FINDING HOPE IN TIMES OF DISCOURAGEMENT

February 12, 2017

Psalm 77

 

In February, 1947, a young man named Glenn Chambers was on his way to Quito, Ecuador. He was excited to begin his life as a missionary broadcaster on the powerful Christian mission radio station HCJB. While transferring through the Miami airport, he had some extra time so he decided to write a quick note to his mother. This, of course, was long before the time of text messages and e-mails, so he had to write the old fashioned way. However, he did not have any paper to write on. So he found a magazine someone had left and flipped through it until he found a page that was advertising a particular product, but it was rather peculiar because the page was almost entirely blank. In fact, apart from small print on the bottom of the page, it contained only one word. Printed in the middle of the page was the single word “WHY?”

Chambers wrote the note to his mother on that almost blank page, expressing his affection for her and his gratitude for her support of him as he began this important ministry. He sealed it in an envelope, purchased a stamp, and placed the letter in a mailbox there in the airport.

 

Chambers boarded the plane and the plane set off for Ecuador. Tragically, as it flew over some rugged mountains in Columbia, the plane crashed, leaving no survivors. Two days later, his grieving mother received the letter he had sent just before boarding the plane. When she opened it and unfolded the letter, to her astonishment her eyes were drawn to the one word in large, bold letters, the very word that had been haunting her for two days: “WHY?” Of course, she was grateful to receive this last message of love from her son, but she couldn’t stop asking, “Why? Why did this happen to her son – so young and talented, so committed in his faith? Why?”

 

Over time Chamber’s mother did come to a conclusion that at least gave her some comfort in the midst of her pain. In an interview, she said, “I don’t know why Glenn died, but I do know this: God is too kind to do anything cruel. God is too wise to make a mistake. And God is too deep to explain Himself.” A very wise response. God’s character is clear; He is far too kind to ever do anything cruel. And His perfect wisdom insures He never makes a mistake. But at the same time, God is too deep to explain Himself.

 

Of course, God is not bound to answer every question we may ask, no matter how sincere our questioning. But more than that, we should never expect that we could understand all the ways of God. He is too deep, His ways too profound. God has purposes for this vast universe and for the 7 billion people who live on this planet that we could never comprehend. So it’s not likely we would understand even if God should explain Himself, or answer our “Why?” questions. As God declares in Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

 

That is a metaphor, of course, comparing the gulf between God’s thoughts and our thoughts with the distance between the earth and the heavens. But just think about it for a moment. How high are the heavens? Well, light travels 186,000 miles per second, or approximately 5.88 trillion miles a year – not million or billion, but 5.88 trillion miles a year. Travelling at 5.88 trillion miles a year, it takes light 100,000 years to zoom from one end of just our own Milky Way Galaxy to the other. But that is nothing.

 

In March, 2016, NASA reported that the Hubble Space Telescope spotted the most distant thing ever observed in the heavens – a galaxy that is 13.4 billion light years away. So we know that the heavens stretch at least 13.4 billion times 5.88 trillion miles. We can’t begin to comprehend a number that big or a distance so great, but that’s how much higher God’s thoughts are than ours. On our best day our best thought is about 13.4 billion times 5.88 trillion miles short of God’s thoughts.

 

The eternal God who created this vast and intricate universe out of nothing, who brought life into being, who created human beings in His image – how could we ever understand all His ways? It’s impossible. So when we are struggling, or when tragedy strikes, when we or a loved one is going through a trial of some kind, we will not always be able to make sense out of it. God may not tell us why, and we might not understand even if He did. So we must remember what Glenn Chambers’ mother came to realize: ” God is too kind to do anything cruel. God is too wise to make a mistake. And God is too deep to explain Himself.”

 

One person we read of in Scripture who sometimes struggled, even agonized over why God did what He did or allowed what He allowed, or didn’t do what He didn’t do, was a man named Asaph. II Chron. 5:12 states Asaph was one of the chief musicians during the time of King Solomon, and Ezra 2:41identifies him as the ancestor of the temple singers. So he was a key person in the worship life of Israel, and he wrote eleven of the psalms we find in our Bibles today.

