Psalm 22:1-15 – Responding to Trouble

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night but find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
    in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me,
    strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
    like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death. (New Revised Standard Version)

Christians readily recognize the beginning question of this psalm. Jesus asked it from the cross (Matthew 27:46). Today’s psalm is a heartfelt lament, an affirmation of trust, a call for help, and vow to praise.

Lament

Grieving and lamenting is neither selfish nor sinful. It is necessary. God did it. Job did it. Jesus did it. And the psalmist did it – repeatedly, I might add. So, we ought to do it. It’s biblical. Part of our hard-wiring as humanity is to lament our significant changes and losses in life.

Some folks believe it sacrilegious to challenge, complain, and/or yell at/to God. However, God is big enough to handle our contentions. There are times in life when God seems very distant and aloof, as if the Lord is not paying attention to our plight and pain.

Three of Job’s friends heard of all the trouble that had fallen on him. Each traveled from his own country—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, Zophar from Naamath—and went together to Job to keep him company and comfort him. When they first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering. (Job 2:11-13, MSG)

Asking “why?” can come from a belligerent heart, or it can arise as a genuine heartfelt expression of hurt, anger, and wondering. One thing us humans need to become comfortable with is that it is okay to not be okay. Not everything needs to be fixed, even though we would like it to.

Yet, if we don’t understand what the heck is going on, and where God is in it all, pouring out a passionate cry is both legitimate and encouraged.

Affirmation of Trust

It helps when we have a track record of God working in the past. Even if that doesn’t include personal experience, we have an entire human history of God’s dealings with individuals and groups of people concerning deliverance, care, and help.

If we have been in the habit of affirming our faith in God through daily prayers and weekly worship, then trust comes more reflexively and organically.

Be merciful to me, O God,
    because I am under attack;
    my enemies persecute me all the time.
All day long my opponents attack me.
    There are so many who fight against me.
When I am afraid, O Lord Almighty,
    I put my trust in you.
I trust in God and am not afraid;
    I praise him for what he has promised.
    What can a mere human being do to me? (Psalm 56:1-4, GNT)

One of the reasons I like saying the ancient Creeds of the Church together with God’s people is that it affirms and deepens my existing faith. To know that millions of Christians throughout the past two-thousand years, as well as the believers around me today, openly confess and affirm their faith with these words, helps strengthen me for the hard times to come.

Call for Help

One of the best prayers we could ever pray is “Help!” For many people, asking for help is a humbling affair. It smacks of weakness, perhaps even neediness – as if it’s a sin to not always be strong or be dependent on another.

Scour both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and you will not find weakness or dependence to be sin-worthy. It’s just the opposite. Delusions of independence and strength are signs of misplaced pride which believes we ought to be able to handle any situation. God wants us to ask for help when we need it.

The wicked are too proud to ask God for help. He does not fit into their plans. (Psalm 10:4, ERV)

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7, NIV)

I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father’s glory will be shown through the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14, GNT)

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. (James 1:5, NLT)

Vow to Praise

Whenever we go through difficult times and come out the other side, it is important to tell our story. The sharing of stories deepens our faith, as well as edifying others. And then, down the road, when another event upends our life, we can recall the faithfulness of God in the past.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds. (Psalm 73:25-28, NIV)

There will be pain and suffering. There will also be victory and glory. The ways in which we engage the seasons of hardship will determine the trajectory of our spiritual lives.

Times change. God is forever the same. May we tether ourselves to eternal mercy. Amen.

Job 8:1-22 – Face the Pain

Job Speaks with His Friends by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Are you finally through with your windy speech?
God never twists justice;
    he never fails to do what is right.
Your children must have sinned against God,
    and so he punished them as they deserved.
But turn now and plead with Almighty God;
    if you are so honest and pure,
    then God will come and help you
    and restore your household as your reward.
All the wealth you lost will be nothing
    compared with what God will give you then.

Look for a moment at ancient wisdom;
    consider the truths our ancestors learned.
Our life is short; we know nothing at all;
    we pass like shadows across the earth.
But let the ancient wise people teach you;
    listen to what they had to say:

“Reeds can’t grow where there is no water;
    they are never found outside a swamp.
If the water dries up, they are the first to wither,
    while still too small to be cut and used.
Godless people are like those reeds;
    their hope is gone, once God is forgotten.
They trust a thread—a spider’s web.
    If they lean on a web, will it hold them up?
    If they grab for a thread, will it help them stand?”

Evil people sprout like weeds in the sun,
    like weeds that spread all through the garden.
Their roots wrap around the stones
    and hold fast to every rock.
But then pull them up—
    no one will ever know they were there.
Yes, that’s all the joy evil people have;
    others now come and take their places.

