Letting Go of the Past
A Service of Healing, Oklahoma City, OK
April 19, 1997 - Dennis Bratcher
A. April 19: grief and pain
I don’t have to tell you that today is the second Anniversary of the
bombing of the Murrah Federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. And I
certainly don’t have to tell you how devastating that tragedy was for our
community. Hardly anyone in Oklahoma City was not touched in some way by the
bombing. I had a student in class who lost her mother. I preached the Sunday
after the bombing in a church that lost two members who had worked in the
And I don’t have to say much about the questions that such horrible
events raise in our minds. Why? Where was God? How could he let that happen?
Why innocent children? Why do good and innocent people die so horribly and
hate filled murderers live?
It’s one thing to ask those questions in the abstract about events that
only touch us marginally. But what about events and situations in our world
that are a part of our lives, of who we are? When it is our son who is the
victim of tragedy. When it is our wife who is dying of cancer. When it is
our father that we watch slowly deteriorate before our eyes. When it is our
daughter who is the victim of rape. When it is ourselves who have been the
victim of betrayal by a close friend.
All those things affect who we are, how we see our world, how we live our
lives. I sometimes hear some people say that we should just trust God,
believe in Him, and it will all be OK. Well, on one level, yes. But it is
not quite that easy as we actually live it. That’s certainly the goal. But
getting there is the problem. I want to talk tonight about the getting
there. I want to talk about how we can let go of the past in real life,
in order to grasp a new future.
B. the past and the future
Last night I talked about the possibilities for the future that comes as
God gives us his grace, as he chooses us again after we have failed, as he
again gives us a calling, a mission to the world in spite of our past
I think such newness that comes from God is the heart of the "Good News"
that we as Christians are called to proclaim. And when we have fully
experienced that newness, and have embodied in our lives the possibilities
opened up by God’s grace, we will be eager to share it with others.
But as much as I want to talk about that newness, and passionately
believe it, I realize that for some people, in fact for many
people, that newness is difficult to grasp. They can believe it, talk about
it, claim it, want it, even try to act like they have it. But somehow it
always seems to move just out of reach, and they slip back into a bondage to
the burdens of the past.
Now, I’m not talking about salvation here, our basic relationship with
God. That is one kind of newness that anyone can accept, in a moment. It is
not hard to grasp, although some people have been convinced by distorted
theology that they have to work at it. I’ve talked to many who thought they
had to get their act together before they could be good enough
to become Christian.
No! It is a gift. It is free. As we shall see tomorrow,
it is costly in the long run, because it calls us to relinquish
everything to God. But there are no entrance requirements beyond
accepting the gracious gift of God’s forgiveness that He has already
granted to us.
So, I’m not talking about being saved or not being saved. I’m talking
about how we begin to live out being the chosen ones, the called ones, those
who have been entrusted with a mission to the world. The issue here is: how
do we deal with the world the way it is? How do we live in a world that is
all too often much too real.
I certainly don’t want to give up talk of heaven and a better place, and
a time when our troubles will all be over. But for many, that is a long way
in the future. How do we live in the present, in a world that is
often hard to comprehend, in a world and society in which we experience so
much pain and hurt and disappointment?
II. The Problem
If we are going to be authentically human in a real world, and not just
hide behind nice sounding words, if we are going to live life honestly under
God, then we may as well go ahead and honestly ask the questions. Why? Why
would God allow these things to happen? Where is God at time
of our deepest hurts? And how do we live with the burden of all that stuff
in our lives?
That question of "Why?" is one that most of us have already asked at one
time or another. There are times when we all have wondered where God was.
For some, the occasion may have been a tragedy like the Oklahoma City
bombing. For others, it may be a personal hurt, large or small: the death of
a loved one, a failing marriage, a lost job, a wayward child, a crippling
illness, lost dreams, failed ambitions.
All of us are susceptible to the hurts, anxieties, frustrations, worries,
grief, that come by being human. We live in a real world. And a real world
is sometimes a hurtful place.
Unfortunately, we are deluged today with a multitude of distorted views
of God and religion. We are bombarded from all sides with a feel good
religion that has little in common with the biblical views of being God’s
people in the world. We are told that if we just have enough faith as
Christians we can escape the lot of being human. If we would just believe
enough, or read our Bible enough, or pray long enough, or ‘praise’ God in
the right way, or send in enough seed-faith money, then God will take away
all the hurts from our lives. We could live a life of health, wealth and
prosperity and never have to worry about the cares of this earth and human
No matter how badly these people want us to believe it, and no
matter how badly WE want or need to believe it, it just isn’t so.
