Coming to Grips with Grinding Adversity (Psalm 137)

“By the Waters of Babylon, They Sat Down and Wept” by Kate Gardiner Hastings

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
    there we sat down,
    crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
    in the trees there
    because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
    our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
    the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Jerusalem! If I forget you,
    let my strong hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I don’t remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Lord, remember what the Edomites did
        on Jerusalem’s dark day:
    “Rip it down, rip it down!
    All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
    a blessing on the one who pays you back
    the very deed you did to us!
    A blessing on the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock! (Common English Bible)

This side of heaven is full of both love and heartbreak, celebration and lament, encouragement and insult. It is a spiritually schizophrenic existence of heaven’s kiss and hell’s bite. 

We live in a fundamentally broken world. Yet, it is a world that is presently being reclaimed by God’s kingdom. Therefore, our emotions run the gamut from joyful happiness to sheer sorrow. Either way, especially through the difficult stretches of our lives, Christians are to tether themselves to their true home of heaven.

The psalmist was speaking of Jerusalem, the city that represented the very presence of God. Yet, the Babylonians came and destroyed the temple, their homes, and carried thousands of her citizens into exile.

Although experiencing the Babylonian Exile, the people of Jerusalem were not to forget their real home. 

For the believer in Jesus, this present abode is like camping in a tent – it is a temporary home, and not our permanent residence.

It is easy to forget our true home, which is why we need the constant perspective of eternity. We ought not get too familiar with our current living conditions. 

Simple acts like looking up at the stars at night or gazing into the vast expanse of the day’s sky can be tangible reminders that we are meant for larger things, for the embrace of heaven.

None of this, however, means that we are to ignore what is happening in the here and now. Trauma is real and needs to be dealt with. Having an expansive perspective doesn’t mean we stuff the details and emotions of traumatic events.

The psalmist names the difficult experience, the agonizing emotions, and the bitter thoughts. None of it is hidden or buried under a layer of positivity.

“Lamenting Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann, 1832

We need the combination of faith that my experienced is acknowledged, of hope that a better future is coming, and of love that good still presently exists in the world. Faith, hope, and love are all vital in coming to grips with terrible adversity.

Hiding large swaths of our lives and stories from others is not the path to spiritual wellness, emotional healing, and personal peace. Spiritual and emotional health comes from owning our internal struggles. The virtues of weakness, humility, vulnerability, and faith opens us to the way of grace.

We too often struggle because we don’t struggle. 

I’m the expert on stuffing feelings and turning them into thoughts. I learned it well early in my life. Yet, feelings never evaporate just because we ignore them. Just the opposite, like a forgotten half-carton of cottage cheese in the back of the fridge, our feelings only gather moldy bacteria and crust over with nastiness. 

We need to understand that feelings really do have an expiration date to them. If not openly acknowledged and dealt with, they’ll fester into bitterness. It’s much better to deal with our present struggles instead of living with the wishful thinking that they’ll just go away.

There are 52 references to “one another” in the New Testament, including: 

  • Love one another (John 13:34-35)
  • Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
  • Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Bear the burdens of one another (Galatians 6:2)
  • Spur one another on toward spiritual well-being and healthy community relationships (Hebrews 10:24)

Nowhere in Holy Scripture will you find references to hide from one another, pester one another, or put up a false front toward one another.

God desires for us to take a risk on betting the farm on Jesus. Embracing Christ involves owning our struggles, both to God and to one another. 

You may argue that it isn’t helpful to wear your feelings on your sleeve. But I’m not talking about emotional diarrhea; I’m referring to something far worse: emotional prostitution, where we sell ourselves to others in a cheap façade of who we really are and how we are really doing. 

We want to be liked, loved, and longed for. And we very much desire to avoid heartrending pain. So, many mistakenly believe that keeping up false appearances will get them what they long for.

What matters most is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). It takes personal risk to have faith. And it takes two to have love.

Own your struggle. Face it squarely in all of its foulness, degradation, and ugliness. Face it with both God and others. 

If you’re mad as hell at God, then say it; the Lord is big enough to take it. If you need prayer or help, ask for it. Don’t just expect someone to read your mind or your emotions. If someone asks you to pray, stop what you’re doing, get on your knees with that person, and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

Life is too short to sleepwalk through it with a constellation of unacknowledged emotions. It takes no relational effort to ask a pat question like, “How are you?” It takes even less relational energy to give a pat answer such as, “Fine,” or “Busy.” Instead, let’s get down to why you feel a constant need to say how busy you are, even when you’re not really all that busy.

