I recently came across this quote: “We might impress people with our strengths, but we connect with people through our weaknesses.” (Craig Groeschel) Does that ring true for you? Do you prefer the people around you to only demonstrate strength or are you inspired by people revealing their weaknesses?
One of the things that I appreciate about Christianity is that there is no call for us to always put on a strong face. Some Christians attempt this but it is not what we find in the Bible. Our symbol is the cross, an image of defeat and death. When the Apostle Paul boasts, he always boasts in his weakness and suffering and not in his impressive accomplishments.
The Psalms are a perfect example of this. The Psalms were the song book of the Israelites. Even the Christian church for many centuries used the Psalms as the primary way of worshiping God. What do we find in the Psalms? Yes there are some majestic statements of praise. But there are also some deep reflection on personal suffering. Often these two things are found in the same Psalm.
For too long, Christians have felt unspiritual when they have had doubts or questions. Christians have felt like they needed to hide their pain and paint on a “Jesus smile.” This, even though we have much more evidence for Jesus weeping than for him smiling.
If we want to be biblical in our worship and our Christian discipleship, we need to take it as it really is and not how we wish it was. Psalm 22 is a great place for us to start.
David and Psalm 22
Psalm 22 is attributed to David. I want you to keep a few things in mind when it comes to David. David was the greatest king Israel had and the standard by which all others were measured. Even the Messiah was expected to be one like King David, a Son of David. The Bible describes David as “a man after God’s own heart.” Those are some pretty impressive credentials. If ever there was a hero of the faith, it was David. We can expect something great from his worship.
Instead we hear “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These verses are familiar from Jesus’ words on the cross but don’t rush over them too quickly. David doesn’t begin with complaining about how bad things are. He gets to that part but that is not his starting place. He begins with his feeling of abandonment. We all expect bad things to happen at some point. It is part of life. But it is easier to take when you have a support network. But what happens when that support is gone? What happens when you feel that even God is gone?
That seems to be the sharpest pain that David is feeling. In Psalm 23, David says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The valley is hard but it is easier with God with him. But what if God doesn’t walk the valley with him, or at least can’t be seen?
Having shared the feeling of being forsaken by God, David describes how difficult life has become. Some people are actively seeking to hurt him and others are gloating over his suffering. This is more than just one bad day. David is describing a life that is falling apart. This is consistent with what we know about David’s life. Yes he was a great king and he was successful in battle and expanding the borders of Israel. But he had enemies, sometimes among his own friends and family. He experienced personal pain and what he writes in this Psalm is not just hypothetical.
However, David doesn’t end the Psalm here. He goes on to praise God and to call upon others to praise God. David had a place in his faith to grieve but his suffering was not the final word. God was bigger than his suffering. Even feelings of being forsaken do not mean one is really forsaken. God is always there, whether we feel him or not. This is the message of the Psalm. It is okay to feel like God is far away but God’s presence doesn’t depend on our feelings and of that we can rejoice.
Jesus and Psalm 22
The reason that many people know some of the words of Psalm 22 is not because David said them but because Jesus said them. One of the things that have interested me is the relation between what David said and what Jesus said.
One interpretation is that Psalm 22 is pure prophecy of what would happen to Jesus. This interpretation says that David was not speaking of his own suffering or his own God forsakenness but of Jesus’ experience on the cross.
I’m not fully convinced of this. The reason is that Psalm 22 makes perfect sense on its own, even if Jesus never quoted it. It makes sense as a statement of David’s experience and it makes sense as our own feeling of abandonment in difficult times. One doesn’t need to have the sins of the world placed upon them to identify with these words.
What if instead of David having Jesus in mind, that Jesus had David and the rest of us in mind? What if Psalm 22 is about the human experience and Jesus, in the incarnation, was fully entering into our experience? Not to say there are no prophetic elements to Psalm 22 but that the primary reason that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 was that he was embodying what human suffering is, including our fear of being abandoned by God.
By quoting Psalm 22:1, Jesus was actually invoking the entire Psalm. The message of the Psalm is that God is there even when we can’t feel his presence. Things looked pretty grim for Jesus on the cross. But suffering didn’t have the final word for Jesus, even though it looked that way at the time. Despite the pain and humiliation at the time, the resurrection, the ascension and the eventual victorious return were all coming. Jesus wasn’t just identifying with David’s pain, he was identifying with David’s hope.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What is your response when you hear those words? I can imagine a continuum with some completely unable to identify and others feeling as if those words were their own. Many of us would be somewhere in between.
We may have felt condemned for ever feeling that way. Shouldn’t a good Christian be stronger than that? Well David wasn’t stronger than that. Neither was Jesus.
In our human experience, we will sometimes feel far from God in the times when life beats us up. That is normal. But Psalm 22 reminds us that the verse first verse is not the full story. God is present whether we feel it or not. We will get through this time and get to the place of praise. Our worship isn’t defined by how well life is treating us but by who God is. The God who will never leave nor forsake us is always worthy of worship.