by Pastor Cherie Johnson
Psalm 13 (NIV)
1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
4 my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
There was a woman whose brother died when he was just 23. She was having a hard time dealing with this. Well-meaning people would come up and tell her the famous platitudes. “He’s in a much better place. You should be happy that he is with the Lord.” You know the things that people say when they don’t know what to say.
In the beginning, everyone is very understanding, and they want to be helpful. However, after a while they were ready to move on, but she was not. There was an expectation that she should be happy, joyful again, but she wasn’t ready to be joyful. She took great solace in the Psalms, especially the Psalms of Lament.
They spoke to her feelings, her despair. They gave voice to her anger with God for taking her brother, but they also gave the opportunity for healing. They gave her the hope that things would feel different someday.
We have this philosophy that if we work hard, plan, save, have the right insurance that nothing will go wrong. We are in control. Then a tornado comes. We are thankful if we only lose things. What happens when a loved one dies unexpectedly? Job loss because of a downsizing or business closing? What happens when we work hard, but something happens anyway outside our control?
And that’s why we have the Psalms of Lament. They make up about one third of all the psalms. That in itself shows how necessary and important they were for Israel, but they can also be a solace for us.
The Psalms of Lament are not merely random rantings of unfairness and anger. They are a plea for help, so that the person can freely praise God again. Most have a definite pattern, and Psalm 13 is a perfect example:
- Address directly to God –> How long, O LORD?
moving directly into the
- Complaint –> Will you forget me forever? Etc…
It describes the suffering.
It makes reference to an
enemy, and it accuses God of
- The Petition –> Look on me and answer …
- The Motivation for God to act –> My enemies will say … My foes will …
In a penitent psalm like we’ll be looking at next week, there might be a confession here, but in this psalm there is a general feeling of unfairness. There is also a claim of the public relations value of God helping out. If they’re saying this about me, they’re talking about you, too. You don’t want that to happen, do you, God?
At this point there is a profound attitude change. Almost like the psalmist had the opportunity to relieve the burden, can take a deep breath, and move forward with what he or she knows to be true, due to the long history of God with Israel.
- There is a Confession of Trust –> But, I trust in your unfailing love…
Finishing up with a
- Vow of Praise –> I will sing to the LORD…
However, are we allowed to complain to God? One of the reasons that the Laments are in the Hebrew Bible is that for a long time Jewish tradition did not believe in life after death. If justice was to be had, it had to be obtained in this lifetime. But now, with the hope of Jesus, does it mean we have to wait for Jesus’ return for justice? Sitting and suffering in the meantime? There’s this idea that not only is it our duty to suffer, but we should be happy about it.
Doesn’t Paul say in 1st Thessalonians 5:2 “be joyful always,” and in Phil 4:5 to “rejoice in the Lord always?” We may not always feel like rejoicing, but isn’t that wrong?
The Bible is full of examples of people complaining in faith to God. Job is a story about a person having to deal with the crisis of faith brought about by suffering. Job was a great guy, very successful, large family. He was a good and righteous man. God was bragging on him, but the accuser, or Satan, said he only loves you because he has had such success in his life. I bet that if it was taken all the way he would curse your name.
So God gives permission for Satan to test Job. He loses his children. He loses his wealth, but Job hadn’t done anything wrong. Job grieves for a long time. He gets terrible advice from his so called friends, but eventually he has had enough and cries out to God. He complains about all that has gone wrong and demands an explanation from God. God responds, not by killing him. There was no lightning. Eventually, Job emerges from the crisis and is able to enjoy life again.
Another example comes with Jonah, a prophet who was ordered by God to warn the city of Nineveh that they would be destroyed if they didn’t change their ways. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a country that caused a lot of grief and eventually conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He didn’t want to do it, but after a long torturous ordeal he did. Nineveh repented and was saved. Jonah was angry, and he told God about it. He didn’t feel it was very just for them to be saved. God responded not an angry way, but by teaching Jonah a lesson on Grace.
Elijah was having a terrible time. He was being chased by people who wanted to kill him, and he fled into the desert. He complained to God, not even expecting relief, but wanting to die. Again, God does not reject or dismiss him. God doesn’t even lecture him as he does with Job and Jonah. Elijah is at the end of his rope, and God restores him. Feeds him, enters his presence, encourages him that he is not alone, gives him a new updated mission, and provides him help. Restored, Elijah was able to go forward.
These stories show that you can give God what’s on your heart. God can take it.
And then we get to Paul. He is after all, the source where we get his call to be joyful always in 1st Thessalonians. What we don’t realize when we take that verse by itself is that Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians who are in deep despair.
Just before the section, Paul is talking to the Thessalonians about people who died. As one of Paul’s earliest letters, they expected Jesus to return very soon, before any one of their group died. So, these deaths were causing great distress. Paul was encouraging them that it would be okay. Those persons were not lost. They should have strength moving forward, but he didn’t dismiss their pain or concern as unreasonable.