But God will never abandon the faithful
    or ever give help to evil people.
He will let you laugh and shout again,
    but he will bring disgrace on those who hate you,
    and the homes of the wicked will vanish. (Good News Translation)

These are the words of Bildad, a “friend” of Job. The guy just couldn’t take it anymore. As Job expressed his deep grief, Bildad grew perturbed. Whereas Job needed to be heard, to tell his story with others who would offer listening ears of empathy, Bildad was uncomfortable with all this grief junk and felt he needed to rebuke Job…. Oy vey.

There are various kinds of suffering, and the biblical character of Job experienced them all. One of the most severe kinds of hurt, and the one that gets far more attention than any other in the book of Job, are the short-sighted rebukes from Job’s “friends.” 

God had a severe mercy for Job. The friends, however, lived in a black and white world of either/or – either you confess your sin, or you don’t – as if all suffering is connected to personal sin. Bildad’s left-brained linear explanation was expressed this way: God will not reject a blameless man.

For Bildad, personal suffering equals personal sin and God’s disfavor. Bildad could only see a sequential connection, a direct line from sin to calamity. It was simply out of his equation to think otherwise. Since Bildad saw suffering as the direct result of sin, his remedy was to exhort toward confession of sin. 

The problem with this view is that we, as the readers, already know this to be a patently false understanding of Job’s suffering. Although Bildad saw the suffering, he did not discern the unseen dimension of good and evil contending behind-the-scenes between God and Satan.

It is only normal to wonder if we have sinned against God whenever finding ourselves in the crucible of suffering. But if we have done patient work to determine there is no personal reason for the pain, perhaps there is something going on that is much bigger than us. 

Our task, like Job’s, is to entrust ourselves to God. We might chafe at such counsel because we like to fix things that hurt. Suffering, however, will not last forever; it will eventually pass. And God’s way will always prevail, in the end. So, we must continually keep in mind that permanent faith transcends temporary pain.

There are four types of pain we experience in this life:

  1. Spiritual pain that arises from within us in our connection, or lack thereof, with the divine.
  2. Emotional pain that arises from our relationship with others.
  3. Physical pain that arises from our bodies and from natural forces on this earth.
  4. Mental pain that arises from cognitive disorders, childhood trauma, and all forms of abuse or neglect.

In all pain, the story we tell ourselves about the reason for the hurt is significant. We have a relationship with our pain. If the story we are telling ourselves is that the pain is all in my head, or that others have it worse than me, we are ignoring or stuffing our pain. If the story is that pain is bad and I must rid myself of it, then we will completely miss what our pain is trying to tell us.

Job was trying to come to grips with his pain. He was facing it, talking about it, expressing his wonderings concerning it, and allowing himself to completely feel all of it.

Conversely, Bildad so tightly held onto his own story about what pain and suffering is that he was unable to be the friend Job needed. And, I might add, at the end of the story, God didn’t look with favor on Bildad’s approach.

So, what will you do with your pain?

What is the story you are telling yourself about your pain?

Who do you trust so that you can talk about your pain?

Where is God in your pain?

How is your current relationship to the pain helping or hindering you?

Where will you turn, in the future, when pain comes upon you?

Loving God, take pity on my life as I seek to embrace you in both good times and bad. I belong to you; therefore, I will not forsake you, no matter how much I do not understand the suffering. Amen.

Lamentations 3:22-33 – The Need for Lament

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone.
(New Revised Standard Version)

We all face situations, at points in our lives, which cause us to grieve. Grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss. Bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events bringing grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for. 

Grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life, for example, moving to a new house in a new area, an empty nest, getting married, having children, or beginning a new job. These all produce grief, even if that loss and change were chosen, anticipated, or necessary.

The worst way to approach these grief-producing events is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, stuff the feelings down, and just move on. It’s actually unbiblical to take such an attitude because Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses. We have with Lamentations an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem. Not only was Jeremiah commissioned to proclaim a very unpopular message, but he was also given a promise that the people would not listen to him, and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile – only compounding Jeremiah’s sadness with complicated grief.

The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach. God’s words came true. The people did not turn from their empty worship and wayward lifestyles. And they persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment. The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple. It was only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.

The hope of love, compassion, and new life comes from first lamenting our losses. There are two popular phrases in our culture that need to be jettisoned altogether when speaking with people experiencing change or loss. These phrases, at the least, are not helpful; and, at worst, compound the anger and sadness:

  1. “Get over it!” can short circuit the grief process and puts grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope. Far too many people in the world, and even the church, remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move through their grief because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful – not to mention now guilty on top of it for being sad.
  2. “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. They can’t be strong. We would never think of telling someone with broken bones to have the strength to walk or even drive anywhere without assistance. We understand they need to heal. Yet, we tell this to people with broken spirits, and then can’t understand why they don’t just bounce back from their emotional stupor. That’s because they can’t. Broken spirits, like broken bones, need time to heal.

