What Does God Know?
In his wonderful song, “You Got Gold,” John Prine writes, “It gives me an ocean of mixed-up emotion. I’ll have to work it out in a song.” The ancient psalmist wrestled with a myriad of emotions; he also had to work it out in a song, what we call a psalm.
This psalm voices a spectrum of emotions: joy and despair, envy and irritation, and of course anger. He protests life as he sees it and declares moral judgement as he understands it. He confesses his own bitterness at the way things are, his resentment at the happiness and success of those who ignore God while he and others, seeking to be faithful, were struggling to make ends meet and keep things together. But then, the psalmist also professes his faith in the goodness and justice of God. “My health may fail, my spirit may grow weak, but you God remain the strength of my heart you are mine forever.”
This psalm offers us three questions as a way to deal with our mixed-up emotions, of doubt, frustration, and determination. As always, I am attracted to these questions. I see them as a strategy for singing with joy and living with hope. I embrace them as a window into the soul of Jesus our Lord.
This psalmist asks in verse 11, first, “What does God know about anything?” Illustrating the Hebrew pattern of repetition, he asks the same question in a more penetrating way: “Does God even know what is going on down here?”
Second, this ancient poet raises another double question rooted in his own life struggles. Verse 13 reads” “Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason?”
Finally, he asks in verse 25, “Whom else do I have, in heaven or on earth, besides you?” That is, who else will listen to me? Who will lift me up and give me strength and contentment? Who will do justice for me and for the world? Who else but the one and only living God?
Those song writers, ancient and modern, had to work it out in a song. But I as your preacher will have to work it out in a sermon. I am sure you would not want me to start singing my sermon today!
Often the questions that face us on Sunday are the more practical: do I have anything to wear today? Who’s going to fix the coffee or run the camera? And most important, where will we eat lunch today?
But this psalm invites us to wrestle with the deeper questions of life and faith, of sin and salvation, of you and me, of Jesus.
First, “What does God know?” is the question of the soul: of the skeptic soul, the doubter, the atheist, the critic—yes, but also, from time to time, every soul, every believer, every person, even you and me.
Every age and every culture have given rise to people who see no God, hear no God, feel no God, and speak no God. Sometimes there are intellectuals that cannot connect the dots. Somethings there are common people who are traumatized by the horrors of human life on earth: how winds blow and rains come; how people swindle others and steal even from their own relatives; how people pull out a gun and start shooting for no reason!
“Does God even know what is happening down here?”
Folks across the peninsula of Florida may be asking this question today. Folks in Cuba and Porto Rico are asking some version of this question. Ukrainians all around the world and refugees on every continent are asking, Does God know? Does God see? Does God hear? Does God care?
Sometimes this question is raised by atheist and those indifferent to the ways and means of God. They throw these questions like darts into the minds and hearts of church people, believing people, you and me people. They don’t see any evidence of the presence and power of God. These are the people mentioned in this ancient song.
But there is another category of people that ask this question: believing people. Perhaps you! You and I also see the trouble in the world, the trouble in our homes, the trouble in our own souls. We ask? Why? How? and Where is God when it hurts? We wrestle with our faith in God, on one side, and our experience in the world, on the other side.
TikTok is a social media platform that is challenging YouTube for prominence and influence around the world. It offers people an opportunity to tell their story in three minutes of unfiltered, unedited testimony. There are thousands of these videos on which people tell their story of religious doubt and spiritual struggle. Here’s why I am leaving the church, is a common theme, especially the Evangelical community or the Mormon congregation.
Mother Teresa did not have TikTok. In 1950, this Albanian Catholic nun founded the Missionaries of Charity. They worked with her in India, in Calcutta. She worked among the very poor. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, given this week to three European protesters of the war in Ukraine.
A few years after her death in 1998, friends published a book of her letters. She had directed they be destroyed, but the Pope ordered they be kept. They were published to great acclaim and shock: throughout her storied and sacrificial ministry, she endured doubt, despair, and darkness. “Jesus has a very special love for you,” she wrote to a priest in 1979.” As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
Much earlier she confessed in a letter, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself -- for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.”
This is the type of believer described by the man who came to Jesus and said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” This is the question raised by Jesus himself when, hanging from the cross, he quoted another psalm, another question, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
We all have doubts from time to time; and sometimes those doubts flow into this self-examination, voiced by this ancient poet in verse 13: “Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason?”
This is the double question the believing, obeying, trusting, worshipping poet put to himself.
While the some are shouting “What does God know about anything?” this humble observer of life was pealing back the layers of her own soul and asking: “Was it worth it? All my life, I have tried to live right and stay pure: pure in speech, pure in motive, pure in deed, pure in ambition—was it worth it? What did it get me? Where did it take me?”
While Mother Teresa was asking hard questions on the far side of the world, C. S. Lewis was offering answers a little closer to us, in England, at Oxford University. His journey was the opposite of Teresa. He came from darkness into life, from doubt into faith, from consternation into communion, from irritation at the injustices of the world into affirmation of the God who loves us and fashioned a way of salvation for all of us.
Lewis understood the power of this crescendo of doubt in the community of faith. He understood how people baptized, confirmed, discipled, and faithful could struggle with the reality of life, and faith, and doubt, and despair. He had read the psalms that ask, “Why are you silent, God?” and “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (as I preached a few weeks ago).
Lewis rose to fame writing about this in a little book called The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape is a senior devil, training a younger devil named Wormwood. Wormwood is assigned one particular human. It was his task to cause this man, this woman, this teenager, this new believer, to stumble, to question his faith, to doubt the presence and power of God.
On one occasion, Wormwood writes with elation about the prospects of diverting his believer from her devotion to God. But Screwtape knows better. He writes:
“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of God seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Some questions do not have answers. But the rhythms of faith, hope, and love offer us a way to move beyond the emotions of the moment. Our questions threaten to disrupt our worship and our service, but we look to Jesus who persevered in his calling. We reach out to others who have worked through the doubts and disruptions and found ways to be faithful in all things
“We are surrounded by a crowd of witnesses,” the Bible says. “Let us set some things aside and run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus. Because of the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame, its struggle, its questions (we might add) and is now seated in a place of honor.”
Jesus must have asked some version of the question in verse 25: “Whom do I have in heaven or on earth beside you, O Lord?”
That is the last question in this queue. It is the question Jesus asked at the age of 12, when he was in the temple, talking with the elders, finding his own voice: “Whom do I have but you, O Lord?”
This is the question Jesus asked when John the rabble-rousing prophet led him into the waters of baptism to begin his public ministry: “Whom do I have in heaven or on earth beside you, O Lord?”
This is the question Jesus asked when Satan trapped him alone in the wilderness and offered him fame and fortune, success in all its worldly forms: “Whom do I have in heaven or on earth, in success or failure, in temptation and in doubt—whom do I have but you, to understand and empower, to forgive and redeem, to empower me to sing for joy and live with hope—whom do I have but you, O Lord?”
These words are more of an affirmation than a question. Yes, it is in the form of a question, “Who else is there?” But it is embedded in a bold and appealing affirmation.
“My health may fail and my spirit may grow weak, but God….but God…but God remains the strength of my heart. The Lord is mine forever.” The Lord is mine through troubles and trial, through doubt and despair, through questions and more questions. The Lord is mine, and I am the Lord’s!”
Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth.” And with these words the ancient/modern believer offers you and me a way out of our doubt about the reality of God and our hesitation to embrace the ways of God.
This song ends with words we can repeat: “Those who desert God will perish … but as for me, how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter. I will tell everyone about the wonderful things God does.”
I say amen and amen.