Much like Psalm 42, Psalm 44 begins by recalling a past time of God’s active and obvious work but ends in the present with a sense of abandonment. Like these two, many of the psalms lament an inability to see God’s hand at work leading to questions about his presence. With this in mind, I wonder whether any of us really understand the times in which we live?
What I mean is, do we have the ability to see the present work of God in the midst of our daily lives? Frequently I hear discussions about the glorious days of old when God moved or talk of future days of joy coming after we endure our present troubles, but rarely do I hear much said with certainty about God’s present work. Maybe more people can see God’s hand than I’m aware of, I don’t know, but if not, I wonder why we are unable to see God’s current work?
I suppose one possible answer to this question is that God is not presently working. Psalm 44 seems to arrive at this conclusion as it declares God was once a prominent figure fighting enemies and winning battles (v. 4-8), but he now seems impotent and unable to prevent disaster (v. 9-16). Even though the psalmist claims his faith in God has not wavered (v. 17-21), he places the responsibility for his present painful circumstances firmly in the hands of God by claiming God has abandoned him (v. 9-14). He concludes by telling God to wake up and stop hiding (v. 23-24).
While there are times I want to say God is hiding, something about that claim is troubling. Do I really think God has wound up the universe and let it go, walking away from people and circumstances, sitting back and watching it play out, only to reach down occasionally into the mechanism of time and space assuring things go according to his plan? Is he really that distant and unconcerned? Let me be clear here, I’m not questioning what we feel about his presence, rather I’m asking what really is the case. If we are to be honest, clearly we often feel as though God has abandoned us, but has he really? Is there a present reality that we, like the psalmist, cannot see?
I think the beginning of an answer to this question is found in something Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He says,
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (II Cor. 4:16-18)
I don’t think the psalmist sees abandonment by God as a light momentary affliction. Nor do I think the elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, the twenty-something diagnosed with a rare form of nearly terminal cancer, or the middle-aged woman enduring chronic back pain would see their plights as light momentary afflictions. Yet, I believe Paul describes all of these, and much more, as light momentary afflictions. Why is this? Is Paul insensitive to the human condition, or does he know something we don’t?
I believe Paul knew that our light momentary afflictions are the temporal experience of the eternal weight of glory pressing down upon our lives. And because we are unable to see beyond our transient pain and sense of abandonment we fail to see the eternal hand of God. Like the psalmist, we are able to peer into the past and see, at least in part, the shadows of God’s eternal glory at work, but that is only because God’s hand does not rest in the past, it works in the present: the pain of the past is gone, only his glory remains. But in our present circumstances, we feel the pressing weight of momentary afflictions but are blind to the eternal glory behind it.
In such moments, the moments every one of us feels, our faith is tested. Do we believe God is presently working and that he will bring about his glory, or do we throw our hands up in despair wondering why we have been abandoned?
Honestly speaking? I think the answer is both. I know I should write the “good Christian answer” and say we must learn to live in faith, abandoning all thought of a distant God, but I think our experience, and the psalmist’s words, suggest a real struggle. We live between two extremes: on the one hand, we experience many present afflictions, but on the other, we know of and trust in God’s eternal glory. To deny the one is to not be honest with God about our experience in life, as the psalmist often is; but to deny the other is to not be honest with ourselves about God’s work, as Paul is. While someday God’s eternal glory will break through and erase our momentary affliction, these are the times in which we live.