I want to start by reading to you the testimony of a Christian who went through a season of severe depression. He wrote this:
"My mind was telling me things that were not true. The depression affected my perception of things, so that I had a distorted point of view… I believed nobody cared whether I lived or died. I went to bed each evening hoping I would die in the night, and woke up the next day feeling I could not face the hours ahead. However, I never doubted God, even in my lowest moments. I was convinced that God was in control of all that was going on, and that He would not waste any experience I was having."
Those are the words of the evangelist Roger Carswell in his online article 'The Treasures of Darkness'. Now, how do you feel as you hear that? Perhaps you feel unsettled? Some of us may feel that it is unspiritual for Christians to express such things – after all, aren't we meant to rejoice in the Lord? (That was my reaction as a young Christian when one of my Christian school teachers was off work with depression.) Or maybe you feel confused? You are all too aware of the pain of depression – or eating disorders – or a recent bereavement – but wonder how it's possible to believe with integrity that God is both in control and good – when your experience suggests quite the reverse. Or perhaps you feel encouraged to see a believer who is both fully real about his appalling suffering – and fully committed to trusting God, come what may?
My prayer for us as we look at Psalm 43 this evening is that God would encourage us to honour him in times of trial by both being real about our suffering and fully trusting him – like Roger Carswell. Turn with me to Psalm 43. Let's pray.
Father God, you know our trials. You know that trusting you is a struggle because we suffer, we face opposition, we can't see you and our hearts are slow to take comfort from your promises. Please speak to us through this Psalm, encourage us and strengthen our trust in you through our trials. In Jesus' name, Amen.
1. He Prays for God to Change His Situation
How does the Psalmist respond to his trials? Firstly, he prays for God to change his situation (v.1-2).
He Prays For Vindication
I need to clarify that slightly because when he prays for God to change his situation, he's not primarily praying for his trials to end, so that he can be left in peace by his enemies and enjoy a quiet life – the focus of his prayer is something different: vindication. Verse 1:
"Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people,
from the deceitful and unjust man
Vindication, vindication, vindication! Vindication just means to be cleared of blame or suspicion, to be shown publicly to be in the right. A recent example of this is the Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey who has just been cleared of misconduct charges by the Nursing and Midwifery Council. The charge was that she knowingly allowed a wrong temperature to be recorded when she returned to the UK after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. The charges hung over her for two years, but then last week she was vindicated – publicly cleared of the charges. In the context of Psalm 43, the psalmist is asking God to change his situation so that everyone sees that God is right – and he is right to trust God – and everyone should trust in God. Vindication.
He Prays With Desperation
And this isn't something he's praying coolly and calmly over a cup of hot chocolate lying on the sofa watching the Great British Bake Off with his slippers on! No! He prays with desperation! Vindicate me…. Verse 2:
"For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
why have you rejected me?
Why do I go about mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?"
He cries out for vindication precisely because his circumstances seem to be telling a different story. It looks like he has been foolish to trust in God. It doesn't look like God's promises are real at the moment. And so he's really letting fly at God: "Hang on a minute God: if you are in control of my enemies, then why are they winning? Why are you not vindicating me? Why have you rejected me? I have come to you for refuge and I have nowhere else to go. Do something!"
Maybe that's you at the moment: you're trusting God, facing opposition for your faith in Jesus and desperately seeking vindication… but it doesn't seem to come. I remember one time when I felt this very strongly. A few years back, I was accepted to be a Reach Volunteer with Friends International in Exeter to befriend and share the Gospel with international students. As part of that year, I needed to raise financial support to cover living costs, which was daunting. However, one morning, I read Philippians chapter 4 and I was particularly encouraged by verse 19:
"And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus"
I was persuaded that God had promised to meet my financial needs and that he would do so. The difficulty was that some of relatives felt that I was being foolish. They couldn't get their heads around why I had to ask for money. And they didn't feel that I would raise the money I needed. And so there I was – being faithful to God – but feeling foolish for God – in front of people who didn't trust in God. And I'll tell you what I wanted! Vindication! I wanted them to see that God was a God who provided – and that I was right to trust in him – and that they should too. I cried out for vindication!
I don't know what situations you might be in where you cry out for vindication. I talked there about money. What about relationships? A work colleague says to you: "You were crazy to turn down that guy's offer of a date. You guys would be great together. Why do you keep holding out hope for a Christian husband – or for singleness? I feel sorry for you." Or a neighbour says to you: "You're retired and you're busier now than two years ago! Why do give so much time and energy to offering hospitality to random people, or helping in the church? I know that's probably a Christian thing. But if you don't do what you really want to do with your retirement, you're losing out!"
In those situations, we burn for vindication. We want God to show everyone that his way is best – and that we are right to trust him – and we want him to do it now!
Cry Out to God for Vindication
Yet the difficult thing is that vindication rarely happens straight away – we often have to hold on to God's promises while we're in the dark – and wait. For example, for me with that Friends International post, that meant several months of testing until God provided all the finances I needed. And my relatives saw that God provided.
On another scale entirely, one thinks of the Christians in Iraq who have suffered so much in recent years for their faith. Recently I read that an important Iraqi Shia leader had spoken out in their favour. Despite having suffered greatly, he said that Christians had never responded with violence and had continued to promote unity. That's some measure of vindication for Iraq's suffering Christians.
