God has abandoned them”. Mother Theresa “ I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God, and that God does not exist.” CS Lewis reflecting on when his wife had died… “what chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers Joy and I offered and all the false hopes we had… step by step we were led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when he seemed most gracious he was really preparing the next torture.” Despite this they are still people of faith and trust in God.
What suffering and sorrow and pain and loss can do is that they can consume our lives. I wonder if the Psalmists description of his suffering isn’t also a record of what it is doing to his Spiritual life as well. It can weaken out eye sight, it can become the focus of our lives, it can mean that we cannot see beyond it. It can sap our strength. The psalmist uses the metaphor of running from a hunter, avoiding this trap and that trap and longing for a place just to rest and catch his breath. We can be on the move all the time and not be able to find the source of life giving water we need that we looked at last week. I read a couple of books recently about the SAS during the Second World War, they talked of being chased while operating behind enemy lines and how it drove these most resilient and tough men to the point of exhaustion and beyond. That’s what sorrow and suffering can do. In the end we are creatures of time, we find it hard to look beyond what is happening in the here and now. That’s what suffering and pain can do. It can capture us in a dark place a dark time under siege and feeling abandoned by God.
What makes this psalm hope filled is that the psalmist brackets his pouring out of woe by extending his vision, from the here and now, from the dark valley of his suffering, and that is what gives him hope. He looks back, he remembers how God had answered prayer and been a refuge in the past: His own past and in the past of his people. David’s trust in God when facing Goliath was based on God helping him face the wolf and lion, not from the absence of Trouble, but God’s help in trouble.
In verse 6-8 he says that unlike the worthless idols that people worship round him, he is aware that God sees, that God hears, that God cares and that God can act. One commentator said that for Israel to remember was to have faith and believe. It’s why the psalms are full of poems and prayers remembering what God has done for Israel in the past. God bringing them out of Egypt, God’s doing that as a result of God’s promise to their ancestors, Gods leading through the wilderness, God remembering them while they were in exile and bringing them home (psalm 107). In fact I couldn’t read these verses without thinking of the burning bush.’ I have heard the cries of my people, I have seen their affliction… I will deliver them… by the way I’m sending you Moses.”
It provides hope and trust in God because we start to see the longer picture. Right in the middle of his list of woes and worries, there is a change. The psalmist joins his story his times and suffering with what has gone before with what he knows of God and says “BUT I” two small words but a big change. But I will trust in the Lord I say “you are in My God” My time is in your hand.” There is an acknowledgment of that just like in the past God had answered prayer and bought the psalmist and his people through, that God can be trusted to do it again.
One of the answers that people give to the question of evil, is time, it’s there again and again in the scriptures, that the eternal God will make all things right, will bring justice in his time. It does not always help us because we are temporal beings, creatures of time. But the psalmist finds his refuge in God’s sovereignty, that yes despite the fact that things are not good now and may not be in the long term that God is in control of eternity and because of what they have experienced of God in the past that God is Good, so can be trusted with the future as well. We don’t know whether everything came up roses for the psalmist. But we do know that they found a hope and the truth about God that was able to give them the refuge they needed even when they felt like refuse. We can just want the rubbish to go away, but this lament perhaps gives us something better, something of more value that God can be trusted in the long haul.
One of the things that make this psalm so memorable is that Jesus quotes it on the cross. In fact in Luke’s gospel it’s his last audible words… ‘into you hands do I commend my spirit”… Jesus displays the kind of trust that the Psalmist is talking about. A faith and a trust in God that despite the fact the it seems like death has won, that he will trust in the sovereignty of God and he will trust in the goodness of God. Ultimately that is where we look to give us the hope we need to persevere as well. We look back to the cross of Christ and we see that in that most horrific of situations, that miscarriage of justice, that seeming ignominious defeat, that God can be trusted to work out his purposes for his people. That death bought us life that death made it possible for us to have our sins forgiven. That death and resurrection was a sign of God seeing, God knowing and God acting. That death and resurrection is the hint of dawn, the promise of a new world coming that puts our suffering into that eternal perspective. That even raises the possibility of healing and wholeness. In a couple of weeks we are going to look at Psalm 22 and the fact that ultimate answer of the question of where is God when it hurts? Is that God is with us, God went before us, and will come and get us, the answer is that God’s son went to the cross.
I want to finish by quoting Gerald Wilson… “like Jesus , we cannot assume that committing our spirit into the hand of the God of truth will result in deliverance from suffering and death indeed, to commit ones spirit in this way is to give up control or expectation over the outcome of our life and to trust in the redemptive love of God, come what may. It is this giving up that makes in possible in the final analysis to enter the refuge of God. “
Be strong and take hart all you who hope in the Lord