Scripture never makes such a claim. In fact, the Bible always assumes
that we will continue to be human with all the problems that entails
even when we are totally committed to God. Christians are not immune
from being human. That includes suffering, grief, hurts, pain, anger,
It doesn’t matter how much faith a person has, how spiritual they are, how
much money they give, or whether they experienced God in certain ways or not.
They will still experience the hurts and grief, great and small, that all human
beings face. The hurts of the past, and the present, haunt us all.
"So, what good does it do to be a Christian?" some might ask. But that’s
the wrong way to phrase the question. We do not become Christian and serve
God for what we can get out of it! The book of Job raises this very issue,
and rejects the notion. And the same issue is dealt with by Jesus as he asks
the crowd if they want to make him king only because they had eaten the
bread and were filled (John 6). If our motivation is that self-centered, we
may as well give up now, because we have missed what relationship with God
is all about.
Establishing relationship with God is not some cosmic insurance policy,
or, as I have heard it said, spiritual fire insurance. We choose
relationship with God because He is God. We serve Him, not for our gain, but
because He is God! We serve Him because he has chosen us and called us to
be His people and carry out His work, His mission in the world!
So how do we serve God and yet be authentically human beings in God’s
world? That is the heart of the question that comes from tragedies
like the bombing!
We may not be able to escape being human as Christians, but that does not
mean we are without help. There are resources in Scripture to help us here.
Like all the Bible’s answers to our problems, this one does not just fall
off the page at us. We have to listen to the message of Scripture as well as
read it. And we have to let the Holy Spirit apply the message to our lives
as we submit ourselves to His leadership.
There is no magic answer here. There is only God speaking to us through
His word. Maybe that will be enough.
III. Psalms and Praise
Even before we read the Scripture, I’m going to give you the climax of
The message is simply this: total honesty before God is the deepest
expression of faith in Him and is the only way to be authentically human in
God’s world. It is the only path to spiritual wholeness, and the only way to
heal the hurts of the past.
The means Scripture gives us for doing that is praise.
Here, you need to listen carefully. In our modern culture, I fear that
many have developed a distorted idea of what constitutes praise. Often it is
identified only with the hand-clapping, arm-waving, warm-fuzzy, feel-good
style of worship.
That is not the only kind of praise in the Bible, however. There is an
entire Book of the Bible that is a book of praise. It is a real world book.
It is a book for people who want to be authentically human. The Book we call
"Psalms" is titled "Praises" in Hebrew.
There are three primary modes of praise in the Book of Psalms, all of
them in the form of prayers addressed to God. That’s an important point. In
biblical thinking, praise is prayer directed to God (See
Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms).
Hymn-Doxology is probably the most familiar kind of psalm. These
praise God simply for being God. Much of the last quarter of the book of
Psalms is hymn and doxology. The fact that it is at the end implies that
something else ought to come first.
The second mode of praise in the Book of Psalms is Thanksgiving,
prayers thanking God for some immediate experience of His presence. These
are concentrated in the middle and end of the book.
The third mode of praise is Lament. About half of the psalms in
the Psalter are
lament psalms. They comprise much of the first two-thirds of the book. Lament
Psalms are not often seen as praise, because we have too often associated
praise only with the bright and happy moments in life. Lament psalms are
prayers that articulate to God what it is like to live in a real world. They
cry out to God from the darkness of the hurts, pains, anger, frustrations of
Sometimes lament psalms are strong. Often they offer harsh words to God.
Sometimes they are downright irreverent. But they are honest. And they are
praise. They are praise because they acknowledge God as God, from the midst
of the pain of being human.
Psalm 22 is a good example of such a lament. Maybe today is a good day
for a lament psalm.
A. The Reality of Emotions
1. (1-2) The cry of near despair;
feelings and emotion
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why
are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my
God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but I find no
Did you hear the honesty in this prayer? The psalmist does not tell us
what his pain is. But it is intense. It is so intense that he feels God has
Here we need to be sure that our ideas about God are straight. God never
abandons people for any reason. We may abandon God, but God does not abandon
us. God has not forsaken the psalmist, so matter what the evidence is to
Remember Joseph? As he sat in Potiphar’s prison cell all the evidence told
him that God had forsaken him. But the "evidence" of circumstances does not
always tell the truth!
The psalmist is not expressing fact here. He is expressing
feelings. He is articulating his emotions: helplessness, loneliness,
futility. What we feel emotionally is not always the same thing as what we
really believe or what really is. This works both ways. Sometimes our
positive emotions are just as deceiving. That’s why it’s not a good idea to
base our relationship with God on how we feel, good OR bad.
