When God Seems to Have Forgotten Us – Psalm 13
By: Northern Seminary
I was the pastor of a growing church. I was liked, appreciated, and our numbers kept going up. But my world had grown very dark deep inside my head and my heart. I couldn’t see value in my work. I couldn’t believe people were really being helped. I couldn’t see a future that was good. I might have said God seemed a million miles away, but the truth was that I had no idea where God was at all. I still believed in him but somehow I had got completely lost. “You’re depressed,” my doctor had told me, and I was. Not just tired or sad or feeling down. Seriously depressed.
But I was still working. That Sunday night we baptized ten people. Services like that were always big occasions because family and friends were invited and they came. The place was packed. I stood up and preached a message I believed but didn’t feel. Inside I was dead. I had no sense of God, no sense that message mattered. I just wanted to get through the service.
The sermon finished, we sang a hymn, my associate and one of the elders baptized the people, and then it was back to me. Every baptism service was an evangelistic opportunity, so it was now my job to call people to commitment. I wished I could have done anything else at that moment. Only grim determination got me to the front of the church, and I invited people to give their lives to Christ, for the first time or in a deeper commitment. I said the right kind of words, and stopped. What happened next was nothing I expected.
And at the end of this study, I will tell you what that was!
But first, King David was a man who also lost touch with God, and he poured out his soul in a psalm.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
This psalm is deeply moving, and several very clear themes emerge.
1. A deep sense of being abandoned by God.
Over and over David asks “How long, Lord?” (vs. 1-2) How long will God forget him? How long will God look the other way? How long will his mind be in turmoil? How long will God’s absence mean his enemies defeat him?
David’s question was, “Lord – I am hurting – where are you when I need you?”
C.S. Lewis, the giant among Christian writers of the twentieth century, suffered a heart-rending loss when his wife Joy died after just three years of marriage. His grief felt unbearable. He wrote in uncompromising terms about how distant God seemed at that time.
Meanwhile, where is God? …[G]o 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.
Before anyone says, ‘No Christian should ever feel like that,’ it’s worth noting how many people in the Bible did.
“I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer;
I stand up, but you merely look at me.
You turn on me ruthlessly;
with the might of your hand you attack me.” (Job 30:20-21)
“I say to God my Rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?’” (Ps. 42:9)
Writer of Lamentations –
“Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?” (Lam. 5:20)
Apostle Paul –
“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.” (2 Cor. 1:8-9)
These words – from people in deep trouble and despair – are in our scriptures. Those who walk with God can certainly go through times of deep pain.
There is an ancient phrase for the experience, the ‘dark night of the soul.’ Those words go back to at least the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross. Over the years the description of a dark night of the soul has been used to mean an experience of severe spiritual desolation, almost a sense of abandonment by God.
It is not an uncommon experience, even for very dedicated Christians. Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3) – in other words, people are blessed who know that alone they can do nothing, and therefore must reach out to God.
When Paul wrote that God had allowed him to despair of life, he went on: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). Paul is like a child who knows he is drowning, who knows his own feeble strokes are not enough, and so now no longer looks to his own strength but is very ready to take the hand outstretched to save him. The poor in spirit know only God is enough, but often that knowledge comes only after much pain.
There is more to a dark night of the soul experience than only that. It is not simple. But in Psalm 13 David, who feels so forgotten by God, will get to the point when he can reach out to God.
2. Turmoil in the believer’s mind.
“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (v. 2)
David found his mind racing and his heart saddened, living with a deep fear his work was all for nothing.
In the days I described earlier – when I had to preach and give the appeal at a baptism service – all of those were true for me: a mind in turmoil, deep sadness in my heart, profound belief nothing about my life and my work had worth. People said to me, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” To some I just said a polite “Thank you,” but to those I knew and trusted I explained, “Somehow I have landed inside a circular tunnel. And it’s all dark. If I try to move forward, I am still in the tunnel and it has no end: there is no light ahead of me.”
Over and over I asked myself: “How can God be so far away? How can I not see anything good around me? How can my life and work be so worthless?” It confused me. It deeply saddened me. And I feared my calling as a minister of God was for nothing. My mind raced round and round, but I got no answers.
Believers are supposed to have peace. Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
“Oh, that that would be true for me!” I would think. The gift of peace is certainly given by God, but there are moments in life we cannot receive it. The dullness of our hearts, the pain of getting through another day, the dread that our lives are meaningless makes it impossible (for a time) to receive that peace. In sunlight I could warmly take a hand stretched out to me. In total darkness I would not even see that hand and therefore could not take it.
For many – including me – each day was very dark and peace was not there.
3. God as the only hope.
David calls on God:
“Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death” (v.3)
David sees himself as a dying man. Some commentators think David really is seriously ill when he writes this psalm, and his poor health is the source of his depression. But his words could as easily be metaphorical. If God does not bring new life and new light to his eyes, he will forever live as a dead man.
Psalm 42, which was quoted earlier, is one of the most ruthlessly honest of psalms:
“Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?” (v.5)
“I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?” (v.9)
Again, that deep, deep sense of feeling abandoned and alone. But there is also a cry for help right at the beginning in verse 1 of Psalm 42:
“As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.”
