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May 08, 2016

What if my experience of God does not match what I have been taught about God

Passage: Psalms 77:1-20

Preacher: John Huizinga

Series: The Big Questions We Ask About Faith in God


Moralistic Therapeutic Deism teaches that the central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about one's self. Everybody wants this, but is this what life is for and about? A fulfilled life, the Bible teaches, is when lives not for happiness, which is fleeting and not to be trusted, but for the glory of God.


Country radio is not known for its serious discussions or heartfelt dialogue.

But this week tears were shed,

anger and regret shared,

with awkward pauses and silences

and empathy exercised,

all because Mother’s Day was coming.

A day designed for joy and happiness

is one of the most difficult days of the year for many.


Maybe you are experiencing your first Mother's Day

without your own mom.

Maybe you are longing for a child,

but are facing another Mother's Day

struggling with infertility.

Maybe you have a lost child,

and all you want is to know he’s okay.

Maybe you never felt loved by your mom.

Maybe you carry regrets that

you didn’t love your mom as you should have.

Maybe being a mom is hard for you

and you judge yourself not measuring up.

As Ann Voskamp says, you want a do-over.


It's easy to be overwhelmed by all the ads

for cards, gifts and flowers

and sentimental Facebook posts

all dedicated to the one thing you want most

and will never have.


What’s our best response?

So some refuse to acknowledge the day altogether.

Some use it politically and give attention to

social justice issues

focusing on the plight of women around the world.

One woman shared this is what she is trying to offer:

she applies Romans 12:15 -

"Rejoice with those who rejoice,

weep with those who weep."

Can we rejoice with those who rejoice

while hurting inside?

Will we exercise the second part of Paul’s exhortation:

weeping with those who weep?

Motherhood is a great gift and calling,

but it also bears the stamp of this fallen world.


That is true for so many things,

and leads us to ask

this fourth big spiritual question being asked today:

what if my experience of God

doesn’t match what I have been taught about God?


Over the last month we have been examining

the beliefs Americans hold

when they say they believe in God.

These are summarized by the term

moralistic therapeutic deism.

The final belief we’ll look at in this series is this:

The central goal of life

is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.


You have heard it said many ways in many situations to justify many actions:

God just wants me to be happy.


And while you may right away say that’s not me, reflect a little more deeply about

what you give your time and energy to,

and how you react to what happens in life,

asking whether or not this belief

has seeped into your worldview:

I want to be happy and feel good about myself.

Who doesn’t?

The issue for our own spiritual health

is whether this is or should be the central goal of life.

Should I base all my decisions on this?

Should I make or break

commitments or promises based on this?

Should my daily agenda,

my credit card statements,

my emotions be all about this?

Is it a good day or a bad day

depending on how happy I am

or how good I feel about me?

Is that what my life is for, about?


Now to say that life’s goal isn’t to be happy

and feel good about one’s self

doesn’t mean God wants you to be miserable, depressed, anxious,

overwrought and overworked.

The Lord has our best interest at heart.

The cross of Christ proves that God works in all things for the good of those who love him.

Not that all things are good

or that God causes misery,

but that God works good out of all things.


The Bible says very little about happiness.

The word happy is used a couple of dozen times or so in the Bible.

Like Ecclesiastes 7:14

When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.

That is, don’t build your life around happiness.

There is much more to life than that,

and so much more to the grace of God.


The Bible teaches us this about happiness:

happiness can be a gift from God

happiness is fleeting

human happiness may also be the result of sin

and therefore is not to be trusted:

Leah was happy at manipulating Jacob

to get a son and a moment of favor from him,

Haman was happy at the thought

of getting rid of Mordecai and the Jews,

Israel is happy at bringing retribution on Babylon,

Jonah was happy for some shade

but it didn’t change his heart . . .


and, for happiness to be worthwhile,

a holy emotion,

gratitude, love and peace should result –

Zechariah 8:19

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.”

James 5:13

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.


But if happiness isn’t the goal of life, what is?

Glory, the glory of God.

The Westminster Catechism

summarizes the Bible this way:

The chief purpose for which man is made

is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.


We glorify the Triune God

when we make the love and will of Christ

the central purpose of our thoughts and

the measure of our actions rather than ourselves.

We choose to turn from life being about me

to life being about giving God

awe, adoration, affection, and appreciation.

Living in thanks for God’s blessings,

living to be a blessing in Christ’s name.


