Surely you know the Chronicles of Narnia movies, right? Well, those movies actually come from children's novels written by C. S. Lewis. The great writer, novelist, sometimes philosopher, sometimes theological, literary critic Clive Staples Lewis was a prolific writer. One of my favorite books Lewis wrote is The Problem of Pain. Written in 1940, it was essentially a theological and philosophical treatise on the problem of suffering and pain in this world. He wrote it during World War II, so these were obvious questions that many people had: Why does a good God allow this kind of torment, this kind of suffering, this kind of atrocity in the world? Lewis' book was well received, but he was still relatively young when he wrote it. After he had lived a few more years, he met a woman named Joy Davidman.
Lewis had never been married and had actually said some things about never wanting to be married. But Joy won his heart. She was a writer from New York with a compelling personality. The story is too long to tell, but suffice it to say that over the course of time, as they corresponded and she visited England, Joy and Lewis fell in love. What intensified that love was Joy's diagnosis of cancer during their courtship. It was in the days that Lewis thought he was going to lose Joy that he realized how much he cared about her and wanted to marry her. They got married, and the cancer miraculously went into remission. They had two blissful years in which they traveled all over the world. Then the cancer came back with a vengeance, and Lewis lost his beloved wife Joy.
This writer, who had philosophized and theologized 20 years earlier about the pain and suffering we experience in the world was now personally devastated, and none of his answers sufficed to comfort him. So in those private moments, when he was most distraught, Lewis penned a book that we now know as A Grief Observed. In it he says things that sound a whole lot like the Psalmist in this passage we're looking at today. He finds God to be distant, practically inaccessible. He says this about his experience of God:
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. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once.
It's amazing that this children's novelist who wrote about Aslan, the great lion who would rescue vulnerable children, could now find himself in a place where he wasn't even sure there was an Aslan or a God. And if there was a God, all Lewis knew was that God was keeping him out, bolting and double bolting a door, making himself inaccessible.
When you look through the course of church history, you will find literally hundreds of stories like this one—people struggling with God, finding themselves in places where God seems incredibly distant. Think about Mother Teresa, who later on in life wrote this to a very good friend of hers: "Jesus is a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear."
There are some of you here today who hear these things and think, This is not the place I'm in right now. I mean, it's summer, for goodness sakes! Things ought to be happy and nice! Some of you are in an oasis in your life. Business is going well. Relationships are going well. But I venture that you at least know people who are in pain right now. There are others of you who relate very profoundly to this, who showed up here unsure of how to speak these things, but you feel them very, very deeply. I think there are probably some of you even here who are skeptical about Christianity. You want to know how Christians deal with pain, because it seems like they often trivialize it. They always have nice clichés to give you, but they don't seem to really dive into pain and take it seriously.
I want to look at Psalm 22 in four points. I want to talk first about the darkness of God's seeming absence. Second, I want to talk about the darkness of self-contempt. Third, I'll talk about the darkness of complete vulnerability; and finally, about a dark, strange illumination.
The darkness of God's apparent absence
Psalm 22 begins with these words:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
Have you ever experienced a moment like this in your life? Have you ever felt that God is a million miles away? I know many people can relate to this, although it's not something we typically talk about on a Sunday morning. When we come to church, we tend to compartmentalize these things. When faced with these feelings, we're often too scared to put it into words. In fact, we can think, God, you don't want to hear this kind of stuff from me. You don't want to hear me whine. I'll just deal with this on my own. And we're notorious as Christians for coming up with extraordinary clichés or snatching Bible verses to throw at people who are in pain: "Don't worry. All things work for good for those who love God." When you're actually going through deep pain, it's too hard to make those connections.
There was a tragedy that happened this past week at a Texas Ranger's pro baseball game. A man died at a game as he was reaching for a ball. Josh Hamilton, an outfielder, had caught a fly ball and tossed it to the ball girl. A man in the stands yelled, "Hey! Can I get the next ball for my son?" Hamilton said, "You got it! Next time I'll throw the ball to you." The next ball came out to Hamilton, he got it, and the man in the stands was standing there holding out his hands over the railing. Hamilton tossed the ball to him, and as the man reached for the ball, he lost his balance and fell over the railing to his death. All of this happened in front of his six-year-old son.
Obviously, Josh Hamilton was distraught. He's a Christian himself, and he's been through a great deal of pain in his own life. He's an addict and has struggled through that. But here he found himself in a situation where he was just trying to make sense of what had happened. In an interview about it, he said, as so many of us have said before, "All I can think about is praying for [the family] and knowing that God has a plan." But say that to the wife of this man, the mother of this little boy. Say that God has a plan. You don't want to hear that "God has a plan" when you're in the midst of suffering, despair, pain, and grief. It doesn't help to hear that "it all will work out in the end." Hearing those things just won't connect to what you're going through.
