Continuing with this series on things that have helped me understand prayer better, I'd like to share some quotes from a sermon by Dr. Tim Mackie called "Psalms – The Language of Prayer Part 4: Praying Through Doubt" accessible on the Exploring My Strange Bible podcast.
Dr. Mackie begins the lesson with this introduction: "In this teaching we are going to explore Psalms 73, which is a prayer where the poet is expressing a crisis of doubt, a crisis of faith…. The most profound learning here was that this poet doesn't work through his doubt by suppressing it, rather he gives full voice to his doubt before God. And the irony, the beauty of this poem is that somehow this poet's words of doubt that are addressed to God, now in the book of Psalms, become God's word for us who are people who also doubt."
In Psalm 73, the author sees wicked people prospering and not being held accountable by God for what they are doing. Mackie says the author "has had some kind of life experience that is causing his heart to question the reality of what his mind says is true." I don’t think this experience of doubting God is unique to the psalmist. Most of us nowadays can relate.
Mackie reassures us that asking questions and working through this doubt are not moments of "sub-spirituality" but are in fact moments of maturation. “So it could be that you're at a point in your journey of following Jesus where the explanations and the ways of reading the Bible that made sense to you three years ago are not going to work anymore…. your faith needs to catch up with your growth as a human being…. The point is to live your questions now and perhaps then someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
Mackie then begins to talk about ways that the author of Psalms 73 starts to move towards resolution. He "deconstructs his own doubt... he really probes honestly his motive for this moment of doubt." And we find out that he doubts because he is envious. Mackie says that if we are honest with our doubt we will realize that "there are a lot of streams that are feeding into the lake… that is [our] doubt."
Mackie then draws our attention to these verses in Psalms 73: "If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God." He makes two points here: the author "recognizes that his own faith is actually connected to the well-being of other people's faith.” Second, he notes that when facing this crisis of doubt, the author "immersed himself in a community of faith, of worship, of prayer, of learning and somehow immersing himself in that brought the key turning moment." Mackie says, " If doubts arise from a life experience that throw you off, then what you need to do is immerse yourself in another kind of experience that will help you process from every different kind of angle.... I guarantee you're not the only one asking the question that you are asking.”
In conclusion, he comments on verses 21-28:
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Dr. Mackie points out that right here, when the author has hit a low point in his life and it seemed that God was absent, He was in fact present and bringing him to this place of dependence. Mackie then raises the question, "What does it mean to experience the goodness and the nearness of God when you're feeling embittered and grieved and ignorant and senseless and like a brute beast?" He says for him, he thinks about Jesus praying in the Garden before his crucifixion. "So for me, the Garden of Gethsemane has become this place where I have to go and kneel beside Jesus when I have crisis of doubt. And recognize that I was not here first. Jesus was kneeling here before me... grieving over the state of the world... and He has the power to do something about it."