“When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints” (Ps. 77:3)
Why does the Psalmist groan when he thinks of God? In this context, the very thought or memory of God was the cause of intense mental and spiritual anguish. As Benson points out, while God’s attributes are wonderful and glorious to the Christian, they appear terrifying when he thinks that God has turned against him and become his enemy. The Hebrew suggests the idea of tumultuous waves of the sea overwhelming and smothering the Psalmist. As Benson describes it:
“How frequently is this the case with persons in distress of soul, through a consciousness of their guilt, depravity, and weakness, and their desert of the wrath of God! This verse “is a fine description,” says Dr. Horne, “of what passes in an afflicted and dejected mind. Between the remembrance of God and his former mercies, and the meditation on a seeming desertion, under present calamities, the affections are variously agitated, and the prayers disturbed like the tumultuous waves of a troubled sea; while the fair light from above is intercepted, and the face of heaven overwhelmed with clouds and darkness.””
God has sent his son to die for our sins and yet we so often act ungratefully towards God and treat him as though he were our enemy. The soul may chafe against God’s sovereign administrations to the point of feeling as though it hates him. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that God always has treated us better than we deserved. It is incredibly important to remember God’s mercies all of the time. I enjoyed delicious ice cream today and this was a gift of God. I got to see and talk with my wonderful brother and talk about the glories of the Bible with him and this was a gift of God. I experienced a moment of repentance in which I set aside what I had been selfishly working on for my own gratification and decided to vacuum the floor in order to please my mother, and this impulse of repentance was itself also a gift of God. Nevertheless, I continue to whine and moan that my job does not pay me enough to enable me to fund my website when I, as a sinner, deserve eternal condemnation, and yet God has saved me even from this by sending his son to atone for every moment of ingratitude which I express.
Albert Barnes notes that the Septuagint rendering of “troubled”, εὐφράνθην, “rejoiced” or “delighted,” is inaccurate. The Vulgate renders it in a similar manner and Luther renders it “When I am troubled, then I think on God.” We are frequently troubled by our chafing against God’s sovereign dispensations. I myself have marveled in horror at the depths of depravity in my own soul and how I blame God for my own sin because he has not sanctified me to the extent that I want. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind the apparently paradoxical truth that sanctification is always God’s work and it is always on his timing, such that we cannot will it into existence on our own accord, and we must also take responsibility for our own sins even though we have no capacity to overcome them according to our own strength.
Nevertheless, even though we may not have the power to overcome them in our own strength, and God may choose not to deliver us from such and such a sin in a manner we deem timely, we must still own our accountability for this sin and not blame God. The Psalmist may be troubled because he feels guilty for his own sins. I myself am so frequently troubled by my own sin that I rage against God for my own rebellion, even though this raging is itself my rebellion. There are always steps we can take to repent which we have not carried out and there are always areas in our lives which we can improve upon.
Sometimes such meditation on our own hearts may reveal such sin that we come to doubt our own salvation. So Matthew Poole’s commentary: “Yea, the thoughts of God, and of his infinite power, and truth, and goodness, which used to be very sweet and comfortable to me, were now matter of terror and trouble, because they were all engaged against me, and God himself, my only friend, was now very angry with me, and become mine enemy.” It is at this point we must flee to Christ. The Apostle asks rhetorically who can deliver him from this body of death, and he responds that only Christ can (Rom. 7:24, 25). When in doubt, we are to err on the side of God’s mercy and not his punitive justice. There will always be sin in our lives as long as we live, and areas in which we have not adequately repented, but as long as we are hungering and thirsting after righteousness, the presence of such sin ought to occasion our rejoicing in God’s mercies rather than morbid introspection.
It is easy to become very down on ourselves and groan in our remembrances of God like the Psalmist did. Many of us have very active consciences and this can get us into a great deal of trouble if we do not balance the sensitivity of our consciences with considerations of the continual mercies of God towards us. We may determine to get very serious with God and articulate a list of sins which we intend to overcome. Before long, we may realize that our efforts are futile and vain and wonder why the Christian life seems to reward such little sanctification for a great deal of effort. Even when we succeed, we feel as though our successes have been hijacked by pride in our own successes, and so even our repentance needs to be repented of due to its imperfections. When we peel away onion layer after onion layer, we ultimately find that all our works have impure motives of some sort and that we can only trust in Christ.
