The Forty-Third

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Every ten weeks we pause, take a deep breath, and rejoin our series of the Psalms Greatest Hits. Turning our gaze inward we invite the words and mind of the Psalmist to lead us, thousands of years later, into the same, everlasting moment of Divine Union as he experienced.

This chapter was planned long before the election and it’s subsequent results. This means that I will need you to do your best to extract yourself from the present political environment. While the text was written in a similar time of angst and confusion, it wasn’t written specifically to this time of angst and confusion. Those who interpret scripture based upon the nightly news are far too myopic for me to trust their conclusions. For this Psalm to resonate, we must endeavor to access that part of us which has been “let down” by God.

The Forty-third Psalm is a deep, soul scouring question. It is the soul which smacks hard ground when it believed it couldn’t fail. The pain of everything going the wrong way functions like the Big Bang where doubt shoots forth from every direction. While doubts and discouragement may resonate with half of our country in today’s political frame, this Psalm comes from a much more dire experience.

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
    against an ungodly people,
from the deceitful and unjust man
    deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
    why have you rejected me?
Why do I go about mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?

Spiritual progress looms on the watershed of a very particular human experience, namely, the moment we feel abandoned by God and left alone to suffer under those who don’t care for us. I’ve interviewed countless Atheists and each can recall the moment when it became easier and less painful to believe in a random, hostile world, than a loving God whose design was to leave us unprotected, vulnerable, and alone with evil. Jesus himself shared in this experience of God turning his face on his beloved.

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

The only difference between the Atheist and the devout is the length of time spent within this purifying crucible. The lens gained by jumping out before the slag burns off means that the Atheist is left to view everything through their own slag. In pride, they diminish the whole spiritual framework as NOT real, which is quite understandable, but life left with impurities always confines us to a prison which views our spiritual purgation as unnecessary. Such flames prove only slightly less painful as those within the crucible. My counsel to those who doubt is to stop avoiding pain and struggle and rather let it form and heal your wounded faith.

“Send out your light and your truth;
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
    and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.”

Mature faith knows that our suffering, our sense of abandonment, powerlessness, and confusion are what St. John of the Cross calls a dark night of the soul. Deep with the suffering dark night remains, despite everything going wrong, a quiet deference to a wisdom and design which goes beyond our ability to understand. Our “figure-outer” is outmatched. Our most lucid day cannot capture the breadth and depth of that “something more” transpiring just beyond our grasp and understanding. The “slag less” self, being purged with fire, cannot emerge from the crucible within the construct of our own thinking, it can only be accessed through experience and proximity to Divine union. We go to the altar not with “WHO” we think we are, nor with “WHO” we are, but with “THAT” we are. The Psalmist reveals that true praise is not Subject to Object, it is Subject to Subject.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.”

The downcast soul is not to be avoided. Inner turmoil is a “check-engine” light, but not for what is wrong, but for what is taking place. Suffering is a wide-door inviting us into sober mindedness. Wisdom only comes to those who pass through it and are taught by it.

“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (Ecclesiastes 7:4)

Lest you conclude the path of the Lord is all decline and loss, the story doesn’t end in the grave, but in new life, both spiritually, socially, economically, and physically.

“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
(Psalm 46:10-11)

This verse in chapter forty-six is the “tonic note” of chapter forty-three. It is the resolution. The outcome of our faith is not just personal, spiritual maturity, it is the restoration of all people and the earth. It’s the dawn of the New Earth in which Heaven has joined.

By the way, if you missed the subtlety here, the God depicted here is that of Jacob. If you know the story, Jacob means “seized by the heel.” Jacob was the supplanter, the one who “tricked” Isaac his father into giving him the blessing. Sure, the Psalmist could have chosen the God of Israel, which is the new name for Jacob 2.0, following his wrestling match with a manlike figure. Israel means, strives with God and prevails, which seems like a much more fitting name at this point, but instead the Psalmist identifies with “Jacob.”

I think the Psalmist knows that the downcast soul is too low to appropriate this to itself. The downcast soul knows all too well it’s a trickster, a phony, a pseudonym. The message of grace is so clear. We don’t have to arrive all purged, clean, and victorious for God to accept us. He is the God of Jacob. The prevenient love of God is not earned through our spiritual progress, instead, any and all progress is the result of such love. Suffering then, as St. John of the Cross would put it, is the scourge of love, bringing about it’s vastly greater end than our petty whims and corporeal cravings.

For those who feel that God cannot exist because of all the useless suffering in the world, this psalm points us toward True North by revealing that suffering is a constant and concrete reminder that the love of God is inviting us to be shaped not by our performance, but by our patience and trust. Suffering and the downcast soul is so important to the God of Jacob, that He ensured His own essence (son) would experience it just as we all do.

The turmoil of our soul is not God forsaking us, it is actually a visceral experience with the life and love of Christ. It’s the moment we truly identify with and experience the life of the suffering servant-sent by God. Until the suffering of the downcast soul converges between the seen and unseen world, Christology remains abstract, a theory, or a dogmatic assertion.

Suffering then, cannot be “useless” or “meaningless”, for it is the perfect design which ensures none of us can go through life and miss God.