Philip Yancy calls it the question that will not go away: ‘Where Is God When It Hurts?’, or to give it its theological name ‘the problem of evil’: if evil exists, in the face of suffering, can God be both all-powerful and all loving. When I sat down to plan out the year I had originally thought I’d handle that topic as one of several burning questions in a series on apologetics for November. Apologetics is providing a reasoned argument for our faith in God, and there is polemic (logical argument) and propositional truth about God, which offers solutions to this issue…on one level. But one of the reasons it is the question that will not go away is that it’s not just an intellectual conundrum, it’s not all up here. It is a question that confronts us again and again in different forms, in the ebb and flow of life, and it reaches down to the very depth of our being.
For example…After many trials and tribulations in his life, and few years before his death reformer and theologian Martin Luther’s thirteen year old daughter died and he said “how sick at heart it has left me, so much do I grieve for her… even the death of Christ is unable to take all this away as it should.”
When you look at how it is handled in scripture, you see that it is not wrestled with through polemic and proposition but in poem and prayer, though lament or Jewish blues as bono calls them. I want, through some of these laments, to look at the question ‘Where is God when it hurts?’, and hopefully be able to address that question that will not go away theologically and pastorally and today also in terms of spiritual formation.
The Bible reading we had this morning was Psalm 42 & 43. In our bibles it is two psalms but there is much evidence for it being considered one Psalm… There is no heading for Psalm 43, similar to Psalm 10, which is seen as the second half of Psalm 9. The language and theme is constant and of course there is that haunting refrain running through both… “Why are you so downcast O my soul”.
The setting for this Psalm seems to be the exile from Jerusalem. A worship leader a musician or singer is dragged off across the Golan Heights into exile by the Babylonians. The city that was the centre of his faith is desolate and destroyed. He looks back and its only memories of what was, that he can see, at first he is unable to look forwards. This is a good place for us to start looking at the question of where is God when it hurts because that is a focus of the Psalmist lament. In the midst of this tragedy the things that seems to hurt the most is the taunt “where is Your God?” It’s in the first stanza, and it finishes off the second one. On a personal level he calls out “why have you forgotten me God? Even in the midst of the more hope filled psalm 43 is the phrase, “How long will you reject me?” Times of trouble suffering tragedy can make us feel cut off from God. John Perowne summed it up like this “there are hours when physical suffering darkens the windows of the Soul; days in which shattered nerves make life simply endurance; months and years in which intellectual difficulties, pressing for solution, shut out God.” This can turn us away from God, but like with the psalm he does not stop there Perowne goes on “then faith must be replaced by hope.” The question, suffering invites us to seek deeper and to know more fully Where God is, that is the journey of the Psalm.
The Psalm follows a process, a journey that Walter Brueggemann sees running through all the psalms. In stanza one there is a sense of the psalmist looking back to the way things were. In what Brueggemann calls a psalm of orientation, the psalmist remembers when it all made sense. When things were the way they were supposed to be. God was blessing his people, there was a vibrant and joy filled worship life at the Temple in Jerusalem. The writer of this Psalm is identified as the Sons of Korah, who are probably Levite musicians. For this person the way he felt the presence of God was in the midst of music and worship. There was meaning and purpose and order to his life. It revolved round a place, Jerusalem, ritual, festivals the Jewish calendar, activity, worship and music and singing. There is the truth of the fact that God inhabits the praise of his people. We looked at Psalm 104 last week which epitomises a psalm of orientation because it was an enthronement Psalm; remember the whole of creation was in place and in order because YHWH, Israel’s God was on the throne.
Now, suffering tragedy trauma have taken that away from him. He expresses that reality in that wonderful metaphor at the beginning of the Psalm. “as the deer pants for water so my soul longs after you”. Maybe we look at that from a European or even Kiwi understanding of deer as forest dwellers beside a calm lake or tentatively coming out of lush vegetation to a babbling brook. But the image is a desert one. The image is a deer in a time of drought, desperately searching for water to save its life. Water that may have been there yesterday is not there anymore. It’s just sand and dust. For the psalmist the things that had connected him with God have been taken away and he goes looking for a new and reliable water source. Greif, loss, suffering tragedy can dry up those water sources that keep us in times of orientation. The idea of living water, the metaphor that Jesus used of himself in John’s gospel, comes from a water source, a life giving source, that does not run dry even in severe drought. This is what the Psalmist goes looking for. He no longer has place and ritual even identity where will he find the living God now.
