When God is silent (Psalm 22)
CS Lewis, the renowned Christian author of the Narnia Chronicles, was a lifelong bachelor until the age of 58, when he married an American woman named Joy Davidson. But not long after they were married, Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer, and she died just a couple of years later. In his book A Grief Observed, which he wrote shortly after she died, Lewis wrote the following words:
"Meanwhile, where is God? When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him.. you will be- or so it seems, 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 & 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."
I think most of us will probably be able to identify with something of what he is saying. Most of us at one time or another have encountered times of bitter tragedy or heartbreak or disappointment.
A young girl with a promising future is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. A couple's first child is born with cerebral palsy. A father loses his job and struggles to support his family and keep his dignity. A husband deserts his wife, and leaves her to raise 3 children on her own.
If you are a Christian, you know that faith in God does not automatically protect you from these kind of things happening in your life. However, we hope that our faith can be a great strength and resource during those times in our lives. But if we are perfectly honest, we may have to admit that, like CS Lewis, God doesn't always seem to be there the way we hoped. We find ourselves asking questions, like: "Where is God in all of this? If God loves me, why has he allowed this to happen? Why does he suddenly seem so remote, so far away? In fact, why does he seem to be silent?"
And as we read thru the pages of the Bible, we discover that those questions are not new to us. On the contrary, we find that those are exactly the kind of questions that people of faith have asked for thousands of years. People like the prophet Habakkuk who cried: "How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?" Or poor Job who asked God: "Why do you hide your face from me and consider me your enemy?" Or even King David who, in the psalm we just read, cries out in anguish: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?... I cry out by day, but you do not answer"
And so what do we do when God is silent?
We don't really know for certain the specific circumstances that prompted David to write this psalm. While he was a man who was greatly blessed by God, we know that David also had his share of heartbreak. Forced to flee for his life, from the murderous jealousy of King Saul, David spent his early years hiding out in the desert, as a hunted fugitive. At one point while in exile among the Philistines, David returned home to Ziklag with his men, to find that all of their wives and their children had been abducted by an invading army. It says then that David & his men "wept until they had no strength left to weep" Much later, as king of Israel, he watched his own son Absolom rebel against him, usurp his throne, and once again he was forced to leave home in disgrace, humiliated by his own son. Later when Absolom is killed, David goes to his room and weeps bitterly: "Absolom, my son, my son, if only I had died instead of you."
As we read this psalm, (22) we get a glimpse into the heart of a man who is obviously going thru a time of intense physical suffering and emotional agony.
v6: "I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads
v14: "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint... My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth... a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet."
But surely the worst thing for David was not that he was being insulted & scorned by people, or even that he was being subjected to physical cruelty. What made it most unbearable was that while all this was going on, God seemed to be nowhere in sight. He felt forsaken & abandoned by God. When he cried out to the Lord for help, there was nothing but this terrible silence from heaven.
What do we do when God is silent?
Now don't misunderstand me here: There are many times when God does become unusually real and close to us during times of grief and tragedy and pain. Just look at the very next psalm, 23. Here David describes in a beautiful way how the Lord is his Shepherd... That even as he walks thru the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord is there with him, leading him, comforting him, caring for him.
But isn't it amazing that the same person who wrote Psalm 23, could also at a different time in his life write Psalm 22. That's because there are going to be times in our lives when God seems very present and close to us, when he answers our prayers in very obvious ways. But there are also going to be times when it seems that God is nowhere to be found. When we pray, we search, but we seem to be hearing nothing from God
What do we do when God is silent?
To try to answer that question perhaps we need to turn and look at another scene- one that was described in our other scripture reading earlier, from Mark 15. Here it is Good Friday, & Jesus is hanging on a Roman cross just outside of Jerusalem.
