A Sermon from a Sad Song

This is a sermon I preached last year from Psalm 88, the saddest song in the Bible.

Pray Your Tears (Psalm 88)
August 16, 2015

This is the sermon I think many of you have been waiting to hear. I say that because Psalm 88 is the dark, dingy, scary, unfinished basement of the Psalms. It’s the saddest song in the Bible, maybe in all the world. The psalmist is sad and begging for help. And God is silent. It’s the only Psalm that doesn’t end on a positive note.

And if you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have lived in Psalm 88.

The problem in this text is not merely sadness. The sadness is accentuated because God is quiet. So we are going to address both sadness and God’s silence today. And here’s what we’ll see: Sadness and God’s silence in sadness are gifts from God to drive us to God.

So I pray this sermon brings comfort because I think we do ourselves a disservice when we suppose that our sermons and songs should only be upbeat and happy and chipper. The reality is that in the room right now, there is sadness for all sorts of reasons. Lost loved ones, cancer, struggling marriages, divorce, wayward children, unemployment, financial struggles, being bullied at school, infertility, abuse from parents, etc. Some of us are sad because we have made sinful choices.

And the sadness deepens when God is quiet.

I’m not saying that our worship times together should only be sullen and droopy and morose. What I am saying is that we must learn to acknowledge our tears and pray them. Then we’re in a position to find a firm hope and joy in Jesus. And it’s this joy in Jesus in the midst of sorrow that should characterize us and will be light to a dark world.

So we are going to start by talking about the God of Sadness and Silence and then God’s design for sadness and his silence. We’ll close with 4 ways to pray this Psalm.

The God of Sadness and Silence
The psalmist is sad. It’s unclear why, but it’s deep and dark and feels like he’s on the precipice of hell. He feels like God has abandoned him. Listen to what he says in vv. 6-8 and 15-18a.

[6] You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
[7] Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
[8] You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape…

…[15] Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
[16] Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
[17] They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
[18] You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me…

The psalmist feels like his destiny is the destiny of the wicked. He will go to Sheol—the grave, and more, Abbadon—the place of destruction.

But what’s more is that God is silent in the midst of all this. Verse 14: “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” Verse 18b, “my companions have become darkness.”

It’s one thing to be sad but it’s another to be sad and feel alone.

Now this is not unique to Ps. 88. This happens over and over again throughout the Psalms and outside the Psalms. Think of Job. In Job 2 he says to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?” Then the author inserts this comment, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Then for 36 chapters, God is silent.

And like Job, the psalmist knows God is his salvation. That’s how he started his prayer (v. 1). It’s the only positive line in the prayer. So, his emotions of sadness and loneliness and despair do not correspond with reality. We know that God is good and we know that God hasn’t abandoned us. But it feels like he has. And sometimes he brings things upon us that are absolutely horrific. The situations are overwhelming. And he seems to delay when I cry to him. Why?

Have you ever been there? Have you ever had the guts to pray like this? C.S. Lewis felt this way. He was deeply acquainted with a Psalm 88-type experience. Listen to him:

[W]here is God? [You] go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no LIGHTS in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?…Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there is no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’

We are confronted with a harsh reality: God may not want our best life now. He may, for a time—a long time—bring sadness into our lives and be silent in the midst of it. And in this moment we must ask: what kind of God do I believe in?

Now you might say, “I don’t like that kind of God. I don’t want the God Lewis describes.” But what does this expose about your heart? Do you want to be in control? Do you want to be your own god? Sadness and God’s silence are gifts because they force us to calibrate ourselves to how God has revealed himself so that we are not duped into believing in a God of our own making. We are not in control. In verse 7 the psalmist describes his pain exactly like that.

Listen to Quaker theologian Richard Foster: “For me the greatest value in my lack of control was the intimate and ultimate awareness that I could not manage God. God refused to jump when I said, ‘Jump!’ Neither by theological acumen nor by religious technique could I conquer God. God was, in fact, to conquer me.”

God is not playing games. He’s not like the malicious kid burning ants with a magnifying glass. He’s giving us a gift: we are experientially learning what he is like: sorrow and tears and suffering are part of the deal. Good parents are often silent so their children experience sorrow for a greater good. God is the best parent. It feels like punishment but it’s actually discipline. This is what God is really like.

