"Has God Forsaken Those who Suffer?"
April 9, 2006 Palm/Passion Sunday Psalm 22
Someone had just attended a conference on healing and was full of enthusiasm that disease, such as cancer in our situation, could be divinely defeated if we just had sufficient faith. The impression we got was that if we just BELIEVED more strongly, then God would make the tumour disappear. This roughly falls in the school of "name it and claim it" theology: you quote God's promises from the Bible and simply take Him at His Word. For example, Matthew 8:16f records a time when Jesus "healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases."" Another good passage about healing is James 5:13-14: "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up." There now, doesn't that sound straightforward?
Some instances of illness in Scripture are directly attributed to Satanic effect, such as a blind and mute man in Mt 12(22), a boy who suffered seizures in Mt 17(14ff), and of course the enemy's attack on righteous Job (Job 1-2). Some people thus associate all sickness with the devil and conclude it has no place in the life of faithful Christians. Ken Blue, an evangelical Christian with an effective ministry in Vancouver, writes: "What we would call abuse in a human family, some have labeled a blessing in the family of God. Francis MacNutt explains, 'What human father or mother would choose cancer for their daughter to tame her pride?' ...[Blue continues] One of the greatest hindrances to a vital healing ministry in the church today is the notion that sickness is essentially good for us, that it is sent to purify the soul and build character..."
It's conceded by many believers that supernatural healings still occur today. Dr J Sidlow Baxter, a well-known Bible teacher, says: "The fact that many wonderful miracle healings are occurring today in great public healing rallies, who can deny? Only those deny who have not been and seen. With my own eyes almost jumping out of their sockets, I have seen the dumb from birth given speech, the stone-deaf given new hearing, the long blind suddenly given new vision, terminal cancer instantaneously cured (and later medically attested), crippled arthritics released and straightened on the spot, wheelchair victims of multiple sclerosis wheel their own chairs away, not to mention other such wonderful healings."
The question is not whether God is ABLE to intervene in nature's normal processes and cause special instances of healing. He is El Shaddai, God Almighty, with whom all things are possible (Mk 10:27). The question is whether I as a believer ought to 'claim' - presume - expect God to heal in this particular instance. At the pool of Bethesda in John 5(1-9) there were a 'great number of disabled people' but Jesus told only one to pick up his mat and walk. Paul healed many at Ephesus, sometimes even just through a couriered hanky (Ac 19:12); yet he apparently couldn't heal some of his closest co-workers, including Epaphroditus, Trophimus, or Timothy (Php 2:25; 2Tim 4:20; 1Tim 5.23).
We're probably afraid of presumption, risking putting someone's life in peril if we took a faith-only approach. In a 1983 issue of Christianity Today Dr Paul Brand told about a family whose 15-month-old son came down with flu-like symptoms. They followed the advice of their church leaders and depended solely on prayer for his recovery. Their son kept getting more sick over the next several weeks, gradually losing his senses of hearing and sight. Eventually he died, and remained dead in spite of fervent prayer that God would restore his life. An autopsy showed that the cause of death was a form of meningitis that could have been treated easily. That's sad - and needless.
So, how should we pray when we're facing a threat through serious illness - or any other life-threatening situation, for that matter? If we're suffering, should we just throw up our hands and accept that it must be God's will (as many Moslems might), or is there still opportunity for prayer for healing and deliverance? Can we ask God for help without coming across as presumptuous or demanding? In Psalm 22 we hear an honest, no-holds-barred, straight-from-the-heart prayer of someone in distress who finds confidence in God; yet they leave the outcome in God's hands.
If Psalm 23 ('The Lord is my shepherd') is the most delightful psalm in the Bible, Psalm 22 just before it is surely the most desperate. It starts, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" How's that for a cry of despair?
As an honest prayer, it fully admits and details the Psalmist's situation, featuring both Distance and Distress.
Distance refers to his feeling separated, cut off, ignored by God, a long way away. V1, "Why are You so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?" V11, "Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help." There's Distance; NLT actually paraphrases vv1-2, "Why do You remain so distant? Why do you ignore my cries for help? Every day I call to You, my God, but You do not answer. Every night You hear my voice, but I find no relief." That 'ceilings of brass' feeling - your prayers just don't seem to penetrate past the plaster. If God's responding, it sure hasn't shown up yet.
The Distress is summed up in 2 words - Despised and Dismembered.
There's opposition that's both relational and physical. The Psalmist's identification with God has made him enemies. Vv6-7, "But 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:" Scorned, despised, sneered at - treated as Public Creep #1. Shame is heaped upon him, though for no good reason. Like being ridiculed and laughed at while locked in the stocks (we've become too civil to do that any more). Maybe you experience it in more subtle ways: not getting invited to the most popular parties; being snubbed from a clique; being called names; hearing people laugh behind your back when you're walking away from them. Trying to live a righteous life isn't any more popular than it was back in David's day. Catcalls and labels like "momma's boy" or "goody two-shoes" convey that others despise you.
