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.

Psalm 57 – Prayer and Praise in the Middle of Trouble

Above the Heavens by painter Melani Pyke

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
    for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
    until the destroying storms pass by.
I cry to God Most High,
    to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me,
    he will put to shame those who trample on me.
God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

I lie down among lions
    that greedily devour human prey;
their teeth are spears and arrows,
    their tongues sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth.

They set a net for my steps;
    my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my path,
    but they have fallen into it themselves.
My heart is steadfast, O God,
    my heart is steadfast.
I will sing and make melody.
    Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
    I will awake the dawn.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
    I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
    your faithfulness extends to the clouds.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens.
    Let your glory be over all the earth. (New Revised Standard Version)

One thing we all share about the human experience is that, sooner or later, someone or a group of people will let us down. 

On top of that, many have experienced, or will experience, some sort of abuse and victimization from another person or group – leaving one scarred by trauma. What’s more, there are those who have even had their very lives at risk because someone intentionally sought to actually kill them. That is the company David found himself in when King Saul, and when his son Absalom, sought to do away with his life.

To David’s credit, he never retaliated and did not try and turn the tables by putting a hit out on either Saul or Absalom. Instead, David cried out to God. And we get to listen in on the prayer. Today’s psalm is David’s prayerful reliance upon the God in whom he put all his trust and praise. 

The entire basis of prayer is to let God be God. So, how do we exactly do that?

When the storms of life assail us, calloused persons trample on us with impunity, devious individuals set traps for us, and greedy organizations prey upon us, we refuse to respond in kind. Instead, we deliberately praise God and rely on divine protection, praying to the Lord and steadfastly holding to our confidence that if God is for us, nothing can be against us.

That advice may seem like some sort of pie-in-the-sky rot of ginning up positive thoughts when there is nothing positive to be seen in the experience. Indeed, we must never, and I repeat, never invalidate another’s experience nor our own, when those experiences are hellish.

Yet, there is also always hope. There are two unshakable truths which are constant and never diminished by any adverse circumstance: God is present. And God loves.

If we know nothing else, and all else seems to be descending into the abyss of tragedy, the twin towers of divine presence and attention stand tall as the strongest sentinels over our dilapidated situation and struggling faith.

Letting God be God means not trying to exercise control over things we have no control over – but affirming that the Lord is willing and capable of handling our worst. It could be that we are stuck in the belly of whale because, without our knowing, there are sharks surrounding us who cannot get to us.

Our perspective of matters is, at best, severely limited. It is much better to place faith in the God who sees it all with an expansive eye which misses nothing.

One of the best things about the psalms is that they are a wonderful collection of prayers we can adopt for our own. Not only can we use them for ourselves, but we are also obliged to do so. If anyone has been in an adverse situation so deep that it feels like having ambled into a pride of lions, it is quite likely that the experience leaves one with no adequate words to say. It’s as if you are paralyzed with fear. 

So, let the psalm say for you what you cannot even begin to utter yourself. The Word of God is not meant to sit on a coffee table or rest on a shelf; it is meant to be opened and used for prayer. Allow it to do its intended purpose.

Who knows? Perhaps your faith in the mercy of God and your praises lifted to God will give rise to settled confidence and peace so that you can rest secure even when all around you is going to hell.

Be merciful to me, O God, for in you my soul takes refuge.  Even though I feel the slash of people with tongues as swords, my heart is steadfast and will exalt your name above the heavens.  Let your glory be over all the earth!  Amen.

Psalm 71:1-14 – Tuesday of Holy Week

O Lord, I have come to you for protection;
    don’t let me be disgraced.
Save me and rescue me,
    for you do what is right.
Turn your ear to listen to me,
    and set me free.
Be my rock of safety
    where I can always hide.
Give the order to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.
My God, rescue me from the power of the wicked,
    from the clutches of cruel oppressors.
O Lord, you alone are my hope.
    I’ve trusted you, O Lord, from childhood.
Yes, you have been with me from birth;
    from my mother’s womb you have cared for me.
    No wonder I am always praising you!