What Sadness and God’s Silence Are Designed to Do
So what’s the purpose of God brining sadness into our lives and being silent in those times? Sadness and God’s silence are signals that God wants to do something something important. He wants to lovingly conquer us. He wants us to hunger for and hope in him.

It would have been easy for the psalmist to stop praying. But he prays. For 18 verses. Three times he says in different ways, “I cry to you” (vv. 1, 9, 13)

He’s not crying to anyone else. Being on the precipice of hell forces him to go to God. The cliché “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is true. Imagine the the time you were apart from a loved one, perhaps a fiancé or spouse. You hungered for them, didn’t you? Because you couldn’t see them, or perhaps call them, you wanted them all the more.

So sadness and silence are meant to create a longing in us for him. They’re not meant to drive us away. He’s doing something in us that could not be done any other way.

The psalmist is also arguing that God is a God of life, not death. When you read this psalm, the indignant cries about impending death and the grave and the pit and Sheol and Abaddon show that the only thing that will satisfy is resurrection. That’s his ultimate hope.

Listen to verses 10-12,

[10] Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
[11] Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
[12] Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

The Psalmist argues like one who knows God is the God of the living, not the dead, even if he doesn’t feel like it. Sadness and God’s silence are meant to look forward for rescue from death.

All this makes us ask ourselves several key questions: What am I hungering for? What do I hope in? Do I want God or health? God or a good marriage? God or children? God or money? God or a job? God or happiness? Do I want God more than I want to breathe?

Really, what this Psalm shows is that God is not interested in answering our unanswerable questions. And you can almost imagine the silent God looking at the Psalmist, like a tender parent, shaking his head, saying, “Just wait, honey. You’ll understand soon.” This psalm leaves us longing for God alone to be our help. In our darkest moments, answers won’t do. We want someone to embrace us.

When you think about your most tear-stained moments in life, you were probably most likely to trust someone ready to embrace and console you if they’ve been there—if they know what you are going through. I think we need that from God, too. And here’s what’s amazing: we should hunger for God and hope in God more than the psalmist because we know God has firsthand experience. What we come to find out is that God not only takes you through the wringer, but goes through the wringer himself…with you and for you. The psalmist never knew that about God.

God may not always give us answers. But he gives us himself, which is better than answers. In Jesus, God joins us in our tears. In Jesus, God overcomes death. Jesus was called the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. He experienced sadness to the extreme because he was a perfect man who lived in an imperfect world. Think about how sad that would be. He wept often. He was grieved often.

Then at the end of his life, his soul was full of troubles. He faced an unanswered prayer in the garden when he sweated blood. And on the cross, the Father really left Jesus. The Father’s wrath really swept over Jesus and destroyed him. What the psalmist felt—what you and I feel at times—Jesus actually endured. Jesus cried out, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”

Silence.

The Father really didn’t answer Jesus. Jesus is really the one singing this Psalm. He’s really the only one who can.

Yet we know that God eventually answered Jesus. but it took death and 3 days. Then he rose again. He was not abandoned to Sheol. He did not suffer corruption. He overcame the darkness. And when you are united to him by faith, you will share in his resurrection, too. God is not the God of the dead, but the living. Nothing—no One—else in the world can promise you this but Jesus.

Perhaps you are saying, “It’s nice to know that Jesus went through that. But how does it help?” Here’s how it helps. He’s saying to you in those moments, “I have been there. I’ve been to hell and back. When you feel God is silent, he’s not. My Father—your Father—is preparing you for resurrection.” And if that is your only hope, that is okay. There is nothing wrong with you. Sadness is normal. Even long-term sadness is normal. And it is a gift because it’s not just drawing you to God, it’s making you like Jesus. You share in his sufferings and his glory with him.

Let me tell you how our story ends: there will be a day when we share in Jesus’ resurrection and on that day, he will wipe every tear from our eyes. Carly and I like to tell our kids, “The sad things will come untrue.” And they will.

The Apostle Paul said we are “always sorrowful, yet rejoicing.” I wish there was another way to resurrection light than the dark depths of Psalm 88. But I don’t think there is. There wasn’t for Jesus. The hope is resurrection but Jesus says, “Deny yourself, carry you cross and follow me.” He’s calling us into the depths of sorrow. Only to experience a weight of glory far beyond all comparison.

How can we use this Psalm in prayer?
Now, what’s the place of Psalm 88 in our prayers? How do you actually use this Psalm? Here are four ways to use it whether God seems silent now or not.

