Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sorrow, Praise and the Psalms

What do we do when our hopes and dreams fall far short of our expectations? We can rephrase this problem a little differently for the Christian: What happens when the circumstances of our lives fall far short of the promises of God, leaving between these two extremes a confusing chasm?

The Psalms can teach us a lot about this chasm and how to deal with this tension. The Psalmist often cried out about this disparity between his life and what his God had promised him. Often, he complained to God about His “failure” to bring his life into conformity with His promises. In Psalm 43, the Psalmist complained that, instead of rescuing him from his evil and God-rejecting enemies, God had “rejected” him – the righteous one – in contradiction to His promises! However, it’s important to realize that the Psalmist wasn’t merely kvetching. He began his Psalm with an expression of trust:

·        Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men. (Psalm 43:1)

Clearly, he knew that God is faithful and worthy of our cries for help, or he wouldn’t have turned to Him. Nevertheless, as the Psalmist turned to God, he was also reminded of the fact that he had a beef against Him - his feelings and life-circumstances tell him that God has “rejected” him and he was understandably angry – that must first be resolved.

How can we turn to God, when we know that we are angry with Him and think that He has been unfaithful. We intuitively know that we are being hypocritical when we put on a smile and ask God for something, while we are dissatisfied with him. We first have to lay our cards on the table in hope of resolving our issues, and we all have them!
·        You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? (Psalm 43:2)

In essence, he is saying that things shouldn’t be this way, even worse, that God has failed him. God had promised to be his “stronghold” – his protective shield – but instead, the Psalmist finds himself “oppressed by the enemy.”

This just shouldn’t be. It is the Psalmist who had been wronged! It is he who had placed his trust in the Lord, while the others had rejected Him!

How did the Psalmist live with this tension, this disappointment? For one thing, he was transparent before his God, telling Him just what he felt. However, he didn’t take matters into his own hands and bolt, as many of us do when we feel betrayed by God. Instead, he had the wisdom to know that, despite his grief, disappointment and anger, God was his only hope. He had nowhere else to go. He therefore had to remain teachable. He had to trust in God, but his feelings were dragging him in another direction:

·        Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. (Psalm 43:3)

Our fears and pains often close in upon us like a bear-trap, gripping our minds into ruts of obsessive thinking. We need our Lord to lift us up with His “light,” His mountain-top perspective, bringing us into a place of truth.

Our feelings don’t always shed light. Instead, they can be like back muscles in spasm at the slightest misstep. We require a divine perspective powerful enough to overshadow the gloom and doom like a bright light that dissolves the shadows. The Psalmist knew that he was suffering from emotional myopia and that he needed God’s light to help him to see beyond his gloom:

·        Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God. (Psalm 43:4)

The light would restore him to sanity and also bring him back so he could see God as “my joy and my delight.” We don’t always see how our shadows blind us. Our pain causes us to focus in narrowly open ourselves and to lash out at everything else. I would guess that repeated spiritual failure had taught the Psalmist about his blindness and his utter need for God’s light.

I thank God for teaching me how foolish and blind I can be. He has stripped me of much of my self-trust. Mercifully, He has broken me so that I’d have to cry out for His light to regain a stance of praise.

While the Psalmist’s circumstances might not warrant praise, he knew that praise is the doorway into the transcendent light that can banish all the shadows of confusion and deception. Some might think that praise is a manipulation to get what we want from God. However, if praise is manipulative, it is intended to “manipulate” our feelings – our mental rut – not God:

·        Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 43:5)

The Psalmist had first issued his plea to God, but now he preaches to his own soul. In view of a millennium of God’s recorded compassion and graciousness, his soul was not acting reasonably by charging God with rejecting him, and he knew it. Consequently, we don’t need to see His deliverance before we praise Him. We can start praising Him now, anticipating His future mercy.

In actuality, the Psalmist had every reason in the world for hope and praise. Praise is not contrary to truth, although it might be contrary to our present circumstances. Instead, it is the highest expression of truth – a veritable cry of assured victory. Praise acknowledges what we believe and have always professed – that God will rescue us, despite our present pain and failures!

Our behavior must be liberated from the tyranny of the now – our feelings and mental ruts. Praise is liberating. It places our focus on the one source of hope, freeing us from fear and self-obsessions. As we praise Him, our problems often begin to melt as the morning fog.

Praise is soul-medicine. Isaiah wrote about donning “the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isaiah 61:3). Praise is one of God’s gifts to us. Knowing this, the Psalmist counseled himself that the elixir of praise was the very medicine that his “downcast…soul” required.

Many who don’t receive enough sunlight get depressed. I think that the same can be said about praise – we need large doses of it - especially now as we praise the Son.


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