And as we read this passage, we discover some remarkable similarities to David's experience in Psalm 22. Notice the common elements in these 2 pictures: As Jesus hung on the cross, the crowds who stood by jeered at him and mocked him, saying "You saved others! Now let's see you save yourself." The soldiers who had pierced his hands & his feet with nails, now divided his garments and cast lots to see who would get them. As David wrote this psalm under the inspiration of the HS, somehow he had been able to capture in a remarkable way, a vivid picture of how Jesus himself, would one day suffer on the cross. The details David includes are so specific, that it's impossible to believe that the connection between these 2 passages is merely coincidental. Rather thru David, God had painted the shadow of the cross onto the pages of the OT, 1000 years before Good Friday
But by far the most striking connection between these 2 passages comes in v33 of Mark's account. Around noon, the 6th hour after sunrise, something terrible begins to happen: gradually the sky gets darker & darker, until it is almost like night. All of the jeering and laughter of the crowd is silenced, as they wait, wondering what this means. Then at the 9th hour, out of the darkness & the silence, the people hear an agonizing, heart-breaking cry come from the cross:
"Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani"
Some of those listening think that Jesus must be calling on Elijah to come and rescue him. But there are others who immediately recognized that Jesus had been speaking in Aramaic, & he had been quoting the opening words of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
We can barely begin to fathom the signficance of what these words meant, coming from the lips of the son of God himself. How could the very son of God, who had never known a moment when he was not in perfect fellowship with his heavenly Father, now hanging in the darkness of the cross, feel so utterly forsaken & abandoned?
There have been many attempts to try to explain what is happening here. But at its core, Jesus’ cry of despair gives us an important glimpse into what was happening behind the scenes on Good Friday. For as horrendous as the physical pain & suffering that Jesus went thru must have been, surely that was not the worst thing that he endured during those hours of agony.
For there on the cross, in a way we can never completely comprehend, all of the wickedness & evil of the world was placed upon the shoulders of the son of God. It was there on the cross, that he bore the terrible weight of all of God's wrath & judgment for the sins of the entire world, including yours & mine. 1 Peter 2: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree…" And so just as sin separates us from God, so that day, for the first & only time, Jesus felt the complete spiritual darkness of being separated & forsaken by his Father. Not because of his sin, but because of ours.
But what does Jesus’ experience here mean for us?
1st. It provides the very basis for our salvation. It was necessary for Jesus to go thru this terrible experience, so that we might one day be redeemed & reconciled back to our Father. When we receive Christ into our lives, God accepts Jesus’ death on the cross, in place of our own. We are forgiven, because of the punishment he bore for us.
While we cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to endure this, we are eternally grateful that he did. Because if he hadn't, that same separation that Jesus felt on the cross would have be our experience for eternity.
2. Knowing Jesus went thru this can also help us when we go thru those times in our lives when God seems to be silent. Like David, there are those seasons in our lives that are what we might call Psalm 23 times, when we sense the Lord's presence & power. When "He makes us lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside quiet waters, he restores our soul." We praise God for those times.
But as we go thru our journey of faith, there are also going to be Psalm 22 times, when we feel alone & forsaken, when we cry out to God, but noone seems to be listening.
So what do we do when God is silent?
1. Look behind us. Remember those times in the past when God has shown himself clearly to us. That's what David does in Psalm 22:4. He remembers how God had been faithful in the past: 'In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved" I know there have been many times in my life, when I have cried out to God, & he has answered that prayer & he has been there for me
I need to remember that, during those times when God seems to be far away, & know that there will yet come a day, when my sense of God's presence & comfort will be restored. Evidently that's what happened with David, because later on in this psalm, his tone changes dramatically. v24: "For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help." Eventually David did experience God’s care and comfort, but it didn’t happen immediately
2. Look to Jesus. If even the Son of God went thru a time when he felt alone & abandoned by God, we can expect to feel the same way sometimes. Heb 12:2:
"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Easter Sunday was a wonderful day of victory, when God transformed the greatest tragedy in human history into the greatest triumph, as Christ overcame the bonds of sin & death. But Easter Sunday could never have happened w/o Good Friday.
Jesus had to first go thru the agony of the cross, in order to experience the glory of the resurrection. And for reasons that we don't totally understand, that same principle seems to be at work in our lives. Sometimes, God allows us to go thru the dark night of Psalm 22, before he brings us to the green pastures of Psalm 23. But Good Friday assures us that God never asks us to go thru something, that he has not already gone thru himself. He has not simply abandoned us to our pain. Rather He has already shared in and endured that pain himself. And now because of Easter, he promises that he shall never leave us or forsake us, that nothing shall separate us from the love of God