The psalmist doesn't respond to pain that way. The psalmist's response is honesty. You can find the first rule of lament in Shakespeare's King Lear: "Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say." I'd say there's a second rule: Speak to God. Speak what you feel to God. What this psalm teaches us is that we're invited to bring it all to God, our full range of emotion, our anger, our grief, our despair. We don't have to clean it up for him. He invites us to bring the depth of our sense of abandonment, the injustice that we feel to him. Your spouse dies or your child dies or you experience the injustice of sexual abuse by a parent. God invites us to bring the whole range of emotion to him honestly. In fact, he says it's in and through that process that real relationship is developed.
Think about it: a mere intellectual answer, a mere theological response doesn't require you to engage God. It's an answer that suffices for a time but doesn't really reach to the core of your soul. When you engage God, you declare your confidence in him. Old Testament commentator and theologian Walter Brueggemann says this about Psalm 22: "The very fact that the writer is addressing these feelings to God suggests a level of confidence that God will in fact listen and care enough to do something about the situation." The fact that you express what you feel means that you believe in God, that you trust him. Not expressing it shows that you don't trust him.
So often I hear people say, "You know, God knows everything we're going to pray anyway, and all things will work out." It's a pat theological answer. But Psalm 22 shows us that that's not at all what God wants to hear. He wants you to bring your full self to him.
Is there a line you can cross with expressing your true feelings to God? Well, there's a difference between lament and whining. Lament looks at God, grabs hold of God, shakes him, and says, "This is what's going on inside of me." Whining turns your back on God and dismisses him. That's the difference. If you're truly lamenting to God, you're engaging him. You're looking him in the eye and saying, "Deal with my pain. Do something about it. You seem so far off." But so often it seems we feel like this is just too much to give God. So we turn it in on ourselves and contain it.
The darkness of self-contempt
Let's look now at the darkness of self-contempt. You see this in verses 4-7:
In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.
Now what I hear being said in these verses is "God helps everyone else but he's not going to help me." But often what I hear from preachers and commentators on this passage is that when the psalmist says, "I'm a worm and not a man," he's exhibiting humility. I don't call this humility. I call this "worm-ology." I'm a worm. I'm not a man. Woe is me.
Several years ago, a man who was battling cancer said to me, "I must have done something to deserve this." We turn our circumstances back on us, because we don't believe that God could handle us externalizing it and turning it back on him. So we keep it inside. It's the danger of self-contempt. Psychologist Dan Allender says that self-contempt is when we fail to trust God and fail to believe that God and others can handle our anger and our pain, so we turn it inward. We show up on a Sunday morning, and no one knows that we're in pain, because we're just dealing with it on our own. We've contained it. We've stuffed it. We've compartmentalized it. We don't believe that God wants to hear it. God's holy. God knows what's going on anyway. We don't have to really speak it and give it to him.
Thankfully in this passage, the psalmist doesn't stay in this place of self-contempt. He sees he's not a worm. He believes that there's something more to him, which we see played out in verse 9:
Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother's breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother's womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me ….
Many bulls encompass me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me.
The psalmist moves from saying he's a worm and not a man to saying that he is created in the image of God with extraordinary worth, and he needs to be rescued. At first he fails to engage God, but then he turns to God: You made me; take care of what you made.
We see this kind of transition all over Scripture. Look at Numbers 13. The Israelites have been rescued from slavery in Egypt, and they're on their way to the Promised Land. It's been a long journey already, and Moses sends a group of spies to search out this land to see what it looks like. Is it a land flowing with milk and honey? Is it a good place to dwell? The spies come back, and two of them say that the land is great, and that the Israelites should enter it. The rest of the spies say, "No way. The giants are too big. There's no way we could conquer them." God is ticked. How can the Israelites not trust him? He's rescued them over and over again. God tells Moses that he's going to wipe out the Israelites and start all over again. We don't typically think of God in those terms, right? And Moses challenges God, saying, "That's not your character. That's not who you are. You said that you're gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love. Save them. Be true to your character." And what does God say? He says: Oh yeah, you're right. That's who I am.
Our theology textbooks don't get at the paradoxes and tensions in this psalm. God invites us to call on him, to challenge him, to say, "You made me. I'm precious in your sight. Now rescue me. Deliver me." The confession is not about our unworthiness but about our worth.
The darkness of complete vulnerability
I opened with the story about C. S. Lewis, the great tragedy he experienced with his wife Joy. Maybe some of you have seen the movie about their relationship called Shadowlands. The movie gives you a keen insight into what was going on in Lewis' emotional life during that time. There's a point when a good friend comes to Lewis and tries to make him feel better. He says, "Lewis, I know how hard you've been praying. And I know God is answering your prayers." Lewis says in response, "That's not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping." This is the prayer of a vulnerable little boy, and this is what you see in these verses in Psalm 22. You formed me in my mother's womb. You made me. Care for me. And now the bulls are surrounding me. I'm helpless. Rescue me, God, a vulnerable child.
