Thanksgiving When God Seems Distant
Topic: Topical Passage: Psalm 13
Thanksgiving is a godly discipline. In fact, Colossians states several times that it is at the center of godliness. It humbles us before God and reminds us that every good thing comes from his hand. We need to live with a spirit of thanksgiving. As a result, all across America today, pastors are preaching on thanksgiving.
I would assume that the vast majority of these sermons will be very happy. Afterall, we generally equate thanksgiving with seeing all that is good in our lives and forgetting for a moment all that is bad.
But what do you do when life is agonizing—you are facing awful circumstance, or your heart just feels emotionally and spiritually empty? Sure, you may be able to find some token reasons to give thanks, but the exercise feels forced, hollow, and hypocritical. So, what do you do? Do you disobey the biblical call to thankfulness? Do you fake it and pretend to be happy?
God knew you would be asking these questions. In fact, the Bible relates more with the person fighting for joy than with the happy, go-lucky life, American ideal. Did you know that over a 3rd of the psalms are laments, where the psalmist wrestles with sorrow? Laments are by far the most common type of psalm. As well Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and many of the prophetic books are filled with lament.
God knows that life in a sin-cursed world hurts. So, what do we do with thanksgiving? Do we ignore it when life hurts? Do we fake it? Or is it possible to be thankful even when you are grieving or you are in a spiritual wilderness? Psalm 13 provides a godly model of how we can give thanks in dark times (read). This psalm outlines 3 steps to thanksgiving when God and his blessings seem distant. The first is…
I. Be honest with the Lord (vv. 1–2).
Explanation: The heading of Psalm 13 says that David wrote it. It’s obvious that David wrote it in a time of great distress. However, he doesn’t tell us why he was distressed. Since David mentions death in v. 4, some believe was battling a life-threatening illness, but we can’t know for certain. All we really know is that life was struggling.
Notice that David doesn’t put on a happy face and ignore his sorrow; instead, he cries out to the Lord with brutal honesty. Specifically…
David felt like God had abandoned him. He gets right to the point when he asks, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” The OT often states that God “remembers” his people, when he answers their prayers, and acts graciously on their behalf. In contrast, David feels like God has forgotten It feels like he is praying to a brick wall.
He expresses a similar sentiment in the 2nd line, “How long will You hide Your face from me?” David felt like God had turned his back on him. For a godly man like David, who longed for the presence of the Lord, this had to be devastating.
Then he asks, “How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily.” Have you ever tackled some huge project that is beyond your ability? You’re trying so hard, and you are pulling your hair out in frustration. You want help, but the people who could really do something don’t seem to care. It’s frustrating.
That’s how David felt. He had done everything he could to fix the source of his sorrow, but he was getting nowhere. However, God could fix it in a snap, but it felt like God didn’t care.
Finally, he asks, “How long will my enemy be exalted over me? Again, we don’t know the specifics, but David is frustrated because some wicked man is prospering at David’s expense. It’s not right, and it’s not fair, but again, God isn’t doing anything to fix it.
So, David feels like God has abandoned him, and I’m sure that we can all identify with those feelings. We’ve all been through dark times, and we think we know what God should do. Yet he feels so far away. It feels like he doesn’t care. It feels like he has abandoned us.
Of course, those feelings are always wrong. Hebrews 13:5 states, “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” He is always near, whether we feel it or not. In fact, the only son that God has ever abandoned was Jesus as he bore our punishment on the cross. God is with you, if you are his child. Our responsibility is to believe what we know to be true, not what we feel. David surely knew this, but he’s being honest about how he felt. And then adding to his anguish is that…
David fears God’s abandonment will never end. One of the most striking features of Psalm 13 is that 4 times David repeats the desperate question, “How long, O Lord.” It tells us that David has been suffering for a long time. He’s exhausted, and he wants it to be over, but maybe the most discouraging aspect of it all is that there is no end in sight.
That’s hard isn’t it? We can endure a lot, when we have hope, when the end is in sight. But suffering turns into despair when there is no hope in sight, when all we can see is an endless path of pain and suffering. Maybe you are there today, and with David you cry, “How long, O Lord?”
Thankfully, as Christians, we know that that there is an end. Someday, Christ will reconcile all of creation to himself, and we will enjoy his perfect presence for all eternity. We always have hope, even on our darkest days. And you must cling to that hope, no matter what trials you face. But still, that hope oftentimes seems so far away. And David voices this fear 4xs. “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?” And we can learn 3 important truths from his example. First…
God’s purpose is often hidden from us. It’s one thing to suffer when there is an obvious purpose behind it. You see how God is changing you, or how this hardship will benefit you in the long run. But suffering is a different animal when you can’t see any purpose, any good, and no end.
As a result, we often search for a reason. That’s what Job’s friends Like any good prosperity preacher, they were sure Job was suffering because of hidden sin. And when we suffer, we also want to know why.
However, David had no idea why he was suffering. Apparently, he was confident, like Job, that there was no sin to confess, and that he was not enduring judgment. So, he was left with no explanation.
