Psalm 13 or “Jesus Take the Wheel”

This summer I was asked to preach on one of the Psalms at my home congregation, High River Alliance Church. I felt quite led to Psalm 13 (Psalm 10 was a close second), and tried to think about it as a song (which of course it is) expressing the deep longings and frustrations of being human. For better or worse, here’s the link to the audio and here’s the text (warning … it’s a talk, so it’s not formal writing with proper grammar throughout):

Psalm 13:1-6 NIV

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord ‘s praise,
for he has been good to me.

As we’ve heard a number of times already this summer, when we read the Psalms, we’re actually reading lyrics … we’re reading poetry which would originally have been set to music. Many of the Psalms were (and are) songs of praise to God. My wife Colleen came across an interesting quotation this past week. It said, “Songs are a place we go to meet God.” And the Psalms do function that way, don’t they. Very often they express the positive feelings we have–the tremendous sense of joy and thankfulness, of delight and amazement towards God. Other Psalms were (and are) deep emotional outpourings–expressions of longing, frustration, fear, anger, exhilaration, or despair.

I don’t think it’s any secret that this is the reason why so many of us find such meaning in the Psalms, and return to them time and time again because of the range of emotions they capture.

And that’s what good music does, doesn’t it? It expresses our deepest emotions. Most people care deeply about music for just this reason, because good songs contain emotional truth. They ring true to our experience of life.

Think about your favourite songs … why are they your favourites?

Some of you will think about hymns, songs which have carried you through good times and bad. My favourite, I think, is by Charles Wesley, the greatest hymn-writer of the 1700s. It’s called “And Can It Be” … and it asks the question, how can it be that God actually loved me enough to die for me? It’s too much to comprehend … it’s just amazing.

Maybe some of you will think about a newer worship song, like “How He Loves,” with its repetition of the line “He loves us … Woah, how he loves us” over and over, and sung so emotionally. For many, it captures the deep connection we feel when we realize how much God does actually love us.

But maybe you weren’t thinking about hymns or worship songs. Maybe you were thinking about rock or country or blues or classical music. When I think of songs with a high level of emotional truth, I think of:

The Police, “Message in a Bottle” … it’s about a guy who feels so lonely he writes a message in a bottle and throws it into the ocean, wondering if anyone will discover that he exists … a year later, he returns to find 100 billion other bottles floating there too … quite a profound meditation on the isolation, the loneliness, and the longing for hope that is part of what it means to be human.

Or, if you’re a little older, you could turn to Simon and Garfunkel, and their song “I Am a Rock”. There the singer rejects the idea of love or friendship … decides it’s not worth the risk … he’d rather be a rock, an island unto himself, “because a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries” … and as we listen, we know that in fact the song is about as intense a cry of pain as there ever was.

Or if you’re a little younger, you might be thinking about the new Coldplay hit, “Paradise” … with a soaring chorus and a great bass line, it captures this longing we’ve all been created with, this longing for something more … for a place of peace, happiness … somewhere away from the many problems that make life get so heavy.

In the history of popular music, there are hundreds of really profound songs like these, that express our deepest hopes and struggles.

What are your favourite songs? And why? What emotional truths do they contain? Are they songs about God? Are they songs about parts of our human experience … some loneliness or longing or love?

Do you remember how successful Carrie Underwood’s song “Jesus Take the Wheel” was a couple of years ago? That song connected with millions of people, because it gives voice to some really deep emotional truths … and the theology’s not bad either. “Jesus Take the Wheel” expresses that feeling we get when life is out of control, when we know we are in big trouble, when life forces us to realize that we’re powerless to save ourselves. We find ourselves in crisis, out of options … and then we call out to God. In the process, we realize that we’ve totally been taking him for granted, trying to live life our own way, and not very successfully.

For so many people, that song was a powerful reminder of how fragile life can be, how often we need help and how comforting it is to know how faithful God remains, in spite of our unfaithfulness.

When have you felt those emotions? When have you felt out of control? Without hope? Completely disillusioned about people? Or totally alone?

That’s actually what Psalm 13 is about. It’s not one of the best known Psalms, but it packs a lot of punch into a few short lines of poetry. Psalm 13 is not complicated–it’s divided into three parts. Verses 1-2 ask some questions of God. Verses 3-4 call out to God, and verses 5-6 are declarations of faith, statements of conviction about God and about us. So let’s jump right in.

To say that verses 1-2 asks some questions of God is a bit of an understatement, isn’t it? In Psalm 13, David begins with some awfully hard questions … he’s clearly in what we would call “a bad space”. And he’s not sugar-coating anything. He’s not pretending things will be ok in the end. He’s just venting his raw emotion. In fact, I’m not sure these are really questions at all, in the normal sense of things.

How long, oh Lord?

Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

Now, I don’t think we should spend a lot of time worrying about the literal wording of these questions. It’s a little like when you have a fight with your spouse or when you’re kids are mad at you, and someone says something like, “I hate you. I wish you were dead.”

That ever happen to anyone? Now you probably don’t immediately fear for your life in those circumstances, though I guess that’s always possible. But for most of us, we’re not hung up on the literal meaning of those words, because we realize there’s an emotional truth in there, and that the words really mean something like, “I’m really upset!” or “I don’t agree with your parenting decisions.” or “You’re neglecting me and I’m hurt.”

So let’s take that same approach for a moment with Psalm 13:1-2. What might David really be saying to God, when we read, “How long, oh Lord?Will you forget me forever?How long will you hide your face from me?How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

Here’s what I see:

  • my life is really hard … in fact, it’s too hard
  • I feel like these bad things that are happening to me are going to do me in … I can’t take any more … this is too much for me
  • I thought you were supposed to love me, God … why does my life feel like it’s falling apart?
  • how can you let this happen to me … or to this person I love? Don’t you care?
  • oh boy, another day, how will I get through this one …
And it doesn’t really matter when we’re in this space if someone tells us that we really have it pretty good, or that others have it worse, or that “at least we don’t live in …”, because we feel completely overwhelmed.

That’s what I hear when I read the first part of Psalm 13 … I hear David saying, “Why have you abandoned me? Why don’t you care, God?”

Now I know that that doesn’t sound like a very cheery message for a nice summer Sunday, does it? But I also know that even on lovely summer days, life can be hard. And the truth is that almost all of us have either felt this way recently or know people who are in this place. Health struggles, financial crisis, a death in the family, an impossibly broken relationship … those sorts of things that we can’t control, that overwhelm us and leave us feeling abandoned by God

What I really appreciate about this Psalm is David’s honesty. He asks the questions we ask. He feels abandoned and without hope, just as we do. And he’s not afraid to challenge God. Look at verses 3-4:

Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

Here again, the language is poetic … it’s emotional, and requires a little decoding. What do you say to God when you’re in this kind of spot?

  • Hey God, I really need some answers here!
  • What kind of God are you?
  • If this is all there is to life (or to Christianity), then why bother?
  • God, I can’t go on living like this
  • If things keep going the way they are, I can just hear what my family/friends/co-workers are going to say … “so why do you bother with all this God stuff? What a joke! You’re stupid to pretend there’s a God who cares, or who matters. See, I told you that all this religion stuff was a waste of time.”
And this is the problem isn’t it? When we’re really in crisis mode, not only do we feel God doesn’t care, but we also start to question whether all this Christianity stuff is for real … and we start to worry about how others are going to judge us … what they’re going to think about our situation and what it says about our God. It’s actually an idea that runs quite strongly through the OT stories of God and Israel … that God’s name, God’s honour, is connected to the salvation of Israel … Israel’s well-being is a sign of God’s care. So if it looks like God doesn’t care, others will see that and wonder why we believe in such a God.

When was the last time you felt like David does in Psalm 13, like God doesn’t care and you’re stuck in a hopeless place? What were the circumstances?

In other Psalms, David or the other song-writers call out to God about all kinds of injustices. In Psalm 10, just a few pages back, David complains that God doesn’t care about wicked people who do unjust things, evil things, to others … or people who boast about how great they are … or people who are proud and don’t have time to think about God … people who boast they don’t need God and can do whatever they want … and David wants God to punish them, to make what is wrong right again.

I don’t know about you, but I often feel frustrated about all the injustice in the world–mad at how unfair a place the world can be–but here in Psalm 13, the frustration is much closer to home. It’s about me and the people I care about, and why doesn’t God care about my problems, my struggles, and the people in my life.

I wish I could stand here and tell you today that life doesn’t have to be like that, but I don’t think I can. Sometimes, life is overwhelming. Sometimes we have problems that just don’t seem to go away. When I think of my own Christian experience, I can think of a few occasions when I’ve prayed to God with the kinds of words and feelings we see in Psalm 13. The results have been mixed.

I remember once, when I was 18, I was just so overwhelmed with my spiritual struggles–wanting to do the right thing, but just never feeling like I could get it together, and feeling hopeless about that … and I was crying out to God, saying “Look, I really want to live for you, and I know you want that even more than I ever could, so WHAT’S NOT WORKING? Why in the world are we so out of sync?” I was really at my wits end–it was when I was at Bible school and really learning lots about God and working through a lot of stuff in my own life, and really pretty frustrated. God’s answer was not what I expected. No miraculous insights, no changed circumstances, but a wave of peace rolling over me like I have rarely experienced, and a deep conviction that everything would be ok. Over 25 years later and I can still remember it like it was yesterday–it was a very powerful encounter with God.