What's going on here is a psychological, existential process that we all have to go through in order to get to where the psalmist gets next—to the place of praise and trust. It seems that the darkness of vulnerability shines more light on our lives, tells us more about maturity and growth, than the light sometimes does. We learn more from our despair, our struggle, our darkness than we will from the many books on the power of positive thinking. We learn through the darkness. We learn through the pain.
You see this in verses 3-5 and 28:
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame ….
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
This transition occurs in just about every lament psalm. The psalmist will begin questioning God and expressing his grief. Then there's a turn: Yet I will trust you. Yet I will praise you. How do they get to that new place?
You don't get to a place of praise and trust on an intellectual leap. You get there by going there with God, by going down into the valley of the shadow of death, by giving him what's going on in your life in a brutally honest way. You get there by descending. Then you ascend. Then he meets you.
A dark, strange illumination
There's something interesting going on here that I think is analogous to labor and delivery. Obviously, I've never been through labor, but my wife has. I know it's not very fun. Labor and delivery can be a brutal thing for both parent and child. Think about what that little child goes through coming down through the birth canal. Her head comes out and it's all contorted. It's a difficult process. But I often see birth as analogous to lament, because when that baby is delivered and put into your arms, there's this sense in which you immediately think, There she is. I love her. You begin to bond. Psychologists tell us that it's in that first year that you really begin to build trust with your child. And because a mother and child have gone to battle together, there's a particularly special bond between them.
Walter Brueggemann says that's exactly what happens in lament. You've gone to battle with God. You've pushed up against him, and you've battled with him. Because you've battled and wrestled and pushed, you can then have confidence that he's there. It's not merely an intellectual presupposition anymore. It's real. It's experiential. You've grabbed hold of him and shaken him. You know this God now. He's no longer a definition you've memorized from a catechism.
When I went through my ordination exams, I had to memorize this definition: God is a Spirit infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his wisdom, being, power, goodness, justice and peace. That's a God I want to get to know, but is it a God I can relate to? I have no doubt that that definition is true. But the God who we read about in Scripture is a God with whom we wrestle, with whom we engage in real relationship. He's going through the labor, too. He's affected, too. Do you realize that God is affected, too? He's in it with you. He's wrestling with you.
What's stunning about this is not only the fact that we, as children in need, can declare God to be Father but when the psalmist says, "Kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations," he moves from Father to King. Because he's wrestled with God, the psalmist is able to say, "I know he's Lord. I trust that he's King." We don't learn about God's kingship through what someone has told us to believe. We learn about his kingship because we've wrestled and struggled with him. We've gone to war with him and have found him to be trustworthy.
Some of you may know the writings of the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who is a writer and revolutionary during the days of the rule of communism in the Soviet Union. He wrote against the communist gulags and the concentrations camps that were not unlike the Nazi prison camps. He saw these atrocities and spoke against them until he got caught and was sent into forced labor himself. He spent eight years in labor camps, and he recorded his experience in his three-volume Gulag Archipelago. He wrote honestly about who he was before he went into the camp: "I was an arrogant man. I was a self-righteous man … in the intoxication of youthful successes, I had felt myself to be infallible, and therefore I was cruel." But the darkness of this prison camp experience changed him and purged him of the false self out of which he was living. He was brought down to the ground, to a place of deep humility. When all was said and done, as he looked back on his time in the camp, he said, "So I turned back to the years of my imprisonment and say sometimes to the astonishment of those about me, 'Bless you, prison.' I have served enough time there. I have nourished my soul there. And I say without hesitation, 'Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.'"
It's extraordinary that someone could say that about such suffering. But this is precisely what we believe as Christians—that there is this furnace of transformation we go into in the midst of our grief, in the midst of our pain, in the midst of this darkness, and in this furnace we're changed. Those of you who've been through darkness and have come out on the other side know exactly what I'm talking about.
But this sermon is for everyone. What would it look like for us to be a community that is able to sit with one another in the midst of these experiences, such that when we come in on a Sunday morning, we don't have to compartmentalize our lives, we don't have to keep parts of ourselves from one another? What if this was a safe place to bring our whole selves? What if God was safe enough for us to bring not just the good stuff to him but the honest stuff, too? What if we could say to him, "God, you seem so far off, and I don't know that I'll ever get through my addiction"? What would it look like for us to be and have that kind of community?
There's an invitation in this psalm: Go down into the darkness. Trust that God will be there. Trust that as you engage him, as you grab hold of him, as you wrestle with him, you'll come out the other side believing that he's bigger than you've ever known him to be.
Chuck DeGroat holds a PhD in psychology and serves as a pastor and director of the counseling center at City Church in San Francisco.