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Psalm 77: Faith Navigates Suffering

Introduction: Phil & Lizi’s Response to Suffering

I want to start by telling you about two different people and two different responses to suffering.

Phil is an Aussie bloke, through and through.

Last year he lost his best mate after a sudden brain tumour.

If you asked Phil how he’s coping, he’d typically brush your concern aside. “I’m doing fine. I can’t change what’s happened so what’s the use dwelling on things.”

But if you asked Phil’s wife how he’s coping you’d get a different story. She tells you, “Phil’s never really done emotions that well. But this grief is eating away at him. His anger’s getting more and more out of control these days. His drinking’s getting worse.”

Phil’s one of those guys who doesn’t believe God exists, but if he does he’s certainly got a lot to answer for.

He internalises his pain and anguish pushing it deep beneath the surface. When he does allow himself to think of his brother he feels he’s been robbed of his closest friend. That reality is too hard to face so he finds escape in alcohol.

Phil’s response to suffering reminds me of what God’s people did in the Old Testament. God says about their pain, “They do not cry out to me from their hearts, but wail on their beds” (Hosea 7:14). As a result they’re alone in their pain, turn to other things to distract themselves and turn further from God.

Lizi’s response is different. She was brought up in a Christian home. When her husband walked out on her two years ago she’s frequently complained to God. She moves between moments of great honesty to God about her pain and moments of polite prayer feeling she’s not meant to question some of the things that play on her mind.

While she can be brutally honest to God her interpretation of life is increasingly skewed. Friends reach out and help minding the kids. But it’s never really appreciated. Bitterness is taking a hold.

Increasingly her prayers to God involve her turning inward, making her more preoccupied, more consumed with what she wants from life and isn’t getting.

These two case studies beg the question: how do we navigate suffering with faith? What does it look like to trust God in the way we take our pain to him?

If you feel comfortable, take a moment to discuss this question with the person next to you.

Psalm 77 answers this question. As we move to unpacking the the psalm and how it answers that question it’s helpful to think about the book of Psalms as a whole.

Path of Faith in the Psalter

Psalms 1 and 2 function as a fitting introduction to the whole book. God is King over everything. In a nutshell you have two different responses to God: the path of the righteous and the wicked, those who live by faith versus those who live by unbelief.

The first person is like a tree planted by streams of water. It yields its fruit in season. Its leaves are never dry and withered. (Psalm 1:3)

The second person is like chaff—lightweight husks of grain discarded and blown away by the wind. (Psalm 1:4)

The rest of the Psalms flesh out what these two responses look like as we’re confronted with the mess and brokenness of life while also having opportunity to draw near to God and see His goodness.

Psalm 77 brings together lament and a song of remembrance. It is partly a faithful expression of pain in the face of suffering and partly a song of confidence in who God is and how He has acted in the past.

We’ll see how the psalm helps us navigate suffering by faith as it highlights a righteous response to God in a broken world.

We’ll look at the psalm in two main sections: v1-9 and v10-20.

Faith responds to suffering by persistent lament to God (v1-9)

First, v1-9: Faith responds to suffering by persistent lament to God.

At the start of each section I’m going to share my attempt at composing an anti-psalm. By contrast it will draw attention what the psalm’s actually saying.

I only have my pain to dwell on, there is no-one to run to
Self, won’t you help and comfort me?

When I was in distress I looked within, turning to myself;
At night there was no-one else to plead my case with so I gave up,
Fed up, and defeated, it’s no use.

I forgot God, who’ve I never turned to for comfort;
I dismissed the thought of him, never seeking him with my spirit.

Self, I’m always wide-awake but there’s no-one to hear my complaint,
It’s just me and my trouble.

I looked back on the past,
The senseless years of a lonely race

I had no songs to remember, nothing has ever brought me hope through the night
My heart dismissed my ultimate questions and doubts—pointless and futile, I may as well bury them.

In v1 we’re introduced to Asaph’s cries:

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.

He knows there is someone to cry to. This is faith in action, seeking God’s help. Looking to Him for a listening ear.

Something of his state and dilemma is fleshed out in v2:

When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.

Something is very distressing—though we’re never told exactly what. As an individual Asaph may be expressing the pain of something broader that is happening to God’s people, Israel. If so, he may be a representative voice.

We read elsewhere that Asaph was appointed by king David as a leader of group dedicated praising and thank God with music (1 Chron. 16:4-7). They were like Israel’s ‘praise and worship’ team.

