It’s a natural question. “Where are you, God?”
It comes to us in the crisis, the moment of pain, the season of doubt and suffering.
When our plans and dreams have been smashed to fragments under the heels of careless narcissists, we instinctively cry, “where are you, God?” When the people we thought were friends, or at least allies, join their voices with the chorus of our critics, we moan, “where are you, God?” When we have tried and failed so many times that we despair of ever changing our circumstances, we sigh, “where are you, God?” When those whom we love are violently snatched away and we are left only with memories, we whisper while we weep “where are you, God?”
Of course we try to cover it up. We hide the question deep in our minds. We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t think such things. We certainly don’t share it with anyone else, because good Christians don’t question God, and what would they think if we publicly asked the question.
This leaves us the niggling sense that there’s something wrong with us for even thinking the question. That somehow, we’re deficient, defective, or at fault in some way because we have the nagging question “where are you, God?” We rely on our own strength. We say to ourselves: “Shake it off. I need to get myself together. I don’t particularly like whiners, and I know nobody wants to hear me whine. Not my friends, and certainly not God.” We think this is the path to strength. It is not.
Therefore, we leave the question unresolved. It eats at us, gnawing silently at our hearts, embittering part of our soul, keeping us stuck.
But we don’t have to stay stuck. When we, like David in Psalm 22, ask the question (or one of its many variants “My God, why have you forsaken me”), we find that unexpected things happen.
By vocalizing the question, we give words to our sense of abandonment, the sense that God has left the building. In so doing, we make the subtle shift from fixating on our circumstances and shift to seeking God. That is the most powerful action we can take in the midst of pain. As long as we have our mind fixed on ourselves, what we have to do, what action we’re going to take, how are we going to handle this, what’s going to happen to me, etc – we will remain mired in an emotional bog.
But when we say “where are YOU, God” – our focus changes. Even if we don’t perceive God’s presence, we see the outline of the space we expected God to fill in our lives. And that leads us to further seek and ask “why is that outline empty? where has God gone?” Paradoxically, the apparent absence of God in a season of our lives reminds us that we expect him to be in our lives in the first place. When we feel abandoned by God, it reminds us that God is a real, vital, living presence – perhaps a presence that we had come to just accept mindlessly. Perhaps the pain is a jolt, a jump start, a reminder to keep seeking God.
Psalm 22 begins with the question – and then it becomes a long complaint. David voices his complaint. He thinks about his pain and grief and gives them words. This act of composition requires thinking about it, setting it down in writing, concretely expressing it. He speaks those words to the empty outline where he expected God to be.
And then, somewhere, mysteriously, things change. Round about verse 22, David shifts from complaint to joy. And he never tells us why. We don’t get an explanation. This is true in most of the psalms of lament. The psalm speaks of complaint and pain, and then there’s an abrupt mysterious shift to praise and gratitude.
I used to say of this shift “And then God shows up” – but I’m not so sure that this is the right turn of phrase. Maybe “and then God reveals where He’s been the whole time,” or “and then we perceive the deeper reality of God’s presence.” Or it could be “God, working through material means, provides relief,” or “God sent someone to help.”
Jesus teaches us: “Seek and you will find, ask and it will be given, knock and the door will be opened to you.” When next you are in the place of crisis and pain (and believe me, you will be there – the Christian life is not a life exempt from pain, and anyone who tells you different is selling you something), muster what strength you can and pray “where are you, God,” and earnestly voice your complaint.
Soli Deo Gloria