  1. Use it to jump-start your prayers when God slams the door in your face.
    Remember that the psalmist keeps praying. Use this psalm as a template to describe your pain to God. And recall that God’s silence is what you feel, not what’s real. Jesus’ cross and his resurrection remind us of that.
  2. Use it to weep with those who weep.
    Both letters of Ephesians and Colossians tell believers to “speak in psalms…to one another.” Singing a psalm like this forces us to empathize with those who are sad and suffering. The truth is that if we aren’t suffering, we often look down on people who are. Knowing and singing and telling the psalms to others helps us empathize and identify with others.
  3. Use it to prepare yourself for suffering
    Suffering will come and you need to be ready for it. You need a vocabulary of faith that will help you know how to pray in that time. That great contemporary philosopher, Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games trilogy said, ”Sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” Psalm 88 can equip you for the day of sadness. In general, read psalms regularly so that you will know what to say no matter the emotion you feel.
  4. Use it to foster a vulnerable, supportive Christian community.
    If you are sad, to those outside the faith you will be a case to be solved. You will be labeled. But in front of Christ and his people, you are an image bearer who lives by grace. The only place where you are free to feel and pray sadness is in the church. Here we live as sorrowful yet rejoicing, believing that in the midst of sadness we have joy in Jesus and resurrection light will someday come.

Start With Jesus, Not Genesis

Are you new to reading the Bible? Perhaps you are not a Christian or a new one and you wan to crack open a Bible. If you were picking up another book you would be right to start at page 1 and move to the end. Not with the Bible, however. You could do that (no one will stop you!). But the Bible is a different kind of book. Because of that, it would be a while before you read about life and work of the central subject of the Bible: Jesus Christ.

Genesis is the first book in the Old Testament (the part of the Bible from Genesis to Malachi). The Old Testament tells us the story of God’s people Israel, and at the end, the reader (Jewish or otherwise) is left wondering, “HOLD THE PHONE! Isn’t there more! This is not a happy ending!”

We feel that way precisely because it was never meant to be the ending. There is supposed to be more. And we get more in the New Testament.

The New Testament, specifically the person of Jesus Christ, is the fulfillment to the Old Testament. As Christians, we start and finish with Jesus. He gives shape and fullness to the entire biblical story. Christian faith is about him. There is good stuff in the Old Testament. Important stuff. Foundational stuff. There are lessons to be learned and warnings to heed. But it is all for naught without a proper understanding of, love for, and allegiance to Jesus.

Listen to what theologian Graeme Goldsworthy says in his masterful book According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible:

As Christians, we do not start at Genesis 1 and work our way forward until we discover where it’s all leading. Rather we first come to Christ, and he directs us to study the Old Testament in the light of the gospel. The gospel will interpret the Old Testament by showing us its goal and meaning. The Old Testament will increase our understanding of the gospel by showing us what Christ fulfills.

Simply, if you start with the Old Testament, you’ll get the Old Testament and miss Jesus. But start with Jesus and you’ll find him. And, with him, the purpose, meaning, and significance of everything else will be thrown in.

Re-Created for Good Works…at Work

God’s ultimate answer to Genesis 3 took time to develop. Thousands of years later, he sent his own Son to save us from the curse of sin. But Jesus does more than just save us and take us to heaven right away. He keeps us on this earth. Have you ever wondered why?

To do good work.

God saves us by grace through faith, and our faith is a gift from God, not as a result of any kind of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9). But God does save us for works that he has prepared for us to do.

Through the gospel, we are God’s workmanship, his little “new creations” in Christ who live under his dominion, as his representatives in the world, just as Adam and Eve were at the first creation. Jesus is Lord of every sphere of existence and human activity. Therefore, the good works you were saved to do cannot just be “church things” or “morality things.” They are everything, including your occupation. Don’t you think what you do at least eight hours a day, everyday, would be a significant part of the good works God has prepared for you to in Christ Jesus?

Os Guinness, English and author sociologist says, “When God says to us in Jesus ‘Follow me,’ everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have are given a special devotion, dynamism, and direction as response to his summons and service.”

Jesus absolutely transforms your work. And when he says, “Follow me,” he empowers your work in at least two ways.

