The Pain of God's Hiddenness
Repeat series theme: Lament Psalms teach us how to relate to God when we are in pain so that we can lay hold of the help he wants to give us.
Ps. 42,43 is one of several Psalms about a specific kind of pain known only to true Christians/believers—the pain of God’s “hiddenness.” Read Ps. 42. Woven throughout this Psalm is a description of this pain, its attending factors, and how to respond to it.
The pain of God’s hiddenness
Re-read 42:1,2. The deer metaphor (42:1a) illustrates what he describes in 42:1b,2. His soul is wilting because the sense of God’s loving presence has left him. He can’t sense God as a living God, he can’t see God’s face (see Num.6:26-28)—and he doesn’t know why. He is “going to the places” where he normally experiences God’s love—but God isn’t meeting him there. To switch illustrations, the sunshine of God’s loving presence has been inexplicably hidden by a thick cloud.
So the pain of God’s hiddenness is the inexplicable loss of the sense of God’s loving presence. There are at least three reasons why God’s hiddenness is explicable:
First, God’s loving presence may be hidden from you because you have never received his forgiveness through faith in his Son Jesus Christ. Our sins cause a separation between us and God that only Jesus atoning death can overcome. That’s why when you receive God’s forgiveness through Jesus, he sends his Spirit into your heart so that you can personally experience his love for you (Rom.5:5; 8:16; EXAMPLES). If you have never experienced God’s love for you, you do not have God’s Spirit, and you do not belong to Christ (Rom.8:9). You can change that this morning...
Second, you can lose the sense of God’s loving presence as a true Christian by adopting a rebellious attitude toward God’s moral leadership of your life. This is what David experienced in Ps.32:3,4. Personal intimacy with God is contingent to a heart that is yielded to his leadership (Jn. 14:21,23). If you are a Christian but feel chronically distant from God, do you have a moral controversy with him? Submit to him—and he will draw near to you again!
Third, you can lose the sense of God’s loving presence simply because you don’t regularly draw near to him through prayer and meditation on his Word. These are the means through which he reveals his presence to us.
All true believers experience this pain at times. Some have more than others, some of these times are deeper and/or longer than others, etc.—but all have them. This is one of several such Psalms (see Ps.63; 88) and many other biblical passages (e.g., Lam.3). This is the testimony of every seasoned Christian servant. I certainly have my share of this kind of pain. So you’d better expect this (“Forewarned is forearmed”) and learn how to navigate through them!
The specific reason for God’s hiddenness is mysterious—at least at the time. We can talk more about what some of these reasons might be during Q & A. But part of navigating through this pain is understanding the factors that make you more vulnerable to it and that aggravate it. This man mentions two of these factors:
Read 42:4,6. He is isolated from his spiritual friends and interrupted from his normal spiritual life with them. He is used to being in Jerusalem and involved regularly with the community of believers in praying, hearing God’s Word, etc. For reasons that he doesn’t explain, he is now way up in north Israel and (evidently) without spiritual companions. He knows that this is somehow connected to the pain of God’s hiddenness (42:4 “for”).
This is one of many biblical passages that emphasizes our need for community with serious Christians in order to have a healthy experiential life with God. Our American culture of hyper-individualism tells us that there is no relationship between Christian community and individual closeness with God—but this is a lie.
Much of the sense of God’s presence comes through fellowshipping with, studying with, praying with other Christians. This is the way God set it up, and he’s not going to change the rules for you and me! If you neglect this, you will suffer needless deprivation of the sense of God’s presence (EXAMPLES).
Also, the pain of God’s hiddenness is aggravated when you are isolated, because you are much more vulnerable to misinterpreting it as God’s rejection. So build a lifestyle around Christian community, and draw near to your Christian friends when you suffer the pain of God’s hiddenness!
The other attending factor is those who are accusing God to him (read 42:3,10). These people are not physical enemies—that are not pursuing him to kill him (as in a lot of other Psalms). But they don’t know God, and they keep asking him: “Where is your God?” This is not an information-seeking question from sincere seekers—this is an accusation that God has abandoned him, that God is powerless to help him, that the object of his faith is not real, etc. And these words are agonizing to him because this is precisely what his own heart is telling him.
Our spiritual enemy, Satan, loves to accuse God to us. Just when God seems “hidden,” he piles on by causing thoughts to emerge in your minds that God does not exist, or that God doesn’t care about you, or that God is impotent to help you.
Sometimes, people become Satan’s unwitting mouthpieces. It is not mere coincidence that just when you are wrestling with the pain of God’s hiddenness, a spouse or work associate or old friend or professor will suggest that you are taking God way too seriously, or raise an objection to your faith that you don’t know how to answer, etc. Especially if you are isolated and/or if you keep these thoughts to yourself, you can feel defenseless before the hammer-blows of their unbelief.