 

While respectful, Asaph would say exactly what he was feeling and thinking. If he was unhappy, puzzled, confused, or even angry at what was happening in his own life or the lives of his people, he would say so. And he would say so to God in prayer. His doubts, struggles, and questions are all there in his writings as he struggled to find satisfying answers to the great problems confronting him and his fellow Israelites.

 

In Ps. 77, Asaph reveals a time of intense spiritual struggle. It was what is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul.” He was so troubled, he wrote in vs. 4 that he couldn’t even speak. He was troubled and discouraged, not only by his circumstances, but also because God seemed to be absent. And even more than absence, Asaph actually felt the rejection of God. In vs. 7 he stated, “ Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?” Asaph prays, but all he experiences is silence from God, along with deep sorrow and grief. So he wrote in Psalm 77:

 

1 I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me.
2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.

3 I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
4 You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak.
5 I thought about the former days, the years of long ago;
6 I remembered my songs in the night. My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

7 “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:  the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
12 I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

13 Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God?
14 You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples.
15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

16 The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed.
17 The clouds poured down water, the heavens resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth.
18 Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked.
19 Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.

20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

 

Well, let’s work our way through this psalm and see the progression Asaph goes through in dealing with his desperate circumstances. As we do, we’ll see that the two words “I remember” make up a key phrase, occurring in vs. 3, 6, and 11. Asaph is doing a lot of reflecting in this psalm. Reflection can be a good thing if we are reflecting on the right things, things that bring gratitude, joy, and renewed strength. But reflection can also lead to despondency if we reflect on our past disappointments.

 

In the case of Asaph, his memories are troubling. He remembers times long ago when God seemed so present, so real. He was so filled with the joy of the Lord he couldn’t even speak. He said (vs. 6), “I remembered my songs in the night.” Asaph would stay up at night, for his heart was so full he had to sing praises to God. But Asaph’s struggle is that while he remembers those deep experiences of God’s presence, in the present He does not sense the presence and care of God to help him face the discouraging situation he was in. He doesn’t say just what that was, but his main complaint was that whatever it was, it seemed he had to face it alone, for God had abandoned him. He even feels that God has rejected him and his fellow Israelites. Worse yet, Asaph doesn’t see any change coming. And so his memories seem to discourage him further. It’s bad enough when God seems absent; it’s even worse when it feels like God has stopped caring.

 

Perhaps some of us, maybe many of us have been in that situation. It’s likely some of us are enduring something similar to this right now. There was a time when God seemed so near, so real, when you clearly experienced God’s gracious intervention in your life, when your prayers were answered in wonderful ways. It was a spiritual high. But that seems long ago. It’s as if God has gone on vacation. You feel only His absence, and you don’t know why. It’s painful and discouraging, even depressing. Sometimes you feel frustrated, other times you feel angry, sometimes you don’t feel much at all.

 

So let’s see what we can learn from Asaph to help us during such times, or so we can help a friend or loved one who is enduring what Asaph endured. The psalm divides into two sections: in vs. 1-9 Asaph describes his distress, and in vs. 10-20 we see Asaph working his way through it. It’s important to note that in vs. 1-6, Asaph uses the first person singular pronouns I, me, and my 18 times and refers to God only six times as all he can do is focus on his despair. In vs. 13-20 he mentions God 19 times and doesn’t refer to himself at all. That’s an important transition in working through his despair.

 

When we are struggling with disappointment, tragedy, or suffering of some kind, it is normal to focus only on ourselves and the pain we feel. That is what Asaph was experiencing in the opening verses of the psalm. His sense of despair is overwhelming. Look at the phrases he used in the first six verses: “I cried out, I was in distress, I sought the Lord, I stretched out untiring hands, my soul refused to be comforted, I remembered, I groaned, I mused, my spirit grew faint, I was troubled.” He was truly in despair!

