How to see God when the world is just… wrong: Overview

Scriptures: Psalm 6; Psalm 137

Our sermon series that we are beginning today is called “How to see God when the world is just… wrong.” Today we’re going to give an overview.

Many people today see the world in a totally, or almost totally, negative light. And there is some truth to the world being a dark place. It is fallen along with all of us, and has its problems. But it is also a creation that God called “very good”, and Scripture tells us that it testifies night and day to God the Creator. To many, this is paradoxical. Particularly in times of disaster or tragedy, whether personal or large scale, we struggle to see what God called “good”.

Even more so, we often question God Himself, His presence, His power, His goodness, and His love. When there is evil, where is God? When there is disaster, where is God, and why did He let this happen? When bad things happen to me, how do I deal with it as a Christian and as a believer? We struggle with the reality of evil, and the idea that God is both good, and all-powerful.

This is not an idle or useless set of questions, and I hope to address these as we go through the sermon series. I want to begin by sharing with you that this is not even a new question. It even predates Christ’s incarnation. People all through the Old Testament struggled with it. From Job, which is the earliest book chronologically, through Joseph in Genesis, to the prophets, through the Psalms, we see this question coming up again and again.

In fact, over one-third of the Psalms are considered “Psalms of Lament,” either individual or communal. If you wonder what a “Psalm of Lament” is, I point you towards our excellently produced newsletter. It can be received electronically if you don’t have it already, and last month’s newsletter contained an article by me on the “Psalms of Lament.”

In it I explained what those are, and what characterizes them. We will be using the Psalms of Lament in Scripture, and, in coming weeks, what I believe are modern “Psalms of Lament” in today’s Christian music (remember, the psalms were sung), to help illustrate some of the issues that people struggle with every day. My hope is to use these songs and Scriptures as a vehicle for pointing out where God is, and how we can better grasp God’s presence and light during times of darkness.

One of the first things we need to do is recognize that sometimes the world just sucks for us. Denial is big, or trying to diminish negatives through the overuse of certain clichéd passages like “All things work together for those that love the Lord and are called according to His purposes.” That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but sometimes it tends to be overused.

It offers hope – and in one of the coming weeks we will actually be looking at it. But at the moment of crisis, it is not often received well by those who hear it coming from well-meaning friends and family. In that moment, it is important for those not directly involved to recognize the reality of the pain, and the other person’s need to both accept it, and work through it. We must validate them.

Now as always, I follow the Presbyterian rule of moderation. There are those that are drama queens. We don’t want to encourage them if what they are seeking is attention. We need to be sensitive to the Spirit and His wisdom in discerning things.

But too often, we dismiss or minimize things. We feel that as Christians we shouldn’t be sad, or angry, or argumentative. (Well, we shouldn’t be argumentative. Paul says that.) We want to tough it out, and keep the world from knowing. God is on your side, and Scripture says that this will build character. Except that in your heart, it doesn’t feel like it, does it? Not right here, not right now.

So what do we do? Let’s look at the different ways in which many people try to deal with bad stuff happening to them, or in the world at large.

First, some blame it on a particular group of people. All the memes about the rich (the 1%) and their cold-heartedness and greed, or on the other side, the poor (people on welfare) who are called “leechers” and “lazy.” Or for centuries (and still some today) blaming the Jews as an ethnic group for the problems of the world. Just go to the UN sometime, and listen to some of their speeches.

A couple of generations ago, in the 60’s particularly, it was “the man”, or the institutional authority that was considered responsible for so many wrongs – and of course, those who support them. Today, it is often claimed that systemic racism is the problem. People use it as an excuse for anger and violence against other people and feel justified. Today some talk about “cultural appropriation” as a sin, rather than a sign of admiration. You have all read the papers; you know whereof I speak.

It is an us and them, tribal attitude that tries to place the blame for differences, difficulties and struggles on others, so that you aren’t responsible, or don’t even have to listen to the others. They can be dismissed rather than debated, and you are a victim – no matter what you have done yourself. It is an attempt to give a reason for bad stuff happening that might otherwise make no sense to you.

Second, some people, when seeing bad stuff, try to fix the world. They go on crusades, start up hash tag protests, throw themselves into changing the political and cultural landscape. Some give to or even join non-profits and go right into the middle of the hotspots, whether domestic or international, and advocate for changes. Money, materials, and precious minutes to bring attention to a problem or need, and solve it.

There is nothing wrong with this, in and of itself. Compassion and caring for others who are suffering and/or in need is part of what we, as Christians and children of God, are called to do. But it seems to me that many who make their lives center around these activities refuse to recognize human nature, and that only the transformative power of God can change the human heart.

Until that changes, such efforts – while wonderful – will never completely succeed, and that brings about a lot of personal frustration. Again, you see that anger constantly today. People need to see that God is present, hear the Good News, and be transformed. That is how we change things.

Third, some people, when faced with realities of darkness and evil and tragedy, simply try to close out the rest of the world. They live apart with like-minded people, in walled communities not necessarily created with stone, and shut the rest of the world out. “It is their problem, not mine.” Some of them, if they were honest, would be very comfortable with the Pharisees who chastised Jesus for sitting and eating with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.