One possibility is that Asaph composed this song on the back of God’s people continuing to rebel against Him which has inevitably brought His judgement near. Perhaps they were at the hands of ruthless enemies invading the land.

While we can’t be sure of exactly what Asaph was facing we can be sure that this psalm is for you and I today. Psalms like this one function as a flexible template for our lives. They invite us to bring in our own trouble and suffering, pain and anguish. And they hold out to us the path of faith through what we’re facing and feeling.

In v2 you get the sense this isn't something that started recently. Asaph has been seeking the Lord for some time. He’s been persistent in expressing his pain. He's been continually stretching out his hand to God.

His dilemma is that he hasn’t yet found comfort in God to match his pain.

In fact just thinking about God seems painful for him in v3:

I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.

He’s known God’s comfort in the past. He knows the right person to go to. But why isn’t God coming through for him?

He remembers God and groans. He dwells on God’s character and his spirit feels exhausted. He’s got nothing left.

At Bible college one of lecturers referred to this as dissonance. It’s like playing two notes that clash awfully. Or perhaps like me trying to sing in tune! I give Hayley a demo of singing to a particular tune. But her tone sensitive ear leads her to say, “No, you’re not hitting the right note!”

Asaph’s feeling the disconnect between what he knows about God’s character and how he’s experiencing God in the present. He’s know God to be reliable in the past, but why isn’t He coming good to him right now?

As Asaph looks back there underlying questions weighing heavily on his heart. He has the courage and honesty to ask them in v7-9. As I read them see if you can hear the pain in even asking such questions in the first place:

7 “Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
8 Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

Did you feel his pain and anguish?

Here is someone who deeply treasures God’s character and promises.

In daily life we expect others to come good on their promises to us but over time we can learn to take them with a grain of salt.

When you’re waiting on a work colleague to complete their part of a project you ask, “How much longer do you think it will take?”

“Just a couple more hours.”

Since you’re generous you give them a bit of leeway. “Ok. I’ll give them four hours.” Then you plan your work day around them.

Or there’s a spouse coming home from work. “Honey, I’ll be home by 6.30pm,” so we count on it.

Or we organise our schedules to catch up with a friend.

What happens when they don’t come good on their words? When our workmate doesn’t deliver? When our spouse doesn’t come home? When our friend fails to show up?

We start to ask, “Can I really believe what they say?”

We grow disillusioned with promises not met. “Yeah, right. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

It’s not worth having expectations if they’re only dashed to pieces so train ourselves not to expect anything.

When it comes to God it’s different. God says He’s absolutely reliable. The fact that He stands directing the course of history and every detail of our lives means we can count on His promises.

This is what Aspah’s been doing. The problem is they’re not being fulfilled yet.

His questions are deeply passionate.

Asaph knows what’s its like to have the Lord’s favour. We were made to live for God’s blessing, knowing his face is turned towards us and not away from us. Having the light of his face to shine on us.

Asaph knows what its like to receive God’s faithful love. We are meant to bank on his promise keeping love. This is what assures us he will come good on all his promises.

Asaph knows what its like to receive God’s mercy. He doesn’t treat us as our sin deserves. We were made to rely on God’s mercy as our hope with his compassion trumping his anger against our sin.

“God, what’s going on? I’ve taken You at Your word but everything is crumbling around me. Have all these things failed? These are my deepest doubts and fears. I’ve built my life around them. If they’re no good I have nothing!”

Crying out to God with our pain like this is so helpful.

Suffering can teach us false things about God’s character. If we don’t voice these concerns to God we’re not bringing them out into open where can be assessed for what they are.

Let me give you a personal example. Going back a couple of years we were away on holidays housesitting. We had yet another night of broken sleep. If it wasn’t the boys waking multiple times during the night, it was our friend’s dog waking us up scratching under the floor or barking. I couldn’t help but think, “God seems really cruel. Why else would he be doing this me?”

Was I operating with a distorted picture of God? Yes. But unless I brought these thoughts to Him I might be limited to superficial niceness. I’d push those thoughts down knowing I shouldn’t think them. Without bringing them out into the open they can stay in the back of our minds gnawing away at us, controlling the way we functionally see God even though our prayers may seem ‘polite’ on the surface.

What would it have looked like for me?

“God, I’m finding this unbearable. What’s going on? Are You being cruel to me?”

“I feel so beaten down and defeated. Do you even care? Because this is seems like part of a sick joke.”

“I know You say You’re not cruel. Would You give me eyes to see You as You are in all this pain?”

If you feel a bit uncomfortable, a bit squeamish at this kind of candour before God consider Jesus, the true human.

