The Despair of the Righteous

May 15, 2011

Psalm 22
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? And so begins the cry of the Psalmist’s heart in the 22nd Psalm. Some have called this the Psalm of the Cross and point to several parallels between this scripture and the story of the crucifixion of Christ.
The Psalm begins with the words: Psalm 22:1 My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Which of course is linked to Matthew 27:46 At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Later we read, Psalm 22:16 My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs; an evil gang closes in on me. They have pierced my hands and feet. Defintely sounds like crucifixion to me, listen to the words of Luke 23:33 When they came to a place called The Skull, they nailed him to the cross. And the criminals were also crucified—one on his right and one on his left.
And probably the reference known the most is found in Psalm 22:18 They divide my garments among themselves and throw dice for my clothing. And you will remember from the Easter story what was done with the clothing that Jesus had been wearing when he was arrested. Mark 15:24 Then the soldiers nailed him to the cross. They divided his clothes and threw dice to decide who would get each piece.
And for many people this is evidence of the plan that God has for each one of us and the incredible sacrifice that was made at Calvary for each of us. And that’s pretty impressive considering this psalm was written a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
And some commentators find reference after reference that with a little stretching and a little prodding, and if you read it with your left eye close while leaning back you can find a description of much of the Easter story in Psalm 22.
But I’m kind of a simple guy, when I read the Psalm 22 I saw a man struggling with despair, overwhelmed with the circumstances that surrounded him and even questioning the presence of God in his life. And then it seems like a corner is turned, the Psalmist doesn’t seem to find solutions but he finds strength, strength in who his God is and the promises that his God had made. This is the same David who wrote Psalm 28:7 The LORD is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. And Psalm 9:2 I will be filled with joy because of you. I will sing praises to your name, O Most High.
And the same David who wrote in Psalm 119:141 I am insignificant and despised, . . .
And maybe you have ridden that roller coaster. And if you have you know what I mean, the feeling that you are under a cloud that will never lift, wondering why the God whom you love so much seems so distant and far away. Echoing David in Psalm 22:1 My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Maybe you understand what Poet John Keats meant when he wrote “I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come to the top.”
Last week in the introduction to the Psalms I mentioned that the Psalms are not doctrinal dissertations they are poetry and are more interested in how things feel rather then what they mean. There is no other book in the bible that more accurately charts the ups and downs of a person’s relationship with God then the book of Psalms. In some cases we are reading a person’s innermost thoughts and they don’t always provide answers. Instead we get “Life stunk and now it doesn’t.” But no “why” and no “how”.
If you read through the Psalms you ride a roller coaster of ups and downs with David, and we don’t know what all David struggled with. Maybe he had to deal with SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and these were written during his down months, when he hadn’t seen the sun in forever. February isn’t my favourite month at all, I’m down, cranky and irritable, I’m sure if you took the time to read Penn’s of Denn that were written in February you would find a theme in them.
Or maybe in David’s case it was Situational Depression that was David’s muse when he was writing these Psalms, maybe life really was that bad right then. If you read the story of David’s life you see there were times that he had every right to be depressed, times when his enemies really were out to get him, times that he had given into temptation and fallen into sin, times that his children rebelled and times that his marriage was rocky. And when we are going through times like that in our lives we ought to be depressed.
Or maybe it was a physiological thing for David more than psychological. Maybe he was struggling with chemical imbalances, enzyme deficiencies or hormonal issues. We will never know, but what I do know is that there are those here today who go through those very same struggles, and there is no shame in that, any more than there is shame in having heart problems, or cancer or diabetes. And the same as you would go to a specialist for help with physical problems there are mental health professionals who can help when you are dealing with the dragon, or the blue funks or whatever you want to call them and they stretch on for more than a couple of weeks.
Seriously, if you were having chest pains with pains radiating down your left arm the answer you would be looking for wouldn’t be “you have un-confessed sin in your life.” Come on! And yet too many churches and Christians have a whole barrel of stock answers when someone is suffering from depression or burn out. Let a Christian admit to emotional problems and hear the rhetoric that comes from their peers. “You need to go to the altar, pray it through, it’s just a trick of Satan, pull up your socks or you need to get into the word.” One thing that we need to realize is that Christians can get depressed, they can suffer from burnout, or bipolar or, or or.. But listen up it might be part of your story but it doesn’t have to be all of your story.
Now I mentioned that David didn’t offer a solution and so we are going to look elsewhere this morning. What practical advice could David have used when he was writing Psalm 22? And the answer comes from a bible story that happened a couple of hundred years later. It involved the Prophet Elijah and it is a classic case of clinical depression and in his story we find some answers.
The story is found in 1 Kings and happened during the time that Israel was ruled by the wicked king Ahab and his equally wicked queen, Jezebel. It was Jezebel who introduced Baal worship throughout the kingdom and immorality ran rampant. It was during those dark days that Elijah stood out as a beacon of righteousness in a sea of degradation. His speech was characterized by boldness and his ministry was marked with miraculous deeds. It was Elijah who challenged the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and then prayed down fire and then rain.
