Have you ever felt abandoned by God? For the Christian, there is perhaps no worse experience. Like a four-year-old girl suddenly lost from her parents in the hustle and bustle of a crowded mall, you feel separated, alone, forgotten. In some of the Psalms, not only does the psalmist feel lost in the crowd, but he fears God hasn’t even begun to look for him (Ps. 13:1–4).
Psalms 42 and 43 paint just such a picture. Although in our English Bibles they form two separate songs, most scholars believe they originally belonged together. The same questions pepper both laments: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (Pss. 42:5, 11; 43:5) and “Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” (Pss. 42:9; 43:2). Of the two, only the first has a title, and Psalm 43 rather nicely concludes the flow of thought from its predecessor.
The psalmist’s pain is sharp, and his point is clear: he feels forsaken, and he wants to know why. When we go through such seasons (and we will), how should we respond? There are a number of lessons to learn.
First, it’s right to lament God’s seeming absence. The healthy soul remains acutely sensitive to the nearness of God. When God seems to withdraw, we notice. When God seems distant, laissez-faire contentment is not a virtue; God wants us to bring our honest petitions to Him and has given us a template to use when we do.
The psalmist describes his dereliction from three perspectives. First, he laments the experiential distance of God (Ps. 42:1–2). Thirsty, he groans for the Lord (Ps. 42:1–5). His soul feels shattered like a bone (Ps. 42:10). Next, there is a visible component to this dereliction—he doesn’t just feel abandoned; he looks like a God-forsaken derelict as well. Listen as hostile voices harangue him with the scornful question, “Where is your God?” These words must have stung—he repeats them (Ps. 42:3, 10). It’s as if his enemies are saying: “We all know you have been abandoned. Face up to it!” In response he weeps long and hard (Ps. 42:3). Third, he describes a geographical component to his sense of separation (Ps. 42:6). Remember that in the Old Testament, Jerusalem was the gravitational center of the promised land. Those who lived within its walls dwelt in the suburbs of glory. For our psalm singer, however, trapped way up north in the badlands near Mount Hermon, he was about as far as far could be from the Holy City and the “tabernacled” presence of God therein.
God has given us such laments because He knows we will need them. We can all expect times when we will feel cut off from God in every conceivable way. We will feel tempted to conclude, “All these things are against me.” This psalm reminds us that such fears are not abnormal. Our souls are not malfunctioning; others have trodden this way before. We are not alone. Even though the psalmist feels forsaken, the Holy Spirit hasn’t left him. After all, He is the One inspiring the words of this song. Never fear, therefore—God is always much closer than He feels.
The second lesson from the darkness: when we feel abandoned, we are to reach through those feelings for deeper, surer truths. In the end, it’s not what you feel but what you know that counts.
Watch as the psalmist reaches by faith for the inescapable providence of God: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” (Ps. 42:7, emphasis mine). He feels as if he is at the place where the waves break and thunder rolls in toward the shore. One of my childhood friends had this experience vacationing in Hawaii. Although he was one of the strongest competitive swimmers in Ireland, his stroke was no match for the surf zone. I will never forget hearing him describe the sense of helplessness as wave after wave crashed down on him, pushing him repeatedly down into the depths. Each time he fought his way to the surface, he had less and less air in his lungs and more and more water in his belly, but there was always the next wave. The last time, only his hands breached the surface, and were it not for the strong hand of an alert lifeguard, who knows what would have happened? But for the psalmist here, as he sinks into the depths, no divine hand is anywhere in sight. At this moment, when most would despair, faith reaches through the confusion, through the waves, and lays hold of their owner. Did you notice that detail? Did you notice to whom these waves belong? They belong to God. The psalmist calls them “your breakers.” There is comfort here for the child of God. We are not the plaything of fate or of random circumstance. He holds even the strongest of waves firmly (and kindly) in His hand (Ps. 66:10–12). “Every joy or trial cometh from above.” “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”