I Want To Believe But... Week Three
Today we are going to continue our sermon series for the month of October entitled, "I Want To Believe, But..."
This series addresses the fact that many of us struggle with our images of God, and some of us struggle so much that we find that it's hard to believe in God altogether.
Some of us may have said: "I want to believe, but..."
I can't believe in a demanding God.
I can't believe in an angry, joyless God.
I can't believe in an absent God.
I can't believe in a heartless God.
My hope is that as a result of this series, we'll be able to discover together new ways to think about God that are free from these kinds of boxes.
Let me ask you a question...
Have you ever wondered where God was when it hurt?
Maybe you experienced an incredible tragedy in your life, and you asked that question... Where are you, God?
Maybe you suffered a loss... Or you endured years of abuse... Or you lost your job...
Or maybe the suffering you experienced was due to the violence in our world... war... natural disasters... mass shootings...
I have to tell you something deeply personal. One of my lowest moments for this kind of thing occurred right after the Sandy Hook shooting that took the lives of so many little children.
God was on notice at that point, as far as I was concerned. All of my neat theological answers, and responses went out the window. I even wrote to God in my journal--"I'm really getting tired of defending you, man. Really tired. Where the hell were you?"
That question haunts us sometimes doesn't it? It can be enough to shake your faith. If God is so powerful... why doesn't God stop the violence, the hurt, the abuse, the pain...?
Today we are going to take on this difficult question, and the one thing that I want you to take away with you from our conversation is this:
God is closer than you think.
Our Scripture passage for today is Psalm 22, and this Psalm is very dear to Christians because of the first line. I'll go ahead and read it:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Sound familiar? Yes, this is the Psalm that Jesus prays on the cross when he experiences the loss of God. This is a Psalm of lament, a prayer intended to acknowledge grief, but also to serve as a reminder to God [and the hearer] of God's faithfulness.
Let's read the whole thing, and we're going to practice something called lectio divina with this reading--or at least a modified version of it. I'm going to read and when I'm done, we'll take a moment of silence and then I'll ask you what feelings the Psalm brought up for you.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.[b]
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce[e] my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you[f] I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
What feelings did this Psalm bring up for you? Can you identify with the singer at all?
There is this sort of desperate and defiant hope that creeps in at the end of this song of sorrow, am I right? That God is somehow near, and never really far away at all.
The singer wants us to know this: Our hopes should not be bound up in a God who is far away, high in some heavenly temple... Our hopes are grounded in a God who is near us in the worst of it.
But what do we do with all of this?
How do we get our mind around the feeling that some times it feels like God is no where to be found when we are going through tough times? How do we find meaning in those moments?
First and foremost, I need to say something that I've said here before, but it bears repeating. Some times things just happen. People suck. And sometimes the reason why they suck is because they have been deeply hurt, and hurting people hurt people.
So what I'm saying is that there are circumstances that just happen in our lives brought on by the actions of others, who do things that wound us--gossip, mistakes, errors, violence, hatred, bigotry... the list is long of stuff that people do to us.
Or circumstances that occur because of something that happened in nature like a flood, hurricane, fire, meteor shower... you understand, right?
Some times stuff just happens and there are no clear answers. At all. And in those moments it can feel like God took a powder, or was asleep at the wheel when the thing happened with you.
But... listen to me... Because of Jesus, God intimately, and at a cellular level understands what it feels like to experience those kinds of things and to also experience the absence of God in the midst of them.
The fact that in his worst moment of pain and doubt---Jesus lifts up his weary, blood-stained head and hoarsely prays the first line from Psalm 22... the fact that the very embodiment of God on earth feels the loss of God in that moment...
This reminds us that we are not alone... that God is with us. And this God is broken with us... this God is bleeding with us... this God is grieving with us... this God is with us intimately, at the very deepest levels of who we are...
Let me ask you something...
What if you embraced the image of a brokenhearted, grieving God? What if you fired the absent God and embraced the God who cries out in desperation because of the lack of God?
We are the ones who have connected the feeling that God is absent to our suffering, and the presence of God to our comfort. Christians have become averse to suffering and desire only comfort and it is in our comfort that we believe we can find God.
Even in the Buddhist tradition there is a deeper understanding of this.
The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering--it is a reality that we all face. The third Noble Truth has to do with the ways we must learn to embrace and transcend the reality of suffering without trying to avoid it, or escape it.
For those of us who would follow Jesus, we need to lose our fear of suffering and learn that God is found in it---just as God is found in all spaces and times. Embracing a brokenhearted God is just acknowledgement of this deeper reality.
Second, what if you allowed yourself to move as a result of your embracing God's brokenhearted presence during your times of suffering?
And... and... What if you moved you closer to who you were meant to be? What if by allowing yourself to be open to the presence of the suffering God in your life, you discovered your true self? Your true purpose?
A friend of mine was concerned about her son...
What he began to learn during that time of suffering was that he was more than the life he'd created for himself. My friend was able to help her son discover that God had not abandoned him... God was with him... and God grieved with him... was broken with him... and had so much more in store for him than he could ever imagine.
And all because he was able to understand something beautiful:
God is closer than you think.