God often uses hard providences to bring forth spiritual growth in the hearts and lives of his children. As the apostle Paul famously promised to followers of Jesus, “All things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28)—and by “all things,” Paul meant all things, including hard providences. Sometimes that “all” is quite turbulent and God’s children become focused on the waves and not on their Christ. During those times, hurting Christians are frequently encouraged to read the Psalms as a means of grace to encourage their hearts, and rightfully so. Taking it a step further, however, many of the Psalms offer a model for how we should pray during seasons of pain and despair.
Over the course of several months, while stuck in a guard shack, I learned to model my prayers of distress after the Psalms. My theater career had imploded, and I found myself working third shift as a security guard at a high-end gated community. Those nights were long, yet eternally profitable. With my career crashing down around me, I struggled with feeling overlooked by God. I knew with my head that God loved me, but my heart was breaking. I felt like I was slipping farther and farther away from the eyes of my heavenly Father. Even now, years later, there are still moments when I feel a lack of an existential closeness to him.
Serving as an elder at my church, I frequently hear hurting brothers and sisters in Christ echo those same thoughts as they agonize over their lack of feeling close to God during times of hard providences. During those times, it’s easy to feel alone. Our prideful hearts encourage us to steer into the “woe is me” mind-set.
The prophet Elijah fell into that trap. After witnessing God humiliate and defeat the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, Elijah fled to the wilderness. Fearful for his life, he hid from the vengeful Queen Jezebel. First Kings 19:9 tells us that while Elijah was cowering in a cave “the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
For his part, Elijah complained that after pouring his heart and soul into ministry, he was all by himself. The implicit charge is that God had abandoned him to die alone. That, of course, is absurd, as the rest of the passage makes clear: God never abandons his own. The theme, borne out in this chapter, of God’s sovereign hand even during times of hard providences is made clear in many of the prayers found in the psalter.
One thing that jumps out about Psalms 17, 22, 38, and 43 (to list just four out of many) is that these poets didn’t shy away from honesty. In Psalm 17:10–12, David reveals that the wicked have surrounded him and that they are eager to destroy him. In the great Messianic Psalm 22, David laments in the opening verse, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” Psalm 38:2–3 depicts David acknowledging the consequences of his transgressions against God, crying out, “For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” The poet’s honesty in Psalm 43 is almost stunning in its starkness. In verse 2, the poet asks God, “Why have you rejected me?” Continuing, he writes, “Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
Surely, on a sliding scale of despair, all Christians resonate from time to time with the laments of those four psalms. How often have we longed to plead of God “Why have you rejected me?” only to be stymied by rigid views of prayer that cage our relationship with our heavenly Father into that of a prim and proper “children should be seen and not heard” mind-set.
Because the writer of Psalm 43 penned his anguished cry under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this should comfort us. Our heavenly Father wants our honest pleas. God desires for us to open our hearts and pour our troubles out in prayer to him. God delights in hearing his children. When you suffer, tell God. When wracked by doubt, tell God. When confused and feeling disconnected from his presence, tell God. Taking our cue from the Psalms, we shouldn’t be afraid to be honest with our heavenly Father who hears our cries.
During those months stuck in that guard shack, I spent hours reading the Bible, followed by hours pleading with God. Wrestling with God, like Jacob who refused to let go, and pouring my hurting soul out before my Creator, I begged him to restore my spirit, heal my hurt, and provide me with faith. By God’s grace, taking my cue from the Psalms, as I prayed I clung to God’s sovereign goodness, albeit weakly.
One of Jesus’ points when he spoke of the power of having faith the size of a mustard seed was that the size of one’s faith is irrelevant; it is the object of our faith that is important. Yes, the storm’s waves may be crashing about us, but the God of these waves calls us his own. He will not let us sink, and the psalmists’ prayers point us to that truth.
Psalm 17 concludes with a confession that God will ultimately subdue the wicked and the oppressor. Ending with a prayer of thanksgiving in verse 15, David confesses, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” Psalm 22, of course, is a glorious prophetic cry about the Messiah’s ultimate triumph, and reading verses 22–31 is an exercise in joy. In verse 26, David exclaims, “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord!”
No matter our troubles, no matter our existential angst, God’s people face a future of complete satisfaction in our Savior. No amount of trials and troubles can overshadow the good things that God has prepared for his children. This is why David was able to write in Psalm 38:15, “But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.” In Psalm 43:5, the writer expresses confidence that he will ultimately “hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
During moments of pain and emotional turmoil, we are not called to suppress our feelings or deny our pain. As we cry out to our heavenly Father, however, we also need to cling to his sovereign goodness, even if we don’t see or understand it in the moment. While the Psalms encourage us to be honest, that honesty is rooted in God’s character and divine plan.
Adapted from John Ellis,"When Hurting, Cling to God's Sovereign Hand" Modern Reformation, Sep/Oct 2019. Used by permission.