First, Jesus gives you a new purpose in your work. You can now work for an Audience of One. You no longer need the approval of men. You no longer reject work and become lazy. Jesus opens our eyes to see that work is a response to being redeemed into his image. This is why Paul can say in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Your boss may be oppressive or he just might be plain rude, but if you are serving Master Jesus, you can endure. You may hate your job (I’ve been there!), but you can endure because of who you ultimately serve. You were created for good works in him and in your work, you, like Adam and Eve in the beginning, serve as his representative wherever you work. In a very spiritual way, you are exercising the dominion of Christ in that sector of the world. Wow! That changes everything!

Second (and this is most exciting to me), Jesus gives us new perspective in our work. Through the gospel, Jesus does not only redeem individuals, but the whole universe. The whole material universe! This means that what we often assume to be unspiritual (like work) is actually very spiritual because it will one day be redeemed to be everything it was meant to be. Two texts help us here.

  • Matthew 25, the parable of the talents. What does the master say to the two men who were faithful with what they were given? He said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (v. 23). In context, Jesus is speaking about eternal rewards and punishments. He is not saying, “You will get more on earth because you did a good job teaching Sunday School class.” No! He is saying that heaven will be a place of true industry, true creativity, true diligence. In heaven, Jesus says, there will be more work, not less. But there will be no curse. It will be all joy.
  • Revelation 21:24, 26, “The nations will walk in the light of the Lamb and the kings of the earth will bring their glory in…they will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.” Scholars debate over what this precisely means, but we can at least say it means something of human culture and creativity will be ushered into the new creation, and enshrined and celebrated there. All our activity will not be forgotten. It will be redeemed.

These texts and others remind us that the new creation will be more “earthy” than we think. We will not be sitting on clouds, playing harps, in an eternal church service. In the age to come, life will be worship and worship will be life. It will be life as it was intended, with glorified intelligence, creativity, organization, diligence, and everything else that makes for good work. In heaven, accountants will balance budgets perfectly. Architects will design things perfectly. Engineers will build things perfectly. Musicians will play notes perfectly. Gardeners will grow plants perfectly. Grocery stockers will organize produce perfectly. Managers and supervisors will build and train teams perfectly.

What’s coming is not a boring eternity, but a perfect society of God’s redeemed image bearers exercising dominion in a new creation for his glory, as it was originally intended to be.

You and I will work forever. For the glory of Jesus. And, like in the beginning, this will be very, very good.

Work is Not the Curse…but It Is Cursed

In my last post, we saw that all work when done to the glory of God is sacred. There is no such thing as “sacred” work (like the work of a pastor) and “secular” work (like the work of a engineer or lawyer). We get tastes of the beauty and sacredness of work in this life. However, our world is more like Genesis 3 than Genesis 1-2. Sin has brought a curse upon everything—even our work.

In Genesis 3, right after Adam and Even disobey God for the first time, God issues a judgment to them. He says to Eve, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen. 3:16). Eve’s work was primarily homeward in orientation. She would bear and raise children. This would now be painful.

Adam’s work was primarily outside the home in orientation. He worked the field. Now, God said, Adam would eat of the ground “in pain” and it would bring forth “thorns and thistles” (vv. 17-18). Fruitful labor would only come through hard, sweaty work. And eventually, God said, it would kill Adam (v. 19).

Because of sin, everything that formerly was under the dominion of God and his servants, Adam and Eve, is now under a curse. Work is hard, painful, and, eventually, it kills us.

Genesis 3 is the reason when you plant a tree in your front yard, you dig down and hit the gas line. Genesis 3 is the reason you need to trim the door 43 times before it will shut properly. Genesis 3 is the reason why no matter how many resumes you send out, you don’t get a call back. Genesis 3 is the reason why your body aches on Friday and when Monday morning rolls around, you ask, “Is this all there is to life?”

Everyone in the world feels the pain of Genesis 3. Everyone knows work is hard. You can’t get away with working 70 hours a week for 40 years. That’s why we have labor laws.

Now, for Christians, there are two sinful extremes we need to avoid when living in a post-Genesis 3 world. The first is believing that work is the curse. This produces laziness. You may believe that when sin entered the world, work was walking right alongside. Have you ever felt that temptation? If you have ever been lazy (like I have), then you functionally believed that work is the curse. But Genesis 1-2 are clear work is sacred and good and God made work before the fall.