I remember another time, too, back when I was in my early 30s. We lived in Saskatoon, had four young kids, and I was trying to finish my PhD. We we really stuck–no money, all our stuff was breaking, and I was nowhere near a regular job. I felt so hopeless, really at the end of my rope. I went for a walk, and really let God have it–a little like David does here in Psalm 13, I guess. I remember saying something like, “Look, we can’t go on like this. We’re trying like crazy to serve you in our church, trying to follow the way we think you’re leading us, but it’s not working. And now I’m at the end of my rope. I can’t go on like this, and I need answers now, or we’re just going to start doing our own thing and finding our own way.” It really felt like my faith was hanging in the balance. This time, God’s answer was pretty much what I was asking for. Within a couple of days, an old friend sent me an e-mail telling me about a job opening that I might be interested in. Thirteen years later, I’m still teaching at Ambrose University. Just as God had supplied our needs all through grad school, just at the right time (though much later than I would have chosen) he supplied our need for full-time work.

Since then, I have to say I’ve come to God with quite a few other crises, but there are a few of them that remain completely unresolved–situations that go back four years, nine years, and one from further back than that–they’re circumstances in my life that really challenge me, places where I feel hopelessness or despair. And I have to confess that God has felt pretty silent on those things–I haven’t got any answers.

So what do I do … what do we do when we’re at the end of our rope, when life feels overwhelming and God feels far away? How do we keep going?

As gloomy as Psalm 13 begins, it ends on a dramatically different note–a remarkably brighter note. How can this be? How can David go from feeling like God has abandoned him, feeling like God doesn’t care, feeling like his enemies will soon be gloating over his downfall, demanding answers from God, wondering whether he can even go on with life, to celebrating the goodness of God? How is that possible?

At one level, we don’t really know … Psalm 13 is short, and David doesn’t explain the process of his personal transformation from despair to hope. It’s just that as we read, suddenly, the word “but” appears, and the whole Psalm turns. Let’s read verses 5-6:

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

In these two short verses, David chooses three actions that give him hope, and three anchors for his faith in God. There’s nothing complicated about it. The three actions are to trust, to rejoice, and to sing praise. The three anchors are God’s love, God’s salvation, and God’s goodness.

First, David declares that he trusts in God’s unfailing love. Second, he declares that he takes joy in God’s salvation. Third, and finally, David declares that he will sing praise to the Lord, because God has been good to him.

It’s important to see that these are active responses. He chooses to trust. Chooses to take joy. Chooses to sing praise. David’s honest about his emotions, but he’s not using them as the basis for his thoughts or actions. Instead, he’s choosing to act positively, based on three acts of remembering. We know, because we can read them, that there are many stories from the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles that tell us about how God called David, saved him from trouble (wild animals, in battle, from King Saul), and blessed him with good friends, military success and, ultimately, the throne of Israel. In Psalm 13, David, who is still very much in the middle of his story, chooses to remember how God’s love has sustained him, how God has often saved him (I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have thought of his encounter with Goliath!), and how God had been good to him along the way. We can read something similar in the book of Lamentations, in chapter 3:22-24: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

This is what David decided, and this is how Psalm 13 guides us. When we call out to God, he might not answer in the way we expect. Sometimes we get just what we think we need, and sometimes, it feels like we’re not hearing him at all. But when we choose to remember how he has sustained us, saved us, and been good to us in the past, we too can wait on him in faith. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it at the start of chapter 11, Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. And a few verses later, And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

That’s the attitude Jesus taught when he explained that anyone who wants to receive the kingdom of God must come to Jesus like a child–not complicated, not needing to figure it all out, just trusting.

It’s been over a week now, but I still find myself thinking back on Summer Bible Camp, and I’m starting to wonder if that week wasn’t more important for me than for the kids I played leader to. Because every day we sang songs of praise, telling God and reminding ourselves of his goodness to us. And every day–probably 50 times each morning–we shouted or sang that no matter who we are, or how we feel, or what others do, or what happens, or where we are, we can trust God. Together we remembered stories from the Bible that teach us those truths. And together we reminded each other about times when we saw God in action in our lives.

And each day I found myself asking, “Do I really trust God, even when … ?” and I would think about some person, some problem, some difficulty in my life that looks so hard. But I also found myself thinking back to the many times when we had no money, or someone was sick, or someone near me died, and how God always carried me through, and the more I remembered those things, both from Scripture and from my life, the more I realized, like David in Psalm 13, that when my world feels like it’s crashing down all around me, that I can trust in God’s unfailing love, take joy that he is saving me, and praise him for his goodness.

Psalm 13 is a short, powerful poem. In just six verses, David asks some of the toughest questions anyone will ever ask. He gives expression to some of the deepest emotion anyone will ever feel. And he finds some of the simplest answers anyone could ever imagine: choose to trust in God’s unfailing love. Choose to take joy in God’s salvation. And choose to praise God for his goodness. Life will throw us what it throws us. I want to have that anchor, that deep, unshakable faith in God’s goodness, and I pray the same will be true for you as well.

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