We’ve been learning that the Psalms teach us how to integrate what we know and what we feel. We’re going to use Psalm 22 to look at how David integrates what he feels about his current circumstances with what he knows about our God. Psalm 22 pretty clearly lays out what David is feeling:
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.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
We don’t really know the specifics of why David wrote this Psalm. And even as we read it, I think you’ll find that we keep sliding into thinking about Jesus’s experience on the cross.
Forsaken by God. In anguish. Left alone. Rejected. Mocked. Afraid.
There is a special kind of suffering when we feel abandoned by someone we’ve trusted. In the realm of marriage counseling, they call it attachment injury. Betrayal. Forsaken. It’s the experience of: “I needed you at this moment and you weren’t there for me.” It happens all over, in our important relationships – as serious as infidelity, as common as friends not showing up when they said they would. It happens between parents and adult children, “I told you what the doctor said my diagnosis was, and you said nothing.” It happens in our relationship with God – “You know all I want is a spouse, a child, fill in the blank, and you do nothing.”
You know what people say to me when they’re trying to make sense of why these things happened? He doesn’t care. She doesn’t care. I hear it all the time. I’ve said it!
(Note: My husband has given me permission to share these things I’m about to share. You’ll see in the end that he really is a good guy.)
There was a time when my 3 kids were all 5 years old and younger and I was having a hard go of it. I felt absolutely inadequate to be and do all I needed to do as a mom. And it was completely unrewarding, so I didn’t want to do it. But I had to do it. I had to be these kids’ mom. But I couldn’t. You hear what I’m trying to say? I was expressing these hard things to my husband – which is a bit of an anomaly for me – I prefer to just take care of business on my own. Nevertheless, I was beyond my ability in this thing called motherhood. So I was pouring out my heart and do you know how he responded?
(Note: Again, remember – he is a good guy.) But in that moment, I could only conclude that he didn’t care.
Which is what we often do when we to make sense of why someone would do something – or not do something — but we don’t have all the information. In a vacuum of information, negative rushes in. The only possibility that makes any sense at all is that the other person doesn’t care.
I’ve heard this “He doesn’t care” phrase so often that I’ve developed a sophisticated therapeutic intervention and honed it over the years to help folks loosen these beliefs. You want to know what it is? I tell them they’re wrong. (You can tell what a great therapist I am…)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
Can you hear it? “Don’t you care?”
This is a key moment. Because when we believe that someone doesn’t care we start to walk away. We turn away from that person. “I’m not gonna be hurt again!” As long as we believe the other person doesn’t care we won’t be willing to invest any more in the relationship. The same dynamic happens with God – people you never would have imagined, pillars of the faith – walk away from God because the come to believe He doesn’t care – usually because of pain.
It’s in these moments that I’m pleading with you to hang on – like the time between Palm Sunday and Easter, when we believe Jesus has come to establish his kingdom on earth – and then we turn around and he’s dead. We’re thrown into confusion and despair and in these moments, but it’s so important to hang on. They say not to make any major decisions when you’re grieving. The same is true with pain. Don’t make any major moves – just hang on right now.
Listen to how David hangs on:
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.
David is hanging on: ”I can’t leave you – you chose me.” It reminds me of when Jesus asks if Peter’s going to leave him, and Peter says, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Hanging on sometimes sounds like, “I don’t know what to do – where to go from here, but this still seems like the best path… How do I integrate what I know about God with my experience?”
Let me suggest that in these moments – when we perceive God has forsaken us – it doesn’t mean our relationship has to be over, that we have to leave our faith. There’s a bit of a cultural narrative that if something horrible happens, of course you would walk away from God. “How can you possibly believe in a benevolent God when so many terrible things happen?”
Just like a marriage that is rocked by infidelity, often people assume the relationship has to end. However, the affair can actually be an opportunity for the relationship to be created into something new – if we can hang on long enough… There are usually things going wrong in a relationship that lead to an affair, and the affair brings it all to the light so we can deal with them. Ideally, we deal with them in ways that bring more intimacy, more trust to the marriage.
Repairing a relationship is like the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is a practice of repairing ceramic items with lacquer that’s been mixed with gold powder. You can see what a piece of art it can become. But beyond being a practice, it’s a philosophy – that the breakage is a part of the history of the piece, and it’s actually what makes it more strong and more beautiful. When we’re going through hard and we feel forsaken, when we’re not sure he cares as we experience pain, rejection, fear – our relationship with God can be made into something stronger, more beautiful.
But how? How can we put our relationship with God back together with gold glue? How can we allow the pain to pull us into a more strong faith? There no formula of course, but let’s look at what David does here.
In verse one of Psalm 22, David says, “My God, My God…”
Look at who David (and later Jesus) expresses his complaint to: God! This is the first step back in the game. David talks directly to the one who hurt him. He turns toward God over and over and over – how many psalms did David write? Not to mention the ones he wrote that didn’t make the cut. In his poems, he turns toward God! This is so, so, so vulnerable. When you turn toward the other, there’s possibility of more hurt, being ignored again… but there’s also possibility of reconnection. Without directly communicating with God, there’s no possibility of connection, no possibility to experience his care. There’s no hope.