The image is of a deer in dusty and dry scrub land. The bushes and small tufts of grass are not enough for life. The deer pants – it longs – its tongue hangs out – for water, for streams of water. If the deer cannot satisfy its thirst, it will die.
If the heart separate from God cannot again find its Maker and its Redeemer, it will die.
For David that means his enemies will see him stagger and fall. They will believe he never achieved anything, and even worse believe God was not with him. His life, his work, will be for nothing.
I used to lie in bed at night, with no sense of God’s presence but saying quietly in the darkness: “God, if you do not save me I am lost.”
- My doctor was great, and medication helped, but I was still not well.
- Counselors said many wise things, and I learned from them, but I was not free.
- Alison, my wife, and my children, were always there and could not have done more, but my head and my heart stayed crushed.
- Friends said good and sometimes not-so-good things, and no one ever rejected or condemned me, but they could not lift me out of the pit into which I had fallen.
“God, it has to be you…” I prayed.
As a child I often attended Highland Games in Scotland. Always they included a ‘tug o’ war’ competition, with teams of eight at each end of a strong rope and the winner was the team that pulled the other team their way. Apparently tug of war existed in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, and it was an Olympic sport in the early 1900s.
I used to watch brutishly strong men dig in their boots, grab the rope, and then pull with all their might. Sometimes one team would quickly pull the other off its feet; sometimes the rope would move a yard or two one way, then back the other and the match would last for several minutes before exhaustion defeated one team.
My favorite memory is of the team that could not be pulled away from their starting point even though they looked small and the other side were hulks. No matter how hard the heavier and stronger team hauled that rope, the weaker team held on. How did they do it? After a minute or two the answer was found: that small team lacked strength but made up for it with cunning. They had wound the end of their rope tight round a thick stake deeply embedded in the ground. And that huge post stood firm. The giants on the other side could pull with all their might; that rope and that stake were not moving.
My pitiful prayers in the darkness were for God to be the stake or the rock that held me secure. I had no strength to stop myself being swept away into near permanent despair. “Please God,” I prayed, “be the strength I do not have.”
4. Love that never fails.
David finishes his psalm very different from how he began. He still does not see God, but he knows, he knows, there is a God who loves him, who has saved him in the past, and whose goodness he will know again in the future.
“But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.” (vs. 5-6)
David was not yet feeling God’s love or goodness, but he has known them in the past and will know them again.
My friend Jim met with me every week during those dark days. He coped with me at my worst, and helped me face forward when I wanted to give up. Often Jim said to me: “There will come a time when all this will be over…” In the early days I dismissed those words. I could not believe them for there was no way out of my dark, circular tunnel.
Then came the day, after a long time, when it changed. God was still far away. I still felt hopeless and in a very bad place. But at least in my head I knew Jim was probably right. Eventually I told him. “I don’t how this can ever be over, but I hear what you are saying and I can believe you.”
My life did not change quickly or easily. There were still many, many struggles. But from trusting Jim I eventually moved to trusting God, and the day did come when it was over.
God had never given up on me, no matter how much I felt he had and how much I probably pushed him away. God does not abandon us. He never strays even an inch from our side. There is truth in the old ‘footprints’ story of God carrying us, including the truth that we don’t realize he’s doing it. He is there. He has never lost anyone. He did not lose me and he will never, ever lose you. The night and its darkness is longer and deeper than we think, but the dawn will come and it will be good and it will be glorious.
Let me finish the story with which I began, of the baptism service and the call to commitment I gave.
It was with deep darkness chilling my heart, and with no sense at all of God’s presence, that I gave a call to faith. Then I stopped and waited.
Nothing. No one moved. And then they did. To my utter amazement two college students came to the front. My associate pastor nodded to counselors to join them. Then a family came. More counselors needed. Then a woman all on her own I had never seen before. Then six or eight more students. A man and his wife. A child of about twelve. And more and more. My associate ran out of counselors. Still more walked to the front, some in tears, some with faces shining.
In the past we had seen six, seven, or even ten respond at a service, but that night about thirty came. My mind could not have been in more pain. My heart could not have been more dull. My faith could not have been less. But amazingly, crazily, in that service we had the largest response our church had ever seen.
I learned two things that night.
One, that God is never far away, no matter what we feel. His presence – and his power – do not depend on our feelings and not even on our faith. That night I was dead on the inside, the least expectant evangelist in the land, but God changed many eternal destinies before my eyes. Even when God seems lost to us, he is always there and always at work.
Two, I learned that not even a wonderful spiritual moment like that is a quick fix for depression. I left that service as soon as I could, got in my car, drove to the top of a hill overlooking the city, stared out at the lights and the dark sky, and I cried and cried in deep misery. I had seen God do remarkable things just an hour before, but still I felt lost and that my work was for nothing. Depression is not easily ended.
For David, the psalmist, the day came when it did end, and he lived again in the joy of God’s presence. And for Alistair Brown the day came when it did end, and the joy of living in God’s presence has been mine too, and I have never returned to the hopelessness of those times.
No matter how long the night of darkness lasts, ahead there are always good days with God. May our loving Lord be with you, whether right now you sense his presence or not.
 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins,1996), 5-6.