This prayer gives us permission to be honest before God with our pain. We
do not have to respond to the crises of life with a false piety that denies
our humanity. If we hurt, why can we not go to God openly with that hurt?
When I was a youngster, there was a man in our church with that kind of
false piety. His idea was that a Christian should respond to everything in
life with a happy "Praise the Lord!" If you hit your thumb with a hammer,
you should praise the Lord and thank him you weren’t using a saw. Somehow,
even then in my immature mind, I knew that something was wrong with that
thinking. He was asking me to pretend that my thumb didn’t hurt when it did.
To pretend it didn’t hurt did not change that fact. I understood even then
that this was a form of dishonesty.
I have heard it said that we should never question God. Yet, here is the
question in the mouth of the Psalmist. And a tough question, at that! And
many others as well. To have real questions and never ask them for fear of
being irreverent is dishonest.
In talking to a large number of pastors, young people, and laymen in the
church over the past twenty years, I fear that this kind of dishonesty in
the name of God is crippling to the spiritual growth of Christians. How can
we embrace new possibilities without facing the pains of the past that
follow us, or the pains of the present that are debilitating?
We have hundreds of people who are hurting, who are suffering their own
personal torments. And they somehow believe that to admit their pain, to
raise their doubts and questions, would be to deny God. We must, along with
Scripture, give these people, and often ourselves, permission to hurt. I
would like to proclaim as loudly and as passionately as I can that it is OK
before God and the church, to be human.
Who are we trying to fool? God? He knows how we feel anyway? The Pastor?
The church people?. Our neighbors? They all have the same hurts and
frustrations, and the same questions, that we do, if they would admit it!
We may succeed in hiding part of ourselves from them, but at the cost of
hindering our own spiritual growth, and losing the chance for newness and
healing and restoration. A bad burn bandaged up tightly will never heal
properly. I am convinced that this kind of honesty before God is the only
route to embracing the newness that lies ahead.
Notice, though, what the psalmist is doing. At the same time that he
is questioning God from the depth of his pain, he is praying. Why does
he address God as "My God" at the same time he is asking Him where He
is? How can we ask Him where He is if He is not there to hear the question?!
Here is a paradox of faith that beautifully illustrates the difference
between what we know to be true and how we feel. The Psalmist feels
God is not there. Yet he prays. There is no more profound act of faith than
to pray to God when you feel He has abandoned you. That means that
the darkest of our doubts, the most desperate of our questions from the
deepest of our grief can be the most honest and transparent times of our
In those times there is no fašade, no false mask of piety, no pretense.
Just faith. A deep belief that God really is there, when all the
circumstances of our lives, and all the experiences of our past say He is
not! And it is a belief that He really ought to make a difference.
2. (3-5) Confession of trust in God who has acted
3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of
Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered
them. 5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were
We need to follow carefully what the psalmist does next in the prayer. He
expresses trust in God in the standard formula. God is Holy. He is enthroned
on the Praises of the people. He has done great things in the past. God has
delivered other people when they cried.
All of these things are true. The psalmist is not denying anything about
God. He is quite willing to say all the traditional things about God. Yet,
he goes on.
3. (6-8) Feelings of alienation and rejection; honesty
in the midst of pain
6 But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men,
and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock at me, they make
mouths at me, they wag their heads; 8 "He committed his cause to the
LORD; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!"
Here the honesty breaks through again. He says all the right things. But
his emotions have gone in a different direction! The traditional confessions
are true. But sometimes they are not enough. As we have seen, sometimes the
"Praise the Lord’s" are overshadowed by the reality of life.
We need to note a couple of things here. Verse three is often used as a
call for a happy kind of hand-clapping praise. There is a place for that
kind of praise. But not here! For the psalmist, that kind of praise,
in his situation, is not authentic. He says it, but he doesn’t really feel
Again, we need to be honest enough to admit that we will not always feel
like praising God in that way. And that’s OK. We will not always feel happy.
If we measure our Christianity by how we feel we will always be disappointed
- in God, religion, people, the church, the pastor, ourselves. Serving God
is more than how we feel. We can say all the right things that we think
people expect us to say, and still feel like a worm.
We also need to note that the psalmist is still dealing with his own
perceptions, not with how things really are. This verse has been used to
support a "worm" theology that says people are worthless, insignificant,
creatures whom God simply tolerates.
There is no doubt that the psalmist, in the depths of his despair, feels
exactly that way. But they are only feelings, not reality. Everything
in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, contradicts a "worm theology."
Human being are of infinite worth to God.
Have you ever felt about as significant as a worm? You’re in good company
with the psalmist here. We may feel worthless in our despair. But we are
not! God loves us all, no matter how lowly we feel. There are no worms in
God’s sight. Just sons and daughters whom he loves.
