Dealing with Grinding Pain (Psalm 79:1-9)

The Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, by William Hole (1846-1917)

God, nations have come against your chosen people.
    They have ruined your holy Temple.
    They have turned Jerusalem into ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants as food to the wild birds.
They have given the bodies of those who worship you to the wild animals.
They have spilled blood like water all around Jerusalem.
    No one was left to bury the dead.
We are a joke to the other nations;
    they laugh and make fun of us.

Lord, how long will this last?
    Will you be angry forever?
    How long will your jealousy burn like a fire?
Be angry with the nations that do not know you
    and with the kingdoms that do not honor you.
They have gobbled up the people of Jacob
    and destroyed their land.
Don’t punish us for our past sins.
    Show your mercy to us soon,
    because we are helpless!
God our Savior, help us
    so people will praise you.
Save us and forgive our sins
    so people will honor you. (New Century Version)

I don’t like evil. And I really don’t like arrogant people who want what they want and leave a path of destruction behind them.

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple. It was razed by a conquering army who proudly gloated over their victory. This psalm, as all psalms, is a prayer. It’s a bitter and angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people.

The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable.

To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling.

Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear.

Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. This realization enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness their horrible spiritual pain. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us.

For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will.

Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God.

As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

2 Peter 2:1-10a – Beware of Spiritual Predators

But there were also lying prophets among the people then, just as there will be lying religious teachers among you. They’ll smuggle in destructive divisions, pitting you against each other—biting the hand of the One who gave them a chance to have their lives back! They’ve put themselves on a fast downhill slide to destruction, but not before they recruit a crowd of mixed-up followers who can’t tell right from wrong.

They give the way of truth a bad name. They’re only out for themselves. They’ll say anything, anything, that sounds good to exploit you. They won’t, of course, get by with it. They’ll come to a bad end, for God has never just stood by and let that kind of thing go on.

God didn’t let the rebel angels off the hook but jailed them in hell till Judgment Day. Neither did he let the ancient ungodly world off. He wiped it out with a flood, rescuing only eight people—Noah, the sole voice of righteousness, was one of them.

God decreed destruction for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. A mound of ashes was all that was left—grim warning to anyone bent on an ungodly life. But that good man Lot, driven nearly out of his mind by the sexual filth and perversity, was rescued. Surrounded by moral rot day after day after day, that righteous man was in constant torment.

So, God knows how to rescue the godly from evil trials. And he knows how to hold the feet of the wicked to the fire until Judgment Day.

God is especially incensed against these “teachers” who live by lust, addicted to a filthy existence. They despise interference from true authority, preferring to indulge in self-rule. (The Message)

I wish everyone who claims the name of Christ was safe to talk to, interact with, and share life together. However, not everyone is. *Sigh*

Unfortunately, there exists spiritual predators who create chaos, keep others off-balance, and speak and act in ways that benefit their own consolidation of authority. They are like Sith Lords who come-off as well-meaning but always have a secret agenda for more power and control. *Sigh*

So-called teachers and leaders are not all trustworthy. Like mosquitoes drawn to warm blood, they seek to feast on the godly, taking advantage of their good nature – slowly, carefully, and insidiously draining the life out of them. All the while, the true believer doesn’t know what’s going on until it is too late. *Sigh*

Some are even more sinister. Like tarantulas, they immobilize their victims and slowly suck out their insides with the prey’s full awareness. Unable to scream or seek help, they lie in silent pain wishing for a miracle. *Sigh*

Yet, at the same time, none of those false teachers, emotional manipulators, and spiritual charlatans are putting anything over God. The Lord sees it all – and is incensed about it. The ungodly, masking as benevolent authorities, will not be able to carry-on with their hidden agenda of evil forever. Their time will run out. Judgment Day is coming.

The Lord knows how to deliver victims from their victimization. It rarely comes fast enough for us. Nevertheless, the destruction of all injustice is just around the corner. But how do we deal with all the unethical and immoral behavior now!?

