Many psalms were written to help people struggling with doubt. Psalm 77 is not an idealistic presentation of why we don’t need to doubt. It is the story of a man who is nearly driven to despair because it seems that God refuses to respond to his prayers. This psalm shows how we as believers—and yes, sometimes doubters—can move from despair to a renewed and deepened faith in God.
Psalm 77 opens with a distressed cry: “I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint” (vv. 1–3).
We don’t know what problem Asaph was dealing with, but he cried out to God about it. He begged and groaned and pleaded to the point of exhaustion—his spirit was faint. Sorrow and disappointment threatened to crush him. Though he tried to focus on the Lord’s goodness, he simply could not find comfort.
He continued: “You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak” (v. 4). He tried to sleep, but his eyelids would not stay closed. He was so disturbed that he couldn’t even describe his problem to others. Asaph is in the throes of grief, and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. In his desperation, he holds nothing back. His words are blunt and to the point.
It’s easy to think that problems should go away because we are Christians: Now that I’m a Christian, my faith will solve every problem, relieve every doubt. But Psalm 77—and all the Bible—suggests something to the contrary. Even with faith, life is still full of problems and doubts.
It is unrealistic to imagine that the Christian life, that any kind of life, can be lived without pain and doubt. The history of God’s people is a lengthy record of tragedies, catastrophes, problems, pain, and, yes, doubt.
Asaph does two things in response to his pain and doubt: He prays and he meditates. Even so, his pain continues unabated and his confusion settles even deeper. His problem is exacerbated by God’s silence.
It’s hard enough to endure affliction, but if our faith collapses under the pressure, we lose not only our current battle but all our battles. Faith helps us navigate the stormy and uncertain waters that threaten to capsize us.
That’s the temptation the psalmist faces. He has tried prayer, but prayer doesn’t seem to work. He has tried meditating on God’s Word, but that too leaves him empty. His problem is that he is relying on prayer and meditation as techniques—and problems cannot be solved by techniques.
A Disturbing Conclusion
This psalm unmasks the glib and superficial advice we often give one another in times of trial and discouragement. We see a person whose heart has been ripped out, and what is our response? “Pray about it,” we say, “and meditate on the Word.”
Such advice is not wrong, but it’s virtually useless. Prayer (as we will see later in the psalm) is not the first thing to do when we are in trouble. Does that surprise you? Does it seem almost blasphemous? Yet Psalm 77 assures us that it is so.
Asaph thought prayer would solve his problems. But prayer was never designed for that purpose. God designed prayer as an instrument of intimacy between Him and us. We make a serious mistake when we reduce prayer to a technique.
If we advise someone in distress to “pray about it,” and that person has prayed and received no answer from God, then we have not really helped. Encouraging what seems to be a pointless activity may tempt someone to simply give up on their faith, thinking, “Faith doesn’t work. God doesn’t respond to prayer.”
“Muddling through” a time of doubt isn’t good enough. We can’t just sit by and wait for a time when our faith is not shaken and weak. We want to understand. We need to know what’s happening and why. The truth is simple, if difficult: God allows painful experiences in our lives because through them we grow and learn. If we do not find God’s solution to our trials of doubt, our faith may not survive.
In Psalm 77, Asaph comes perilously close to a precipice. He is ready to slide into unbelief. Desperately hoping to shore up his faith, he reflects on the past: “I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit asked” (vv. 5–6).
Asaph remembers God’s goodness and past blessings. He remembers the songs and psalms he sang in past nights of pain. Surely this will bring clarity and comfort.
Unfortunately, even as he remembers the “good old days” and his songs in nights past, his spirit insistently asks questions. The doubts assaulting his mind refuse to be silenced. And his doubts all spring from the same question: “Why doesn’t God answer me?” This nagging question drags him to the depths of despair: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” (vv. 7–9).
These are understandable questions. We ask similar questions in our times of confusion: “If God has blessed me in the past, then why doesn’t He bless me now? What’s different? Why do I feel forgotten and abandoned? Has His mercy come to an end? Is He angry with me?”
Finally, the questions, doubts, and silence lead the psalmist to a terrifying conclusion: “Then I said, ‘It is my grief, that the right hand of the Most High has changed’ ” (v. 10 nasb).
In other words, “I’ve prayed all night long. I’ve searched my heart, analyzed my situation, and I can’t answer these questions. There’s only one conclusion: God has changed. I can’t count on Him.”
With that thought, Asaph faces the real possibility of losing his faith. The foundation of his faith—God is always the same—is crumbling beneath his feet. What can save him from his crisis of doubt?
The Terrible Thought
The psalmist is peering over the brink into unbelief. He has concluded that God can change—only a small step from believing something terrifying: God is not really God.
After all, if God can change, then He is nothing more than a manlike being with godlike powers. God’s unchanging character is essential to the psalmist’s understanding of who God is.If God can change, if He can be unloving and unjust, then God is not really God.
But Psalm 77 takes a turn at verse 11: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds” (vv. 11–12).
Suddenly there is a radical shift in Asaph’s approach to the crisis of doubt. His fear and despair vanish and he has a new sense of confidence and peace which he expresses to God.
