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Where was God When I Needed Him?

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?”

So wrote King David from his sickbed, tortured by painful think-ing, yet unable to set it aside. “How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?”

“Ad-a-NAH!” is the sound of the ancient Hebrew word that David cried out four times.

“How long?” Literally, “Until when?”

It puts a picture into my mind of God pouring into King David’s cup as a father would pour milk into a cup for a child, whispering, “Say when.” Only, what poured so freely was pain into his mind and disease into his body. David cried, “Enough already! When!” Still God kept pour-ing, until David was lost in the dreadful feeling of abandonment, in the appalling thought that God had turned his face away.

Scripture says God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that threshold seemed long past for David, so he cried out, “Ad-a-NAH, Adonai! Ad-a-NAH? When, Lord, WHEN?”

This is the cry of all humanity. All of humankind lies in the sickbed with King David. What is wrong with everything—all the sin, the shame, the futility, all the fractured relationships, the suffering children, the rumors of wars, the shadow of death— when put all together, becomes this one, weary, anguished cry.

“Until when?”

Such a curious thing, to find in a three-thousand-year-old hymn my own soul’s complaint, the one each of us thought was private and our own. The God who inspired these words clearly knows the real me. And he knows when to say “When.”

This time it’s a Greek word, “ho-te,” and it is found in Galatians chapter 4.

“When the time had fully come, God sent his Son,” who slipped barely noticed into the warm lake of humanity. And so, after Mary’s labor pains and the anguish of child-birth that went on God knows how long, she was the first one to look into the gray eyes of this infant and ponder the imponderable fact.

“It’s really you.”

(Please read Psalm 13 and Galatians 4:4-6.)

You look back on times in your life when the pain or con-fusion or sorrow got so bad that you cried out to God with all your heart, “Where are you?” And he answered?

Nothing. (Or so you thought.)

Our hearts naturally lean away from God as it is, with resistance deeper than consciousness and stubbornness we cannot begin to justify. So in times of suffering or gut-punching disappointment, people can find the temptation irresistible to declare themselves rid of God and to resolve to move on without him, this God who does nothing when they need him most. Where is he?

Although he neglects none of his own promises, God still fails some test of the people’s own devising. People taste some things in times of shame or anguish that they know they never want to taste again. And they resolve right then and there that it is going to be up to them to make sense of life on their own, to reach for whatever satisfactions are available in this world, to feel what they want to feel, and to survive. Alone. Whatever it takes.

Now I even hear people speak this language—Where in the world is God?—when they become pregnant out of wed-lock or are fired from another job for irresponsibility: “Lord, how could you?” You don’t need me to point out the irony here. Sometimes life is a mess because we are. Then what we need, first of all, is for someone to help us read our own sto-ries properly. We reap what we sow.

And yet we all also suffer in ways that aren’t particularly our fault. The first thing I want to tell you if you’re asking, “Where was God when I needed him?” is that it’s okay to say such things out loud. For the reassurance that this is so, do turn to Psalm 13, which was described earlier. The first time I found that spot in the Bible—the first time its words opened up to me—was when my bride of a couple months fell deathly ill and would scream out in pain. I’ve been lead-ing people to that holy ground ever since. You might as well bring to God what is really in you, not what you think is supposed to be in you, even if your question has a serrated edge: “God, where are you!?”

What we’re always needing to get down to, when it comes to a relationship with God, is “the real me talking to the real You.” Not me as an actor on a stage talking to a god of my own distorted invention. Let it be God as he reveals himself in Holy Scripture and me as he is so prone to reveal me in the same place. All of us at some time or another are confronted by our human frailty, by the weak-ening of our bodies, by the inevitability of our deaths. We face every day the limitations of our spirits. We long to love and to live meaningfully, to connect with people in real relationships, and to soar. So let us cry, not what is supposed to be in us, but what is.

“How long, O Lord?”

I ask you to bring yourself and your tear-stained questions to God. “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ” What are the plans? We are dying to know. So the verse goes on: “ ‘. . . when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD.” That’s the plan. The reality of God is sometimes felt most in his apparent absence. You may seek him in the dark with a passion you could never muster in the daylight.