In Philippians 4:4, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Here he is speaking specifically to two women in the church who were fighting. He was encouraging them to work out their difficulties and asking the whole community to help with this.
Then he gives this good advice. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, presenting your requests to God.” Isn’t this exactly what is happening in Psalms of Lament? It is this process of complaining in faith to God that allows us to come out the other side with the “peace of God, which passes all understanding.”
In Romans 8, Paul talks about the suffering and hardships that we all have to go through, but through it all God is with us, even when God seems absent (8:37). We are not to suffer alone. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” (8:26) God can’t be “going through it with us,” if we are pretending no problem exists.
Of course then there’s Jesus. Jesus certainly wasn’t “joyful always.” He had compassion for people who are suffering. He was frequently annoyed with the disciples when they were way off track. He had righteous anger when he turned the tables over of the money changers at the Temple, but he also complained in faith to God.
Most specifically, I’m thinking of his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Lord’s Supper, the night he is arrested. He is asking for relief in Matthew 26:36-46. He asks God to take this burden from him.
Then on the cross, just before he died, Jesus cries out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Quoting Psalm 21:1. That was something that Jesus did all the time call on Scripture in times of need. If Jesus can claim the Psalms of Lament at times of distress, surely we can too.
One of the things all of these examples have in common is that the lines of communication with God were not shut down. The dialogue continues. As Denise Hopkins says, “Even angry Psalms filled with doubt lead us back to God.”
Psalm 13 is full of doubt. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face for me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemies triumph over me?”
In the New International Version and other translations it comes out like a wail, deep despair. In The Message version it is more like a demand, like when a friend has had enough of the “silent treatment.”
“Long enough, God – you ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough I’ve carried this ton of trouble, live with a stomach full of pain. Long enough my arrogant enemies have looked down their noses at me.”
Both versions are ok. It depends on your frame of mind. God can take it.
Have you ever felt like that? Abandoned by God? Or deafened by the silence? Several years ago, I felt completely cut off. Prior to that, I felt like I was getting clear direction from God of where I was to go and what I was supposed to do. Then, I hit a brick wall, and I didn’t know how to proceed.
The way that I described it was feeling that I was sitting in a small boat in the middle of a large lake surrounded by fog. No oars, no engine, there was a sail, but no wind. I had no idea of which way to go, and no way to get there even if I did. This went on for period of eight months. I was completely with the psalmist in these two verses. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” How long will you hide your face from me?”
Often in the Bible, the hiding of God’s face was due to punishment, but in this case and some of the other psalms, it is more of a feeling of neglect. Then comes the demand, “Look on me and answer.” By looking, God’s face is no longer hidden.
The psalmist goes on to say, “Give light to my eyes.” Think about when someone is down or depressed or even doesn’t feel well. The eyes look dark or dull. Probably because our eyes or face is not fully open. I love the way the New Living Translation puts it. “Restore the sparkle to my eyes.” More than a feeling of surviving but thriving. Face and eyes totally open to reflect the light and allow your eyes to sparkle.
Then there is the talk of enemies. In the psalm and its function, it’s almost amusing. Explaining to God how not helping will make God look bad. On another note that is less amusing, who or what is the enemy? It isn’t necessarily a person. Could it be a situation? If you are dealing with the loss of a loved one or a major life change, it could be in the process of grief that feels like the enemy. Or, looking back at Job, you could feel like it’s the accuser, Satan, who is the enemy. “My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.”
Here is where that deep breath occurs. I have expressed my troubles and doubts, I take a deep breath and realize… “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.”
There is a complete turn from doubt to trust. That doesn’t mean that you should be able to say this and everything will suddenly be resolved. The story I told at the beginning, as the woman read and said laments, for a long time she said the words of relief and praise without really feeling them, in the hope that it would change. Eventually, that time came; she came out of the long tunnel back into the light.
When we read this out it feels like one thing should happen right after the other in a straight line: complaint, petition, confession of trust, but life doesn’t always work like that. We can feel the despair and the hope at the same time. Knowing that there is good hope that we…as the psalm finishes … “Will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me.” There is this promise of future praise after deliverance, and the psalmist is sure that it will come.
Through this process, we can learn that not only is it okay to complain in faith to God, sometimes we need to. As Denise Hopkins says, “It is dangerous to accuse God of forgetting and turning away, but it is more dangerous to give up on God by thinking that this doubt cannot be expressed in prayer or worship.” If you can’t take your questions to God, who can you take them to? If we aren’t allowed or can’t trust God with our questions, who is this God we worship?
The good news is that we have a God that loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. We truly can trust God with what’s on our heart. God can take it … And will still love us. Praise God!