Psalm 42 Asking WHY? (Vertical Habits – Lament)

We don’t often talk about the harder side of the faith life – those times when we don’t understand what God is doing or when our life is hard and we cry out in despair.  We don’t often talk about the dark side of faith, particularly those emotional responses we have that wonder if God is really paying attention.  And it is my belief that we don’t address those parts of faith because we aren’t sure if it is okay to express doubt, or to ask God “Why such and such is happening?”

But the wisdom literature of the Scriptures is full of people asking God, “Why?”  It is full of people expressing the dark side of our faith walk.  25 times Job asks the question “Why?” (Job 3:11) “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?  (Job 3:12) Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? (Job 13:24) Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?  Questions like these are found throughout the book as Job wrestles with his life and experience.

The psalms carry on the tradition asking God “Why?” in 31 different places. (Psa. 2:1) Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? (Psa. 10:1) Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psa. 10:13) Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, “He won’t call me to account”?  And today, “Why have you forgotten me?  Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” (Psa. 42:9).


The simple fact that the questions are asked makes many believers uncomfortable.  “This isn’t faith,” they say; or “Who am I to question God?” I remember the first time I truly expressed my emotions to God.  I sat in the desert after returning from Africa crying out in angst, “Why did you bring us home?  Why did you give me this woman to marry?  Why did you screw up my life?  What am I going to do now?  How are you going to fix it?”  The feelings were overwhelming.  The tears came and the words my soul longs for you took on new meaning.  Then a few years later, walking down the streets to our home in Colorado Springs, I cried out “Why God do you treat your people so poorly?  I am struggling to make ends meet and you don’t seem to care.”  Again My soul was downcast and thirsting for the living God to be real in life.


I don’t think I am unique in these kinds of experiences, unfortunately we don’t often express them or talk about them so others in the same place find themselves alone and estranged, feeling odd or out of step with the unspoken expectations of the church. But the fact is, humans ask “Why” questions an awful lot and many of those questions, our questions, are recorded in the Scriptures very plainly, without condescension.


It is okay to ask God “Why?”   “Why are others suffering?  Why are the rich not punished?  Why do the evil get away with their crimes?  Why am I experiencing hardship?  Where are you when I call?”  These are all questions that every Christian will personally come face to face with in their soul at some time in life.  They are questions, which are okay to express because God included these “Whys” in the Word, in order to help us find the solution to our longings and the emotional pains of faith.


If anyone was ever going to serve as the ultimate person to question God, to ask the questions of Why, Jesus is the poster child.  It was he who was hunted and pursued by the Devil.  It was he who had the powers and authorities of the world pushing in around him.  It was he who didn’t just cry tears, but sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane.  It was he whose friends deserted him.  And it was he who was downcast and disturbed in his soul.  He, himself, said, My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matt 26:38-39).  Jesus was asking one of the great Why questions: Why me Lord?  And he states it very clearly as he hangs on the cross, crying out My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:1, Matt 27:46)


He wants to know why God is letting the wicked win?  And just as in today’s psalm, there is no immediate answer.  God never answers that question, at least not when it was asked, instead he allows Jesus to live through the experience with Bones suffer[ing] mortal agony as [his] foes taunt him, saying to [him] all day long, “Where is your God?” (Psa 42:10) or in the words of Matthew the Evangelist as he tells of the crucifixion, Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!”…In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him… “Let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him.  He trusts in God.  Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.” (Matt 27:39, 41-43)


You may be thinking, sure the questions are asked, but are they okay to ask?  Don’t they betray a lack of faith?  Let me say this, it is okay to ask God “Why?” because every why question has underneath it, hidden below the surface a longing for better times.  Some questions long for justice – Why are the evil not punished?  Some questions long for a deeper, personal experience of God – Why have you forgotten me?  Some questions long for a greater understanding of God’s plan of redemption and the coming of his kingdom – Why are you doing this?  Why aren’t you answering me?  But all of them share a desire and an understanding that things are not okay right now. They are not the way they should be.  The Whys of life all share a longing for God to break into the present situation and redeem it!


As we return to today’s psalm, how frequently have we sung those opening words, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after thee” (Psa 42:1) in a very nice genteel way?  But that is to miss the point of the psalm. These are not soft melodic words (la da da, la da da, la da da…); these are the cry of man in travail.  It is the difference between listening to this and listening to this.  These are words of great emotion, expressing angst and strife.  Really, let’s consider what causes a deer to pant?  There are only two reasons an animal like a deer, a prey animal, not a predator, pant and these reasons are 1) It has just been running hard from predators and is exhausted, or 2) it is really, really hot outside.  Neither of these experiences is enjoyable.  They both speak of hardship and difficulty.


The psalmist draws upon this image of a hunted, haggard deer with its tongue hanging out to explain his situation in life.  He is the deer.  The circumstances of life expressed in the why questions have been overtaking him.  The experience of life has been crouching in around and hardship is engulfing her.  Whoever the psalmist is, her or his experience of life is in the desert.  Emotionally this person is in a wasteland and thirsts for something different.  When can I go and meet with God? (Psa 42:2b), would better be translated, “When will I be conscious of God again?  When will I see him again?  I am only experiencing emotional pain and suffering.  I am crying; I am worn out.  Saltwater has been my sustenance, those around me chide me and taunt me.


