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October 12, 2003
I now invite you to turn to Psalm 22 and follow along as I read verses 1-15. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 "Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver-- let him rescue the one in whom he delights!"
9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Barbara was a young lady in her 20s who had returned to school to finish her education. In “Letting go of the past,” [April 19, 1997, The Christian Resource Institute Web Site, cresourcei.org.], Dennis Bratcher writes “One day I gave a devotional from a lament psalm about dealing with grief. She hung around after class and said she wanted to talk, so we set up an appointment for later that afternoon.
She had not been in my office five minutes before she began to weep. One of the first things she said to me was, “I hate God.” I had heard it before from others so it didn’t shock me. I simply asked her if she wanted to talk about it.
She poured out a story of grief and pain that I could not have imagined. Among other things, she had been sexually abused for years as a child. To get out of a horrible home situation, she had married at 16. Her first child had died as an infant two years later. Not long after that her husband, who had beat her regularly, simply walked out one day.
At 20 she had known more hurt than most of us will ever know in a lifetime. Did she really hate God? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I don’t really think it mattered. Hate is an emotion, and she was full of emotion. She felt as if God had forsaken her.
As we talked it became clear that she did not know what to do with her anger, grief, and hurt. She thought that to be a Christian meant that she was not supposed to have the feelings she had. She thought that she was supposed to be happy because she was a Christian, but she was not happy; she hurt too deeply. We sat and read Psalm 22 together.
Bratcher goes on to write that that was the beginning of healing for Barbara. It took years of talking and praying and crying. It took years of psychiatric treatment. But healing came.
Barbara’s case is unusual only in its extremity. Clinical depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, with almost ten percent of adult Americans affected by some kind of depressive disorder in a given year. Most of these cases require medication and the care of a physician as the patient literally sees no way out of the feelings of sadness. It is important that those who are suffering from this kind of depression seek medical attention.
For most of us, however, depression is usually “environmentally triggered.” That is, bad things happen to us, and we feel down and despairing and depressed. It happens in times of stress like a move, a job loss, an illness, or the loss of a loved one. It can also happen in times of national distress, in times of war, economic downturn, or disaster—which is to say times like the present.
Perhaps what we need is a new motivational icon. Every decade has one. In the seventies, a smiley face entreated us to “Have a nice day.” In the eighties, we sang, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with a smiling Bobby McFerrin. In the nineties we were admonished to “Just Do It.”
But here in the infancy of the twenty-first century, motivation is harder to market. Terrorism, a stifled stock market, and massive layoffs have put a crimp in the motivational marketing industry. Snappy jingles and yellow smileys have given way to orange alerts and pink slips.
So let me tell you about a company called Despair Inc. While some companies market motivational materials, Despair Inc. markets a line of “demotivational” products, all designed to feed the collective angst of a depressed populace.
For example, there is the Pessimist’s Mug, a glass mug with a line in the middle that says, “This cup is half-empty.” One of their slogans is: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” Perhaps, they could have used that one in California in the last few weeks. Then there’s the Frowny. Despair Inc. has trademarked the Frowny—which is the opposite of the smiley face--and they put it on everything from T-shirts to hats.
But the centerpiece of Despair, Inc. is a collection of beautiful photos with a depressing slogans:
Photo of a sunken ship, with the message: “MISTAKES: It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”
Photo of a lightning storm, saying: “PESSIMISM: Every cloud has a silver lining, but lightning kills hundreds of people each year who are trying to find it.”
Photo of a tree bent by the wind, saying: “ADVERSITY: That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable.”
Photo of a dark sunset, saying: “DESPAIR: It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch-black.”
Despair, Inc. has tapped into the truth that all of us know and few of us want to admit. In spite of all our talk about silver linings and happier tomorrows, we all know that suffering is a grim reality of the human condition. No amount of wealth, no measure of security, no low-fat, oat bran diet can defend us against suffering and eventual death. It makes no difference whether we are good or bad, rich or poor, calamity is always just a step behind us.
Now you might say, “That is depressing.” Yes, it is, but we need to face the fact that suffering is always a part of the human condition.
In Psalm 22, the psalmist is suffering. He is surrounded by enemies, broken in body and spirit. He cries out in despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1). In the midst of pain and impending death, the psalmist seeks God, but God seems “so far from helping.” Surrounded, tortured and almost dead, he hears the sarcastic taunts of his enemies. “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him” (v. 8 NIV). No wonder the psalmist asks, “Why?”
You may know that the opening words of Psalm 22 were repeated by Jesus on the cross. Indeed, much of this Psalm seems to point directly to the cross.
All four gospels relate the fact that Jesus’ clothes were divided among his executioners as is described in Psalm 22:18, and in Matthew, Mark and Luke the crowd at Jesus’ execution mock him in the same way and with the same words with which the psalmist is mocked in Psalm 22:7-8.
But it is that first quotation from Psalm 22 on the lips of Christ that has had the heaviest influence on Christian teaching. The fact that Christ, in his suffering, would utter the cry, “Why have you forsaken me,” has signified to Christian theologians throughout history that Christ was indeed fully human. That Christ could feel the human emotion of despair, in spite of his divine nature, is both the scandal and the miracle by which Christians affirm the dual nature of Christ.
Now I confess to you that for many years, I have had some difficulty with those words. If Jesus was truly God, how can he believe that God has abandoned him? But I recently came across an idea that has helped me to understand what Jesus said.
