Working Out of Despair

The nation of Sudan was ravaged by civil war from 1983-2005. For years, the Islamic government of the north instigated a reign of terror against the largely Christian and African traditionalist populations in southern Sudan. Over two million Sudanese died in the conflict (which is far from resolved). Millions more were displaced from their homes.

Among the refugees were over 20,000 orphaned boys, mostly of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups. Refugee aid workers began calling them, “The Lost Boys of Sudan.” One of these boys, John Bul Dau, was just twelve years old when mortar shells rained down upon his peaceful Dinka farming village. John fled for his life into the night. In one terrifying moment, everything John had known was stripped away. He walked over 1,000 miles across God-forsaken terrain in search of hope. Thousands of boys on the same journey died of starvation.

Through a series of events, John eventually found refuge in the United States. As an adult, he chronicled his ordeal in an acclaimed documentary film produced in 2006 and a book published in 2007. Both works bear the arresting title: “God Grew Tired of Us.”

The title reflects John’s belief that the travails of southern Sudan were the natural consequence of God growing tired of people’s sin. I’ll leave that conclusion for God to determine. In any event, the title poignantly reflects the aching sense of divine abandonment people bear in their suffering. We may never experience the depths of despair suffered by the Lost Boys of Sudan in their struggle to survive. But if you have never experienced some sense of divine abandonment, you probably will. Somewhere along life’s journey most of us enter a dark valley where it seems “the God who is there,” isn’t. At some place in time we sense that the God who promises never to leave us or forsake His people, has.

King David is suffering such a season of despair in the opening verses of Psalm 13. While we cannot determine the precise nature of David’s ordeal, it is instructive to observe how he works himself out of his despair. What do you do when you feel that God has grown tired of you and forsaken you?

First, David honestly expresses his despair. Looking upward he asks, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me (Psa. 13:1)? The shining face of God is in full eclipse and David grieves with raw honesty. Looking within, David’s soul is overwhelmed with haunting questions and sorrow fills his heart (13:2). Looking outward, David faces the oppression of an unidentified enemy. Where on earth is God in all this?

Having honestly expressed his despair, David turns in the second movement of the psalm to prayer. Believing that God is his soul’s ultimate satisfaction, David readily concedes that feeling abandoned by God is the deepest of all sorrows. The lamp of God’s favor has been extinguished. Yet while languishing in the dark, David does not withdraw from God in self-pity or bitterness. Nor does he look for hope within himself or in the intervention of false gods. Rather, David turns to fervent prayer. He realizes the only answer to feeling God-forsakenness is God. The supposed source of his problem is the answer to his problem. This teaches us that responding to feelings of divine abandonment by turning our back on God is spiritual suicide. Heartfelt prayer is the answer (Psa. 13:3-4). We must resolve, as George Swinnock so memorably put it, “ ‘never to be dumb when God is deaf’ ” (quoted by Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David, p. 156).

In the third movement of the psalm, David slays the giant of despair through focused meditation on God’s grace in salvation history. Fresh off his knees in a season of intense prayer, we find David rejoicing in God’s “steadfast love.” Surprisingly, David exults: “My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (verses 5-6).

“Wait a minute! What is going on here? God’s loyal, covenant-keeping, never-failing love? Are you serious, David? You were just moaning that God had abandoned you a few verses back.” Are we to conclude that David is bipolar? No. Rather, on the horizon of David’s soul stands the foreboding castle of doom. Hanging ominously from its battlements is a bold sign emblazoned with the message: “God has forsaken you.” In these concluding lines of Psalm 13, David takes up the battering ram of God’s steadfast, loyal love for His people and slams that reality into the wall of doubt. With repeated blows of faith in God’s saving grace in history, David conquers despair by meditating on the truth.

David’s circumstances have not changed. God has not changed. David has changed. Choosing to concentrate his thoughts on God’s grace in salvation history, David is able to abandon despair and lifts his voice in triumphant song. His prayers have been answered!

On this side of the cross, such songs are sung by those who realize the ultimate abandonment by God was suffered for us by Jesus Christ. On the cross Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Bearing our sins in His body on the cross, Jesus suffered the fullest depths of God-forsakenness. It was not at all that God grew tired of Jesus. Rather, the Father poured out the judgment of our sin upon His Son who stood in as the substitutionary Lamb, ultimately for those who place their full trust in this saving provision. Jesus was forsaken by God so we would never have to be. And Jesus rose from the dead to authenticate His work in our behalf.

Now we can forever sing and rejoice in God’s presence with full confidence that He will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). We can rejoice that the God “who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all” will certainly give us “all things” (Rom. 8:32). And ultimate among those “things” is God Himself.

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