Instead, he just had to trust the Lord, and that’s what we have to do also. You may never know why and that’s okay, because God knows why. And if all you know is that God is good, you know enough. The 2nd lesson is…
Bring your questions to the Lord. I don’t think there is any more fundamental value in our culture than the desire for happiness. We long to feel good and have fun. It’s why the prosperity gospel is so popular. We want to serve a God who exists to make us happy, and we want the power to control his blessing.
It’s also why we spend absurd amounts of effort and money running from any kind of suffering, sorrow, or pain. We drown sorrow in alcohol, drugs, entertainment, and even in trite, “power-of-positive thinking” Christianity.
But the Bible consistently teaches that we must deal with our grief, not run from it. Everywhere in Scripture people talk honestly to the Lord about their sorrow. Therefore, rather than desperately trying to escape grief, God wants us to bring our sorrows to him and be honest with him about them. Folks, your prayer closet is not the place to pretend like life is hunky-dory. No, be honest with God. Talk to him about your fears, sorrows, and frustrations.
Now, I want to be clear that we must do so reverently. God is not your punching bag, so we must always approach him with humility and reverence. But when you lament like David does here, you actually honor the Lord, by bringing your fears, and frustrations to the only one who is able to help. So, talk to the Lord. Take your burdens to him in prayer. Like any loving Father, he wants you to do so. The 3rd lesson is…
Wait on the Lord. This is important, because when life hurts, we tend to give God deadlines. “Lord, you better fix this by Christmas.” Or, “Lord, I can only take this for so long, and if you don’t fix this on my schedule, I’ll fix it myself.” We abandon God, because he’s not doing what we think he should do.
But Psalm 130:5–6 state, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I do hope. My soul waitsfor the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.” And that’s exactly what David does here. He keeps asking, “How long, O Lord,” but he never runs He waits patiently.
And you must do the same thing. Cling to what you know to be true. God is good, and he will be faithful. Someday, he will fix every wrong and reward all our service. So, express your sorrows to him. Be honest with the Lord. Ask him your questions, and then wait in faith for him to do work his purpose. The 2nd step to practicing thanksgiving when God and his blessings seem distant is…
II. Humbly cry out to the Lord (vv. 3–4).
After voicing his sorrows and his questions to the Lord in vv. 1–2, notice in vv. 3–4 David’s prayer for help (read). I see 2 ways that David sets an example for us. First…
Boldly cry out for help. David makes 3 urgent requests in v. 3. First, he says “consider” or “look” on me. This request is based on David’s sense that God has turned his back on him and forgotten him. David cannot stand the thought that God would forsake him, so he pleads with the Lord, to look at him or remember It’s an urgent request.
Second, David prays, “Hear me (i.e., answer me), O Lord my God.” Again, this is a bold David feels like God is not listening to David. He wants answers. He’d especially love it if God would restore his joy and relieve his suffering. As a result, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He boldly though reverentially prays, “Hear me (i.e., answer me), O Lord my God.”
Third, he prays, “Enlighten my eyes.” To understand this request, it’s helpful to remember the story of 1 Samuel 14. Saul and his army were chasing the Philistines, and Saul foolishly commanded his men not to eat until the battle was over. However, Jonathan hadn’t heard the command and ate some honey. When Jonathan heard about Saul’s charge, he responded, “Look now, how my countenance has brightened because I tasted a little of this honey” (v. 29). In other words he was refreshed.
Like Jonathan, David is worn down by the weight of his sorrow. He begs God to refresh both his body and spirit. In sum, David is very direct and bold in prayer. And notice that his boldness continues as he argues for why the Lord should answer. He demonstrates that we should…
Boldly argue our case. Notice that David follows his 3 requests with 3 reasons why God should answer, and there is an air of desperation in all of them. First, he says, “lest I sleep the sleep of death.” It’s possible that David was truly sick and near to death. He may also be speaking figuratively. Regardless, he is very blunt about his need for help.
Then in 4 he adds 2 more reasons (read). Obviously, David’s is concerned for himself, but he is also very concerned for God’s glory. I say that because David was God’s chosen king; therefore, David’s enemies were God’s enemies. And a victory over David would be considered a victory over God.
As a result, David boldly calls on the Lord to defend his own glory by defending David. That’s very important, because David prays according to God’s will. He’s not just demanding things from God. Rather, his boldness is rooted in the fact that he knows is making biblical requests.
So, I’m not encouraging you to demand just anything from God. No, you need to watch your heart. But when you want something that to the best of your knowledge aligns with biblical priorities, pray boldly.
In sum, vv. 3–4 provide an important model of how we should pray in times of sorrow. It’s an important example, first, because we are often slow to pray. We worry and fret and try everything we can to fix it ourselves, while we sprinkle in some bland prayers. We need to run to God first and humbly lean on him to carry us through.
Second, it’s an important example, because very often in our desire to be reverent in prayer, we fail to be bold. Certainly, we do need to pray with a spirit of reverence and submission. We must acknowledge that God knows better than us, and he is the Lord, not us.
