Sermon 09-13-15: “When God Seems Far Away”

September 26, 2015

Fight Songs

Psalm 42 is about an experience that all Christians will have during their journey of faith: a spiritual dry spell, when God seems far away. How do we deal with it? This psalm offers guidance. First, recognize that this isn’t necessarily happening because you’ve done something wrong. Second, be honest with God about what you’re feeling. Third, speak truthful words to your soul—encourage yourself with the gospel truth.

Sermon Text: Psalm 42:1-11

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I was talking to Lisa, my wife, about today’s sermon, and she said, “Are you going to sing this week?” And I’m like, “No. We’ve got talented people like Ryan and Matthew and Haley to do the singing around here.” And she said, “No. In your sermon, I mean.” And I’m like, “Oh, right! Yes, I guess the past few weeks I’ve broken into song—a cappella—in the midst of my sermon. And it’s been the highlight of your week, I’m sure.

So as not to disappoint anyone, I will, in fact, begin this sermon with a song that was a hit a couple of years ago. It goes like this:

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of the team
Everything is awesome
Living our dream

That’s, of course, from The Lego Movie. And it’s ironic because in the movie itself it turns out that everything is most assuredly not awesome, no matter how badly all the Lego people wanted to believe that it was. It’s never the case in the real world that “everything is awesome.” That’s not realistic on this side of eternity.

Yet sometimes I think that we Christians think that if we are living our lives the way we’re supposed to live them, if we are faithfully following Jesus, then everything ought to be awesome all the time, and when things aren’t awesome, then that means that there’s something wrong with us!

walsh

I’ll never forget an interview I heard with Sheila Walsh. Back in the ’80s Walsh was a popular Christian singer. In the ’90s she became the co-host of The 700 Club for five years. She says those five years were the loneliest in her life. She said,

Everyone at CBN knew I had an open door policy, and people could come in and tell me anything. And we would cry, laugh, and pray about it together. But I never did that with anyone [when I was struggling]. There was no one that I reached out to and said, “I’m struggling here” or “I don’t want to do this anymore.” So I kept struggling with this huge inner turmoil, while the audience thought I was the embodiment of godliness. It was a very strange struggle.

She finally had a nervous breakdown and checked herself into a mental institution because she was so depressed. And after she did this, she said, so many of her Christian friends and supporters couldn’t handle it. They said, “Why can’t you snap out of it? Why do you feel depressed?” Many friends and fans told her, in so many words, that something was wrong with her Christian faith. Perhaps, some said, she even had a demon!

It’s just tragic that Christians responded this way! But that’s our tendency: If you’re depressed, that means something is wrong with your faith.

If there’s even a tiny part of us that buys into this lie, we desperately, urgently need to read the Psalms—especially a psalm like Psalm 42! The psalm begins, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” The word translated as “pants” suggests that the deer is struggling to find water—the deer is going to a familiar riverbed where it expects to find water, but the riverbed is dry.

This psalm is about an experience that will happen to all of God’s people from time to time: We will all experience a spiritual drought—a spiritual dry spell—when everything isn’t awesome and when God seems so far away.

And our Lord has given us psalms such as this one to teach us how to handle this experience when it happens.

The first thing to know if you’re going through a spiritual dry spell is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve done something wrong—or you’ve sinned in some spectacular way. Notice in the psalm there’s no reference to the psalmist’s sin or his need for repentance. No. Going through a spiritual drought is a normal part of living a Christian life. It happens to everyone.

It’s like being married: You fall in love, you get married, you honeymoon. And in the beginning, everything is so easy; everything is awesome, or close enough. We call this the “honeymoon period.” And I’ve counseled so many couples before they get married. And I don’t know why I bother with premarital counseling, because they don’t listen to me! They don’t believe me when I tell them how difficult marriage will be, at times. My mom was married to my dad for a long time, and she was asked once if she ever considered getting a divorce. She said, “No, I never considered divorcing him; I considered killing him, but…” But that’s what marriage feels like sometimes!