 

It’s okay to be absorbed with ourselves and our pain – for a time. We don’t want to stay there, but it’s important that at first we are totally honest with ourselves and with God about just what we are feeling. If we try to deny that, we will only postpone our healing and restoration. If we are hurting, if we are overwhelmed with grief, if we are confused, if we are angry, if we are fearful, it’s important that we acknowledge that. We don’t want to stay in this place, but if we try to deny or push it down or hold in our feelings of pain, disappointment, and discouragement, eventually they will burst like a dam, bringing untold damage to ourselves and perhaps others. Especially right after some event of pain or tragedy has struck our lives, it’s normal and necessary to feel the full brunt of it. That is not being self-centered; it is just being real. Only then can we move through the pain.

 

In the case of Asaph, his sorrow and disappointment were made even worse by the fact that he felt God had deserted him. When he needed the encouraging presence and power of God in his life, he felt abandoned. We see how utterly discouraged he was in vs. 7-9:

7 “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

 

Don’t you love how real and honest Asaph was! He expressed exactly what he was feeling. If Asaph, a key leader in the worship life of Israel, could feel this way and honestly express that to God, we should never feel that we must put on a front before God or before others. We ought not think that as Christians we should never be discouraged. Sometimes we are, and the best thing to do is be honest about that with God.

 

Asaph felt rejected by God, separated from God’s love. He is questioning God, asking if God has forgotten to be merciful and no longer acts compassionately. Of course, the answers to all six of these questions is an unqualified “No!” God is always true to Himself, and He is loving and merciful and compassionate in His very nature.

 

But in asking these questions, Asaph is beginning to shift his focus. In the first six verses, the theme is exclusively the pain he was feeling; he was absorbed with his own misery. Now he is directing his thoughts to God. True, he still is not in a good place. He is full of doubts and anguish and he is questioning God’s credibility, God’s character. “Will God never show His favor again? Is His love gone forever?” But at least he is starting to bring God into the picture. By putting his honest questions before God, even questions filled with doubt and anguish, He is inviting God into his suffering.

It’s alright for us to do the same. All of us face times of darkness, times when we have no answers to our questions. Our questions may concern our own lives, our present circumstances, our future, our loved ones, or even world events. Sometimes we wonder if God has forgotten all about us. Will we ever experience His love again? God is not threatened or put off or angered by our honest questions. After all, even Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”

 

When we are suffering or feeling desperate and at the same time wondering where is God when we need Him, or why did God allow a particular thing to happen, taking our honest questions to God is a healthy and important thing to do. How can we ever resolve our questions if we don’t ask them! One writer (Robert Boardman) observes, “(God) recognizes the desperate cry of a wounded heart, a confused heart, and sees it as a necessary step toward faith.”

 

As we come to vs. 11, we see a transition in Asaph’s thinking. In vs. 3 and 6 he wrote about remembering. He remembered God, but more specifically he remembered his experience with God and of God. He remembered the closeness of God, the presence of God, how as he said in vs. 6, he would sing songs to God in the night. Those were happy times.

 

The reason Asaph is so discouraged in the first half of this psalm is that while he remembers those times of sensing God’s presence, that is not what he is currently experiencing. He doesn’t sense Gods love; His mercy and compassion seem distant and remote.

 

But now in vs. 11-12 Asaph writes, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.” Asaphs shifts his thinking from remembering his experiences with God in past times to reflecting on God Himself, the character of God, and the mighty and miraculous works of God in history that demonstrate His concern for His people. Instead of just focusing on himself as he did in vs. 1-6, now Asaph concentrates on God.

Our experiences with God, and our memories of those experiences – times when God seemed so near, so real, times when our prayers were answered and it seemed that God’s love practically enveloped us – those are great. We shouldn’t dismiss them but be grateful for them. But we must not look to our experiences with God – past or present – to be the foundation of our faith. They may give a boost to our faith, but they do not make for a solid foundation for our faith. Our foundation must be God Himself, who is always good, always loving, always faithful, but who is too deep to explain Himself. That must be our foundation.

