Suffering Alone
March 17, 2024

Suffering Alone

Passage: Psalm 22

Are You Struggling Alone?

Last week we opened up the Bible to the Psalms, which are actually a collection of songs. And God gave us these songs for many reasons. The Psalter teaches us about God’s greatness and character, that he alone is all-good and all-powerful. The Psalms lead us into worship, giving us words to pray, words to sing, and words to affirm as truth. The Psalms help us to work through our human experiences, including suffering. And even though the Psalms were written hundreds of years before Jesus walked on earth, God gave us the Psalms to tell us about Jesus.

Last week we saw this in Psalm 69. There’s no question that Psalm 69 was written by an ancient King named David. And there’s no doubt that Psalm 69 tells us about what David’s suffering was like. But when David wrote, he was being carried along by the Spirit of God in such a way that the words he wrote weren’t just about his sufferings. David’s sufferings were a preview and prefigurement of Jesus’s sufferings. In the same way, our Psalm tonight, Psalm 22, tells us about Jesus’s afflictions, and gives us helpful insight into how we can be helped in our times of trial. Though we’ll cover several other ideas in our text tonight, we’ll give special attention to the difficulty we face when it feels like we’re suffering alone.

We can divide Psalm 22 into four parts. The first three parts draw out certain experiences in suffering – in verses 1 through 5, the sufferer feels alone. In verses 6-10, the sufferer feels lowly, and in verses 11 through 21, the sufferer feels overwhelmed. But in the remaining verses of the Psalm, we’re reminded that God’s people aren’t left alone in their suffering.

So if you have your Bibles with you, please turn with me to Psalm 22. I’ll be reading the whole chapter, starting at verse 1.


Feeling Alone

It isn’t easy to talk to people who are suffering. We often aren’t sure what to say. Should we tell them everything’s going to be okay? Should we read them a Bible passage and pray with them? Should we tell them how sorry we feel for them? Should we try to distract them from their pain, and find something else to talk about? It’s hard to know what to do, and sometimes, frankly, it’s easier to avoid people who are suffering so we don’t have to deal with difficult conversations.

And in addition to this, when we’re the ones suffering, we often have a hard time talking about it, too. We may be embarrassed about our suffering. People might look at us like there’s something wrong with us. It could be that one of our kids is wandering from the faith, or we lost a job, or we’ve been diagnosed with a medical condition, or a significant other has ditched us, or whatever. And we have a hard time talking about these things, because we don’t want people’s pity. We don’t want special treatment, or special attention. And even if we are willing to open up, many people simply don’t understand our pain. And sometimes talking about our suffering just causes us to fixate on our sadness even more – to spiral even deeper into our despair. Talking about suffering isn’t easy.

But even though talking about our pain is hard, we almost all want people to know us, to listen to us, to care for us, to be with us. We don’t want to suffer alone! But that’s often what happens. That’s exactly how we feel. Alone.

And if this is how you feel in your suffering, this isn’t unusual. This is how many people feel. In fact, this is how Jesus Christ, himself, felt when he suffered. He felt alone. In Matthew 27, verse 46, Jesus called out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He confirms that the words of Psalm 22, verse 1 are his words. They describe His sufferings.

And when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He’s showing us that he’s overwhelmed by what feels like cosmic abandonment. His closest friends and disciples have denied him, betrayed him, and left him alone. Countless thousands of people have called out against Jesus, Crucify Him! Crucify Him! And even though the Roman governor, Pilate, knows that Jesus is innocent – even though He has the authority to set him free – he refuses to stand with Jesus. Jesus is left alone.

But in Jesus’s mind, there’s something even worse than all these. God the Father, himself, refuses to alleviate Jesus’s suffering. Jesus is Godforsaken. In fact, the most terrible suffering Jesus experienced at the cross wasn’t the physical pain of the nails, or the emotional pain of public humiliation. Instead, He suffered most greatly under the judicial hammer of God the Father. Why? Because when Jesus went to the cross to die a criminal’s death, he was bearing the penalty for our crimes against God! And as he was hanging there, gasping for breath and bleeding, the wrath of God was being poured out against Jesus for us. For our selfish, foolish refusal to honor God, Jesus suffered.

He knows what it feels like to be alone – utterly alone – in his suffering. But we can learn something more about what was going on in Jesus’s mind and heart as we continue on in Psalm 22. We need to keep in mind, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me” are not the last words of this Psalm. They were not Jesus’s last words on the cross. And they don’t need to be our last words, either.