My life is an example to many,
    because you have been my strength and protection.
That is why I can never stop praising you;
    I declare your glory all day long.
And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside.
    Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.
For my enemies are whispering against me.
    They are plotting together to kill me.
They say, “God has abandoned him.
    Let’s go and get him,
    for no one will help him now.”

O God don’t stay away.
    My God, please hurry to help me.
Bring disgrace and destruction on my accusers.
    Humiliate and shame those who want to harm me.
But I will keep on hoping for your help;
    I will praise you more and more. (NLT)

Today’s psalm is a lament. It is included in Holy Week because the Christian can imagine Jesus saying these very words in the last days of his earthly life and ministry.

Lament is both important and necessary. Without lament our grief comes out sideways, inevitably harming others with our snarky vitriol. Lament gives expression to our deep grief. It enables us to come to grips with what has happened or is happening to us and within us.

  • A lament is an expression of personal grief to any significant change or loss; it is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that loss.
  • Lamenting is an intentional process of letting go of relationships and dreams and living into a new identity after the loss or change.
  • Expressing grief through lament is personal; there is no one-size-fits-all.

Psalms of lament have a typical structure to them, including:

  • Addressing God: Crying out for help. Some psalms of lament expand to include a statement of praise or a recollection of God’s intervention in the past. (Psalm 71:1-3)
  • Complaint: Telling God (said with some flavor!) about our problem or experience through a range and depth of emotional, relational, and spiritual reactions to the change or loss. (Psalm 71:4)
  • Confession of Trust: Remaining confident in God despite the circumstances. Beginning to see problems differently. (Psalm 71:5-8)
  • Petition: Proclaiming confidence in God. Appealing to God for deliverance and intervention. Keep in mind that petitioning is not bargaining with God or a refusal to accept loss. Rather, it is a legitimate seeking of help. (Psalm 71:9-13)
  • Words of Assurance: Expressing certainty that the petition will be heard by God. (Psalm 71:14a)
  • Vow of Praise: Vowing to testify in the future to what God will do with praise. (Psalm 71:14b-24)

I urge you to do the following spiritual practice this Holy Week – set aside some time and craft your own psalm of lament. Choose an event from your past which created grief for you. It can be recent or from years ago. Using the structure of lament psalms, thoughtfully write out each element as I have outlined it. Then, read it aloud to God. Perhaps even take another step by reading your lament aloud to a trusted family member, friend, or Pastor.

Our grief needs the outlet of lament. Grief which is not expressed only sits in the soul and eventually, over time, can easily become putrid and rancid, poisoning our spirit, and compromising our faith. Sharing your story through lament is biblical, practical, and I will insist, necessary. Let me know how it goes…

Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36 – The Praise of Suffering

Psalm 69 by Japanese painter Makoto Fujimura

Save me, God,
    because the waters have reached my neck!
I have sunk into deep mud.
    My feet cannot touch the bottom!
I have entered deep water;
    the flood has swept me up.
I am tired of crying.
    My throat is hoarse.
    My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God.

More numerous than the hairs on my head
    are those who hate me for no reason.
My treacherous enemies,
    those who would destroy me, are countless.
    Must I now give back
    what I did not steal in the first place?
God, you know my foolishness;
    my wrongdoings are not hidden from you….

I will praise God’s name with song;
    I will magnify him with thanks
    because that is more pleasing to the Lord than an ox,
    more pleasing than a young bull with full horns and hooves.
Let the afflicted see it and be glad!
    You who seek God—
    let your hearts beat strong again
    because the Lord listens to the needy
        and does not despise his captives.

