How Long, O Lord? Back to all sermons
Date: August 12, 2011
Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: Psalm 13:1–13:6
During the two years before we moved to Abu Dhabi, I worked at a counseling center in California. The Center’s ministry focused on counseling with missionaries and others in Christian ministry. One afternoon, one of my counselees came into my office. She was a gifted young woman who had served successfully for several years on the mission field. She had recently come to our center on a referral by her mission board. It was only my second or third session with her. On this day, she burst into my office, glanced around and said: “I can’t stand to be inside today. Can we walk around outside and talk?”
Sensing her deep distress, I agreed. As we walked around the campus of the counseling center, she suddenly began to weep. These were not silent tears, but great sobs which tore her and shook her whole body. Through the sobs, she tried to talk and share her desperation; how alone she felt, how misunderstood, how angry. Aggravating and deepening her pain was the sense that she had been abandoned and forgotten by God. We walked together for the entire hour; she crying, I listening. I will never forget the question she asked again and again: “Where is God? Where is God?”
Have you ever felt that way? Can you relate to that young woman’s sense of desperation and aloneness?
In his book, A Grief Observed, the author C.S. Lewis recorded his feelings as he walked through the dark days of his wife’s illness and eventual death. He described his feelings this way: “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him, if you turn to him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.”
Now, in that selection, Lewis is not writing theology. He is describing his feelings. Have you ever felt that way? I think, if we are honest, most of us would admit that there have been times when we felt like that. In fact, some of you may even be sitting here this morning, feeling very much as if God has forgotten you.
If so, you are not alone. Today we are studying Psalm 13. I have always found it difficult to settle on sermon texts in the summer, especially in August. It is not a good time to attempt a sermon series which depends on continuity, as there is so much coming and going. So I have chosen to do what I have done in the past, and take a different psalm each week, since each psalm stands alone. Psalm 13 was written by David. Back in July, I preached a message on the lessons of the life of David. David was a man after God’s own heart. He was a man who walked with God and knew him intimately. Yet let us look again at the opening of this psalm:
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
In these verses, he four times asks the question: “How long?” How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? “Lord, is it permanent? This feeling I have; this sense that you have abandoned me? This feeling that you have forgotten me, will it go on forever? The word he uses for “forget” carries the force of ignoring, overlooking, being unmindful.
The next line is a parallel question: How long will you hide your face from me?
This is another way of describing the same sense of abandonment. The metaphor of God’s face is used in the Scripture to symbolize his presence or his favor. The image it brings to my mind is that of a tiny baby. It is remarkable how quickly a baby focuses his eyes on the eyes and face of his mother. And to that infant, when the face turns away, the mother is no longer present. So in David’s experience, he finds himself lying in the darkness, searching for some sign of God’s face, some sense of his presence.
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?
This line accurately describes what goes on when we are in trouble. We lie awake at night, desperately trying to sort things out and find a way out of our problems, wresting with our thoughts. The phrase literally reads, “taking counsel in my soul.” I don’t know about you, but for me I find this happens most often around 4 am. If I have managed to get to sleep at all, my eyes will pop open around 4 and I begin to “take counsel in my soul” or “wrestle with my thoughts.” I try to find some way out of the dilemma that is troubling me, some solution to the problems which are bombarding me. Then the day dawns and we attempt to put our plans into action, only to experience more disappointment, more frustration, more sorrow. There is no relief. There seems to be no way out. “How long?” David cries. Will this endless cycle repeat itself forever? “Where is God?”
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
This is a major theme of David’s psalms. This was the arena in which his life was lived: Goliath, Saul, the Philistines, Absalom. All his life David was surrounded by enemies who sought to bring him down and destroy him.
Our lives may involve actual physical enemies; people who are hostile towards us, who wish us evil. But often ours may be spiritual battles with an unseen enemy. How long will he run roughshod over us, causing us problem after problem and defeat after defeat? Whatever the exact nature of our circumstances and/or enemies, what seems to wears us down is the sheer duration of our problems. How long, O Lord? What we can endure for a day, a night, a week, a month becomes unendurable when it drags on month after weary month. As Matthew Henry expresses it in his commentary on this psalm: “Despondency turns to despair and those who have long been without joy begin, at last, to be without hope.”
“How long?” “Where is God?”
So, what do we do when we reach that point of desperation? As we examine the totality of this short little psalm, let me present four answers to that question.
1. Be honest with God.
We have to be honest enough to ask the questions and express our despair. I think as Christians we sometimes think that God can’t handle our honest feelings. We have to pretend things are OK, even when they are not. We have to paste on a smile and pretend it doesn’t hurt, even when it does. How many of us feel free enough to express ourselves in God’s presence the way David does in these opening lines? How many of us are bold enough to accuse God of forgetting about us and our problems? There is real pain, even anger in David’s voice in these opening verses. I think this is often where we need to start. God can handle our anger, our pain, our disappointment. He knows what we are feeling anyway. What possible good can it do to pretend?
In I Samuel 30, there is the account of a crisis in David’s life. He and his men had returned from battle to find that their village had been attacked and burned and all their families taken captive. I sometimes use that passage and move quickly to verse 6 which says that “David found strength in the Lord his God.” But there is an earlier verse (verse 4) which says, “David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep.”
