A well-known, highly respected pastor writes,
For some reason, we think of doubt and worry as “small” sins. But when a Christian displays unbelief or an inability to cope with life, he is saying to the world, “My God cannot be trusted,” and that kind of disrespect makes one guilty of a fundamental error, the heinous sin of dishonouring God. That is no small sin.
I must admit: I find it difficult to reconcile that sentiment with Psalm 22. In his final moments on the cross, Jesus lamented, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Bible interpreters observe that when a New Testament writer quotes a single verse from a psalm, he intends the reader to contemplate the entirety of the psalm in light of what he has written. While Jesus only quoted the first verse of the psalm, it is entirely appropriate to consider the entirety of the psalm in light of the cross. Indeed, other verses from the psalm (see vv. 8, 18) are quoted in the crucifixion narrative, even if not from the mouth of Jesus. Psalm 22 captures the agony (22:1–21) and the glory (22:22–31) of the Christ.
It is a mistake, however, to think of Psalm 22 as only messianic. David wrote the psalm in his own historical context. We are not told what that context was, and it would be a mistake to think we can precisely place the psalm, but whatever the circumstances, he felt as if God had forsaken him. Circumstances and people were conspiring against him and he felt as if God was not stepping in to help.
David did not struggle with doubting God’s existence or even his presence. His struggle, at least in this psalm, was with God’s goodness. The very fact that he turned his doubts into prayer shows that he knew God was present and ready to hear him. John Goldingay is correct: “God’s abandonment lies not in going away but in being present and yet doing nothing.”
Here, then, is David’s struggle: Why would God not intervene to help an innocent victim? He knew that God had the power to intervene. Why did he not? Why was an omnipotent God passively watching as people suffered? These were the honest questions with which he wrestled and, in this psalm, he was not afraid to verbalise them.
Let’s the return to the quote with which we opened: Was David’s doubt a small sin or a heinous sin? Perhaps the incongruence within the aforementioned pastor’s thoughts is that he conflates doubt with unbelief. That’s not necessarily a fair assessment. As Henry Drummond has pointed out, “Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe. Unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty. Unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light. Unbelief is content with darkness.”
Here is a helpful principle for us: The fact that David was (under inspiration) unafraid to verbalise his doubts—and the fact that Jesus himself was willing to do so on the cross—validates their legitimacy. Rather than feeling guilty for expressing your questions to God, take heart in the fact that the Bible writers, and the Lord Jesus himself, did so.
But Psalm 22 not only allows us to express our doubt; it shows us what to do with those doubts. Unchecked by truth, doubt has a way of morphing into unbelief. David did not allow that to happen. Nor did Jesus. Having expressed his doubt, David allowed his feelings to be tempered by truth:
I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For 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.
Jesus similarly allowed truth to shape his outlook on his suffering: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). David and Jesus both verbalised their momentary doubts of God’s goodness, but truth returned them both to reaffirming that goodness even in their suffering.
Have you found yourself feeling forsaken by God? Have you expressed those feelings to the Lord? How will you allow your doubts to draw you closer to Jesus Christ and to rest afresh in the goodness of God? Will you allow truth to restore your faith?