First of all, Jesus certainly knew all of Psalm 22. Secondly, in the ancient world, quoting the opening line of a passage was the same as quoting the whole passage. We still do the same thing. We might quote a line from a movie as a way of referring to the movie. For example, we might say, “Play it again, Sam” to refer to a certain movie, and it may be that more people would know that phrase than would know the title of the movie—which was Casablanca. So the point is that when Jesus uses the terrible opening words of Psalm 22, he is actually referring to the whole Psalm and is expressing not only despair, but also, paradoxically, hope in spite of despair.
Note this about Psalm 22: The only reason it seems so unfair to the psalmist that God should be silent in his hour of need is because God has been known to rescue the faithful from suffering in the past. The psalmist says as much in vs4-5, “Our ancestors trusted you, and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved, they trusted you and were not put to shame.” If they were rescued, the psalmist argues, why am I not rescued? Throughout the psalm the writer portrays himself as a faithful worshiper of God. It is this faithfulness that is the ground of his appeal to God. The psalmist is never an atheist. In spite of his suffering and his despair, he has not given up on God.
The verses in the psalm alternate between the complaint of the psalmist and the affirmation of the reasons he believes God will answer his complaint. Verses 1 and 2 relate that he has cried to God for help but received no answer. Verses 3-5 relate the former faithfulness of God to save those who worship him. Verses 6-8 describe the desperate situation in which the psalmist finds himself, surrounded by those who mock him and disparage his faith in God. Verses 9-11 return to a statement of trust — namely that God has always been in control of his life and has kept him safe thus far.
We only read the first fifteen verses of the Psalm. Had we read the whole psalm we would have realized that the hopeful verses of Psalm 22 outnumber the despairing verses almost two to one. The psalmist is well aware that the human condition can sometimes be calamity and catastrophe. Without denying that, he never loses his faith. Jesus citing this psalm on the cross was saying exactly that. In the midst of terrible agony, he had not given up on God; he had not lost his faith; and we should never give up on God.
The Despairing Why
A number of years ago, Glenn Chambers boarded a plane bound for Quito, Ecuador, to begin his ministry in missionary broadcasting, but he never arrived. In a horrible moment, the plane carrying Chambers crashed into a mountain peak. All onboard were killed.
Later it was learned that before leaving Miami airport, Chambers wanted to write his mother a letter. All he could find for stationery was a page of advertising upon which was written the single word “WHY?” Around that word he hastily scribbled a final note.
After Chambers’ mother learned of her son’s death, his letter arrived. She opened the envelope, took out the paper and unfolded it. Staring her in the face was the question “WHY?”.
We, too, want to know the “why.” We want to know the reason for our suffering, but even though we cry out for answers, more often than not God does not answer the why. But that does not mean God is silent.
God whispers in our pleasure,
God shouts to us in our pain.
God shouts “I am there with you!”
The answer to the pain of suffering and despair is not a “why,” but a “who.” In the midst of death, the psalmist discovers that God has responded, God responds by being there.
In Psalm 22:21b, the tone changes: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” The cry of verse 2 has been heard. God’s answer is not beyond the suffering of the psalmist, but in the midst of his suffering.
The psalm changes from lament to praise because of the realization that wherever people suffer, God is there. “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (v. 24).
Having been assured of God’s presence in his own suffering, the psalmist now turns to address the affliction of others, setting a feast for those who have been similarly afflicted and celebrating the light of new life that is breaking through the darkness of death, saying in v26, “May your hearts live forever!”
It’s God’s presence in our pain that enables us to overcome despair and death. That is why this psalm has such significance in the passion of Jesus.
When the crucified Jesus cries out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” it is not a cry of abandonment, but an affirmation of faith. Even in the agony of death on a cross, Jesus puts his trust in a God who does not “despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted” but who hears their cries of pain and praise and draws nearer.
Assured of God’s presence in the midst of his suffering, Jesus is able to see his own suffering and death as a source of life for all who suffer and despair.
As the people of Christ, we are called to see our suffering in the same light, as a means of grace whereby we receive the assurance of God’s presence and represent God’s presence to others in distress. Henri Nouwen says that “We do not know where we will be two, 10, or 20 years from now. What we can know, however, is that man suffers and that a sharing of suffering can make us move forward ... in the conviction that the full liberation of man and his world is still to come.”
The repair for despair is not the gallows humor of Despair Inc., nor is it found wallowing in the whys and wherefores and what-ifs of suffering. The repair for despair is to draw closer to God and closer to others who suffer. In doing so, we see fear give way to hope. Perhaps Paul put it best: “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). That’s a motivational slogan for any decade or any millennium. We do not need smiley faces or frowny faces, “we are the lord’s.” we affirm that even though sometimes we cry out to the Lord and hear only silence. We search for God’s presence, but feel nothing, yet we do not give up on God. We know that God has blessed the faithful for centuries. We know that God has been with us, too. Each morning we witness the miracles of nature, of the rising sun, of the turning leaves. In the faces of our loved ones, we find friendship and nurture. God blesses us abundantly.
Yet many of us still need deliverance. Many of us feel surrounded by monsters too fierce to conquer alone. Many of us fear that our bodies will melt or our souls will shrivel up before the onslaught of forces beyond our control.
Our comfort is that God knows our deepest needs. As God has saved his people in the past, so he will save us. God will give us strength in suffering. We will abide in faith and hope and love, and God will always be with us. Amen.
Despair, Inc. Web Site, despair.com.
National Institutes of Mental Health Web Site. nimh.nih.gov/publicat/invisible.cfm. Retrieved April 9, 2003.
Nouwen, Henri. The Wounded Healer. New York: Doubleday, 1972, 100.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 01/28/04