So happiness is not something to

build your life around:

blessing is – life as ‘blessed to be a blessing.’

So change your daily agenda from

‘how can I be happy today’

to ‘who can I bless today’

and you just might find happiness after all.


That’s the maturing, the transformation of life

that takes place in Psalm 77.

Psalm 77 starts with the word ‘I’

and ends with the word ‘you.’

Life not about me and my happiness

but about God and the glory of his deliverance.


Look at the first 6 verses of the psalm.

This psalm’s first 6 verses are sung on all the radio stations and internet sites and ipods today.

Oh, maybe not the actual words of the psalm,

but its perspective.

Because the first 6 verses are all about me:

I cry aloud to God

I seek the Lord

            my hand stretched out

            my soul refuses to be comforted

I think of God

I moan

I meditate

            my spirit faints

            my eyelids are kept by God from closing

I am so troubled

I cannot speak

I considered the days of old

I remember the years of long ago

I commune with my heart

I meditate and search my spirit


In the first 6 verses the word ‘I’ is spoken 11 times, ‘my’ 6 times, and ‘me’ once.

And then in verses 10-12 ‘I’ is spoken 5 more times.


What the psalm is expressing

is this big spiritual question,

this big disconnect between

what I thought I believed and knew about God

with what is happening in my life:

what if my experience of God

doesn’t match what I’ve been taught about God?


The psalmist begins focused on his life

and he is not happy:

I cry, I groan, I am troubled . . .

And because his experiences

don’t match his belief

that God just wants me to be happy,

he questions God:

the heart of God’s character: (7-9)

"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?"


He uses 3 of Israel’s most precious words

about God’s covenantal promised relationship

with his people:

loyalty, graciousness, compassion – 

where is the lovingkindness of God, he is asking.

My life is not turning out as planned:

I am not happy

and I don’t feel good about myself

and it’s all God’s fault.


Either God is not who he says he is,

and faith is a sham,

or it’s all a sham, there’s no such thing as God.

The psalm writer speaks as one who thinks

he knows how it all works with God.

He knows how to get what he wants from God.

But now it’s not working.

The psalmist had become comfortable

with the clichés of faith

because life had been working out

as he wanted for himself.

But now his happiness is gone,

and he fears his life

has now lost its meaning and purpose.

So either there’s no faith

or there is no God.

Either life is despair

or it’s only material.


And we have seen and experienced

this kind of loss of faith in our generation today.

We ask this question, as the psalm asks it,

because we fear many have fallen away from God

because of such hurts and disappointments.

And we raise the questions together

because our fear is that

when someone walks away from faith in God

she thinks she is walking away from God,

when really what she is walking away from

is this shallow, incomplete understanding.

Misunderstanding really.

Yeah, I was raised in the church,

but I don’t believe that fairy-tale anymore,

life isn’t so simple.

You’re right!

that’s what real faith was trying to show you!

Maybe this is a question you can ask

your struggling friend,

what is it you DON’T believe about God?

You friend may discover what she doesn’t believe

really wasn’t God at all!


It’s verse 10 that brings us

to the precipice of atheism:

will I turn away from God to keep myself intact?

Or will my faith trust all, even my worst,

to the Lord’s way, and find new life?

Verse 10 is very difficult to translate.

The NIV which we read this morning says it this way:

NIV - 10 Then I thought, "To this I will appeal:

the years of the right hand of the Most High."


but look at a few others to get a sense of the despair:

NRSV & NASB  - And I say, “It is my grief

    that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”


NLT - And I said, “This is my fate;

    the Most High has turned his hand against me.”


We have to hear the word ‘appeal’ in all its legal force.

When do you appeal something?

When you think you’ve been wronged.

However the words are translated,

the point is that a grown up faith

has to journey at some point

thru this fork in the road:

either a loss of faith

or an opening for new faith.


A proper way toward understanding this verse

would be to pause in silence after it is heard or read.

But notice what happens,

there is a turn from self to God.

If the first part of the psalm was all about me,

the rest of the psalm is all about you, Lord.

From verse 11 on the psalmist voices the words ‘your’ or ‘you’ referring to God 19 times.


So hear the Spirit leading us

when we come to such crises in our faith.

Don’t trust happiness, trust God,

is what the psalm says.

The way to answer those questions

when what happens to you doesn’t match

what you think about God

is to turn from your focus on your self and your life and your definitions of happiness

and turn to the ways of God in Christ.