Listen to Hebrews 5:7:

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

He expressed ‘fervent cries and tears’ to His Father, who had the power to rescue Him.

Where do we see this?

In the garden of Gethsemane:

He … knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done… And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:41-42, 44)

Then in physical agony on the cross Jesus cried out:

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt. 27:46)

Jesus responded to suffering by persistent lament to God.

But why is it that this kind of response doesn’t come naturally to us? If you’re like me you can stray into the pattern of Phil or Lizi.

It’s all too easy to internalise our anguish in the face of suffering like Phil. Like those in Hosea’s day. God said to them:

They do not cry out to me from their hearts
but wail on their beds… (Hosea 7:14)

Or like Lizi, we can practice something that’s just a bit short of biblical lament. I think of my own experience where I was very honest to God in a prolonged season of depression. But I was unable to see the way I was interpreting life was making the things worse. I was entitled. I’d elevated certain desires to the status of needs and demands. And rather than my prayers being constructive they reflected this broader downward spiral of looking within.

Our difficulty practicing persistent lament to God reflects our history. We’ve inherited that age old pattern of running and hiding from God that our forebears had. As they ate of the forbidden fruit shame entered into our experience. It lives on in our own hearts.

But there is hope.

We can actually follow the pattern of Asaph and Jesus Himself in practicing lament. Those of us who trust Jesus have the gift of God’s Spirit. He is described as rivers of living water flowing out from us (John 8:38-39). He enables new responses to life that we weren’t capable of before.

It is Spirit who now leads us. It is by Him that we cry out to God as our Father (Romans 8:14-15). It is the Spirit who prays for us when we don’t know how to pray (Romans 8:26-27).

Jesus has given us a direct line to the Father. He understands our weakness. He says, “I know your pain.” He promises to meet us with grace and mercy appropriate for our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Where are we? In v1-9 we’ve seen: Faith responds to suffering by persistent lament to God.

Now we draw our attention to the movement that takes place in Asaph in v10-20.

Faith responds to suffering by recalling God’s rescue (v10-20)

In v10-20 we see Faith responds to suffering by recalling God’s rescue.

First let’s consider the anti-psalm for a few verses.

There’s nothing to remember;
Nothing to recall from the past to restore perspective.

I am left without anything to consider
No resting place for my mind, no focus for my heart to dwell on.

Self, your impotent arm you’ve accomplished nothing worth remembering
You’ve done nothing broader on the canvas of human history.

Listen to the contrast of Asaph’s words in v10-12:

10 Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
12 I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”

Hear the difference?

Asaph focusses his energy on remembering, considering, meditating. It’s as if something has been stirred up within him compelling him of the value of such recall.

The focus is on the Most High, Yahweh, the God who acted in mighty ways. He has Someone worth recalling.

Asaph isn’t the focus. It’s now, “I, You.” I will remember You God, Your deeds. He’s moved from mostly speaking about his experience with God in third person in v1-9, to speaking to God directly.

This process is very deliberate and active. I will appeal. I will remember. I will consider and meditate.

Meditation is God’s means of speaking to us. It’s focussed thought on what God has already said to us in the Bible.

Pierre and I were chatting about this in relation to how God meets us in our struggles. I was talking about a verse that I often recall to mind in signature struggles. Pierre helpfully pointed out that my act of recalling God’s words relevant in to that moment was not just something I was doing alone. Something deeply relational was happening. God, by His Spirit, was applying His words to me in a moment of struggle.

This is what’s going on for Asaph. But rather quoting God’s words he’s recalling God’s character and actions.

Take a look at v13:

Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?

From this point on it’s all ‘You’ and ‘Your’. His focus is all on God.

How has God displayed His holiness, showing that no-one compares to Him? Well it’s through His miracles in v14:

14 You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.

But these aren’t random acts. These are things God has done to rescue His people according to His promises to Jacob and Joseph in v15:

With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

What’s in view here?

It’s God’s dramatic rescue of His people from Egypt. It’s the exodus.

There was a power showdown between Pharaoh and Egypt’s gods and the real God. Plague after plague showed everyone it was Israel’s God who rules the universe.

God acts to bring His people out of their oppression in Egypt and against all odds overcomes the last hurdle by parting the Red Sea. He leads them through on dry ground and then the sea closes back over Pharaoh and his army sweeping them away.

That’s why v19 says:

19 Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.

This rich language throughout this section pictures created elements terrified at God’s power. They’re falling in line with what He wants.

