There are times when God seems absent. It seems that direction and blessing are gone. We have no sense that our prayers are being heard. We may be in a time of stress and trial, where there seems to be no relief in sight. Service that formerly brought us joy becomes dry and unrewarding. And we ask: Why?
At this point, the theological knowledge of God’s Omnipresence doesn’t help. This tells us that God is theoretically present. But, since the evidences of God’s favor seem missing from our life, this theoretical knowledge is no comfort. If God is present, why does God seem to be standing apart from us?
The Psalms often speak of these times. There is no denial here. The reality is that God’s most devoted followers sometimes go through dark times when God seems absent.
I have often reflected on this. It seems strange to me, but it is true: there have been seasons of blessing and seasons of darkness. I don’t know why. There have been times when I seemed to be living under a curse. Then, there have been times of blessing. And, it often doesn’t seem to make sense. I’ve never been able to connect these times of curse with moral faults either — something I notice Job’s companions tried to do for also him — and failed. Times of darkness happen unexpectedly, without warning or underlying reason.
And, in such times we find ourselves praying as the Psalmist does here.
“Turn to me and be gracious to me,
“for I am lonely and afflicted.
כִּי־יָחִיד וְעָנִי אָנִי
When I encounter the word “turn” in the Hebrew Bible, for some reason I expect to encounter the word שׁוּב, so often used by the prophets in their calls to repentance. But, this is a different word: פָּנָה. Strictly speaking, this word need not mean “turn.” It might mean “approach.” The psalm does not necessarily picture God as “turned away” from David. But, at the very least, God is far away.
And sometimes God seems far away. It seems as if our prayers make no difference. The blessings that signify God’s favor seem absent from out lives. And, our heart cries out: turn to me, O God.
The psalmist says: “for I am poor and lonely.” The word יָחִיד means solitary. The word עָנִי signifies “poor” or “oppressed.” Thus, it is both: lonely and without resources. There are few things as spiritually corrosive as sustained loneliness. Pastors come to recognize what I call the Shut-in Syndrome. Loneliness feeds depression. To be both lonely and oppressed is the lowest state one can reach emotionally. And, in the midst of depression, we come to a kind of unbelief that says: Even God has abandoned me — I am nothing — I am forgotten — I am worthless.
That is just the time for this prayer: Turn to me God and be gracious to me.
At some point, our sense of lowness and abandonment must be resisted. We cannot wallow in our loneliness and despair. In a strange way, we find here a deep kinship with Jesus, who cried out on the Cross (in the words of another Psalm): “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” Jesus meets us in our Godforsakeness, because Jesus himself has been there.
“Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than he went through before;
Those who into God’s kingdom come,
Must enter by this door.”
God often meets us most profoundly in our moments of darkness.
“Relieve the troubles of my heart,
צָרוֹת לְבָבִי הִרְחִיבוּ
“and bring me out of my distress.”
In regard to the first phrase, the older translations have “the troubles of my heart have enlarged” — further lament. The newer translations have “relieve the troubles of my heart” — a cry to God. The second option brings it into parallel meaning with the phrase that follows: “relieve.. bring me out.” Here the mind turns from consideration of the darkness, to consideration of that one who can bring relief.
This is a turn from despair to hope.
“Consider my affliction and my trouble,
רְאֵה עָנְיִי וַעֲמָלִי
“and forgive all my sins.“
[For some unknown reason, this verse deviates from the alphabetic pattern of the rest of the Psalm. This verse should begin with the letter ק but doesn’t. Adam Clarke remarks: “The word which began with ק koph has been long lost out of the verse, as every version seems to have read that which now stands in the Hebrew text.”]
And, here is the deepest realization in our darkness: our own sin. Circumstances may oppress us. Enemies may oppose us. Friends may betray us. But, more disturbing than all of this is the realization of our own moral failure. We have betrayed ourselves. We have failed ourselves.
We cannot always blame circumstances and other people and simply leave it at that. We have our own moral failure to face up to — and confess.
But, what if there is nothing on our conscience? Does this means that there is no possibility that we have failed nonetheless? What if we have omitted some great good we might have done? What if we have done evil and thought it was good? We do not know that to be the case — but isn’t it still likely that it is? In which case, we pray: “…and forgive all my sins.”
The term נָשָׂא for “forgive” also often signifies being lifted up. Forgiveness lifts us up from our sense of guilt and shame, it brings us once again into an attitude of hope.
who did yourself send your Son through the darkness of the Cross
Meet us in our darkness.
Hear our prayers
Forgive our sin
Lift us up
Teach us to hope again. Amen.