The desire to live righteously is not a bad thing. We are called to do so. “Live holy, as I am holy” God Himself says, and Peter alludes to that in 1 Peter 1:16. But we cannot use that call to “live in the world but not of the world” as a reason for closing ourselves off from the rest of the world and its problems. Especially, when those problems somehow end up on your doorstep, and affect your life.

I already alluded to it, but a fourth way people try to deal with bad stuff is they simply try to ignore it. They don’t try to pull away into their own world, but they just determinedly plug away at life as if it isn’t happening to them or others. They are just “too busy trying to make a living”, or if going through problems personally believe “I can handle this. No one else need know or offer to help.”

Put on that happy face. Suffer in silence. Be strong. It works really well – until you break, either physically or mentally or spiritually. You can get ulcers, or other intestinal problems including cancer often (this has been scientifically shown), have a break-down, or even lose your faith.

So what do we as Christians do? How can we figure out a way to work through seeing God and where He is when the world is just … wrong? I am only going to speak in general about handling these issues in a Biblical manner, and will use the Psalms of Lament as a “basis” for an approach that will be fleshed out over the next several weeks.

There are three parts to almost every Psalm of Lament, and I want to cover those. There can be other things as well (like personal confession, etc.), but all of them have these elements.

First, they recognize that there is a problem, and speak to it. In every Psalm of Lament, they recognize a problem, or tragedy, or evil that has befallen them or the people of Israel. They bring it to God’s attention, sometimes even questioning if He has noticed or cared about it.

They cry out in pain, and fear, and anguish to a God who is big enough to handle whatever it is – including their feelings. They long for God’s involvement, and God’s power working at righting what is wrong. Look at Psalm 6, and its focus on the pain and longing for God. Verse 2 says “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am pining away; heal me O Lord for my very bones are dismayed.”

We don’t know the specific issue or trouble that afflicts the psalmist in this psalm. We only know that he has enemies, and they are possibly even threatening his life. He feels lost, surrounded, and full of grief and maybe even fear.

He cries out to God through that anguish, letting God see his very soul, baring his very soul for God. On a side note, God can see everything anyway, whether we try to hide it or not. But by baring his soul, the psalmist shows his trust in the Lord as he allows himself to be vulnerable before God.

Secondly, Every psalm of lament has recognition of God’s power and sovereignty. Often it is shown as the psalmist recounts God’s actions for the psalmist or the people of Israel. Other times (like in Psalm 28), you can see the assumption of God’s power and might. Let me read verses 3 through 5 and 8 again.

Do not drag me away with the wicked,
with those who are workers of evil,
who speak peace with their neighbors,
while mischief is in their hearts.

Repay them according to their work,
and according to the evil of their deeds;
repay them according to the work of their hands;
render them their due reward.

Because they do not regard the works of the Lord,
or the work of his hands,
he will break them down and build them up no more.

The Lord is the strength of his people;
he is the saving refuge of his anointed.

Do you hear the recognition of God’s power and control?

Finally, all true psalms of lament finish by praising God, as strange as that may sound, to praise God in the midst of a trial or a problem or a tragedy. The authors (or the community) proclaim their certainty and belief that God is good, God is great, and God will redeem His people and the situation – even if they don’t understand how.

It is an amazing thing to see, once you are made aware of it. It is so consistent in the Scripture, and God is still the same today as back then. It gives us a pattern to work with as we try ourselves to deal with the tragedies and hard places in our own lives and world.

When we go through this process ourselves, it helps our faith to develop as we recognize the reality of an issue or tragedy (that is, we don’t deny it), look for contributors (including ourselves) rather than simply blaming, focus our energies constructively as we use wisdom to direct our actions, and stay involved with the world in all its fallenness as we provide people a glimpse of God’s love, God’s wisdom, and God’s Kingdom.

Through this process, we not only free ourselves to feel fully, but also to love fully, and point people to where God is during that time of struggle. It gives us perspective as we look to where God is working, and come to understand how God is working in and through us so that we grow in faith, and good is brought out of evil in the end, and those words of Romans 8 become true, that all things work for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purposes.

Even Jesus said there will be troubles and evil, and darkness, in this world, and our lives. John 15:18-25; 16:33 both talk about that and the persecution that will come. But he also said, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me” in John 14:1. We have the choice, free will, and faith. They can work hand in hand, or they can work opposing each other.

We can let our hearts not be troubled. We can believe in God, not with some rosy-glassed, overoptimistic head-in-the clouds kind of view, but a realistic view that nevertheless trusts in God and recognizes His sovereignty, His power, and His goodness. And we can begin to be less overwhelmed by the actual happenings and begin to look deeper, to see roots and causes and solutions, while validating and recognizing that the pain people feel, including ourselves, is real.

Where is God when the world is just … wrong? Right there next to you, lifting you up, strengthening you, crying with you, and giving you a way to get through that valley of shadows. Trust and believe, and give God praise for His loving-kindness and His steadfast mercy and His grace.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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