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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Psalm 44: When you know in your head, but not in your heart

I find it extremely therapeutic when I encounter a Psalm that seems to connect with the current state of my life and heart. For the past several days, a chasm between me and God seemed to be forming without any particular reason. I have been wrestling through this from a theological perspective, a psychological perspective, and a life experience perspective with no real avail. It felt like I was trying to crack a safe trying to figure out why even though I kept turning to God, my heart found itself feeling distant from the God who just a week ago, abounded in intimacy. Then I stumbled across Psalm 44.

Psalm 44 is the Psalm that someone can turn to when you seem to be in the eye of the storm. You have come to understand and accept that God is good in your head and remember His faithfulness on the Cross, but for some reason, still feel like there is a disconnect between your head and your heart. Essentially, this Psalm is for those who feel like their circumstances, immediate needs, and most pressing issues in their lives seem bigger than God to them. You have come to accept that nothing could really be bigger than God, but for some reason, there is something that seems bigger than Him in your life.

The Psalm opens up with a reflection and an acknowledgement of God's workings throughout the history of their people. How it was God who drove out the nations from Canaan, planted the people there, and then saved them from their enemies. The Psalm then goes into a recognition of how it was God's favor, not their abilities that had been the source of their blessings and their well-being. (v. 1-7)

Then in verse 8, the people say that they have boasted in God and that they will give thanks to Him forever signifying that God has gone above and beyond in proving His faithfulness and provision and involvement in their lives.

The Psalm then takes a rapid turn into the present where the people feel rejected, abandoned, and disgraced for they are being defeated by their foes and being put to shame by them. Using statements like "those who hate us have gotten spoil," "you have made us like sheep for slaughter," "you have made us the taunt of our neighbors," and "you have sold your people for a trifle," it would seem that everything in their lives are going wrong. (v. 9-16)

Then as quickly as the Psalm entered into a dark place based on the reality they were experiencing, it makes a surprising turn when the people say, "All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way; yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." (v.17-22) One would expect when reading this Psalm that they would say that they have been wrong and repent of their disobedience, but instead, they speak of their faithfulness, knowing that God has a much more clear perspective of the conditions of their heart and the realities of their obedience.

The Psalm concludes:
"Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!" (v. 23-26)

Many times in life, we find ourselves distant from God because we have distanced ourselves from God through sin. Other times in life, we find ourselves distant from God because we simply haven't spent much time in fellowship with Him and only turned to Him when time was available because of our busyness. Then there are times in life, we find ourselves distant from God because we have made small compromises that have led us to a place that when we looked up, created a gorge the size of the Grand Canyon simply because we opened up a small portion of the dam that prevented the water from overpowering its way in. However, there aren't many times when sin, small compromises, or the busyness of life aren't the source of the distance we experience. There are times, when God just seems to be absent in the midst of our faithfulness to Him.

The Psalm clearly points out that the people have not forgotten God's provision and His activity in the history of their people. It also demonstrates that they have been true to the covenant and that they realize that God is a sovereign God - all seeing, all knowing, and all powerful - and that nothing could evade Him. Yet, even in the midst of their boasting in God and gratitude (v.8), God seems to be an absentee landlord who is letting those who dwell in His house get overtaken by thieves, robbers, and murderers.

Experiencing God comes in three forms: emotional, mental, and volitional. If God is at work in your life, there is a contemplation that begins to happen about the attributes of God and our lives in light of those attributes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it is the answer for eternal life, and how we ought to live based on the truth we know. You also experience God through a peace and joy that cannot be sustained on our own or be offered by anything in this world. There is also a surrendering of the will, to obey God through whatever circumstances you face because you trust in the Gospel, the goodness of His character as demonstrated through the Gospel, and His great sovereignty over all creation and all time. However, what do you do when God seems distant despite your obedience? What do you do when you know that all you want is more of God and He seems to be giving less of Himself? What do you do when you organize your life in a way that seems to align with His commandments and you keep getting slaughtered? What do you do when it seems like God has abandoned you?

The answer is in the Psalm.

1. Remember (v. 1-7)
The people remember God's faithfulness and they remember beyond their own lives. We have a tendency to become so egotistical that we think that if God's faithfulness is not demonstrated in our lives in the most clear ways, then He must not be faithful. We forget the Cross and the experience we had when the Gospel message worked in our lives. We forget the small and large ways He has sustained us throughout our own lives, giving us the grace we needed to get through some tough circumstances, and readily pouring out His love when we turned to Him. We forget the ways that unlikely events took place to allow us to get to certain places throughout our lives. We forget the times that there was no way we could have gotten out of a hairy situation or a difficult dilemma, but somehow, the check came in, the person walked through the door, the phone call came, we were given an extension, or we were found by someone who did not do us any harm. We are creatures who forget far too often, and for this reason, must practice the discipline of remembering.

When we remember, we are able to step back and see the current circumstances from a 10,000 foot view. It helps put things into perspective, to remind us that we are not the center of the universe, but that we are in just a moment throughout history. Remembering removes the weight of the current situation and gives us the ability to respond more clearly and not place more significance and meaning onto something than it really deserves. Remembering gives us the ability to connect the dots and rest in the truth that history proves God's faithfulness.

