All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way;
yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
and covered us with the shadow of death.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. – Psalm 44:17-22
The people of God often go through hardships that don’t seem like God’s chastising, and they don’t seem like direct persecution. They are simply hardships, and as we find ourselves in them, we can only turn to God and cry out – where else can we go (cf. John 6:68)?
Illnesses, accidents, financial troubles, injustice – more often than not all these are not related to our Christian walk. The missionary who is struck by malaria while proclaiming the gospel to a jungle tribe can look to the apostles in the Bible and find a context and great consolation for his suffering in Christ. The Christian worker who gets passed over for promotion or even fired because he openly adheres to biblical principles can rejoice in partaking of something of the suffering of Christ. The pastor who is slandered or even assaulted because he does not compromise in the teaching and preaching of the Word, can be comforted in knowing that he stands shoulder to shoulder with godly prophets.
But what about the rest? The sufferings that don’t have a clear precedent in the Bible? The sufferings that seem to befall Christians just as they befall everyone else regardless of where they stand in relation to God?
It is this kind of perplexity that we find in Psalm 42. It’s the perplexity that Job lamented; that Solomon wrote about in Ecclesiastes. The hardships that just seem, well, pointless. Random. Unprovoked by either sin or virtue. What consolations can we find when there are no obvious answers?
The resonating response of the Bible, clear, obvious and consistent, rings as a cliché to our Christianised ears: Trust God. Cling to Him, even in the face of overbearing darkness. It’s what Solomon advises after laying out the tragedy of human existence (Ecc. 12:1, 13). It’s what Job learned (Job 42:1-3): In order to understand these things, in order to fully appreciate and comprehend them, you would have to be God. And you’re not.
It feels unsatisfying. As humans, we are overwhelmed with a need to comprehend the forces that surround our tiny existences, be they physical or spiritual. In short, we demand answers because we crave meaning in everything we experience. We know it’s there, but we just can’t see it.
And that doesn’t change when one comes to Christ; if anything, the desire for understanding intensifies in the sudden light of Scripture. And when the difficulties, the trials, the hardships, the sorrows, the grief, the tribulations, the sufferings come, we immediately want to categorise them because we know that, ultimately, it is God, our Father, Who has allowed them to come upon us. As Christians, we know that we don’t live in a random world, caught in the whirlwind of impersonal gales, but we ride the torrent of God’s sovereign plans. And without that perspective, we will never find peace in the midst of our storms.
But the distressing reality is that, even in the knowledge of God’s sovereignty, we will still come across times – different for every Christian – that will make no sense. Times that will test us, not so much of themselves as much as by the awful perplexity they will create in us. Times that will join us to the cries of the sons of Korah, “all this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you” (v. 17). Times that, like Job, will make us itch to raise a fist to God rather than hands of praise. Times that will pierce us through and through, break us, hammer us and chisel us until all that is left is a whimper, hanging from God on a thin thread and crying out with the psalmist: “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?” (v. 23).
It is significant that verse 22 is quoted by the apostle Paul in Rom. 8:36. It is in that chapter where the apostle looks at the fire that often threatens the Christian life. It is in verse 28 where he gives us the famous words that are so full of comfort in light of God’s sovereignty: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”
It is almost as if the perplexity of Psalm 42 finally finds as answer, in Christ. Paul quotes those painful words “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” in the context of God’s everlasting love for His people. He quotes them as an acknowledgment of incomprehensible sorrows as a harsh reality that is softened, not by specific answers “this is happening to you because/in order to”, but by the realisation that we are God’s elect, His children in Christ and heirs of eternal glory with Him.
But how does this help us when “tears have become my food” (Ps. 42:3)? Simply, by realising that such hard and perplexing times must come. Because of our eternal glorious future; because of who we now are in Christ; because we are predestined to be conformed to His image (Rom. 8:29a) but come woefully short; because of all this astounding reality, we must shed those tears of confusion, we must hurt and learn obedience as Christ Himself learned through what He suffered (Heb. 5:8). It is the chiseling of God in us, to break away all the impurities so that His precious work in us can shine to His glory – and that is what can cause us to rejoice in the midst of terrible suffering.
The walk of faith is riddled with perplexity; the Bible makes that abundantly clear. And on this side of eternity, it is impossible to even begin to fathom the intricacy by which God works in us for His glory (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). All we can hold onto in such dark times is that that He is in complete sovereign control (cf. Luke 12:6) and that He has bounded Himself is a covenant of everlasting, unbreakable love, sealed with the blood of His own Son. That is why Paul can write a response to the agonising cries of Psalm 44:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. –Rom. 8:37-39
Or to say to the Corinthians:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair — 2 Cor. 4:8
All these trials have only one purpose: To destroy all those things in us that keep us and distract us from being like Christ. Humanly it is impossible, but “but with God all things are possible” (Mat. 19:26b). And those tears, that perplexity, that confusion, that feeling that God has abandoned us – that’s what it takes. Let us know it, then, let us weep and cry out and lament, but let us also rejoice in knowing that never, for a single nanosecond, are we alone.
And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. – Mat. 28:20b