Book Review: Deserted by God? (Sinclair Ferguson)
If you’ve been a Christian for more than 10 minutes, you’ve learned the bitter truth that the Christian life can still be a life filled with pain and disappointment. It’s one thing to go through a trial with a sense that God is with you. You read Psalm 121 and know that it is true because you have felt God’s intimate presence with you every step of the way. It is a very different challenge, though, if God withdraws all sense of his presence. You find yourself walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) and it feels like you are walking entirely alone. You’ve read the “footsteps poem” many times, but as you look behind you, the only footprints you see are your own.
Now what? Was it all a lie?
It is to the person walking this dark path that I commend Deserted by God: Understanding the Ways of God through the Experience of the Psalmists by Sinclair Ferguson (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993.) Ferguson brings a word of hope to struggling Christians by taking us to the bedrock of all answers, the Word of God. This book deals with the experience of feeling deserted by God by pointing to a number of psalms. Just to talk through the table of contents, you can get a sense of where this is going.
Can Anyone Help Me? (Introduction, looking at Psalm 27:7-8, 13-14)
How Long, Lord? (Psalm 13)
Dark Valleys (Psalm 23)
Discouragement (Psalm 42-43)
My Sin (Psalm 51)
No Escape? (Psalm 55)
Slipping Feet (Psalm 73)
Singing the Blues (Psalm 102)
Can I Be Pure? (Psalm 119)
Learning Contentment (Psalm 131)
Never Deserted (Psalm 22)
A Pastor’s Heart
You might be tempted to think that an intellectual like Ferguson would come across as cold; however, this is not true of this book. Ferguson speaks with the deep concern of a pastor’s heart. He wants to offer real help to hurting people. Simple slogans and pop psychology will not do. From cover to cover in this book, he is determined to turn people back to God’s Word. He wants you to see that the despair you feel right now is something that believers throughout history have wrestled with. These experiences have been captured in Scripture. Maybe you are not quite as alone and abandoned as it feels right now.
In turning to the Psalms, Ferguson points us to the texts where people have most wrestled with God. It is in the psalms, more than anywhere else in scripture, that people have bared their hearts. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they cried out to God in their pain. As we look at their words, we can hear our own pain. And this is where Ferguson’s work particularly shines. He connects our pain and our experience with the psalms. He never tells you to “stop whining” or “pick your chin up, laddie … it can’t be all that bad.” Ferguson acknowledges that it really can be that bad and then he gives us a track back to truth.
A Personal Connection
I was a pastor not so very long ago and the pain of leaving the pastorate is still very real in my heart. How comforting it was then, as Ferguson is working through Psalm 42, to read the following:
Few of us realise how much our sense of significance and worth is tied up with our service and leadership. We often counsel people not to become so absorbed in their service that they lose sight of the One they are supposed to be serving. But if we give ourselves in the service of Christ, who we are becomes so identified with what we do that the two are practically indistinguishable. Our service, after all, is an expression of ourselves; it is an investing of ourselves in others, for Christ. Lose that and part of our very soul is lost. Discouragement is often the result. (47)
You read a paragraph like this and you realize that Sinclair Ferguson has helped a lot of hurting hearts. He really understands the specific pain that I’m going through. And you’ll notice that there is no judgment in that analysis. He points out that the very real result of losing a role in ministry is discouragement and pain that reach all the way to one’s soul. You read something like this and you think, “Maybe this is a man who can help me.”
The Path Forward
Ferguson works through many of the most beloved texts in the Psalter. Isn’t it interesting that the most beloved psalms are the ones that deal the most directly with our pain? In our suffering, we don’t usually run to the doctrinal texts that try to give an intellectual framework for what we are experiencing. We go to the psalms, where we realize that somebody has already given voice to our agony.
In looking at Psalm 73, as Asaph is wrestling with questions of God’s justice, Ferguson concludes:
[Asaph] no longer makes the mistake of thinking that everything is inherently good in itself. Things do not naturally all ‘work out for the good.’ The reverse is the case. Life in a fallen world is good only because we can never be separated from the good God (Rom 8:39) who ‘works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Rom 8:28, NIV). With open eyes Asaph saw ‘tribulation … distress… persecution … famine … nakedness … danger … sword’ (Rom 8:35). ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘but God is good to Israel.’ If this God is for us, who can be against us? Can you say that too? (100)
Over and over, Ferguson points us to the unbending, unfading truth that God is for his people. We are not abandoned. We are not deserted. That path forward is always the path that brings us back to our faithful God.
Intended for struggling Christians
It is important to realize for whom this book was written. This is not a book for the average hurting person on the street. This book is written for the struggling Christian – for the one who has tasted and seen that the Lord is good, but who can’t taste or see anything right now. This book is not meant to be the tool that brings the unbeliever to Christ, but rather the book that brings the brokenhearted believer back to Christ. The unbeliever will find little comfort in these pages.
I bought this book because I really was feeling deserted by God. Through Ferguson’s words, the prayers of faithful brothers and sisters, a steady diet of the Word, and the grace of God, I feel like I’ve found my footing again. This is a very excellent book to put in the hands of one who has known Jesus but is walking a dark path right now.
It would also be an outstanding resource for those who shepherd hurting people. You’re sitting across the table from somebody who is suffering through this feeling of desertion. What will you say? Listen to Sinclair Ferguson and learn some helpful texts to which you can turn and shine some light into somebody’s darkness. God is faithful and he has blessed the church with resources like this so we can help each other. Use this work to point suffering brothers and sisters back to our faithful Savior – the one who never deserts us, no matter how it feels.