I chose Psalm 43 for my final sermon between surgery and sabbatical, first, because it was probably the most powerful and precious to me in these recent days since surgery; and second, because it defines the ultimate goal of life, including, therefore, the goal of these next five months for us as a church; and, third, because it gives very practical steps that you can take when you feel distant from God and wonder if he has forsaken you.
So let me take this moment to say how deeply thankful I am for your prayers and cards and gifts and emails and meals and visits. If you need encouragement that God has answered prayer, then let me give you as much encouragement as I can. First, I have not felt forsaken by God. I have not doubted his control or his wisdom or his goodness in any of this. Getting cancer is a gift to me from his all-wise, all-ruling, all-loving hand. That peace of soul is not owing to my nature but to God’s grace. Thank you for praying.
Second, Noël and I are deeply one in this embrace of God’s sovereign wisdom and goodness. Few things mean more to me than to be able to take my wife’s hand and bow together and say, as one, “Father, we accept this from your hand, and we submit to your sovereign will, and we trust you. Have your way with us — only, let Christ be magnified.” To be able to say that, with your wife at your side feeling and saying amen, is one of the great peaks in the mountain range of marriage joy.
Third, I have experienced no pain. Discomfort? Soreness? Yes. But nothing that I would put in the category of pain. God has handled me with soft gloves.
Fourth, the doctor sat down with me on Wednesday and laid out the pathology report. It confirmed the presence of cancer in the removed prostate, but also confirmed that it had not penetrated the capsule, as far as they could see, and there was no evidence of cancer in the lymph nodes. Then he said that 94 percent of the men with these scores and this surgery are cancer-free in ten years. For this I give thanks, and quietly and happily confess to God, “Whether I will be in the 94 percent or the 6 percent is entirely in your hands.” And there I rest. Not in the odds.
And, of course, the list could go on. All that to say: be encouraged that your prayers were not in vain.
So let’s turn now to Psalm 43 and see what the ultimate goal of life is and what practical steps you can take when you feel distant from God and that he has forsaken you.
The Psalmist’s Divided Soul
Verse 1 describes what is going on in the psalmist’s life; verse 2 describes what is going on in his soul in response to this situation. Verse 1: “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!” What makes his situation painful is that he has enemies, and they are oppressing him. They are ungodly people, and they are threatening his life or in some way making him miserable.
Verse 2 describes what is going on in his soul: “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?” Now what is most striking about his soul is that it is divided. We are going to see this in verse 5 as well, and it explains why the psalmists sometimes pray, “Unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 84:11). His heart is divided between saying in the first line of verse 2, “You are the God in whom I take refuge,” then also saying in the next line, “Why have you rejected me?” And then, “Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
“God does not reject those who take refuge in him.”
Part of his heart, it seems, is right now taking refuge in God. God has not let him go, and he has not let God go. But he is perplexed why God would allow his enemies to get the upper hand this way. When he says, “Why have you rejected me?” he seems to mean, “Why do turn your back and let the enemy make me miserable? You are my refuge. I have fled to you a hundred times. I fly to you now. But you have given me over to the scorn and threat of my enemies. There is darkness around me, and I am mourning in my oppression.”
I think this is not an uncommon condition among Christians today — a divided heart, a torn heart. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, or that we should have this experience. I am just saying most Christians do. In fact, I think I would say, “All Christians do at some point.” You can see it in the words of the man in Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief.” You can see it in Paul’s struggles in Romans 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” So my guess is that many of you know this experience firsthand.
How the Psalmist Handles It
So let’s look at how this man in the Psalm 43 takes practical steps against this divided heart. The grace of God has kept him from going so far that he doesn’t want to change. He does. He begins the psalm by crying out to God, “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause.” So he is crying out against his circumstances and asking God to change them. “Defeat these enemies, Lord! Give me victory!” It is not wrong to pray that God rescue us from our enemies — whether they are people or natural disaster or disease. It’s right and good to pray for deliverance and for rescue and for healing. So he does that.
But that’s not the main thing he does. He does two other things that are far deeper and more significant. The reason I say they are deeper and more significant is that the desire for vindication and rescue from the enemy can be a purely natural desire — that is, a desire that people have who are not born again and have no spiritual life. Everybody wants to be vindicated and rescued from their enemies. There is nothing godly about that in and of itself. So it may not be wrong. But it doesn’t take a spiritual work in a person’s life to make them want their enemies to be defeated and to escape the mess they are in. That can be purely natural.
But the other two things the psalmist does are not natural. They are not something anyone would do without the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. These two things are deeper and more significant than the mere desire to be vindicated. The first is that he speaks to God (in verse 3 and 4) and asks for God to lead him not mainly out of trouble, but to God — and specifically to God his exceeding joy. The other is that he speaks to his own soul (in verse 5) and calls on his soul to hope in God. Now those two things are things the devil would never do. And they are not things the natural, fallen, self-enamored human being would do either.
Let’s look at these one at a time. These are the steps you can take when you feel forsaken by God. These are steps I have taken hundreds of times in my life. And God has answered and helped me.
He Speaks to God
First, verses 3–4: “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.”
This is an amazing prayer. It reveals a man with much rich spiritual experience. His vocabulary, his view of reality, the sequence of his thought, the God-centeredness of his goal, the acquaintance with the sanctuary, the emotional outcome anticipated — all this reveals a man who has lived with God and knows God. Is it not amazing that even such a man can feel that God is distant, as if he has rejected him?
“Our altar is Jesus Christ crucified and risen and standing before the throne of God.”