The second sinful response to be avoided is to make work your identity. Sin has brought about what I call “identity mis-calibration.” Sin moves us to search for identity—significance, worth, and meaning—in anything other than God. For many of us, this means we look to work for our identity. Instead of becoming lazy, we become obsessed with work. We embrace the sweat, go overboard and use work to find fulfillment and happiness. But Genesis 1-2 are clear that our identity comes from being made in God’s image. Not from the work we do.

In our flesh, we will resort to either one of this. But if you belong to Jesus, you are not merely flesh. So if we are going to work Christianly in the world, we need to see how Jesus transforms our work. That’s what we’ll address in Monday’s post.

God Made You to Work and This Is Very Good

Eusebius of Caesarea was a bishop and a church historian during the time of Constantine (late 3rd to early 4th century). One of the indelible marks Eusebius left on the church was the idea that there were two kinds of callings in the Christian life. The perfect life and the permitted life. The perfect life was that spiritual, contemplative life reserved for those who worked as priests, monks, and nuns. He said this life was “above nature, and beyond common human living” (Proof of the Gospel, Bk. 1, ch. 8)

The permitted life, on the other hand, was that physical, active life reserved for those who worked a farmers, soldiers, merchants, and even those raising families. Eusebius went so far to say that those who live the permitted life have “a kind of secondary grade of piety (Proof, Bk. 1, ch. 8).

For the last 17 centuries, this dualistic view of work has plagued the church. We have divided work into sacred and secular, higher and lower, varsity Christian and JV Christian. Don’t get me wrong—it is a significant thing to be a pastor or a missionary. But it is not better or more holy or more important than being a surgeon, a mother, an architect, or a garbage man. Few of us would ever admit that there is a perfect life, of course. We would never say, “My pastor is living the perfect life. He’s a walking slice of heaven on earth!”

Yet the dualism Eusebius created is so ingrained into our culture (and Christian sub-culture) that we affirm and perpetuate it it when we say things like, “She’s going in to full-time ministry.” (As if there is part-time ministry for a disciple of Jesus.) “Those missionaries are doing God’s work.” (As if a mom changing diapers is not.)

Obviously some people earn their living by teaching the Scriptures, shepherding, and spreading the gospel. But that does not mean all other work—“permitted work,” as it were—is lower class.

Rather, the Christian perspective on work (labor, occupation, etc.) is holistic, robust, and profoundly empowering no matter what you do for your occupation. In fact, the beginning of the biblical story is abundantly clear that all work when done to the glory of God is sacred.

In Genesis 1-2, we see that God made human begins to “have dominion over” every created thing (1:28). Genesis 2:15 says, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” In these two chapters we learn at least three potent truths:

  1. We are image bearers of God. Our inherent worth and value comes from being like God in some way. Our primary calling in life is not to something but to Someone—namely God. We were made to worship him and find our joy, meaning, significance, value, and purpose in him.
  2. A result of being made in God’s image is that, like God, we work. As image bearers of God, we reflect him. Therefore, God made humans to work. Adam and Eve were under-lords, charged with exercising dominion on God’s behalf by using their intelligence, creativity, organization, and diligence. The difference between God’s work and ours, of course, is that we aren’t creating from nothing. Human work takes the raw material of creation, brings it order and makes something beautiful. But work is not our identity—that comes from being made in the image of God. Still work in the beginning was the primary way human beings praised and glorified their Creator. Adam and Eve weren’t having church services all day long. They walked with God and worked in God’s garden.
  3. Work is very good. After each day of creation, God saw that what he made was good. But it wasn’t until he made human beings, male and female, and those human beings to work that everything was “very good” (1:31). Adam’s work was worthy and valuable and good! And get this: Adam was not a pastor or missionary or monk. He was a farmer (and, as my wife pointed out, a zookeeper, too)! If Eusebius was right—that there is a perfect life and a permitted life, then God was wrong because Adam’s occupation was working and keeping the Garden. But God was not wrong. Work, all work, when done to the glory of God, is very good. It is sacred and beautiful.

Most of us, Christian or not, get glimpses of Genesis 1-2 in our lives from time to time. Have you ever worked to create something or put something into order—a budget, a bridge, a song, a tomato plant, a sandbox, swept a floor, organized a pantry, unloaded a delivery truck—and had a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction? Have you ever said about your work, I was made for this? You felt this because you were made to work. In that moment, whether you admitted it or not, you believed God’s original design was very good.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a Genesis 1-2 kind of world. We live in a world where sin has degraded everything, including our work. In the next post, I’ll consider Genesis 3 and what sin does to work.