But when we cry out to God, now the door is open. There’s hope for life after the pain, even in the pain.
OK, if we open the door, if we’re talking again, then what? Usually when we’re feeling pain, we’re focused on the pain. This human tendency to focus on our pain has some function of course: When we notice pain, we figure out the source so we can take corrective action. However, it can also be a human tendency to go to the extreme and not step away from the pain. Especially when we’re not convinced there is action we can take to make it better. So – we explain it, we validate it to ourselves and to our friends, we get people on our side – we stay focused on just our perspective of the pain.
Let’s say your experience – the pain you’ve experienced – is represented by this circle. But if you ever listened to Paul Harvey you know there’s the rest of the story. We humans are not good at finding the rest of the story – especially when we’re in pain and especially in our day and age of sound bites. Listen to how David zooms out from his experience – in the midst of his feeling. He does something different.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.[c]
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
David’s suffering is real, yet…Yet…there’s more to this story – and it is not just about David. David is remembering: I’m not the first person to feel pain, to feel abandoned… What did my family do? What happened then?
My ancestors trusted God. My fathers cried out to God. And God showed up. Now, with just a little more of the story, we can’t lean on “God doesn’t care” as the only possible explanation… maybe there’s some other reason.
This is wrestling with the pain, not allowing our emotion to rule us. This is backing away from the immediacy of the pain and balancing it out with more information – the blue in the graphic above.
A few years ago, I was kvetching about the crosswalks in downtown Castle Rock – they were zippers and forks and spoons and all sorts of whimsical shapes that I thought were a ridiculous way to spend tax money. What a waste! What are they thinking? I felt so irritated when I crossed the streets… When I shared my indignation with someone who actually knew more information, I found out that the town was going to spend thousands of dollars more on brick crosswalks. I was irritated at the town spending money (the yellow circle), when I found out the rest of the story – they were actually saving money (another part of the blue circle). …I wasn’t so irritated after I learned more. Getting more of the story almost always balances out our feelings. It integrates knowledge with how we feel.
Remember how Steve said nothing to me in my time of pain? And it was clear to me at the time that he didn’t care? Here’s more information:
(a) He was wracking his brain on how to make it better.
(b) He’s an internal processor – which means he thinks inside his head (some sort of alien skill that I don’t have).
(c) He wasn’t coming up with any good ideas. Which is accurate. There was nothing to make the situation better – parenting is all about survival.
(d) His silence had more to do with his own inabilities than his concern for me. He absolutely cared, but couldn’t make it better for me.
David remembered God’s movement in the past to help him see past his pain. When we can see past our pain, that there’s some possibility other than God doesn’t care – there’s hope.
Now – our brains work through repeated use. When we do something over and over there’s a neuron pathway in our brain that gets stronger and stronger. When we conclude that God doesn’t care, that pathway is set in our brain. So we’ve got to work to undo it. We have to tell ourselves the truth, and we have to do it repeatedly to help that new neuron pathway of trust to grow.
Here’s the money verse:
Psalm 22:24 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.
In fact, God does care. Through it all, he cares.
If you believe God doesn’t care – this is where I tell you you’re wrong.
I know many of you are extraordinary parents and have parented without regret. I congratulate you. I, on the other hand, have many regrets. In fact, I’m currently working on several today. One type of parenting regret that is strong are the times when I haven’t read my kid’s cries accurately. When I think they’re looking for attention or to get out of something, but they really are in pain.
One time, my daughter was maybe two years old and crying in the back seat of our car – I spent some time trying to comfort her, trying to make changes to see if it would help – nothing helped. So you know what I did? I turned up the radio, so I wouldn’t have to listen to her cry. Probably two minutes later she threw up all over herself and that car seat. That poor baby was in pain… and I turned up the radio.
Thankfully, we serve a God who doesn’t turn up the radio. Who doesn’t despise the suffering of the afflicted one. Who hasn’t hidden his face, but has listened to his cry for help.
The promise is not that God gives us all we want – or even an answer. He doesn’t make someone marry us when we’re single and lonely. He doesn’t prevent violent crimes from happening. He allows Alzheimer’s disease and cancer and this other virus everyone is talking about. David doesn’t give us a panacea for our pain. He promises that God cares about our pain. God is paying attention to us.
During some of the hardest times of my life, I would complain to God. The thing I sensed most in those moments was God saying, “I know. I know.”
David’s faith is not oriented around ease, comfort, or happiness, but around God’s attentive care. Our faith has this same capacity – when we cry out to God, when we look for the bigger story, and tell ourselves the truth – when we’re diligent about these things. Over time, we are orienting our faith around God’s care. Our hope becomes placed in the eternal. Jesus dying on the cross and God raising him from the dead begins to mean something – it’s clear evidence that God really does care.
Written by Dr. Veronica Johnson