Sometimes we try to skip that step. But that can be a mistake. Often the open, honest expression of our deep anguish is the first step to genuine healing and renewed trust in God. In my message in July on David as a man after God’s own heart, I singled out one of his qualities as a heart sustained by trust in God. But as the story I just related, and as Psalm 13 makes clear, that does not rule out the times of weeping, of doubt and even of despair. We have to allow for the feeling and expressing of raw human emotion. God is not uncomfortable with our emotions. As I walked around the campus with that young woman, I did not pull out a Bible. I did not quote any verses. I did not rebuke her for her lack of faith, or even try to answer her question, “Where is God”? I simply listened and let her cry. That session was a small, first step in a long and arduous journey toward healing and wholeness. But I never again saw her in such an anguish of despair. Her willingness to be honest with God was a small step, but it was a very important one.
2. Don’t stop praying.
I am going to make a leap of logic, and assume that as a Christian you are already praying about your dilemma. As I read the opening verse of Psalm 13, my sense is that this is not the first time David has talked to God about the problem. In fact the sense is that this is the 100th time he has talked to God about it and it still hasn’t been resolved. “How long are you going to keep ignoring me, God? Forever?”
And so I would urge you. Don’t stop praying. It is here that David’s faith begins to reassert itself.
3 Look on me and answer, O Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
4 my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
“Look on me,” is the equivalent of saying “Pay attention!” The form is called an “insistent imperative.” The important point is that even in his despair, he is still engaging with God. He is angry. He does not understand why God has not acted. But he does not stop praying. He does not stop crying out, “Listen to me, God! Answer me!”
He expresses this same urgent plea in the next line: Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death. It is possible that this metaphor came from the battlefield and the experience of a wounded soldier who has lost a great deal of blood. He is in shock. He has lain untended on the battlefield and is seriously dehydrated. As he lies there in torment, he senses that the end is near. The first thing that begins to fade is his eyesight, as he senses the descent of unconsciousness, coma and even death. He only has time to croak out one final cry for help in hope that some passing comrade will come to his aid, gather his head into his arms, pour life-giving water into his parched lips and bring the light back to his eyes, pulling him back from the brink of the sleep of death. “If you don’t do that God, I am finished, and my enemies will rejoice at my demise and exult in their victory over me.
The key is that even in that moment of final extremity, whether physical or emotional or spiritual, David still cried out to God. Don’t stop praying. Only when we stop praying does the enemy win.
3. Don’t stop trusting.
Look at verse 5: But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I would translate the verb tenses a little differently. I have put my trust in your unfailing love. My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
This is real faith in action. This is faith that does not yet see the answer, but believes that the answer is on the way. “I have put my trust in your unfailing love. I am not personally feeling that love now. It feels like you have forgotten me. I don’t know where you are. But I have put my trust in you and in the belief that your unfailing love has not forgotten me. And by faith I believe that my heart will rejoice in your salvation, your deliverance. In fact, I am commanding my heart to rejoice. I don’t know how or when. But I believe that I will rejoice in your deliverance from this crisis, this hole, this desperate situation.
This is where the struggle is hardest. Our experience, our eyes, our emotions tell us: “God has forgotten me.” But the Bible says that God, in his unfailing love, will never forget me. Which will we believe?
Be honest with God. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop trusting.
4. Don’t stop praising God.
This is where the psalm concludes in verse 6: I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.
The verb “to sing” is in a form that is called “cohortative” which is used to express strong intention. I have a strong determination and intention “to sing to the Lord”. Why? For he “has been good to me” and has dealt bountifully with me in the past. And I believe that somehow he is working for my good even in this situation. Because, by faith, I believe that God’s unfailing love never forgets. And so, with the memory of past blessings and past deliverance, and with faith in God’s future deliverance, David determines that he will once again sing to the Lord.
Don’t stop praising God. Even if, at times, you have to praise him by faith, even as David does in this psalm. I can’t prove it, but my sense of the psalm is that David’s circumstances have not changed at the conclusion of the psalm. The answer has not yet come. Deliverance has yet to arrive. But David’s inner landscape, his heart has changed from despair to hope. His desperate prayer has become a song of praise even as he awaits God’s deliverance.
I don’t know what you might be going through right now. Maybe things are rosy and wonderful in your corner of the universe. I hope they are. If so, then praising God should be natural and easy, and I hope you are praising him for his goodness. Or maybe you, like David, feel that God has forgotten you. Your problems are simply too big and they have lasted far too long. Those are real feelings. Be honest with them. Tell God how you feel.
But even as you do, take time to listen to God’s answer. In the very words of our Lord Jesus in Luke 12:6-7:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
God’s loyal love never forgets. No matter what your feelings tell you. Your feelings may be real, but that does not make them true. God’s loyal love never forgets.
With that reassurance, don’t stop praying. Don’t stop trusting. And don’t stop praising.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Have you ever felt like God has forgotten you? If so, share the experience with your group (with as much or as little detail as you are comfortable sharing).
- Are you comfortable sharing your true feelings with God? Why or why not?
- In the sermon, Pastor Cam made this statement: “Your feelings may be real, but that doesn’t mean they are true.” What do you think he meant by that? Do you agree? Is this a helpful distinction to make?
- In the experience you related in #1, what steps did God use to remind you of his love and care? How does Psalm 13 help?
- As a group, allow for the fact that someone in the group may be currently be feeling forgotten by God. Take the time to pray for that person