Nevertheless, this guilt is itself a gift insofar as it is a token of repentance. We cannot feel guilt over our sin, or guilt about the inadequacy of our guilt, without the Spirit working and moving in us to have such an experience. Therefore, we should simply thank God for this token of his mercy rather than dwelling on the imperfection of his gifts. Seen in this light, dwelling too much on our own depravity can actually seem quite ungrateful and horrid. We must thank God that he has begun a work in our hearts in the first place rather than complaining that his work is not enough, and we must praise him for showing us areas in our lives in which we ought to work.
Sometimes we feel guilty and groan in our remembrances of God because a sin suddenly comes to mind which we have forgotten to confess. Confessing this sin will bring about relief: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”—and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). We may feel guilty because of some one particular sin which harasses and terrifies our conscience while ignoring a great deal of other sins which beset us as well, and which we have failed to deal with adequately. Ed Welch gives a helpful example of this in his book on depression:
“Jane felt guilty because she had an abortion, but what about the unbelief and other sins she commits daily? While she was maximizing the sin of abortion, placing it beyond the scope of forgiveness and punishing herself instead, she was minimizing all of her other sins. She was doing nothing to punish herself for them. If she is going to try to earn favor with God by human effort, she is obligated to keep all the law (Gal. 5:3), and that, of course, is impossible.
The only way out is for Jane to say, “Lord, forgive me”—not because of her abortion (she has confessed that thousands of times), but because of her attempts to deal with sin by human effort rather than faith. Then she should stay in the shadow of the cross, remember daily that she stands before God because of his grace and not her effort, and then get on with the wonderful task of loving other people.”
This is an example of what we call legalism. In other words, it involves attempting to find favor with God through our own efforts and righteousness. Paul refers to this as another Gospel because it robs God of his glory for salvation. It does this by attributing the potential for merit to our own actions. Nevertheless, we are fallen in sin and guilty before God, deserving of his punishment. We can never justify ourselves by our own efforts. Here is some more information on Jane:
“Jane had an abortion ten years ago and has been depressed ever since. She still feels guilty about what she has done. Her friends have been faithful in loving her and speaking about forgiveness of sins, and she knows the truth of the cross, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It is as if her guilt is a resistant virus that is immune to the gospel. Legalism explains Jane’s distress. She has all the earmarks of following the anti-gospel. If the gospel she believed was Christ alone, her sorrow over sin would be increasingly displaced by thankfulness. But to Jane, the gospel doesn’t even seem relevant.
And when the gospel isn’t relevant, the anti-gospel has taken its place. Her anti-gospel is that life and forgiveness come through Christ plus not having an abortion. Having violated her beliefs and standards, she “had to” be punished. She could not reverse the consequences of her abortion, so she decided that her self-imposed punishment would be grief, and it would be long and severe. Perhaps, after an unspecified period of suffering, she would allow herself to be forgiven. But how severe must her penance be? And how long? Multiple suicide attempts and daily reflection on her past actions were not judged to be enough. So she continued in her grief, hoping that one day she would wake up and find that her penance had finally satisfied God’s justice.”
This woman seemed to think that she could alleviate her own guilt through a proper process of penance. This is a Roman Catholic or Galatian method of dealing with guilt and it is not biblical. We must remember that Christ has atoned for all of our sins for all time and that nothing we can do can contribute to this justification. It is true that progress in sanctification is something we should expect from our Christian lives, but sanctification may be painfully and horrifically slow. Whenever there is any doubt about the adequacy of our sanctification for evidence of our justification, we must turn to the sufficiency of Christ. But, you say, if our sanctification is part of the evidence of our justification, what does it mean if we deem that our sanctification is inadequate when comparing it with the word of God? To even ask this question is to miss the point. For every one look at self there must be ten looks to Christ.