We stay the course. Do not give-in to the temptation to play another’s Machiavellian game. The Christian life begins with humility, is sustained by a gentle spirit, embraces right ways of being with others, and typically results in trouble, even persecution. (Matthew 5:1-12)

We strive to always live into personal peace and be peacemakers. We understand that he who is within us is greater than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

We choose to love and pray for our enemies, all the while being wise as serpents and gentle as doves. (Matthew 5:44, 10:16)

We embrace patience and persevere through each frustratingly mad situation, knowing that the Lord has promised to be with us, even until the very end of the age. (James 5:7-12; Matthew 28:20)

We give no one a reason to speak ill of us, blessing others and not cursing them. (Titus 3:2; James 4:11; Romans 12:14)

We trust God in all things, while being careful not to put a pearl necklace around a pig. (Proverbs 3:5-6; Matthew 7:6)

We keep encouraging and affirming others, even when we don’t get encouragement and affirmation ourselves. (Ephesians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13)

We stick to a community of people with like-minded values and refuse to withdraw into isolation. (Galatians 6:2; Philippians 1:27-30)

We follow Christ, our true Teacher and Lord, one day at a time, one step at a time – focusing continually on his words and ways as our polestar through the morass of confusion and iniquity. (Matthew 16:24; John 8:12, 10:27, 12:26; 1 Peter 2:21)

Jesus knew the sobering truth of spiritual predators acting as godly when he said:

Not everyone who calls me their Lord will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only the ones who obey my Father in heaven will get in. On the day of judgment many will call me their Lord. They will say, “We preached in your name, and in your name we forced out demons and worked many miracles.” But I will tell them, “I will have nothing to do with you! Get out of my sight, you evil people!” (Matthew 7:21-23, CEV)

May you remain encouraged in faith, steadfast in hope, and forever in love with the Savior who has loved you and given himself to you.

Christ, light of light, brightness indescribable, the wisdom, power and glory of God, the Word made flesh: you overcame the forces of Satan, redeemed the world, then ascended again to the Father. Grant me, I pray, in this tarnished world, the shining of your splendor. Send your holy angels to defend me, to guard my going out and coming in, and to bring me safely to your presence, where you reign in the one holy and undivided Trinity, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 58 – Curse the Wicked

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
    Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
    and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
    from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
    like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
    however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
    Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
    when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
    whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
    when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
    “Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
    surely there is a God who judges the earth.” (New International Version)

The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people. There are eighteen imprecatory psalms within the Old Testament psalter, all of which make a clear petition for God to turn the evil back on the people who inflict it (or try to) on others. Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.

There is nothing sanitized about imprecatory psalms. They are as raw and real as it gets, expressing deep anger. Whatever you might think about how a proper pious person ought to pray, imprecatory curses are likely not your first thought. But here they are, contained in Holy Scripture for our use.

One reason for the imprecatory psalms is that it is not any person’s place for revenge or retaliation. Instead, for people who are genuinely caught in the crosshairs of evil, for those who have awful trouble dogging them, prayer is their most effective recourse.

Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is. There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face so that you can deal with people who keep gossiping, slandering, and trying to get their way. Yet, there is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.

There are many folks who consider imprecatory psalms a problem because of their detailed expressions of cursing. Yet, such psalms refuse to put a positive spin on malevolent motives, wicked words, and destructive actions.

Desperate people utter desperate prayers. Their unflinching sense of injustice will not allow them to sugarcoat the villainous plans of corrupt people.

Evil is never toppled with tepid prayers from wimpy worshipers. Rather, nefarious agendas are thwarted in the teeth of specific, focused, and intense prayers directed with spiritual precision to the very core of diabolical forces.

We need not be shy about being real with God, even with praying imprecatory prayers. There really are people in this world, maybe even in your own life, that have malicious intent against you or others. Our job is not personal revenge, but to entrust ourselves to the God who fights for the poor, the oppressed, and the needy against the arrogant and the powerful. Let your prayers reflect your life.

With no cursing of evil, our emotional pain and spiritual anger come out sideways in an unkind sort of “snarky-ness” toward each other. What I am proposing is that our terrible hurt and our rage needs to be acknowledged and voiced.