But Hebrews 4:16 also commands us, “Come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Therefore, when you are overwhelmed with sorrow or just with life, don’t tip-toe into God’s presence with a list of bland, nondescript requests.
No, believe that God is able, and that he wants what is good and just. Then boldly tell him your needs and your fears. Ask him to do what you believe is right, for his glory and your good. The 3rd step to practicing thanksgiving when God and his blessings seem distant is…
III. Hope in God’s character and promises (vv. 5–6).
It’s impossible to miss the change of tone in v. 5. After voicing his sorrow, desperation, and confusion to the Lord, v. 5 begins with a strong adversative. David says, “But…” We must remember that Psalm 13 is one prayer.
David doesn’t pray vv. 1–4 when life is bad and then vv. 5–6 after God fixes Instead, life still stinks when we writes vv. 5–6. Yet David voices incredible peace and hope even with all the unknowns. So, how can he express such rest and thanksgiving in the midst of such pain? Notice the logical progression of vv. 5–6. First…
David rehearses God’s character. The crux of this psalm is v. 5a. In the midst of the darkness, David declares, “I have trusted in your mercy.” The Hebrew term translated mercy is the familiar and wonderful Hebrew word, hesed. It’s such a rich word that no single English word captures its full significance. It combines the fact that God is merciful, kind, and loving with the fact that he is also faithful and loyal to his covenant people. I’ve seen it translated as “steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” or “unfailing love.”
So, what David does here is so important. His life is crazy. It feels like he is out on the sea during a hurricane getting thrown everywhere. But then he drops anchor in the steadfast love of the Lord. He doesn’t understand what God is doing, and he has no idea how it will all turn out.
But he knows that God is good. He knows that God loves him. And he knows that God will not abandon him. He will be faithful, and he will be beside David the entire way.
Folks, there is no more important anchor in the storms of life. Even when everything else seems foggy and disjointed, we know that God loves his children with a steadfast, loyal love. No matter how terrible the storm grows, you must stay anchored to the goodness of God.
When I was a youth pastor, the mother of one of our teens was diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s scary. At the time they were facing the misery of cancer treatments, and we didn’t know how it would turn out. And we especially didn’t know why. Why would God let a godly wife and mother with 2 children in the house endure cancer?
But I told Travis, you have a choice to make. Either you can grow bitter at God for letting your family endure this trial, or you can believe that God is good. We all face the same choice when troubles come. We must believe that God is good and faithful even when we have no idea what he is doing.
And praise the Lord that in the cross we have all the evidence we need that he is good. “God demonstrates (i.e., proved) His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). And this love will never fade, and we will never stray from that love. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels norprincipalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38–39).
So when troubles come rehearse God’s character. Everything else in life may be foggy and confusing, but you can stake your life on the steadfast love of the Lord. As you do so, with eyes of faith, you will be able to…
Anticipate God’s deliverance. Notice the 2nd line of 5. It’s important that we recognize that David is not using the word salvation in a technical NT sense. As in the song the children sang earlier, the psalms often use salvation as a broad reference to God’s deliverance. Of course, this begins with spiritual salvation, but it also includes sustaining grace and at times deliverance from enemies, illness or other trials.
It’s also important to note that when David writes these words, this salvation is still in the future. David has no idea exactly what it will look like. Specifically, he doesn’t know if his trials will have a happy ending.
But he knows God is good and God has a plan. He knows that God will be faithful. He will give more than enough grace, David’s faith will not fail, God will be glorified, and David will be vindicated. So, with eyes of faith, David sees that day and declares that in that day, “My heart…”
So, Christian, your life today may be an absolute wreck, filled with pain, questions, and sorrow. And you may not know a lot of things about the future, but you know that the Lord is your salvation. You know that the story ends at the feet of Jesus, glorified, and hearing him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” So with eyes of faith, look past the struggles of today, and give thanks for the salvation that will be yours. As a result…
Rejoice in God’s goodness (v. 6). Again, the main verb, “I will sing” looks to the future. David is not enjoying a bounty of blessing today. Instead, this is a prayer of faith. David could not see any good with his physical eyes, but with eyes of faith he sees bountiful, overflowing blessing. David knows that God will save And when he does, David promises to “sing to the Lord” based on his bountiful blessing.
So, remember that David began by asking, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?” But then he remembers the steadfast love of the Lord, and now he answers his own question. There’s a lot that David still doesn’t know, but he knows God will not forget him forever. God will save, and David will rejoice in his bounty.
He may not have the “bounty” today, that we so often think is necessary for thanksgiving. But it is coming. And because it is coming, we can be thankful today, not matter how terribly life hurts, and even if it feels like God has abandoned us.
So, the simple message of this psalm is, “When you feel like God has abandoned you, cry out the Lord, trust his character and give thanks for what he will do.” Some of you are facing tremendous sorrow, and dark clouds hang over all of life. Run to your Father, like David does. Tell him, pray to him, and hope in him. And if life is cruising along well, don’t get too comfortable. It can change in a flash, so make sure that your anchor is not in the shifting sands of circumstances, but in the steadfast love of the Lord, because it will never move.