 

And notice that three times in vs. 11 & 12 Asaph said, “I will.” Twice he said, “I will remember,” and once he said, “I will meditate.” Asaph made the very important decision to choose to reflect on God and God’s character even in the midst of his despair. “I will do this.” It was an act of the will. It wasn’t necessarily what he felt like doing, but he intentionally chose to. Sometimes we must do the same. We can wallow in our misery, even in justified misery, for only so long. If we want to be healed, we must choose at some point to turn our attention to God, to remember who God is and what His character is like.

 

As Asaph directs his thinking to God and God’s faithfulness in the past, Asaph gains a new perspective that encourages his weary spirit. In remembering God and God’s mighty deeds, he saw three attributes or characteristics of God shining through which became like an anchor for him to rest securely in. Remembering these will help us in our times of discouragement, for they help us place our struggles in the bigger picture of God’s love and faithfulness.

First, God is holy. In vs. 13 Asaph declares, “Your ways, O God, are holy.” That God is holy means God is morally pure and perfectly good. This means God desires what is pure and good for His people. In other words, God can be trusted to do the right thing. There may be times when that is not obvious to us, but God always acts in ways that are consistent with His character. This doesn’t mean we are spared from all trouble, for this is a fallen and broken world. But God’s ways are holy, which means they are good and right and true, so we can trust God even when we don’t understand everything.

 

Second, God is powerful. Vs. 14 states, “You are the God who performs miracles; You display Your power among the peoples.” In other words, God is holy and good, and by His power He is able to bring about the holy and good He desires. Nothing and no one can keep God from doing what He chooses to do. Again, we will experience troubles and difficulties in this life, but the ultimate good God desires will come to pass.

 

Third, God is caring. In vs. 15-20 Asaph recalls how God put His power to work in leading His people out of their slavery in Egypt. God had not forgotten the Israelites nor was He oblivious to their suffering. In His timing He rescued them in a miraculous way. God cares for His people.

Because God is holy, powerful, and caring, we can trust God even when tragedy strikes, when sorrow overwhelms us, when we can’t understand why things are happening as they are, and when we don’t have a sense of God’s presence with us. Robert Boardman writes, “Reflecting on the past faithfulness of God brings spiritual equilibrium to our lives. Looking back gives us perspective on the needs of the present and the possibilities of the future.”

 

Asaph realized that if God cared that much about His people, and if God acted so mightily on their behalf, he could rest secure in God and trust God for both the present and the future. He sees how his troubles are dwarfed by God’s power and faithfulness. Even if relief didn’t come immediately, even if his questions were not all answered, he could be at peace in the knowledge of who God is.

 

The psalm closes with vs. 20: “You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” The same God who by His power parted the sea to bring the Israelites to safety, led them like a shepherd. This speaks of the tender compassion of God. They were His flock, and as the Good Shepherd God led them in wise and loving ways. In these eight verses Asaph doesn’t refer to himself at all while mentioning God and God’s actions 19 times. By coming to the place where he chose to focus on God even in the midst of his struggles and questions, peace and confidence finally came to him.

 

It’s essential that we base our faith not in our feelings or experiences with God, although we can be grateful for those. But our faith must be based in who God is. When we remember these things about God: that God is holy and good, God is powerful, God is caring, and He is our Good Shepherd, we will find strength and encouragement to see us through even the most difficult of times. We may not receive answers to all our questions, but our hearts can be at peace because of who God is.

 

And we have an incredible advantage over Asaph, because we know how God came to us in Jesus Christ, who in His deep love for us suffered and died on the cross to give us life. That is a God we can trust, even when we don’t understand everything.

 

As the mother of Glenn Chambers experienced so tragically, bad things do happen in this world, and sometime we are on the receiving end of those bad things. And we don’t always receive an answer as to why such things happen to us or to those we love. As Chambers’ mother came to understand, God is too deep to explain Himself. But one thing He has made absolutely clear: He loves us profoundly and He loves us eternally. Nothing that we do and nothing that happens to us can ever change that. That’s where our hope is; that’s where our peace comes from.

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