Embracing lament is the pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person, like Jesus. Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many, if not most, of emotional problems today. 

Jerry Sittser, a Reformed pastor and professor, wrote an important book entitled, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Many years ago, he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on. In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes: his mother, his wife, and his daughter. Sittser writes:

“Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Jerry Sittser

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor emeritus at Yale University. In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five year old son to a mountain climbing accident. He has no explanations – just grief. At one point he expressed a profound insight: 

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

Nicholas Wolsterstorff

We all accumulate many losses over the course of a lifetime. Many are small losses; some are devastating losses. The death of children, disability, sexual assault, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament. 

All these changes are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were. We must move through the grief by lamenting each loss. And as we lurch ahead, we cling to the words of Jeremiah that because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed and swallowed whole from grief, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses. We need to avoid superficial responses to significant events. We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to see new life.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love. This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution or acceptance. We rarely move neatly through each stage. The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love to us not just in spite of the suffering but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering. We must sit with our pain. Do not dismiss your loss by saying others have it worse, or that it’s nothing. Year after year, many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments. The result is a profound inability to face pain. And it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved. His message predicted what Jesus faced in his passion. The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people. When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks. On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!” But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health. Life does not always make sense. There is deep mystery to the ways of God. The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us. While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating. Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s resetting a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it. Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells. The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden. 

But you have to be willing to wait, in some cases, years. Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan. Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot. They are:

  • More patient with others with an increased capacity to wait on God.
  • Kinder and more compassionate.
  • Lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.
  • Comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.
  • Humble, gentle, and meek. 
  • Able to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but also in the mundane, banal, and lowly.
  • More at home with themselves and with God. 
  • Equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to keep grief from catching up to us. Slow down. Let it catch you. Let grief do its deep and powerful work within you.

*Above painting of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

**Above painting of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1956

Job 6:1-13 – A Response to Suffering

Job by French painter Léon Bonnat, 1880

Oh, that my grief was weighed,
    all of it were lifted in scales;
    for now it is heavier than the sands of the sea;
        therefore, my words are rash.
The Almighty’s arrows are in me;
    my spirit drinks their poison,
    and God’s terrors are arrayed against me.
Does a donkey bray over grass
    or an ox bellow over its fodder?
Is tasteless food eaten without salt,
    or does egg white have taste?
I refuse to touch them;
    they resemble food for the sick.

Oh, that what I’ve requested would come
        and God grant my hope;
    that God be willing to crush me,
    release his hand and cut me off.
I’d still take comfort,
    relieved even though in persistent pain;
        for I’ve not denied the words of the holy one.
What is my strength, that I should hope;
    my end, that my life should drag on?
Is my strength that of rocks,
    my flesh bronze?
I don’t have a helper for myself;
    success has been taken from me. (CEB)

The Old Testament character of Job is famous as the poster boy for suffering, grief, and sorrow. A divine and devilish drama was taking place behind the curtain of this world, of which Job had absolutely no clue about.  All he knew was that he lost everything – his family, his wealth, and his standing before others.  The only thing left was his own life – and he was in such physical pain and emotional agony that he was ready to die.

Yet, the greatest pain of all seems to be the silence of God. Job has no idea, nothing to grab ahold of no earthly sense of why he was going through such intense and terrible suffering. His cries, tears, pleas, and expressions of deep hurt seemingly go un-noticed. Job felt truly alone in his horrible pain of body and spirit.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Job’s story is as old as time – probably having taken place 4,000 years ago. And here we are, all these millennia later, knowing the story of why Job suffered, as well as the end of the story. But Job himself never knew why he suffered, even when God spoke and restored his health and wealth.

It is so extremely easy and normal to ask the question, “Why!?”  When we are in the throes of emotional pain and our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, there is only trust left for us. We do what is unthinkable to others who have never known God – place our complete reliance and hope on the God for whom we know is not really sleeping or off on a vacation. We believe, even know, God is there. For whatever reasons which we might never know this side of heaven, God chooses to remain silent.

The genuineness of faith is not determined by giving the right answers to a theology questionnaire. Genuine faith is made strong through the trials, sufferings, pain, and lack of understanding in this life. We all suffer in some way. How we choose to respond to that suffering, either by cursing God and becoming bitter, or holding to God even tighter and becoming better, is totally up to you and me.

God of all creation, you see and survey all your creatures here on this earth. Sometimes I just do not understand what in the world you are doing or not doing. Yet today I choose to put my faith, hope, and love in you.  I may not know what the heck I am doing, but you always work to accomplish your good purposes, through Jesus Christ, my Savior, along with the Holy Spirit.  Amen.