But it doesn't end there for the Psalmist: he is actually being Dismembered as well. Threatened physically. The description here eerily echoes or foreshadows the treatment Jesus received when He was crucified. 14, "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint." Hanging by your wrists for hours will do that. 17, "I can count all my bones": they're separate to the extent, perhaps as a result of extended hunger, that you can clearly count your ribs. V16, "they have pierced my hands and my feet": the Roman method of crucifixion tacked the twitching victim permanently on two pieces of wood, to writhe in agony for hours. It is these pierce-marks that became proof of Jesus' resurrection. 18, "They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing." Fulfilled to a 'T' when Jesus died - without the Roman soldiers having the faintest idea they were fulfilling a thousand-year-old prophecy. Such detail!
Charles Spurgeon notes, "This is beyond all others THE PSALM OF THE CROSS. It may have been actually repeated word by word by our Lord when hanging on the tree; it would be too bold to say that it was so, but even a casual reader may see that it might have been. It begins with, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and ends, according to some, in the original with "It is finished." For plaintive expressions uprising from unutterable depths of woe we may say of this Psalm, "there is none like it." It is the photograph of our Lord's saddest hours, the record of His dying words, the lacrymatory of His last tears, the memorial of His expiring joys...We should read reverently, putting off our shoes from off our feet, as Moses did at the burning bush, for if there be holy ground anywhere in Scripture it is in this Psalm."
A variety of animal terms describe the wildness and violence of the opposition arrayed against the victim. Vv12-13, "Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.[Bashan was a livestock region with plentiful pastures.] Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me." Sounds like they're ready to tear'm apart! V16 says "Dogs have surrounded me..." 20-21, "Deliver my life from...the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen." You don't want to mess with these fearsome wild things with pointy tooth, horn and claw!
Driving through Clinton this past week, we pulled up at the stoplight behind a pickup pulling a long, 5' high aluminum trailer. Though both vehicles were stopped, the whole trailer suddenly started bouncing from side to side. Through the opening at the top you could just see a tuft of whitish hair about 3 inches high and 8 inches wide. I guessed the sole occupant of the trailer was a large Hereford bull, getting a little restless with the journey. Given the way he was making that thing bounce, I was glad he wasn't out on the loose with me staring him in the face! "Horns of wild oxen" can be threatening still today. In Jesus' case, the barbs and accusations of the religious leaders who were jealous of Him proved absolutely deadly.
What's the wild bull threatening your life right now? What evil is 'ganging up' against you and causing you grief? For one hog farmer I talked to recently, it would be low pork prices and high infection rates. For some young people, not bulls but bullies are a threat on the playground or on the street. Maybe your problem doesn't originate with a person but a fallen dynamic, such as a strained marriage or resentful relatives. Perhaps there's tension over such a simple thing as who's eating where for Easter. Your paycheque has been impacted by a work situation, like a flu outbreak. Whatever is causing distress, threatening to dis-member you, like the Psalmist it's worth calling out to God for His help.
Now, note how the Holy Spirit prompts the pray-er, once they've been honest about their need, to re-frame their situation. Besides just describing what's happening, the Psalmist steps back from the scene as it were, and puts it in a larger context - God's salvation history. Looking back and forth, drawing on the memory of the Lord's mercy in the past and His promises for the future, the person deep in the pit begins using the shovel of faith to dig their way out. A couple of small conjunctions signal this shift. V3, "YET You are enthroned..." 9, "YET You brought me out of the womb..." 19, "BUT You, O Lord, be not far off..." The pray-er is shifting focus, looking beyond the danger staring them in the face.
First, they look to the past, drawing on history and memory. There's God's help to them corporately, as a nation: vv4-5, "In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed." God's faithful deliverance of Israel in the past is an anchor. Also, there's God's working in that individual's life, vv9-10: "Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother's breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother's womb you have been my God." See how they're remembering what God's done for them in the past? He's not going to let them down this time, either!
V24 is central to the whole passage, a vivid summary of God's character and reliability, and the thrust of this whole Psalm: "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." That's what Jesus is counting on as His breathing grows more strained and His life-blood ebbs away at the cross! NLT translates it, "For He has not ignored the suffering of the needy. He has not turned and walked away. He has listened to their cries for help." That's who we need!