Our bitterness must have an outlet, not directed toward one another, but toward the evil itself – and even toward God because God is big enough to handle our rage, whereas other humans are not.

Victimization needs a voice, and a bit of raging and cursing is the means to do it. Giving voice to our deep anger is cathartic and therapeutic. Our speech needs to be congruent with the intensity of our pain because where there are no valued words of assault for victims, the risk of hurting each other becomes much higher.

Despair with no voice and no one to hear will eventually transition to harming others.

Spiritual problems require spiritual implements to solve. And the imprecatory psalms are a major tool for pushing back the dark forces of this world. They are a significant means of spiritual assertiveness against heinous acts, acerbic words, systemic evil, depraved people, and horrible circumstances.

God’s wrath is an expression of God’s love because God is not okay with evil taking root in the lives and institutions of humanity.

Prayer is our privilege of coming to the God who upholds justice and righteousness. For if God is for us, who can be against us?

1 Peter 3:8-12 – Bless and Do Not Curse

Ethiopian artist depiction of Jesus teaching on love

Finally, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, affectionate, compassionate, and humble. Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but instead bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing. For

The one who wants to love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from uttering deceit.
And he must turn away from evil and do good;
he must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the Lord’s face is against those who do evil.
(New English Version)

It’s one thing to bestow a blessing to folks when they seem worthy of it – but it’s quite another thing when you have stinkers in your life. Bless the very ones who are abusive toward me? Some might think the Apostle Peter was off his rocker to instruct believers to bless the insufferable persons in their lives.

Peter, however, was only passing on what he had learned from the Lord Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said: You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 

If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matthew 5:43-48, CEB)

The instruction to bless the hateful ingrates in our lives only seems strange when the avoidance of suffering and experiencing a pain-free existence is the summum bonum of life.

I get it. We don’t like to suffer. I don’t like to suffer. It hurts! I’m not really into pain. I’m not a high tolerance pain kind of guy. I have no problem taking a pain pill at the first sign of discomfort. Even so, I know there will be times I am going to have pain – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – and there is going to be no way around it. 

To live in this broken world is to experience suffering. To suffer as a Christian, however, is different because we are following the way of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Just as Christ suffered, we can expect to suffer as his followers, as well. We are not above our Master. The real issue is whether we will suffer because of our own foolishness and selfishness, or because of our devotion to Christ in being kind, humble, and gracious. 

When insults come our way, we don’t need to respond in the same way with our own insults. Verbal cruelty is not the way of Christ. Anger, slander, gossip, lies, manipulative words, and belligerent bullying have absolutely no place in the kingdom of God for any reason. 

God takes a zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech, manipulation, and gaslighting.

The consistent witness of the New Testament is to bless and do not curse, to love and not to hate, to use our tongues for spreading words of encouragement and not of condemnation. Peter’s instruction and Christ’s teaching also totally jives with the Apostle Paul:

The Apostle Paul also learned from the Lord Jesus and upholds the need to bless and not curse:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…. Live in harmony with one another…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21, NIV)

Christians are to us their words for blessing, not cursing; for love, not hate; for truth, not lies; for building-up, not tearing-down; for proclaiming good news, not bad news laced with insults. 

If we suffer because of love, we shall receive blessing from God. If we suffer for giving-in to retaliation and our base desires for revenge, then we will suffer the consequences of our own stupidity.

God has called us to bless the world, not condemn it. 

Christians are to be on the front lines of spreading respect, civility, kindness, and the gospel. It is no problem showing love and respect to people we like. It’s a whole other ballgame to do the same for those who treat us with disrespect and hate.

Yet, God watches over all who obey him, and listens to their prayers. God will handle the hate-filled person; that’s not something we are to do.

Our task is to have a deep concern for humanity, both the ones we like, as well as the ones we don’t.

Loving Lord Jesus, you suffered and died on my behalf. It is a small thing for me to follow you and walk in the way of suffering. I know and have the confident expectation that blessing awaits. Keep me true to following you through all the adversity I face in this fallen broken world. Even so, come Lord Jesus, you who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.