I understand what makes your heart ask, “Can there really be a God of love?” Yet before you can measure his compassion or his resolve, my task is to suggest another question, “What is our deepest need?” People who answer that the deepest needs of people are to be wealthy or healthy, beautiful or pain free, will always conclude that God must love some people and not others. Say that the needs that matter most have to do with being sur-rounded by happy things or by nice people and, if your premise is true, it might be fair to question the depth of God’s care. However, once you recognize that we all share equally in One Great Need—our need as sinners is to have peace with God—the others are reduced to insignificance, and everything is changed. In other words, look in the mirror.

If you’ve ever surprised yourself by the bad thing—the selfish or mean or cowardly thing—you were capable of, in that moment, sin’s eternal consequences suddenly made terrible sense. Every other difficult thing in the world was trivial, a secondary concern next to the problem of peace with God. And the real truth of the matter was that even before you did that awful thing, your need was just as desperate, just as absolute. Self-righteousness kept you from seeing it.

If you still can’t see your gaping spiritual need, then ask, at least, what if it were true? What if what is really wrong with everything is human sin? What if, as the Scriptures say, it is God that is the wronged one, the disappointed one? What if all that has gone wrong is humanity’s fault, not his, but our minds are so clouded in sin and shrouded in death that we can’t see it? What if when we blame God for things we don’t understand or rage in senseless atheistic hatred at him for not existing . . . well . . . what if we’re wrong? What if nothing less than eternity is at stake, nothing less than where we will be and how it will be for us forever?

Then the last thing we really need from the God who is there—the very last thing—are sweet and pleasant lives that never confront us with our own true condition.

On the other hand, if you could only begin to plumb the depth of humanity’s need for a simple thing called forgive-ness, called mercy, you might ask your question again, this time with appropriate humility: Where was God when I needed him?

He answered with a crucifixion. God, who exists in sub-lime independence, chose to enter a relationship with us that would cost him everything and us nothing. For our One Great Need, the Father gave his One and Only Son. On the cross, as someone has pointed out, we witness the greatest miracle in the Bible, the miracle of restraint—when the Father sat on his own hands, doing nothing at all. But how!? How could the one who exploded from heaven, “This is my Son whom I love,” possibly hold himself back? Because, you see, he also loved us. And so came Jesus’ time of no miracle, no answer, no help.

I write a mystery: Where was God when God needed him? See him there, nailed to a tree, crying, bleeding, suffering, dying, and not saying “When” until it was enough . . . not arching his back and pushing on the nails and shouting his triumph, “It is finished,” until it really was and the whole world, full of people like you, was redeemed.

I honor your questions. It is good that you ask them. I only ask that we move the conversation to this new ground, this raised plot called Golgotha, where the great human complaint loses all its steam . . . if, in fact, this smattering of blood is God’s. It may not even be the questions themselves that are changed, only the heart with which you ask them. For there he stands on the other side of your death, alive with healing in his wings. A woman glances up from inconsolable weeping. He says, “Mary . . .” and she is consoled.

If this is true—and, my friend, it is—then there are new thoughts for you to think, and God himself will pour them into your weary mind by his own comforting Spirit—that his love is unfailing, that you can trust him, that your spirit rejoices in God your Savior. These too are the thoughts of Psalm 13. Read it to the end. The “How long, O LORD?” gives way to a new thing, fresh from him.

“I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.”

I realize that it seems God has given you more than you can handle, that it seems like far too much for you to take. . . yet here you are. The miracle is that people who have suffered the most are often the ones singing loudest at Christmas, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sin-ners reconciled.” Not because God’s peace and mercy are supposed to be in them, but because they are. Theirs is a heart-pounding intimacy with God, of a kind and a strength never dreamed of by people who have never known pain.

“ ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD.”

There is a depth to these people, not in spite of the things he has allowed into their lives—he doesn’t do it lightly—but because of them. God has taught their knees to bend before the holy child of Bethlehem and their mouths to sing those words: “God and sinners reconciled.” It’s the real me . . . and it’s really you.

The disciples were getting beaten by the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The wind rose up and battered them. They rowed till their arms ached, past 3 A.M., getting nowhere. Where was Jesus when they needed him? He was watch-ing and aching, sighing and crying. It is he who left heaven and entered the very center of human distress to pray to his Father from there. And, at just the right time, he was on his way.

“It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

And he’s on his way for you. So be strong. Hold on. Endure. “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

My God will know when to say “When.”


From More Prepared To Answer © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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