Now the pray-er turns to look to the future, demonstrating trust or commitment, and hope. V22, "I will declare Your name to my brothers" ('name' representing the summation of God's marvelous qualities); "I will praise You." V25, "From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows." The Psalmist determines to carry through on their commitment, to trust God no matter what happens. They hope in God's promised vision, the truly 'big picture' which we find in 26-27: "The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him-- may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him..." Talk about a global picture of shalom: God providing and being appreciated by His creatures. If God calls on me to surrender some of my comfort or to endure trials to bring that about - His vision is worth yielding full commitment.
Having re-framed his own desperate situation by recalling God's goodness in the past and anticipating His promised future, the Psalmist pauses to acknowledge God once again as HIS God. From v1, Yahweh is owned as "MY God..." V10, "from my mother's womb You have been my God." 19, "O my Strength, come quickly to help me." Faith acknowledges God is still our God, our only hope, when our very life is threatened. And the end of Psalm 22 - this powerful prayer that Jesus may have been reciting at the peak of His struggle on the cross - the closing turns from terror to triumph, by choosing to focus on two key attributes of God the Father: His RULE and His RIGHTEOUSNESS. First, God's rule or sovereignty is referred to explicitly in v28: "for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations." "The Lord is king!" NLT puts it. Or as we might declare today, "God rules!" The next two verses go on to refer to the rich of the earth worshipping, all mortals kneeling before Him; "posterity will serve Him; future generations will be told about the Lord" (30). Jesus was thinking of those 'future generations' as He hung there - He was thinking of you and me.
But God is more than sheer power or control, some arbitrary or indiscriminate force to which we must just submit. His Rule is directed by His RIGHTEOUSNESS. Look carefully at the closing verse (31): "They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn-- for he has done it." The gospel - the very purpose for which Jesus went to the cross - the Good News is all about God's righteousness being revealed and made available to people through faith by grace (Rom 1:17); Jesus' shed blood paying the price for our admission to God's presence. When Jesus said, "It is finished," and breathed His last, with the Psalmist He was likely referring to God's righteous act of justification for our sins being accomplished; "He has done it." How wonderful! There's the redeeming value in the suffering; it's worth it because all those who believe will benefit.
So the Psalmist emerges from the Pit by prayer and praise, re-framing his grim circumstances by looking both back to God's record of deliverance in the past, and ahead to God's declared promises for salvation in the future. The pray-er hitches the trailer or wagon of faith to the tractor of God's holy, almighty sovereignty. Resting in God, we trust Him to do what's best in the long run; He's got the situation under control and will use it for His glory at the end.
Has God forsaken those who suffer? No, He may seem distant, but He's still orchestrating events for the good of those who love Him - conforming us to the likeness of His Son. Jesus could trust Him at Gethsemane and the Cross even though the cup of suffering was not taken away. God is certainly able to heal our sickness, and often does; but the important thing is not our comfort or longevity, but serving Him in life or death, submitting our future to His righteous purpose.
Because God loves us, He won't leave us in trouble. JI Packer writes: "It is not for nothing that the Bible habitually speaks fo God as the loving Father and Husband of His people. It follows from the very nature of these relationships that God's happiness will not be complete till all His loved ones are finally out of trouble...He has in effect resolved that henceforth for all eternity His happiness shall be conditional upon ours. Thus God saves not only for His glory, but for His gladness."
In Where is God when it Hurts, Philip Yancey describes the gradual transformation that took place in the attitude of Joni Eareckson Tada in the years after she was paralyzed as a young woman in a diving accident. "At first, Joni found it impossible to reconcile her condition with her belief in a loving God...The turning to God was very gradual. A melting in her attitude from bitterness to trust dragged out over 3 years of tears and violent questioning." A turning point came the evening a close friend, Cindy, told her, "Joni, you aren't the only one. Jesus knows how you feel - why, He was paralyzed too." Cindy described how Jesus was fastened to the cross, paralyzed by the nails. Yancey writes, "The thought intrigued Joni and, for a moment, took her mind off her own pain. It had never occurred to her that God might have felt the same piercing sensations that now racked her body. The realization was profoundly comforting." Joni ha come to depend more heavily on the Lord and to look at life from a long-range perspective. "She wrestled with God, yes, but she did not turn away from Him...Joni now calls her accident a 'glorious intruder', and claims it was the best thing that ever happened to her. God used it to get her attention and direct her thoughts toward Him."
No matter what your trial, no matter how great your pain or grief, God is faithful and helps us to bear the test (1Cor 10:13). With Paul we can confess, "We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure...But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead." And hear Jesus saying, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."; so, learn to lean with Paul, accepting and even boasting in our weakness "that Christ's power may rest on me." (2Cor 1:8f;12:9-10)
God loves you. He may heal you miraculously. If not, He will be with you in all your pain and someday take you to heaven. No matter what He does, He has your ultimate welfare in view. The perfectly wise and good God we serve has everything under control. Let's pray.