How to respond
But there is a way to respond constructively. This man shows us how he responds to this pain in a way that begins to lead him out of it. The essence of his response is that he talks. That is, he talks to two different people in two very different ways. If you want to overcome the pain of God’s hiddenness, you have to do this. You can’t be silent, and you can’t talk to just one of these people—you have to talk to both.
On the one hand, you have to talk to God very openly about how much this pain hurts. That’s what this man does. He refuses to accept this state as normal. Instead, he runs like a small child in pain to his parent. He openly laments the loss of God’s loving presence (42:1,2,9; 43:2a). And he openly asks God to restore his loving presence (43:3,4). This is supplication—pouring the pain in your heart out before God.
This has been a big challenge for me over the years. My macho upbringing told me this is weak and shameful, and many older Christians gave me the impression that this is unspiritual. And my self-sufficient pride found this appealing. But that’s not what the Bible says. Jesus did this in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he asked his closest friends to be with him while he did this (but they fell asleep instead, so he had to do it by himself). What makes me think that I am stronger than Jesus? This is a big reason why God gave me his Spirit (Rom.8:15).
Do you do this? If you don’t, you may dull the pain of God’s hiddenness—but it may become chronic because you won’t let him comfort you. You may come to wrongly believe that this stoic state is normal. You may become cynical about the whole notion of experiencing God’s loving presence as the “home base” of your Christian life. This is a big price to pay for not being willing to talk openly to God about your pain!
On the other hand, you have to also talk to yourself very aggressively about how you interpret the pain of God’s hiddenness. That’s what this man did. Yes, he poured out his pain to God—but also spoke aggressively to his own soul about the conclusions it was drawing. This is the three-fold refrain of Ps. 42 & 43 (read 42:5). His questions (“Why are you in despair? Why have you become disturbed within me”) are not information-seeking questions—they are disagreements, even reproofs. He can’t necessarily help that he feels this way, but he disagrees that these feelings are an accurate assessment of the situation because of what God has revealed about his character. He reminds himself: “My God is a faithful God—so He will not leave me here; He will see me through this painful period and He will restore the joy of his presence.” On this basis, he calls on himself to go on trusting God (“Hope in God”).
This is very counter-cultural, because our culture teaches us that our feelings are a reliable guide. But the Bible says that our feelings are fallen and therefore unreliable. Uncritically believing your feelings is a good way to ruin your life, your marriage, your sanity! If we can’t follow our feelings uncritically, what do we do with them? We must evaluate our feelings by what God says!
Listen to how D. M. Lloyd-Jones explains this crucial truth: “The main trouble in this whole matter ... is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self...Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man's treatment was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.’...You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself... instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is... and what God has done, and what God has pledged himself to do... We must stand up as this man did and say: ‘Why are you cast down? Why are you disquieted within me?’...instead of listening placidly to him and allowing him to drag you down and depress you. For that is what he will always do if you allow him to be in control.”
As Christians, we should be able to talk to ourselves this way more effectively than he could, because we have greater promises (Rom.8:32). Because Jesus was willing to take our sins on himself and be forsaken in our place (“My God, why have you forsaken me?”), God can promise to those who belong to Jesus: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” This is the Rock on which we stand!
If you pour your heart out to God and preach this to yourself this way, you will eventually get out of the trough. You can see hope beginning to rekindle in this man’s heart after talking in this way (read 42:6-8). As he “remembers” God in this way, he realizes that God has taken him through similar periods before (“Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me”). God did not abandon him—He was mysteriously at work through these dark periods for good. So he has more assurance that God will bring him through this dark period as well, and that the sunshine of God’s love will break through into his heart again (42:8).
DISCUSS: Why might God allow us to go through the pain of his hiddenness?
This refining exposes our self-sufficiency and deepens our trust in God (2Cor.1:9), so that when God grants us revelation and/or power we give him the glory he deserves instead of stealing it for ourselves (2Cor.12:7).
This gives us empathy for suffering people and more authentic faith with which to encourage them (2Cor.1:3-5).
This test refutes Satan’s accusation that no one trusts God without being bribed by his tangible blessings (Job1,2).
This makes us long for greater intimacy with God in this life (“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”), and motivates us to seek him in prayer and biblical meditation.
This makes us long for full intimacy in heaven, and work meanwhile to advance his kingdom—grateful for the help he gives us here.
See for example Charles Spurgeon’s “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” in Helmut Thielicke, Encounter With Spurgeon . Martin Luther once was so depressed by God’s hiddenness that his wife came into his bedroom dressed all in black. When Luther asked, “Who died?” she replied: “By the way you have been acting, I thought God died.”