Brueggemann calls the psalms from these times of suffering, when it seems as if God has gone, when it’s not the way it should be when it’s dark and sorrow filled Psalms of disorientation. The water metaphor in the second stanza of Psalm 42 encapsulates that disorientation very well. Instead of streams of life giving water, the water wants to take the Psalmists life. Deep calls to Deep, there is the boom and roar of the waterfall and rapids, the head waters of the Jordan river as it rushes down the slopes of Mt Hermon. Then the response the crash of waves, Mediterranean storms like we encountered in Psalm 29 , and they can’t shelter in the temple this time. Or storm fuelled waves on the lake of Galilee like the ones in the gospel narratives, that threatened to swamp the boat. If you've ever gone to the beach and been caught by a wave and tossed over and over you'll understand, with thoughts of ...which way is up, which way is the way to go, how do we get out of here with our lives.
The Psalmists response is this feeling of being abandoned and being downcast. It is the emotional response that the body makes to loss, or suffering or trauma, or stress, It’s depression and sorrow or grief. “why are you so down cast O my Soul’ Why so disturbed within me. We need to realise that depression and grief are physical ways in which our bodies responds and adjusts to tragedy and suffering. Almost as if to protect ourselves we shut down, and in doing that we can shut God out.Sometimes however, it can be triggered by an imbalance in our system somewhere, it is a medical condition. But for the Psalmist it’s not the end. He speaks to his down cast spirit and offers hope, hope based on knowing who God is rather than where God is, and this is the way out of the darkness, this is the rock in the midst of the rapids and crashing waves.
Brueggemann then talks of Psalms of reorientation. Psalms that express a new understanding of God, one that still wrestles with suffering and pain, but one that encounters the reality of God. There are elements of this in Psalm 42 and 43.
It may not be that striking a contrast in our English translation, but all the way through this psalm and for most of the psalms in the second book of psalms 42-73, the word for God used most often is El Elohim, God most God, But right in the middle of this Psalm in verse 8. The Psalmist find a glimmer of hope. He uses that name of God given to Moses YHWH, the name that carries with it the idea of God’s covenant love and relationship with Israel. That evokes, Gods mercy and God’s saving actions in the past. In the first stanza he had talked about remembering the good times, but know he says I will remember you, I will remember the good God. He had looked for living water and now he prays to the God of his life. All the other stuff has been stripped away, the means by which the psalmist had met with God, but that did not mean God had disappeared. He remembers God’s salvation, just as we can look to the cross and see God’s salvation in Christ.
I love the line right at the middle of this psalm “at night his song came to me” for a musician a singer that is a great way for God would speak: A song that reminded them of God’s love, God’s goodness in the past even when it seemed dark and hopeless that God was Israel’s saviour. Maybe they got past missing the tunes and got to the lyrics. Through it the Psalmist remembered God’s promise that he would send his people off into exile if they did not keep their covenant relationship with God but that he would also bring them back. Because in Psalm 43 we have this renewed hope of once again returning to Jerusalem, which is rather an amazing admission of hope and of God’s greatness in the face of such total defeat.
It’s not that this is a panacea, that suddenly it’s all good. While the Psalmist is in the midst of the turmoil he is aware that God is with him. He uses that more intimate name for God. He still suffering, he is still in that place of turmoil, it’s still dark, But there is hope. In who God is he sees a way forwards. He remembers God and God’s word; it’s no longer just that response of the soul but one that beginning to be shaped by the knowledge of God. So in psalm 43 he is able to call out send your truth and your light to guide me.
The refrain why are you so downcast O my Soul, is the Psalmists self-speak in response to what he is feeling. It’s as if each time it is used, he is listening to the truth about who God is, and the emphasis is more and more on the hope rather than the downcast soul. One of the emphases of his memory of the temple worship and the hope of the future is being with the congregation and hearing them tell of the things that God has done. Often it’s hard for us to hear our own self speak, we need to hear the hope, the goodness of God through the lives of our brothers and sisters. Tuesday was a bit of a black dog day for me, as Winston Churchill used to call his down days. And God sent someone through the door of the church to speak encouragement into my life. I likened it to an undercover angel. I couldn't hear above the deep booming of those turbulent waters in my life, it took having to listen carefully to God’s word spoken in broken English to move me from the down cast soul to the put your hope in him. We need to do that for each other. To speak hope and what we know of God.
Orientation, disorientation, reorientation is the process suffering can take us through. Not everyone makes it through but it is one of the ways we mature spiritually. Reorientation, is the discovery of God’s presence with us in a new and profound way even in the face of suffering. Where is God when it hurts? The psalmist found God singing love songs in the dark, dark night: As a rock in the midst of the torrents. Desmond Tutu, a man acquainted with suffer and a man of Hope, tells the story of a Jew in a concentration camp who had been forced to clean toilets. The man knelt with his hands immersed, swabbing and scrubbing away the filth, as he did this, his Nazi guard sought to humiliate him further. “Where is your God now?” he sneered. Quietly without removing his hands from the toilet, the prisoner replied, ”He is right here with me in the muck”. (from Pete Greig's book God on Mute). Jesus last words to us were lo I am with you till the end of the age...even in the muck
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.