There are a couple of things described that we don’t read in the exodus account. Like clouds pouring down water in v17. Or the thunder, lightning and earth trembling earth in v18.

I think this is like a page in a scrapbook. The main focus is God’s rescue through the Red Sea. But a mish-mash of God’s other mighty works has been stuck to the page like His power at the flood, like His thunder, lightning and earthquakes when He gave the law at Mt Sinai.

These verses make Asaph feel small. But not insignificant. He’s gaining perspective on the God he’s been crying out to. The God who has worked this great rescue on the stage of world history.

He’s getting his bearings.

Think of the disorientation and panic that may set in when your GPS stops working in a city high rise you don’t know well. You feel the relief that comes when you see a sign to where you’re headed, or if the GPS kicks back in.

Asaph hasn’t lost faith in his suffering but he’s been baffled. He’s been disoriented. I think he always been facing the right direction—towards the Lord Himself. He’s been directing his pain to the right Person. But it’s like suffering has knocked him off his feet. He’s been sitting dazed and unable to move.

But now his head has stopped spinning. He’s persisted in facing towards God, he’s stood up and now he’s taking steps towards him.

He sees clearly that God is his Rescuer and Shepherd. Look at v20:

You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

God rescues His people to draw them into His fold. He doesn’t abandon them. The God of the universe has rescued us so He can tenderly lead us along.

By recalling God’s rescue in the past Asaph is seeing clearly who God is to him in the present. God is his Rescuer and Shepherd right now in whatever suffering he faces.

What about us? What would it look like for us to respond to suffering by recalling God’s rescue?

We actually have a lot more to recall than Asaph did at his point in history. An even greater rescue than the exodus has taken place in Jesus. This is the rescue, the cosmic one, the one at the centre of all of history.

Jesus has entered into God’s very presence to rescue us as God’s people forever (Heb. 9:12). Jesus is the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life (in his death) and taken it up again (being raised to life). This was so He could bring us into the Father’s fold (John 10:1-18).

Now we look forward to the day when our rescue is complete. Then we will be sheltered by God’s presence, Jesus our Shepherd will lead us to ‘springs of living water’ and ‘God will wipe every tear’ from our eyes (Rev. 7:14-16).

In faith we respond to suffering by recalling God’s rescue on this greater scale. Like Asaph we may be reoriented to God as our Rescuer and Shepherd right now.

So What?

We started with the examples of Phil and Lizi. We asked the question: how do we navigate suffering with faith?

We’ve seen:

  1. Faith responds to suffering by persistent lament to God
  2. Faith responds to suffering by recalling God’s rescue.

I want to conclude with two things to help us live out these truths. First, a disclaimer. Second, a homework exercise to make this personal.

1. Disclaimer

The disclaimer is that this is not the only response of faith in suffering recorded for us in Scripture.

Persistent lament is the pattern of the whole Bible. And God does call us to recall the way He’s rescued us. But the movement within Psalm 77 isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula.

Psalm 77 must be put alongside other psalms modelling lament. Often lament does turn to hope and praise. Sometimes praise turns to lament. Sometimes faith expresses itself in voicing pain for a season without clear expression of hope. That’s what happens in Psalm 88. There may legitimately be seasons of life where pain and anguish is so intense that the faithful response is pouring out pain, questions and confusion.

Perhaps that’s where you’re at right now and that’s okay.

2. Homework

I’d like to set you some homework to personalise this Psalm.

Over the next week perhaps you could read over Psalm 77 a couple of times. Then have a go making it your own. Write it out in your own words inserting the details of your particular suffering. Pour out your heart to God. Bring your questions, doubts and fears.

And then have a go at recalling God’s rescue to you personally. What really impacts you about God’s rescue in Jesus? How is it that God has met you in your brokenness? How is it that He turned you towards Himself? How is it that He may be reorienting you toward who He is to you right now?

Prayer

Let’s pray together now.

Heavenly Dad,

You know us. You know our sufferings. And You promise mercy and grace in our struggles.

Sometimes we’re baffled by our sufferings, overwhelmed by our pain and distress and unable to put together what You say about Yourself with the situations we’re facing. When that’s the case may we cry out to You and not just wail on our beds. May You give us faith that persists in lament. May we continue to face you even if we’re knocked flat in a daze.

When we’re prone to learning false things about You from suffering may we have the courage to tell You what’s on our hearts, what’s really troubling us.

By Your Spirit enable us to recall Your rescue of us. In Your timing help us to stand up again. Reorient us to You in the present. Help us to walk towards You once again.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.