The Psalms Teach Us How to Cling to God When Hurting

by John Ellis

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” (Romans 8:28). And by “all things,” Paul meant“all things,” including hard providences. Sometimes, though, that “all” is quite turbulent, and God’s children become focused on the waves and not 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. However, and taking it a step further, many of the Psalms also offer a model for how we should pray during seasons of pain and despair.

Many years ago, while stuck in a guard shack over the course of several months, I learned to model my prayers of distress after the Psalms. My theatre 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 my Heavenly Father. While serving as a pastor at my church, I frequently heard hurting brothers and sisters in Christ echo those same feelings as they agonized over their lack of feeling close to God during times of hard providences.

During those times, it’s easy to feel alone. Our prideful heart encourages us to steer into the “woe is me” mindset. A trap the prophet Elijah stumbled into.

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. While cowering in a cave, 1 Kings 19:9 tells us that, “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 alone. The implicit charge is that God had abandoned him to die alone. That, of course, is absurd, as the rest of 1 Kings 19 makes clear, God never abandons His own.

The theme that is born out in 1 Kings 19 of God’s sovereign hand, even during times of hard providences, is made clear in many of the prayers found in the Psalter.

One of the things that jumps out about Psalms 17, 22, 38, and 43, to list just four out of a possible many, is that the poets didn’t shy away from honesty. In Psalm 17, David reveals in verses 10-12 that the wicked have surrounded him, 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?”

Acknowledging the consequences of his transgressions against God, Psalm 38:2-3 finds David 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, proper, and children should be seen and not heard mindset?

The thing is, the writer of Psalm 43 penned his anguished cry under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That 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 suffering, 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. Pouring my hurting soul out before my Creator, I begged my Heavenly Father to restore my spirit, heal my hurt, and provide me 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; whom our faith is placed in is all important. Yes, the storm’s waves may be crashing about us, but the God of the storm’s waves calls us His own. He will not let us sink. The Psalmists’ prayers point us to that truth.

Psalm 17 concludes with a confession that God will ultimately subdue the wicked and 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. 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 are facing 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 is able to write in Psalm 38:15 that, “But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.” In Psalm 42, the writer expresses the confidence that he will ultimately, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 43:5).

During moments of pain and emotional turmoil, we are not called to suppress our feelings nor deny our pain. However, as we cry out to our Heavenly Father, we also need to cling to God’s sovereign goodness, even if we don’t see nor understand it in the moment. The Psalms encourage honesty, but that honesty is rooted in God’s character and divine plan.

Soli Deo Gloria

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