You don’t get divorced when trouble comes. You hang in there and fight! Remember: this sermon series is called “fight songs” for a reason. The psalmist is deeply unhappy, but he’s not giving up on God; he’s not divorcing God. He’s fighting his way through it!

Part of what it means to fight for your marriage is to be honest about what you’re feeling. That’s true in our relationship with God. That’s what the psalmist is doing: “O God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?’”

Now, I want to immediately scold the psalmist and say, “It’s not theologically correct to say that God has forgotten you. Of course God hasn’t forgotten you!” But the psalmist doesn’t really believe that God had forgotten him. But that’s how he’s feeling. And he’s being honest about what he’s feeling!

apostleOne of the greatest Christian movies ever made is The Apostle, starring Robert Duvall. He plays a preacher who, despite his sincere love of Jesus, gets himself into a lot of trouble. In one scene he’s at his mother’s house—because his wife has kicked him out of the house—and we see him pacing back and forth in his bedroom, complaining loudly to God, saying, “I’ve done all these things for you, God, and you’ve let all this bad stuff happen.” He’s angry. And he’s shouting so loud, at God, that he wakes up the neighbors. And they call his mother’s house. And his mother, played by June Carter Cash, says, “Ever since he was a little bitty boy, sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight he just happens to be  yellin’ at him.”

This psalm gives us permission to yell at the Lord if we need to!

After you’ve poured out your heart to God in this brutally honest sort of way, what do you do then? You talk to yourself. That’s what the psalmist is doing: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?/ Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” The psalmist is literally talking some sense to his soul. He’s preaching to his soul. He’s reminding his soul of who God is, how faithful God has been in the past, and all the reasons, in God, to be filled with hope, rather than pessimism or cynicism or despair.

What are some things that you tell your soul when you’re in a spiritual drought?

In his best-selling memoir Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller describes an epiphany he had—while scrubbing the toilet in his bathroom, of all things. While he was in the throes of depression, he told himself what a loser he was, how he was as disgusting as the bathroom he was cleaning. And a Bible verse came to him. It was a powerful sensation: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He didn’t know what it meant at first. Then he realized it was God telling him that he would never talk to his neighbor the way he talked to himself—because the way he talked to himself wasn’t loving. “[S]omehow I had come to believe it was wrong to kick other people around but it was okay to do it to myself.”[1]

When it comes to speaking to our soul, we can often say the wrong things to it—harmful things, destructive things—instead of truthful things. When you’re spiritually depressed, and God feels far away, talk to your soul, but tell your soul the truth:

And the truth we should tell ourselves sounds something like this…

Listen, self: If God is for you, who can be against you? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for you, how will he not also with him graciously give you all things? Who shall bring any charge against you as God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for you. Who shall separate you from the love of Christ?[2]

Finally, when you’re going through a spiritual drought, this psalm teaches us that you need to not go through it alone. You need church; you need worship; you need to be with your brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s what the psalmist means in verse 4 when he talks about leading a procession to the house of God. He’s talking about worshiping with others at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Unlike most of us highly individualistic Americans, he doesn’t imagine for a moment that he’s going to find God by himself—alone. He knows he needs the love and support of others.

[Summarize…]

The psalmist says, “My soul is cast down.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” The psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for God.” On the cross, Jesus said, “I thirst.” The psalmist says that his enemies taunt him, saying, “Where is your God?” On the cross, Jesus’ enemies taunted him, wondering where God was and why he didn’t rescue him: “He saved others. Why doesn’t he save himself?” The psalmist says, “O God, why have you forgotten me?” On the cross, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten—or forsakenme?”

The good news is this: On the cross, Christ experienced the absence of his heavenly Father so that we wouldn’t have to. On the cross, Christ experienced abandonment by God so that we wouldn’t have to. On the cross, Christ experienced punishment by God for the world’s sins so that we wouldn’t have to. We gave him our unrighteousness on the cross—and he paid the penalty for it. He gave us his righteousness…

[1] Donald Miller, Blue like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 229-231.

[2] From John Piper’s sermon, “Spiritual Depression in the Psalms.” Desiring God. Accessed 12 September 2015.

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