My present experience frankly stinks.  I remember better times, but they are no more.  I remember joyful worship, worship full of thanksgiving, worship surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters, but no longer am I experiencing that.  I am alone.  I am downcast and disturbed.   My soul is battling within me.  Past experiences are fighting for a place against the present reality.  Turmoil abounds.  As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs for thee (Psa 42:1).  That is the cry of someone hunted and in pain.  It is the cry of someone asking God WHY?  These are words of Lament.  In fact, that is what a lament is; it is asking God why something is happening.  And these words are part of biblical worship.


For those needing answers to their questions of why, I hinted earlier that mostly there are no answers, and that is not entirely true.  I will attempt to give you a few, but let me preface the answers by saying they aren’t going to feel adequate.  The answers to many of the Why questions are simply things like: Because I am God (that is what Job found as the Lord flipped the table upon Job’s questions and said to him (Job 40:7) “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me).


Or the answer might be to teach and correct me as the author of Hebrews quotes from the Proverbs saying (Heb. 12:5-7) And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?


Or as the man born blind finds out, the answer to why he was born blind and spent a lifetime suffering and marginalized, until Jesus healed him one Sabbath day was simply to glorify God – (John 9:2-3) His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life..


But more often than not, there are no answers that we are going to be able to discern or are going to be satisfactory to our longing souls. You will notice that there are no answers to the psalmist’s, “Whys?”  There are no satisfying answers to the great struggles of faith and emotion.  We are never told why God is allowing this person to be pursued.  We are never told why God is allowing this person to feel forgotten?  We are never told why this person feels far away from God.  And that is part of the teaching on lament.  Sometimes there are no answers to the questions we are posing.


And yet, we shouldn’t cease to ask our questions.  In fact, the psalmist gives us something better than answers to the questions that trouble us; he gives us comfort.  Why questions don’t need answers, they need validation, and acceptance that something is wrong.  Why questions need the assurance that there is hope for the future.  They need comfort, which is exactly what the Lord provides in his word.


The first bit of comfort we encounter is to have hope in God, even in the struggle.  That is why the two laments are capped by the refrain Put your hope in God for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God (Psa 42:5b, 11b).  The comfort a person in the travail of life needs is not a quick answer, but the hope that God will act in his or her life again and this is what the Psalmist is assuring everyone who asks why.  God will respond for he is God almighty the creator and sustainer of the universe and he is my God, my creator and sustainer, my loving father, my savior from the trials and tribulations of life, and so he is yours too.


And part of the comfort, though not explicitly stated in this passage but a corollary to his being our God and savior is found in Jer. 29:11 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.  Our lord has a plan to glorify himself in and through us and to use our life and our situation to bring not only us, but also others, into the best possible future that can possibly be experienced.  It is a future where the presence of God is unmeasured and the people of God walk in his eternal light.  It is a future where sin is eradicated and love abounds, where evil is defeated and life reigns supreme.


The comfort for the why questions comes in knowing that God is still caring about us and is concerned with our situation, no matter how dire it feels to us.  Nothing is slipping by him. (Is. 43:1-3) But now, this is what the Lord says — he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.


Or in the words of Jesus, Matt. 6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? And he goes on to speak about not even a hair falling from our head without his will allowing it.  When we ask why, though we may not understand or even like the circumstances, we can take comfort in the fact that these trials and struggles are not designed to overtake us and destroy us but to strengthen us and draw us closer to our God. (Deut. 4:31) For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.


Though our struggles and our questions are addressed to God, deep down, our struggles are with the present order of things.  Our struggles are with the rulers and principalities.  Our struggles are with wondering when God will again break in and redeem this world as he has broken in the past.  And so our hope, our comfort is that one-day he will come again and when that happens we will thank him again.


And that is why we come to communion this morning, to remind ourselves that God has broken in and answered the longings of his people in the life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.  As we said, Jesus asked those why questions.  And Yet, He declared, in the garden, Yet not as I will, but as you will (Matt 26:39).  He prayed for God’s kingdom to come and as he hung on that cross uttering aloud the words of the 22nd psalm, it wouldn’t seem unimaginable that he continued to hear the rest of that psalm which declares For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help (Psa. 22:24).  And if he listened when Jesus cried out Why, then we can be assured he will answer us as well, when we cry out Why – for we are his body, participants with him in all God is doing to fulfill the longing for a redeemed world.


For in his own words, Matt. 26:26-29 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” And as Paul says, As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.  He is coming to fulfill your great longings so that never again in eternity will there need to be a Why question that is brought on by hardship, pain, suffering or toil.


Rejoice in the comfort he has given, knowing that things are not as they should be, but one day they too will be redeemed for the glory of the Father.


As you eat this morning, take your questions to the Savior, and trade them for the comfort and the assurance he offers.  Would the elders come forward…


Sermon outline


  1. Is it ok to ask Why?
  2. Examples from the Bible and personal life.
  3. Even Jesus asked Why?
    1. What causes longing
    2. Answers to the question Why?
    3. Comfort (again this is not exhaustive)
    4. God acts in our lives
    5. God has a plan for you that WILL glorify Him
    6. God knows us an cares about us
    7. God loves us so much that He sent His Son to die for us
      1. In Communion, trade your questions for his comfort and assurance


About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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