Text: Psalm 42
One of the constant themes throughout the Bible, particularly in the Hebrew scripture, is the presence and absence of God. It is not uncommon that in one moment God’s people are rejoicing in God’s steadfast love and attention and in the very next moment lamenting in despair God’s seemingly never-ending absence. Not much has changed for humanity in 2000 years. We are still a people who from moment to moment struggle with the presence and absence of the Divine. One minute it seems that God is there—listening and taking care of our needs. And the very next minute it feels like God is not involved at all in our lives or our world.
Recently I had lunch with a friend whom I admire for his commitment to his spiritual journey and his search for knowing and understanding God. About midway through the lunch he said, “I have two questions for you.” My heart sank because my gut told me immediately that his questions would not be easy questions. And indeed, they were not. One right after the other he asked, “How does prayer work? and How does God work in the world?” Or to rephrase his second question in the psalmists words: “Where is God in this world?” He was asking what the great theologians and philosophers and devoted people of faith have asked for centuries. And I knew, as I began to respond, that nothing I could say would take away the mystery that these two questions have held since the beginning of time. This week, as I read Psalm 42, I was reminded of my recent lunch conversation. The writer of Psalm 42 was asking the same question that my friend was struggling with: Where is your God? With the question surfacing twice in two weeks, I figured I would pay attention. So, in the spirit of the old Seekers Sunday school class, the question of the day is, “Where is your God?”
In Psalm 42, we have the unique opportunity to listen in on the internal conversation of the psalmist as he struggles with understanding the presence and absence of God in his life. We have the privilege to overhear him as he examines and evaluates the conversation taking place in his soul—a conversation that I would imagine we have all had within our souls at some point in time.
Psalm 42 is typical of what happens to us as human beings when we are struggling. It is natural in our moments of despair and depression, of loneliness and fear to feel unsure of where God is. As we overhear the internal conversation in the psalm, it is obvious that all is not well within the soul of the writer. The writer’s soul is troubled, and the dialogue within his soul is troubling. With a downcast soul and a disquieted spirit he is haunted with the question of his peers, “Where is your God?”
If you are familiar with a downcast soul, this psalm informs you that your struggle is not unique and you are not alone. Charles Spurgeon once wrote: “Why, I tell you, young Christians, that the most experienced believers, the ones who have great doctrinal knowledge and much experimental wisdom, the ones who have lived very near to God and have had the most rapt and intimate fellowship with [God], are the very ones who have their ebbs, and their winters.” That is why the Psalms have always been favorites of God’s people. They express honest human experience and emotion in the context of faith—the ebbs and the winters. In the Psalms you meet God where you are; wherever you are. From agony to ecstasy it is all there—every honest human emotion—and the psalmists invites, even challenges, us to consider our response to the highs and lows—to the ebbs and the winters—of life.
It is clear that the writer of Psalm 42 is troubled by the absence of God. Though he longs for God, he feels distant from God. Though he is thirsty for God, he feels alienated from God. Though he is passionate for God, he feels forgotten by God. Though he calls out for God, he feels abandoned by God. Though he desires God’s presence, he feels God’s absence. His sense of estrangement from God is only heightened by his geographic separation from the temple and its worship. He writes in verse 6 from Palestine, and he remembers the joy of former days: “how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.” He passionately desires a renewed experience of that very special communion with God that he experienced in public worship during the appointed festival season—the mountain top experiences of faith. He is thirsty for this, but it’s just not happening for him. The psalmist speaks for all of us. That truth that it is possible to be thirsty for God—to seek God and to serve God—and yet at times not sense the nearness of God and instead feel acutely the absence of God.
But the writer of Psalm 42 is not only troubled by the absence of God, he is also troubled by the presence of trials. Rather than the joyful sounds of temple worship that he identifies in verse 4, all the psalmist seems to hear is vividly described in verse 7: “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.” These waters symbolize our trials and suffering. These waterfalls, waves, and breakers are continuous, relentless, and overwhelming. And the sound of this waterfall and these breakers is deafening. He is not only aware of the seeming absence of God, he is very aware of the presence of trials in his life. And in the midst of it all, he continually hears the voices of his critics, “Where is your God?”
To those voices, he responds the only way he knows how: by remembering those moments when God was near and by staying in conversation with God. The psalmist does not repeatedly and endlessly review and rehearse and describe the state of his troubled soul. He does not ignore his soul. He does not excuse his soul. Instead, he interrupts his soul. He interrupts this unending conversation taking place within his soul. He questions his soul. He challenges his soul. And he invites his soul, once again, to trust in God. In that moment of God’s absence, he remembers God’s word, rehearses God’s word, prays God’s word, and sings God’s word. And somewhere in all of that, his troubled soul becomes hopeful. Too often, when our souls are troubled, we ignore this practice of remembering and talking to God. Often, when someone comes into my office struggling to feel God’s presence, I will say to them, “Keep talking to God. Keep praying even when you feel like you can’t.” I say this because in my own moments of struggling to know where God is, all I know to do is to keep searching, to keep talking, to keep remembering. And when I can’t do that for myself, I count on you—my faith community—to remember for me and to pray when I can’t.
Where is your God? It is a question centuries old. But I’m wondering if there is a different question to ask. It is this: “Where are you looking for God?” “Where are WE looking for God?” The Psalmist’s situation does not change, there is no easy resolution to the troubles that plague him; yet he turns from a place of despair and abandonment to a place of seeing and facing those troubles with the belief that God is with him. Could it be that often times we miss finding God because we are looking for God in the familiar, safe places where we want God to be? Or in the kind of resolution to our troubles that preserves and protects the life we have grown comfortable in? Is it possible that the absence of God in our lives is the result of not being open to look for God in the unexpected, unfamiliar places, and challenging places in life? In our suffering? In our turmoil? In our struggles? In our not knowing? In people who are different from us? In ideas that feel foreign to us? Where are you/we looking for God?
Where is your God? Where is God in this world? I told the lectionary group I would share with them what I said to my friend on Sunday. It is Sunday so here is what I said to my fellow seeker. I believe that God is everywhere and in everything and that God’s ways are not our ways. Thanks be to God!