Let heaven and earth praise God,
    the oceans too, and all that moves within them!
God will most certainly save Zion
    and will rebuild Judah’s cities
    so that God’s servants can live there and possess it.
The offspring of God’s servants will inherit Zion,
    and those who love God’s name will dwell there. (CEB)

As the Church’s and the Christian’s prayer book, the psalms offer a way to come to God when our feelings and emotions have us not knowing how to pray, at all.  If you are depressed because of people who would like to see you fail or are out to get you, then this is the psalm for you to pray!

When you are voiceless, the psalter can voice it for you. When you are unable to put your thoughts into words, the Scripture can word it for you. Two of the great attributes of God are divine power and love, which means that the Lord is more than able to do something about your situation, and it will always be done in a loving way.  Know today that God hears you and is working on a response to your lament – even if it is not in your own words but the words of Holy Scripture.

Psalm 69 by Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs, 1960

God will come through in God’s own good time. However, you can still praise the Lord right now, smack in the middle of your dilemma. David, the author of today’s psalm, chose to praise God, even though he did not get an immediate answer to his prayers. Perhaps God is more concerned to change us before changing our circumstances.

We need a solid theology of suffering. And that biblical psalms give it to us. I know of no one who wakes in the morning, sits on the edge of their bed, and says, “Gee, I want to suffer today and feel lots of emotional and spiritual pain.” No, we want happiness and joy, not agony and hardship. Yet suffering has much to teach us and the Lord is rarely quick to snatch us from its lessons. The hardship of personal suffering teaches us faith and dependence upon God, as well as leading us to ask for help from others so that we are lovingly supported.

“The way you look at things is the most powerful force in shaping your life.”

john o’donohue

Tribulations in life are common to all people without exception. The issue is whether we will submit to its hard-knock education, or not – whether we will become better people, or bitter. The Irish teacher and poet, John O’Donohue, penned a poem entitled, “For Suffering,” concerning the blessing of hard things:

May you be blessed in the holy names of those

Who, without knowing it,

Help to carry and lighten your pain.

May you know serenity

When you are called

To enter the house of suffering.

May a window of light always surprise you.

May you be granted the wisdom

To avoid false resistance;

When suffering knocks on the door of your life,

May you glimpse its eventual gifts.

May you be able to receive the fruits of suffering.

May memory bless and protect you

With the hard-earned light of past travail;

To remind you that you have survived before

And though the darkness is now deep,

You will soon see approaching light.

May the grace of time heal your wounds.

May you know that though the storm may rage,

Not a hair of your head will be harmed.

To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blesings (Doubleday, 2008)

We have all likely at times felt the anguish of the psalmist – being so overwhelmed that it feels like we are drowning. The feeling is compounded exponentially when behind the sense of trying to keep our heads above water there are people who do not like us – maybe even hate us, to the point of undermining our work every chance they get.  It is in such circumstances we might experience sleepless nights hoping that somehow and someway God will show up.

The typical modus operandi for some within adverse situations is the age-old route of complaining and wishing things were different. Yet neither griping about our problems nor dishing out slander and gossip toward others is a healthy way of dealing with adversity. Just the opposite response is the proper path to the bone-crushing feeling of opposition: to praise God’s name with a song and magnify the Lord with thanksgiving. 

The reason the believer can engage in adoring God during trouble is not some Jedi-type mind trick to make us think more positively. Instead, the basis for praise is in knowing God. It is God who ultimately will deal with the wicked; it is the Lord who will bend to listen to our lament when times are hard. 

Thanking God for answers to prayer in advance of them being answered is a biblical thing to do. Having a faith robust enough to see ahead toward hope can bring love to a loveless situation, and usher in praise before the divine deed of deliverance is even accomplished.

Saving God, thank you for your deliverance!  I give you praise for loving me through sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earthly realm so that I might experience salvation from sin, death, and hell. By Christ’s authority, in the power of the Holy Spirit given to me, I resist the enemy’s attempts to seize control of my life.  I belong to you, holy God. Amen.