Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Psalm 88:13-18 (Jude 17-25) - "Dear God"

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sophomore year in high school everyone had to do their I.S. project for English class, their Independent Study project. For my topic, I picked rock music lyrics and censorship. This was 1989, and the Parents’ Music Resource Council, the PMRC, was fighting to censor rock music. Well, I set out to defend rock music.

One target in 1989 for censorship was the band XTC and their song, “Dear God.” I actually found the song to be a quite honest, though challenging, prayer to God, a prayer that comes from doubt and struggle over faith, but a prayer nonetheless.

In fact, 15 years since that project, I can see that the song they wanted to ban actually has a lot of similarities to Scripture, namely Psalm 88.

[Now before we go any further, I do not stand behind everything that the band XTC sings about, and I certainly realize that they named their band after the illegal drug, ecstasy. I’m in no way advocating drug use. In fact, ecstasy is extremely dangerous but is seen just as a fun drug at rave parties. It is something affecting some youth in our area, and we need to remain aware of its dangers.]

That said, the song “Dear God” comes out of doubt. On the bulletin insert, you’ve got a quote from this song,

Dear God,
Sorry to disturb you,
But I feel that I should be heard loud and clear.
We all need a big reduction in amount of tears,
And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street,
’Cause they can’t make opinions meet about God,
I can’t believe in you.

It’s a challenging song. The chorus continually repeats how the singer can’t believe in God because of the troubles in the world. The song ends with a rejection of everything from saints and sinners, heaven and hell, and even the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I’m not surprised that the PMRC wanted to ban this song for its irreverent slam on Christianity.

When I first heard the song, though, I realized that the struggles that the singer is having with faith were the struggles I’d often experienced. Many times in my life I had doubted that God was really there. I saw problems around me and in my life and wondered where God was.

And Scripture includes prayers that come from doubt and struggle. Look on the insert at the verses from Psalm 88.

But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.

This is a prayer in the prayer book of the Bible. This is a prayer that was written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And yet, this is a prayer that asks difficult questions, like, “Where are you, God, because I can’t see you in this situation?” This psalm shows that there is room for doubt, struggle, and uncertainty in our faith. We can ask God the tough questions; we can admit that we aren’t always so sure; we can tell God when He seems to be missing in our lives.

So we can’t just ban doubt. Doubt is a part of our lives; we believe in God, but because we can’t see Him, because we can’t fully know, because of our imperfect, sinful hearts, we’re always struggling to believe. So when the PMRC was trying to ban that song, I defended the song, because the song was being honest about doubt. So when people tell you not to doubt, I will defend you, because your doubts and questions are honest. It’s better to honestly talk about what you’re thinking, about your struggles, than to ignore them. Banning doubt, censoring doubt, doesn’t make it go away; and actually, even Scripture gives us prayers like Psalm 88 that honestly tell God about our doubts.

But what was the PMRC trying to do when they wanted to ban “Dear God”? They were trying to defend the truth from scoffers, from those who would speak against the faith. Look at the insert at the verses from the New Testament book Jude.

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. [18] They said to you, "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions." [19] It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. [20] But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; [21] keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. [22] And have mercy on those who doubt; [23] save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

I can see how the PMRC thought they were following this kind of instruction, to warn others against scoffers, those who would speak against the faith. I can see how they felt like XTC’s song scoffed at God, and to a certain degree, I can agree with them. The song goes pretty far in attacking God and the faith.

However, in response, it seems like PMRC scoffed at doubt. XTC wrote an honest song about doubting God. According to Jude, the PMRC shouldn’t have just defended the faith. Jude also says, “And have mercy on those who doubt.”

The PMRC scoffed at doubt, wanted to ban doubt, allowed no place for expressions of doubt, and acted like they never doubted. That isn’t showing mercy on doubters. In fact, in trying to ban “Dear God,” the PMRC failed to listen to another XTC song which warns us against ignoring what is really going on in our souls. You’ve got a quote from the song “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” on your insert.