4. 9-11 renewed trust in the present
9 Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you
kept me safe upon my mother’s breasts. 10 Upon you I was cast from my
birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. 11 Be not far
from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.
The psalmist now moves to a renewed trust. He has come honestly before
God. He has hurled his questions at God. He has poured out his pain to God.
Now he begins his petition before God. Can you detect a slight shift in
the tone of the psalm? Where the psalmist began by accusing God of forsaking
him, now he asks God to be near. Where before the mood is one of frantic
despair, now there is a tone of hope. Before, the psalmist recalled God’s
actions in behalf of others. Now he recalls that God has helped him
in the past as well.
What is the difference? Has God given him a sign? Has there been some
great miracle that has compelled him to believe in God once again? Has God
intervened and solved all his problems?
We could speculate a lot here. But Scripture records none of these. Let’s
stay with our passage and see if we can catch what causes this emerging
B. The Reality of Suffering
1. (12-18) his condition
12 Many bulls encompass me, strong bulls of
Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a
ravening and roaring lion. 14 I am poured out like water, and all my
bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my
breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue
cleaves to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Yea, dogs are
round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my
hands and feet-- 17 I can count all my bones-- they stare and gloat over
me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast
The Psalmist returns to his complaint. In very stylized and poetic
language he describes his pain. It sounds like he might be facing impending
death due to a creeping disease. Anyone who has watched the horrible
progression of cancer in a loved one understands the language here, and the
feelings of isolation and abandonment! We are still not sure what the
problem is. But we know it is serious.
2. (19-21) his petition
19 O LORD, be not far off! You who are my help,
hasten to my aid! 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the
power of the dog! 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted
soul from the horns of the wild oxen!
Again, the psalmist requests God’s intervention in his present
circumstances. Although highly poetic, it is a simple prayer. And it is to
the point. He needs help. And he asks for it. No bargains with God. Just
C. The reality of God’s Presence
1. (22-24) Move to trust in the midst of pain
22 I will tell of your name to my
brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23 You who
fear the LORD, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand
in awe of him, all you sons of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or
abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face
from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.
Here is the heart of the Psalm. The transformation of the psalmist
is complete here. He has moved from the dark despair of verse one to a
point where he can talk about embracing a future filled with
possibilities, even proclaiming those possibilities to others!
Not only has his own perspective changed, he is now calling on others to
praise God. The one who began by questioning where God is now calls on
others to stand in His presence! Where he had earlier complained that God
had not heard him, he now affirms that God has heard him.
Again we must ask what has happened since verse 1? What great event of
deliverance has occurred that caused such a radical turnaround for the
And we will be surprised at the answer. Nothing! Nothing has
changed! No miracle. No great vision of God. No promise of a solution. No
hint of resolution of the problem. He is still in the midst of his crisis.
Nothing has changed.
Except, the Psalmist has worshipped God from the midst of His pain.
He has prayed.
He has brought his pain honestly to God. He has asked God to
intervene. And he has left his hurt in God’s hands. He has trusted God.
He has been totally, authentically human before God. And it has brought
healing and a renewed faith.
The change has not come because God has changed, or because circumstances
have changed. It has come with the psalmist as he has faced his pain
honestly, and released it to God in prayer, with God’s help, and strength,
and grace. He has laid his burdens at God’s feet, with all the force that
his emotions honestly require. And he has left them there.
He has found newness and hope simply by coming into the presence of God
as a needy human being. No pretense. No nice words. Just the psalmist, and
his pain. And God! That is praise in its purest form. That is worship at its
most honest level. That is being authentically human before God. There God
does some of His best work!
2. (25-31) Concluding doxology
25 From you comes my praise in the great
congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 26 The
afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise
the LORD! May your hearts live for ever! 27 All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him. 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he
rules over the nations. 29 Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth
bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and he who
cannot keep himself alive. 30 Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell
of the Lord to the coming generation, 31 and proclaim his deliverance to
a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.
These verses conclude with an renewed affirmation of trust in God. But
the only way to verse 31, is through verses 1 and 2!
IV. The Real World, Past and Present
Barbara was a young lady in her 20s who had returned to school to
finish her education. She was a pleasant person, committed to God and an
apparently stable Christian. She enrolled for one of my classes in the
Fall term. Barbara was single and I had never inquired why she was not
married. One day I gave a devotional from a lament psalm about dealing
with grief. She hung around after class and said she wanted to talk so
we sat up an appointment for later that afternoon.