But sometimes vindication will not happen this side of heaven. Many of us will know of the Christian registrar Lilian Ladelle. In 2006 she wrote to her employer asking for a reasonable accommodation of her religious objection to same-sex civil partnerships. Her employer refused. She took her case to the employment tribunal and won. Then that verdict was overturned. She took her case to the European Court of Human Rights which ruled against her. And then in 2013 she had nowhere to appeal to. Then she died in 2015 with a clear conscience before God, but black marks in the eyes of many... so where is vindication for Lilian Ladelle? Friends be assured that vindication will come! You – and I – and Lillian Ladelle will get justice! Listen to this parable from Luke 18.1-8:
"Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Give me justice against my adversary.' For a while he refused, but afterwards he said to himself, 'Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'" And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?""
Friends, the point is that God is not like the unrighteous judge. He cares about justice. And we are not like the widow in the parable. As Christians, we are his children. So don't give up praying for vindication. And when we pray for vindication, yes we are praying for God to show everyone that it is right and good to trust in him now – but we pray in particular for the Lord's return – when the Son of Man – Jesus – comes and brings vindication. As we look for vindication, we pray: 'Come Lord Jesus! Come Lord Jesus!'
2. He Prays for God to Change Him
How does the Psalmist respond to his trials? The Psalmist prays for God to change his situation (v.1-2) and he prays for God to change him (v.3-5).
He Asks for Light
In verses 3-4, he asks for light and truth.
"Send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God."
The Psalmist is praying that he might continue the fellowship with God which he used to enjoy. In New Testament terms he's asking the Holy Spirit to make God real to him, that he might delight in God again and experience God's love afresh, but to do that he needs light.
I don't know if any of you have been caving? I would recommend it! Tunnels, darkness, caverns, underwater rivers, stalactites, stalagmites, bats – there's something for everyone! When you go caving, you are given a standard issue torch which is attached to your helmet. One of the things you do in every caving expedition when you arrive deep in the cave is to turn your torches off. And it's pitch black. You can't see anything. Then you switch on again and you can see. There is nothing more important in a cave than light. If you have no light to guide you, you're stuck in a massive cave and you cannot see the way out. But if you have light, even though you're still in the cave, you can see where you're going – and you know the way to get fresh air and sunlight.
His Desire to be with the Lord
That's what's happening to the Psalmist. Spiritually speaking, he is in the cave, and in the dark, and he wants a torch so he can start to see the way out – to see God clearly again – in verse 3, he's saying: 'Give me light, Lord! I want to come out of the cave! I want to meet you and praise you!' What a change this is from Psalm 42, which we looked at two weeks ago (the two Psalms really belong together)! In Psalm 42.4, he is looking back with nostalgia on a golden age which is no more:
"These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival."
But in Psalm 43.4, we see him looking forwards with anticipation:
"Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
Here is a man whose passion for God is being rekindled!"
This is the cry of David in Psalm 73.25:
"Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you."
This is the wish of Paul in Philippians 1.23:
"…I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far."
As the psalmist wrestles through his situation before God, over time his hunger for God starts to fill his vision more and more – and his suffering is no longer controlling his perspective; God is.
God's Perspective on our Trials
And I want to say to you, friends, that the Psalmist's experience here of gaining a fresh godly perspective on his trials can be your experience too! Now as I say that, I realise that for some of you that will not be easy to hear. Indeed you might be thinking right now: 'Ben, you have no idea what I'm going through. How can you say possibly God has a good purpose in this?' Friends, I know that I might not know what you're going through. But God does. And God loves you enough to speak to you in your trial for your good. So with that in mind, let me read James 1.2-4:
"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."
To that you may reply – particularly if you are in the thick of trials: 'How can I possibly think like that?!' Look at verse 5:
"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him."
If you ask God, he will help you to see how he's using the trials you're facing to make you more like Christ and give you a greater desire for him. It's a promise. God gives wisdom generously to those who ask. Certainly the process of spiritual growth through trials is not speedy. It's not like the speedy transition from night into day, or the transition from town to countryside as you take the train to Edinburgh. It's more like the blurry transition between winter and spring – slight rise in temperature, slightly longer daylight hours and flowers starting to grow. And the process of spiritual growth through trials is not automatic. We need to actively trust God and his promises – and tell ourselves to keep doing that. As the Psalmist says in verse 5:
"Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God."
But the spiritual transformation is real. If we commit to asking God to change us through our trials, he will do just that. So friends, what will you do when you face severe trials like Roger Carswell did?
Option 1: Glibly hold onto truths in the Bible which you don't feel are true and just resign yourself to the contradiction.
Option 2: Spiral into spiritual despair because you lose sight of God's promises.
Option 3: Follow the example of the Psalmist – and Roger Carswell – and Jesus! Wrestle with God! Pour out your heart to him! Ask him for vindication! Ask him for light! Look forward to heaven! Keep wrestling with him!
Through Psalm 43, God is pleading with each of one of us to choose option 3. Let's pray.
Father God, guard us from being fake Christians who speak your truth, but don't believe it. Guard us from unbelief and doubting your promises. Help us instead to wrestle with you in times of trial. And please change our perspective on our trials as we do that. In Jesus' name, Amen.