Because in Psalm 22, after Jesus expresses how alone he feels in verses 1 and 2, he doesn’t surrender to his feelings. Instead he begins to declare what’s true about God in verse 3: “YET you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.” [Verse 4] – In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.” In our suffering, we shouldn’t be passive, and let our feelings control our thoughts and attitudes. Instead, we can and should respond to our feelings with truth. We should declare to God how he has been faithful in the past, and should remind ourselves why he can be relied on today and trusted for tomorrow.

Feeling Lowly

But you’ll notice, in verse 6, that the pain has returned. When we fight to have faith in the midst of pain and despair, it often won’t be a quick and easy battle. Often our feelings of pain can come right back, forcefully – even unexpectedly. And in this case, Jesus struggles with feeling lowly. Verse 6: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.”

There’s an admission here of feeling weak and helpless – even to the point of feeling dehumanized. And if you’ve ever experienced failure or defeat, you probably know what this feels like. In your weakness, you’re likely tempted to feel worthless – unwanted. But he again fights against those feelings of lowliness with words of truth. He acknowledges, yes, I have been brought low in weakness. But even back when I was a baby – when I was low and weak, then – you, God, were my help! Verse 9: “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you I was cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” He aims to correct his wayward feelings with words of faith.

Feeling Overwhelmed

But the boxing match isn’t done yet. The massiveness of Jesus’s suffering is persistent. And he feels overwhelmed, as we see in verse 12: “Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 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; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”

I’ll quickly point out here – He’s not literally surrounded by bulls or lions – but the bulls of Bashan would have been some of the biggest creatures known in that part of the world, and the lions would have been the fiercest. So he’s trying to help us understand. The enemies around him are powerful and intimidating. And they’re surrounding Him. He’s blocked in. There’s no way out.

Meanwhile, in just about every way, he feels undone – physically, emotionally, mentally. His bones are out of joint, his heart has melted like wax. He’s lying in the dust. In fact, he’s dying. Jesus is on the cross as he takes Psalm 22 to his lips. And in this light, verses 16 through 18 are especially potent! “For dogs encompass me” (Dogs were unclean creatures, just as Romans surrounding Jesus would have been considered unclean pagans in the eyes of the Jews.) “A company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet” (This is an obvious reference to the nails that pinned Jesus to the cross.) “I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” – this division of Jesus’s clothing literally happens in Matthew 27:35.

But notice, even when Jesus is utterly overwhelmed, even when the pressure and pain is so intense his mind is going blank and he can’t think of any more ways to encourage himself in the midst of suffering, he keeps praying. In verses 19 to 21, he continues to take his suffering to the Lord in faith. Sometimes praying is all we can do when we’re suffering, too. When we’re in pain, we often aren’t thinking clearly. It’s hard to push away dark thoughts. But we can keep praying. In fact, this is precisely what we need to do.

Not Left Alone

And when we finally come to the second half of verse 21, everything changes – suddenly and unexpectedly. The cry of suffering changes from, “Save me from the mouth of the lion! To a cry of celebration “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!”

In just that brief moment, everything changes. The battle is over, and the valley of struggle starts to fill with the victory music of bugles and drums. In the rest of the chapter, we see over and over again that the sufferer has not, actually, been left alone. Listen to verse 24 again: “For He,” referring to God – “He has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard when he cried to him.”

Is there an extent to which Jesus could rightly call out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Yes, absolutely. Because Jesus was really and truly struck down by God for our sin on the cross. God the Father wasn’t just withholding relief, but God the Father, himself, was the one who laid Jesus down in the dust of death, as mentioned in verse 15. Because that’s what our wrongdoing deserved – death.

Yet even in the midst of all this, the Father did not utterly forsake His Son. After he took the full, fatal blow from heaven for sin – what happened? God vindicated his Son – he gave him victory over his enemies. The enemy named Death was conquered. Suffering was robbed of its power. Sin was defanged. Satan was bound. Jesus was not ultimately left alone.

And if you’re trusting in Jesus to rescue you from sin and suffering, then you won’t be left alone, either. This is a key point that gets filled out in the remaining verses of this Psalm. The salvation of David, and ultimately the deliverance of Jesus from death, is pointed to as the basis for why the world should celebrate, and why we should have hope in our suffering.

We are reminded here: since Jesus was, for a time, made alone in his sufferings on the cross – since Jesus was brought low into cosmic humiliation – since Jesus was overwhelmed with an unmeasurable weight of divine penalty – since Jesus encountered all these things for you and for me, we can be confident that we will not be abandoned by God.

We may experience terrible suffering. In fact, I can just about guarantee that at some point you will suffer. But God will hear you when you call. And in His own time, just as surely as Jesus was raised from death, Your Father will rescue you from the mouth of the lion. He will not leave you alone.