She had not been in my office five minutes before she began to weep. One
of the first things she said to me was, "I hate God." I had heard it before
from others so it didn’t shock me. I simply asked her if she wanted to talk
She poured out a story of grief and pain that I could not have imagined.
Among other things, she had been sexually abused for years as a child. To
get out of a horrible home situation, she had married at sixteen. Her first
child had died as an infant two years later. Not long after that her
husband, who had beat her regularly, simply walked out one day.
At twenty she had known more hurt than most of us will ever know in a
lifetime. Did she really hate God? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I
don’t really think it mattered. Hate is an emotion, and she was full of
emotion. She felt as if God had forsaken her.
As we talked it became clear that she did not know what to do with her
anger, grief and hurt. She thought that to be a Christian meant that she was
not supposed to have the feelings she had. She thought that serving God
meant that she should somehow just be happy because she was a Christian. But
she was not happy. She hurt too deeply. We sat and read Psalm 22 together.
Barbara’s healing did not come at once. Over the next months there were
many talks, many prayers, many tears. There were other friends, and a caring
pastor, to help. Still, Barbara needed professional counseling to help her
deal with her past. But healing came.
I got a call from Barbara not too long ago. She is on a professional
career track, and happy for the first time in her life. She told me she
discovered one thing that day in the corner chair in my office as we read
Psalm 22 together. She found that she could be honest with God. And it was
the beginning of her new future.
Like the Psalmist, she began to understand that God is not offended by
our honesty, he is not angered when we express our hurts to him. We do not
have to treat God like a doddering old man who cannot bear the least little
turmoil. God can handle our hurts, our honesty. He can tolerate our
irreverence from the midst of our despair.
For you see, there was a time when his own Son was hurting. The incarnate
son of God had suffered the worst indignities possible. Mocked, rejected,
spat upon, beaten, scourged, tortured, abandoned by his friends, dying, he
prayed the prayer of Psalm 22 from the cross: Eli, eli lamah sabachtani.
God where are you?
He knew God was there. Yet he hurt. He did not feel very lordly; the pain
was too great. So he cried the cry of a human being from the midst of his
pain. It was honest. And God could handle it. Because that cry was a cry of
faith. If Jesus can be that honest, should we not also?
The message is simply this: total honesty before God is the deepest
expression of faith in Him and is the only way to be authentically human in
God’s world. It is the only path to spiritual wholeness, and the only way to
heal the hurts of the past.
It is human to hurt. As long as we live in these bodies, we will
experience grief and pain. We will be human. And that’s OK. But we also know
that in the midst of our humanity, in the midst of our hurt, we can praise a
God who cares, a God who is there with us, a God who knows how we feel and
bears the pain with us.
The praise may not be the hand-clapping kind of praise. But it can be
genuine. For in that kind of praise that screams our pain to God, there is
healing. And in that healing we begin the move from darkness to light, from
despair to hope, death to life, from hurt to joy.
We have come together here today to offer praise to God. We will not
praise because we feel good, because some don’t feel very good this evening.
We will not praise because everything is going great, because for some,
things aren’t going all that great. We will not praise to persuade God to do
something for us, because God does not need to be begged and persuaded to
act in our world or to care for us. We will not praise to force God to
respond to us, because God is sovereign and is not obligated to jump when we
snap our fingers. We will not praise as an act of magic that will
automatically cause everything to be put in its proper order, because God is
not a god of magic solutions. We will not praise because we are pious or
holy or righteous, because we have no merit that earns God’s favor to us.
We come to God with praise simply because HE IS GOD. We come with praise
because by His grace and mercy extended to us, we are His people. He is
worthy of our praise, even when that praise is a cry of pain from the depths
of our being.
There may be those next to you who are hurting. You may be hurting. Or
burdened with past pains and frustrations that are keeping you from
embracing the future possibilities that God has promised.
We are going to pray together, to praise God together. We are going to be
the people of God, the body of Christ. We are going to share each other’s
hurts. We are going to weep with each other, if necessary. We are going to
intercede for each other. And in so doing, we are worshipping the God who
can do exceeding, abundantly above all that we can ask or even think. We are
going to worship the God with whom nothing is impossible.
We will worship in faith. But our faith is not in a set of circumstances.
Our faith is in God and in Him alone. Our prayer acknowledges that He is
Lord, that He is Creator, that He is the only source of life, that He is
sovereign in our world. We will come into his presence with a faith like
Habakkuk’s (Hab 3:17-19):
17. Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no
fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the
fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and
there is no herd in the stalls; 18. Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I
will exult in the my God salvation, 19. God, the Lord, is my strength.
We come with a child-like faith that simply trusts. And in so doing we
are willing to turn from our past to God’s future.
Concluding Song: Be Still My Soul