2. Boast in God and give thanks (v. 8)
To boast in God means to credit God for all good things. It also means to place Him as the object of our pride. Pride caused the fall, and it is the goal of pride to place ourselves at the place in our own hearts that God deserves to be. When we place God as the object of our pride, we no longer live for our own glory, but for His. This means that we let go of the things we want most in life that aren't God and thank God regardless of what circumstances befall us. This means that you have reasons to still worship when your someone you love gets cancer, or you still rejoice in the Cross when you hear of a dear friend getting killed by a drunk driver, or you still find God praiseworthy when you lose everything, or you still glorify Him when people are out to kill you. This is a tough calling to consider, but I would urge you to consider Stephen before he was stoned to death by those he went to share the Gospel with in Acts 7:

"Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep." (Acts 7:54-60 ESV)

If you consider Stephen, you will notice that as he was being stoned to death, he asked God to not let this act of murdering him be held against them. He was asking God to show them mercy, to forget the way he was killed, and to give them a chance as stones were pummeling his face. What could cause such forgiveness to overpower someone as they were being murdered for sharing the Gospel? The answer is in the beginning of the passage when Stephen said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Stephen's murder is the ONLY recorded time in the Bible where Jesus is standing, not sitting, at the right hand of God. This picture is beautiful because you can see Jesus full of empathy as He experienced an unjust murder Himself as well as an anticipation to be able to say to Stephen, "Well done, good and faithful servant. The first moment of eternity with Me will quickly vanish all the pain, sorrow, and misery of the life past and the rest of eternity will be full of a joy and love that you could never have fathomed. Welcome."

When we boast in God, we boast in the work of the cross to find it perfect and complete, healing and restoring, allowing us to have patience with all the problems we face in life, knowing that there is a greater day to come in either this life or the next.

This boasting allows us to be filled with gratitude because we quickly recognize that it is not our efforts or even how meticulous we are with our faithfulness that gets us in right standing with God, but it is His love demonstrated through the cross and resurrection that give us the ability and strength to walk faithfully. We are thankful because we recognize that we aren't doing any of the good in our lives, and that God is blessing us with His favor.

3. Pray (v. 9-25)
Throughout the Gospels, we see Christ constantly going off into lonely places. Prayer is the point by which we express our dependency on God. We must not forget that God has created specific channels by which we can gain access to Him on earth. Of all of them, prayer is the most responsive in the sense that we can take all that is going on in our lives and just share it with Him. Prayer is also the mode of communication that God has allowed us to partake in to participate in Kingdom work.

However, in this Psalm, prayer seems to take a different role than what we would often times expect. Though we see the people acknowledging God and lifting His name up, we also see them describing their reality as they see it. They say things that would suggest that they feel pathetic, put to shame, humiliated, and defeated without an end in sight. They go on and on telling God that they don't just feel like God has left them, but that God has indeed left them. Sometimes, the reality is that things not only don't go our way, but the world seems to work against us.

In this Psalm, it appears that as they move from remembering the past faithfulness of God to describing the present turmoil of being destroyed, the people come to a place where they remember through prayer that they must connect the faithfulness of God in the past to a dependency on His immutable faithfulness throughout all time, including the present. Once they finish going through the realities that life is miserable and that there is no way out, they ask God to "awaken" and to "show Himself." This prayer from v. 23-25 demonstrate that they understand that intimacy is what God is looking for, not just acknowledgement. For through intimacy, we find deliverance. After all, Christ died so that we could enter into an intimacy with Him throughout all eternity.

4. Wait in trust (v. 26)
The difficulties in life often come in times of transition. The waiting periods between jobs, the agony of not knowing if she will say yes, the misery of waiting to hear back from a potential client, and of course, waiting for God to provide. The thing about God is that He wants to make it very clear to us that He is enough for us and is better than life. Everything in life seems to revolve around making the name and work of Jesus Christ to be central and completely sufficient for everyone who encounters Him. If God loves you, He will make sure that you get to a place where Christ is more than enough and you find that you lack nothing because you have Him. That means that you are more than fine if you applied to a million jobs and have not heard back, that you are more than fine when your boyfriend/girlfriend breaks up with you out of nowhere, that you are more than fine when everything you worked hard for slips through your hands, that you are more than fine when your best friend betrays you. Yes, you will experience the pains of life, but they will knock you down, not keep you down. You will find that Christ can lift you up from whatever it is that has brought forth pain in your life.

In Romans 5, we are reminded as Christians that we have been justified by faith and that we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God because of the access that has been granted by grace through faith. Not only that, we rejoice in our sufferings because it produces endurance, that produces character, that produces a hope that does not put us to shame - the hope of Christ. Rejoice in suffering? That sounds like psychological mumbo jumbo until you consider what it means. It means that this life isn't the end. That if we live in affluence or poverty, that if we were born into slavery during the 1800's or if we were born as royalty in the Middle East, that if we had nothing and gained everything or had everything and then lost it, that if we have Christ, we have every reason to celebrate every single day. However, there are times when God will feel distant or seem distant, and in those times, we can remember Psalm 44, the truth that nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8), and the promise that He will never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). During these times, its easy to look for substitutes. We will be tempted to turn to other things to bring us fulfillment and satisfaction, but we must remember that the enemy works in times of our weakness as God is made strong in our weakness. If we hold onto His promises and remember that there is a greater eternity to look forward to, that this life is but a blink of an eye, and that in all that we do, we can bring glory to God, how we respond to the times of dryness and the times of difficulty shift in a way that we remember that we are loved and that we are lights to the world, and that the world is watching us to see if what we believe is actually true. That the times when it seems like God has abandoned us (which in John 16 promises He would never do), what He is doing in us is to refine our hope so that it remains only in Him. It is precisely in this time that He is doing the slow work of building endurance which does not come in ready made packages, but through a careful growth process. That in this time, we can remember that He is producing within us an endurance that leads to character, and a character that recognizes Him as the source of all meaning.

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