Now he sits all alone
And it's no place like home
It's empty skin
A bag to keep life's souvenirs in
The man who sailed around his soul

Ignoring the doubt, ignoring what’s really going on in your heart and mind, leaves you in danger of “sailing around your soul.” If on the surface you want to try and make everything look perfect, that you’re always 100% committed, that you never struggle or get afraid or get mad about God, then you’re disconnecting yourself from your soul. You’re making everything look good on the surface, but in the end, the dirt’s under the carpet, the doubts and thoughts are still there.

Instead, God promises mercy for doubters. God doesn’t expect us to have a faith that never doubts. If God expected that, He wouldn’t have allowed Psalm 88 in the Bible; that psalm really questions whether God is around, really struggles with believing. If God expected us never to doubt, He wouldn’t have told us to have mercy on doubters. Doubters would be rejected, kicked out, never to be seen again. However, if that were the case, I’m afraid it’d be pretty empty in the church—beginning with the pulpit.

So no, you’re going to doubt; pray and tell God your doubts. You’re going to doubt; talk to other Christians about your doubt. People sometimes feel like they can’t tell me their doubts and struggles, but it’s not like I’ve never heard them, it’s not like I’ve never experienced them. Ignoring doubt, banning doubt, won’t make it go away. Instead we talk to God; we continually ask Him to keep our faith strong even when our faith is so weak.

The poet John Donne wrote, “Churches are best for prayer/that have least light.” He could’ve just meant that a church that is dimly lit helps you focus on your prayers. However, as mentioned by another author, Philip Yancey, Donne could’ve also meant that a church that allows room for doubt is a church that encourages prayer.

We come to the strong light of faith, coming to hear about salvation through the cross of Jesus, but that strong light of faith doesn’t fill in every corner, doesn’t illuminate everything. Our prayers come from the darkness and struggles. We know about Christ and His forgiveness from God’s Word. But we readily admit the things we don’t know, leaving room for mystery, hiddeness, unknowns, doubts.

That’s how to pray. Prayer is like walking through the spotlight. (step into dark) We call out from the dark, struggling to believe in God, but then we say, (step into light) “Lord, I still believe in you!”

(step into dark) You ask, “Why doesn’t God answer all of my prayers?” (step into light) What we know is that God does answer your prayers—sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes wait. (step into dark) But the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know why He hasn’t seemed to answer your prayers or has answered them in a certain way.

You ask, “Why does God seem to give blessings to non-Christians when He doesn’t bless me, a Christian, who is praying for the same blessing? (step into light) What I know is that as a Christian you have the ultimate blessing of eternal life with God. (step into dark) But the truth is, I don’t know.

You ask, “Why would God keep letting me go through something so difficult when it causes me to doubt Him?” (step into light) I know that God uses our struggles to strengthen our faith. (step into dark) But the truth is, I don’t know.

(step into light) Maybe that’s not much comfort. The darkness, the doubts, the unanswered questions about prayer. Yet, what I want you to know is that doubt isn’t banned here. You can admit your doubts to God, to each other, to me. Doubt is a part of the struggle to remain faithful in this broken and fallen world, separated from our God.

If you have ever felt like you should be ashamed of your doubts, that you were beyond hope because of your struggles, remember: there are prayers of doubt in Scripture, so take your doubts to God in prayer. Remember: Scripture calls on us to have mercy on those who doubt; doubters should never be cast out, sent away, banned. If you’ve ever been sent away by a Christian because of your doubt, remember my story tonight about defending the song “Dear God” and know that I will not send you away because you’re struggling to believe. God will not send you away; He remains by your side, walking with you, hearing your doubting, angry, struggling prayers; God remains with you to find ways to give you strength in the middle of it all.

May God grant us all the Holy Spirit to work in our doubting, struggling, wandering, wondering, questioning hearts. May the Holy Spirit keep the faith in our hearts even when we’re ready to chuck it all. May the Holy Spirit give us strength of faith and help us to take our prayers and questions to God. May the Holy Spirit go with you tonight, keeping the light of the truth of the salvation of Jesus in your heart. He is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you to God the Father with great joy.