And you are thinking, “And this guy suffered from depression? Not likely.” And yet we are reminded by the brother of Jesus in James 5:17 Elijah was as human as we are. And so we have to conclude that the type of experiences that we have that he would share and that we would share his experiences as well.
Elijah is a prime example of Herbert Freudenberger’s contention that “Burnout is the let-down that comes between crisis or directly after ‘Mission Accomplished’.”
Elijah was a successful, high achiever type “A” personality. He had spent a pile of emotional, spiritual and physical energy in the show down at Mount Carmel and as a result he saw the people of Israel turn away from their idol worship and turn back to God. He then prayed for an end to a three year drought and it rained. When that prayer was answer he ran 30 kms from Carmel to Jezreel and at that point he was certain that Queen Jezebel would fall on her knees and repent. Instead she threatened to have him killed. He was expecting more success instead he was rejected and threatened and his joy turned to fear. 1 Kings 19:3 Elijah was afraid and fled for his life.
Existing on a physical and emotional high, he was caught off guard. Emotionally and spiritually he was depending on his own strength and when that failed he ran instead of prayed. The entire story climaxes in 1 Kings where we read this 1 Kings 19:4 Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”
In Elijah’s case we see several feelings that are associated with burn out and depression.
1 Kings 19:10 Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the LORD God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”

1) Feelings of Self-Centredness. Elijah came to the place where he felt that everything depended on him. He thought he was indispensable and felt that if he didn’t do it then it wouldn’t get done. “Oh Lord, it’s just you and me and nobody else understands the situation. But that’s ok Lord because I have broad shoulders, just pile a little more on.” This line of reasoning is common among pastors who refuse to delegate because they don’t think anyone else can do as good of a job. I knew a pastor who had gone thirteen years and never missed a Sunday in his pulpit. Why? Because he didn’t think that was anyone else who could do as good of a job.
The problem is that it doesn’t take long to go from “I don’t need anyone but God” to “God can’t do it without me” to “I can do it all by myself.” And we expect that from toddlers but not from grown-ups. Read Psalm 22 again and see how many times David uses the words “I, me, or mine.”
Listen to the words of Paul in Romans 12:3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.
Getting back to the story 1 Kings 19:10 Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the LORD God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets.
2) Feelings of Resentment. To put that in perspective in the verse before God had asked Elijah where he was and Elijah goes off on this tirade that has nothing to do with the question that had been asked. That’s so typical, when we can’t or don’t want to answer a particular question we act like it was never asked.
I remember there was a difficult question asked on a systematic theology exam I was writing in college and a friend of mine wrote. “I don’t know the answer to this question but I do know who the twelve apostles were.” And he listed them, nice try but no marks because while he may have answered a question correctly it wasn’t the question that had been asked.
The question that God asks had nothing to do with the children of Israel. And yet that is where Elijah started. I would hazard a guess that there were a lot of unresolved hostilities in Elijah’s life.
In Matthew 5:21-26 Jesus explains in the Sermon on the Mount the dangers resentments and lack of forgiveness pose to our spiritual lives. I don’t know how many times I have sat across from someone for counselling and it all comes bubbling out, the hate and bitterness over some hurt or slight, either real or imaginary that is literally eating them up from the inside. And what they don’t realize is that they are still allowing those people to hurt them.
1 Kings 19:10 Elijah replied, “I have zealously served the LORD God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”
3) Feelings of Paranoia It’s not a great distance from “No one appreciates me” to “Everyone is out to get me.”
It was Henry Kissinger who said “Even a paranoid can have enemies.” And there was no doubt that there were those who were opposed to Elijah, but he took one threat against him and turned it into the entire nation being out to get him.
In Elijah’s mind Jezebel’s lone threat had become a national conspiracy against him, seeking his assassination. Read Psalm 22 again and see how many times David refers to those who mock him and his enemies.

4) Feelings of Self Pity Did you catch the whining here? If there is one particular emotion which supersedes all others in burnout and depression it is self-pity, “Oh poor me, I have it so bad.” Most people know the story of Helen Keller, who lost her sight and hearing as a small child, lots to feel sorry about listen to her words: “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.”
Elijah was so caught up in Elijah that he couldn’t see anything else and the same with David. Let go back to Psalm 22 where David writes Psalm 22:6 But I am a worm and not a man. I am scorned and despised by all!
And if people don’t agree with you about how bad things are then you start to detach yourself from others because at least you understand how bad things are for you.
1 Kings 19:4 . . . He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”
5) Feelings of Resentment Against God Sometimes it’s resentment against our spouse or parents, or friends. In Elijah’s case it was resent against God. When Elijah asked God to take away his life he was in effect saying “I am not satisfied with what you are doing in my life and it’s your fault.” And so from the depths of despair we begin blaming God for where we are. Now instead of it being my problem or the result of the way “They acted” now it is God’s fault. Remember how David opened Psalm 22:1 My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Elijah and David both demonstrate their dissatisfaction and lack of trust concerning God’s control in their lives. But we know that God hadn’t abandoned David or Elijah.