The psalmist steps back from the precipice, turns around, and moves in the opposite direction.
This monumental shift does not come because Asaph’s doubts are finally vanquished. His decision to believe in God’s love and justice is not emotional or intellectual; it’s a determination made purely with his will. He makes a choice to step back from unbelief, and that choice saves him.
Asaph’s actions model something we need to learn: We don’t need to be afraid to face our doubts squarely. The Bible is true. God is alive and strong enough to withstand our honest inquiry.
Examine the Scriptures, and I believe you’ll come to the same conclusion as the apostle Peter. In John 6, Jesus made some difficult statements to His disciples. At that point many of them left Him. When He saw the crowds leaving, Jesus turned to His 12 closest friends and said, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Peter answered: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (john 6:67–68).
So it was with Asaph. His doubts had driven him to a terrible conclusion. He stood at the edge of unbelief and stared down but resolved to continue believing that God is God.
The Place to Begin
We cannot live in an unresolved state of tension between faith and doubt. Ultimately we must come down on one side or the other. If we fail to settle our questions of faith, doubts will pull on us until we tumble into the abyss of unbelief and become enemies of faith.
Asaph began by thinking about God: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds” (vv. 11–12).
Notice the psalmist’s first (and repeated) words, “I will.” Those two words indicate that a decision has been made and a course of action will be taken. His feelings will no longer control him. His head, not his heart, will determine his course. With that decision, the psalmist stops focusing on himself and his circumstances and starts focusing on God.
Here is where we find out what to do when we are faced with trouble. Our response should not be prayer! Prayer is not the first thing to do when we are in trouble. We are to meditate on God. Make sure we understand Him. Focus on God Himself before praying about our hurts, our needs, our feelings, and our petitions.
Let’s be honest, our tendency is to pray first, ask God to resolve all of our problems with a wave of His hand, and then meditate—if we meditate at all—waiting for God to come to the rescue. When we pray before we meditate, we pray about our problems, our suffering, our anxiety, and our worries. We put ourselves at the center of our prayers: “I’m in trouble! I’m in pain! I’m depressed! Save me from my problems, God!”
Instead, we need to learn to meditate on God. We need to think about His nature, the wonder of who He is, and His activity in history and in our own lives. Then when we pray, God takes center stage in our prayers instead of ourselves. Meditating on God changes the way we pray. We focus on who God is, what He is like, and what He can do.
“God, You are the Lord of my life and my problems. You are holy and merciful. You are unchanging and dependable. You are all I ever need in life.”
Now we begin to see what Psalm 77 is all about. The psalmist begins by describing a natural view of his problems. He prays from a natural and self-centered mindset. He begins with the thought, “See how afflicted I am! See how I cry out and nothing happens!” When we put ourselves at the center, emotions take over and our mind is governed by our feelings.
But when the psalmist’s perspective changes in verse 11, his prayer changes as well. Instead of focusing on his pain in self-pity, he focuses entirely on God. This shift contains profound psychological insight. Psalm 77 begins with a man enslaved to his emotions. His anxiety and despair color his outlook on his problems as well as his outlook on God. His emotions have brought him to the brink of a collapse of faith. But when the psalmist decides to take himself out of the center of his prayers and put God there instead, his perspective changes and the difference is dramatic.
If we begin by praying about our problems and our feelings, we limit our thinking. But when we begin with God, we start with a God who knows no limits. He is the Creator of the universe and the Author of life. All knowledge and truth are His. By focusing on Him instead of ourselves, we remove unnecessary limitations from our thinking and our prayers. The inconceivable becomes possible when we begin with God.
Explaining the Silence of God
Before we leave the opening verses of Psalm 77, there is still a question that needs an answer: “Why didn’t God answer?” The first verses of this psalm don’t record just the moments leading up to Asaph’s change in perspective. Verses 1–10 give the indication of an ongoing struggle and of a prolonged silence from God.
In one sense the answer is as obvious as it is shocking: God was silent because He chose to be. His silence was intentional.
Would God deliberately ignore our pleas for help? We know that He is loving and merciful. It seems like a violation of His nature for Him to treat us with silence just when we need Him most.
Why would God deliberately allow anyone to go through such a time of trial, doubt, and despair? Because God wants us to have a deeper faith. Times of trial and doubting are part of the process that make us grow spiritually strong and wise.
If God always responded instantly to our cries for help, we would remain spiritually immature, forever mastered by feelings and moods. Our prayers would always be self-centered rather than God-centered. Our outlook would remain natural, not spiritual.
We will never reach spiritual maturity if God always responds to us the instant we call upon Him. We will never achieve mature faith and Christlike character as long as our trust in God is subject to our moods, emotions, and circumstances. God hides Himself at times so that we will grow to become more like Christ.
If you are going through a trial and God seems silent, know that despite how it feels, He is there with you, hurting and weeping with you. He is also helping you to grow in your character and your faith. Through this painful experience, you are learning lessons that cannot be learned any other way. God’s silence does not signal His absence or His disinterest.
Soon you’ll be able to rejoice with the psalmist and say, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord!” You have God’s Word on that.