Especially today,

when there are companies and businesses

and entertainment enterprises

spending billions of dollars on a daily basis

to make you think about yourself all the time.


This psalm models the journey of faith

that our culture wants to prevent.

Our whole western consumerist culture

is about putting me first

and satisfying me at all costs.


The Holy Spirit grants us courage to resist.

It is the freedom of grace

instead of the law of religion.


The psalmist recalls the exodus,

and in so doing asserts that God

is a God of deliverance.

That life is not about happiness

but being delivered from the powers of this age.

Led thru the sea,

there is always that.

There is always threat, and enemy, and fear,

and the call to take up your cross and follow the Lord.


‘Your path led through the sea . . .’

Ours is to be the life of Moses and Aaron,

leading and being led through the wilderness,

the promised land the promise that guides us,

not our happiness now at all costs.


God doesn’t do what I want.

NO, because you were made for God

and not the other way around.

And the Lord delivers,

and what we most need to be delivered from

is ourselves.


In the movie Tender Mercies,

Robert Duvall plays a man named Mac

who has hit bottom.

Mac is lying unconscious

on the dirty floor of a motel room

on some remote Texas highway.

The night before,

he lost a fight with his traveling companion

over a bottle of alcohol.

His companion left Mac behind

and stuck him with the bill.

With no way to pay,

Mac swallows his pride and approaches Rosa Lee,

who owns the motel,

a widow when her husband was killed in VietNam, with a young son named Sonny.

“Lady, I’m broke,” he says.

“But I’ll be glad to work out what I owe you.”

She agrees but lays down one rule:

no drinking while he works for her.

“Yes ma’am,” he politely replies.

Mac does some odd jobs around the motel.

Although he works off his debt,

Mac still has nowhere else to go.

He stays on.

Life begins to come together for him.

He eventually marries Rosa Lee.

He attends church with her.

He makes a commitment to Jesus Christ.

They make a go of it.


Just as things look really good for Mac,

he is devastated to learn that his daughter Sue Ann has been killed in a car accident.

After the funeral,

he starts asking why things happen the way they do. Mac recalls that he, while drunk,

was nearly killed in a car crash.

He asks why Rosa Lee decided to pity him, a drunk,

take him in, and help straighten him out.

Why was Sonny’s father killed in Vietnam?

Why was Sue Ann killed while he lived?

“I prayed last night to know why I lived

and she died,” he says.

“I got no answer to my prayers.”

 Choking back tears, Mac confesses to Rosa Lee,

“You see, I don’t trust happiness.

I never did. I never will.”


He speaks those words while tending

the little garden plot behind their house,

He tends his little plot

and finds God in that square inch of life.

He doesn’t trust happiness.

He trusts the tender mercies of God instead.


So how do we work through our Psalm 77 struggles?


Practice giving God glory:

those words we said before:

awe, adoration, affection, and appreciation.

How about every day this week

you find in some meaningful way to express these –

awe: like in verses 11-12: remembering and meditating on the miracles and works / deeds of God:

adoration: vs 13 – your ways are holy,

what god is as great as our God?

affection and appreciation: with your mighty arm

you redeemed your people. (15)


I think we are very good at the language of

verses 1-6,

this is what I don’t like,

this is what troubles me,

this is what I fear . . .

but we have a harder time voicing our praise and thanks to the Lord

because we don’t practice it near enough.


Then, practice lifting the focus off of me, myself,

focusing on God instead.

This is where the language of prayer helps.

Not merely prayer requests,

but prayer speaking to the Lord and then listening,

time of silent wonder and waiting,

confession and repentance.


Again, I would guess that if there is an area we

identify as one that needs more attention spiritually, it is our prayer life.

And the best way to get better at prayer is to pray.


The psalm ends unexpectedly.

No returning to the ‘me, myself and I’ of verses 1-6.

If the beginning of the psalm was all about my:

my trouble, my hand, my spirit,

my eyes, my soul, my heart,

the second half of the psalm is about thy –

thy thunder, thy lightning, thy way,

thy path, thy footprints.


If everything was up for grabs in verse 10,

everything is grabbed by the God who delivers.

And we are left with the legacy of Moses and Aaron,

but no,

God leading his people like a flock.

We are led by God after all,

into his glory,

for his glory.

Yes, life is like a path through the sea,

terror all around and behind,

the unknown and wilderness ahead.

But God leads.

What world will you live in:

the one where the Most High God

freely graces and leads,

or the one where the least high, me,

keeps us at the center of things?