David didn’t stay in the first part of Psalm 22, by the end of the Psalm he is praising God and talking about how blessed he is, but again the Psalms are about feeling not about fact and so we don’t see the transition, how he moved from point “a” to point “b”. Instead it was “Life stunk and now it doesn’t.”
Let’s see what we can find in Elijah’s story. Elijah has come to the lowest point in his life and he wants out. He is showing classic symptoms for burnout and depression, so how does God deal with that?
1 Kings 19:5-6 Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree. But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So he ate and drank and lay down again.
1) He Met Elijah’s Physical Needs. Even though depression is a psychological condition some of its behaviour results in physiological problems.
Loss of appetite can become a vicious circle with the lack of proper nutrition resulting in a lack of energy and general apathy which causes a loss of appetite which results in a lack of proper nutrition which. . . Well you get the picture.
Difficulties in sleeping result in listlessness and once again the resulting apathy contributes to the ever deepening despondency and the downward spiral into depression.
God didn’t tell Elijah to go to the altar and get right with him, he didn’t tell him he needed to pray more or read the scripture. Instead God provided the two things that Elijah needed the most. Good food, proper nutrition. Did you catch that not just food but good food, proper food. You ever notice what you tend to eat when you get into deep blue funk? That’s right, chocolate ice-cream, with peanut butter, chocolate chips and chocolate sauce. Or so I’ve heard.
And then he provided Elijah with a deep restful sleep. You ever notice how much better life looks after a good night’s sleep?
1 Kings 19:11-12 “Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the LORD told him. And as Elijah stood there, the LORD passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper.
2) He Met Elijah’s Spiritual Needs. Elijah needed to know that God was still on his throne and that things were as they should be. In demonstrating his power God was showing Elijah that he was still in control of the situation. In doing this he was taking the responsibility off of Elijah’s shoulders and assumed it himself.
In demonstrating his control over events he allowed Elijah to release some of the burden. God set the tone for the conversation. Elijah needed to be back in touch with God and God set the stage for that.
3) He Met Elijah’s Emotional Needs. God Promoted Elijah to Get Rid of His Intense Feelings. During the communication God allowed Elijah an opportunity to air his grievances.
There are a lot of people out there who are literally walking time bombs. They have crammed resentment, hurt, bitterness and disappointments into their souls. And because they are afraid it’s sinful to express those emotions they’ve kept them under pressure and some day it will explode and hurt a lot of people.
To get rid of those negative feelings you can’t continue to suppress them and bury them and hide them. Instead they need to be expressed, not in a hurtful way but in a constructive healing manner.
It is only when we expose those problems, that we can begin to see those problems realistically. That’s part of what David was doing in Psalm 22. And it’s only when we begin to see those problems in the light of day that we can begin to deal with them and get rid of them.
And it’s not always a one off process, in the account of Elijah God had to prompt Elijah three times to open up. It may be with a professional, or it might be with a friend who is just willing to listen.
4) He Met Elijah’s Practical Needs Only after the physical issues had been dealt with and after Elijah had purged himself of his resentments did God give him new things to do. A person who is climbing out of the pit shouldn’t be immediately put back into the same circumstances that had put him there in the first place. But they do need something to do to take their minds off the almighty “ME” they also need those tasks to help rebuild their self-respect and self-esteem. We were created to be productive, to create and to do, we weren’t created to lay around and do nothing and so one of the needs that has to be filled in our lives is the knowledge that we are doing something.
5) He Met Elijah’s Companionship Needs. As the final step toward Elijah’s recovery God provided him with something everybody on the face of this earth needs and that is a true friend. From that point on Elisha became Elijah’s friend, fellow worker and confident.
Do you remember what God said after he created Man? Genesis 2:18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. . .”
In 1988 when we had finished our building project in Truro I went into a slump, yeah that is a good word a slump. For several months I literally hid in my office, I didn’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. A major part of my putting my ministry back together can be attributed to a student we hired that summer.
And for a year and a half I poured my life into John. For the first four months we spent all our time together, he lived at our house and I invested myself into his training and in return he became a friend and confident.
Elijah felt like he was alone, now that wasn’t reflected by the fact that the Bible tells us there were seven thousand other Israelites who refused to worship Baal. On the other hand Elijah had been very much alone, but only because like so many sufferers of burnout and depression he had brought about his own loneliness by abandoning other people.
Everybody needs a friend.
Now this wasn’t a do it yourself psychoanalysis course. Burnout and depression are serious business. But God doesn’t want us to live in that particular emotional desert. God has a great plan for your life, don’t let depression and burnout rob you of that plan.
Now listen to Psalm 22:22 I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people.