And notice that there is not a whiff here of praying for vindication over the enemy. That is not in view any more. Something far greater is at stake now. There is a much more important victory to be won than victory over people or disaster or cancer. This is why I said in my Star article, “Don’t think of beating cancer mainly as being healed.” There is a victory far more important. And you can win it even if you die. That’s what the psalmist is fighting for now.
Get inside this man’s heart now and learn from him to do what he is doing. This is how you learn from the saints who have walked with God a long time and know him well. His prayer takes him through four stages.
Stage One: Praying for Spiritual Light and Truth
First in verse 3: “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me.” He confesses that he needs God to lead him. Why? Because he is in the dark. He knows he is in the dark because his heart is divided. God is his refuge, but he feels forsaken. He feels rejected. And he knows better. God does not reject those who take refuge in him. “He is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 18:30). But he can’t help himself. That’s how he feels.
Oh, how many people come to me for prayer pointing to their head and say, “I know that God is true. I know that he loves me. I know that promises never to leave me or forsake me.” And then they point to their heart, and say, “But I don’t feel it.” That’s what this man is experiencing. God is his refuge objectively. But subjectively he feels rejected and forsaken.
He knows the cause of this is darkness. He is spiritually blind to something. So the first stage of his prayer is for light and truth. This is the way Paul prayed for us, in Ephesians 1:18, “[May] the eyes of your hearts [be] enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” The eyes of the heart — remember where the people were pointing when they could not feel the wonders they knew — the eyes of the heart need light. Spiritual light. Light from God.
He is praying for spiritual light. It’s not physical light. Physical light helps physical eyes see physical reality. Spiritual light lets spiritual eyes — the eyes of the heart — see spiritual reality. And see it for what it is, namely, beautiful. So he is praying that God would rescue him not from his enemies but from a far more dangerous enemy: a darkness that causes the world to look much more attractive than it is and causes the greatness and beauty of God to fade out of sight.
O God, he prays, send me light. And I think he adds “truth” because this is what you see when light comes. Truth is what’s real, what’s substantial. Send light to my soul. Let me see the true substance and reality of things. O God, banish illusions from my heart. Not just intellectual illusions from my head, but emotional illusions from my heart.
Stage Two: Coming to the Altar of God
The second stage of his prayer is that by this light and truth God would bring him to God’s holy dwelling — the sanctuary and the altar of God. Verse 3b–4a: “Let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God.” Now the altar is the place where the blood of the animal sacrifice was sprinkled to make atonement for the people and where God forgave the sins of his people. In other words, the light of God leads him to the truth of his sinfulness and takes him to the place of atonement and forgiveness.
On this side of the cross of Jesus Christ today we know where the altar of God is. It’s not in the temple. It’s not in any house made with hands. Hebrews 13:10 says, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” Our altar is Jesus Christ crucified and risen and standing before the throne of God. “Before the throne of God above, I have a strong and perfect plea” — Christ our High Priest, our sacrifice, our altar.
The light of God that leads us is today “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). The light of the gospel leads us to Christ, to the altar, to the cross. And there our hearts are further illumined to see our sin and our wonderful forgiveness.
Stage Three: Experiencing God as Exceeding Joy
Then, the third stage of his prayer is that this light and truth would lead him to God as his exceeding joy. Verse 4: “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.” The final goal of life is not forgiveness or any of God’s good gifts. The final goal of life is God himself, experienced as your exceeding joy. Or very literally from the Hebrew, “God, the gladness of my rejoicing.” That is, God, who in all my rejoicing over all the good things that he had made, is himself, in all my rejoicing, the heart of my joy, the gladness of my joy. Every joy that does not have God as the central gladness of the joy is a hollow joy and in the end will burst like a bubble.
Isn’t this amazing! Here is man threatened by enemies and feeling danger from his adversaries, and yet he knows that the ultimate battle of his life is not the defeat of his enemies, it is not escaping natural catastrophe, it is not being healed from cancer. The ultimate battle is: Will God be his exceeding joy? Will God be the gladness at the heart of all his joys?
Stage Four: Expressing This Joy in God
And the final stage of his prayer is that this light and truth would lead him to express this joy that he feels in God. Verse 4 at the end: “And I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.” Authentic joy in God will overflow with praises. In fact, as C.S. Lewis says in his book on the Psalms, “we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” It’s not wrong to say, “We were made for God.” It’s not wrong to say, “We were made for joy.” It’s not wrong to say, “We were made to praise.” But it is more fully true to say, “We were made to enjoy God with overflowing praise.” This is the ultimate goal of life.
“The final goal of life is God himself, experienced as your exceeding joy.”
Now mark this: we have been describing the prayer of a divided heart. The psalmist would like to know a constant uninterrupted experience of God as his exceeding joy. But in reality there are times when he feels forsaken. He knows in his head that God has not forsaken him. But it feels like he has. So his deepest strategy to escape this most dangerous condition is to pray, “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.”
He Speaks to His Own Soul
We have no time to deal at length with his second spiritual strategy, but let’s close by at least mentioning it. His first strategy was to speak to God. His second is to speak to his own soul. 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.”
So here they are, the two great practical steps you can take when you feel forsaken: pray to God and preach to yourself. Nothing is more important in your mind than preaching the gospel to yourself. Preaching hope when all your circumstances are preaching despair.
Preach the Gospel to Yourself
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the former pastor and medical doctor from London, described the importance of preaching to ourselves:
Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are 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 [in this psalm] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou 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.” (Spiritual Depression, 20)
When we are apart now for these next five months, would you do this, dear Bethlehem? Just as the elders will see to it that the gospel is preached in this pulpit, would you see to it that you preach the gospel to yourself? Pray to God for the light you need in your heart, and preach to yourself the truth that you need in your soul. And, if God wills, we will again praise him together, our salvation and our God.