Holy Scripture doesn’t call us to hide, but to love one another enough to both give and receive God’s grace. 

Daily reading and praying of the psalms is a good place to begin in learning to be authentic with God and the people in our lives. It’s the only way of dealing with the overwhelming circumstances and emotions we face.

Loving God, please grant me peace of mind and calm my troubled heart. My soul is like a turbulent sea. I can’t seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me spiritual strength, mental clarity, and emotional calm to find my purpose and walk the path you’ve laid out for me. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, may the light of your divine countenance shine on the shadowy places of my life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Night Prayer (Psalm 119:49-56)

Remember your promise to me, your servant;
    it has given me hope.
Even in my suffering I was comforted
    because your promise gave me life.
The proud are always scornful of me,
    but I have not departed from your law.
I remember your judgments of long ago,
    and they bring me comfort, O Lord.
When I see the wicked breaking your law,
    I am filled with anger.
During my brief earthly life
    I compose songs about your commands.
In the night I remember you, Lord,
    and I think about your law.
I find my happiness
    in obeying your commands. (Good News Translation)

During a typical day, I keep busy and am engaged with applying an understanding of the spiritual life to my work. At bedtime, sometimes the job goes with me.

Stillness and silence can sometimes, ironically, become an alchemy of restlessness and noise. I toss and turn, the racing thoughts in my head refusing to slow down and rest.

Insomnia happens to everyone, some more than others. We all have experienced the inability to sleep. 

There are some who choose not to sleep. They arise in the middle of the night – not because of insomnia or sleep disorders – but because they intentionally wake for prayer. 

Yes, many monastics routinely pray in the night. Yet, there are many lay people who do so, as well. 

In my own times of trying to sleep, I often think about those persons who are purposefully trying to stay awake and deliberately keeping watch in prayer during the night. I, then, reflexively go to the biblical psalms.

Along with the psalmist, and in solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters in this hemisphere who are maintaining a prayerful spirit, I reflect at night on the character and nature of the Lord who created both the sun to govern the day and the moon as a faithful witness in the dark.

The psalmist seems to be awake at night because he is frustrated and upset. It irks him that there are people who spurn wise instruction and aim their contempt at those trying to live according to God’s Law.

Although insomnia can certainly be the result of angry or unwanted feelings, maybe it is something else altogether. Perhaps the psalmist simply chose to be awake at night and do some theological reflection on God, others, and himself.

At various times in my life, I have decided to set my alarm for two o’clock in the morning to pray. I know it may sound crazy to some. Yet, this discipline has taught me something valuable: God is Lord over all chronological time and every season. I am a servant. I am neither lord nor master. 

This nightly exercise of weaving my life around a set time of prayer has caused me to learn that I have spent far too much of my life trying to make time bend to my wishes. 

It’s actually delusional for me to believe that I somehow control time – that I can cause the relationship between events to be fast or slow. It is all really an illusion – that I can control the clock. Time marches forward, seasons come and go, and we are a vapor which lasts only a moment.

The only control I possess is self-control. Anything beyond this is nothing but a pathetic attempt at manipulation.

Whether we find ourselves awake in the night because we cannot sleep, or intentionally choose to use the night for connecting with God, the wee hours of darkness afford us a unique opportunity to ponder the Lord’s promises, commands, attributes, and works. 

The next time you find yourself awake at night, try avoiding the television and a zombie-like state of hoping for sleep. Try using the night-time for reflecting on the Lord in ways you might not have considered during the day. Pray. Reflect. Consider. In doing so, you may find a blessing of light within the dark.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

How To Fortify Your Faith (Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16)

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday….

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.” (English Standard Version)

Continual Use

Reading and praying the psalms over and over again is a major way of fortifying faith for a lifetime of handling adversity. 

Psalms are meant to be constantly viewed and used, like watching a good movie several times. Lines from the film become etched in our thinking and vocabulary, not because we sought to memorize them, but because of the many viewings. 

Psalm 91 is a good psalm – one we can read and pray so many times that its theology and message are internalized. It can serve as a rock in times of trouble. Security, safety, and confidence eventually replace fear, worry, and insecurity. Let the divine words of the psalter become part of a routine regimen of facing down the troubles of life.

The Church’s Prayer Book

Historically, the Old Testament Psalms have been the church’s prayer book. The medieval church so valued constant prayer that many people in the middle ages made substantial donations to monasteries so that monks and nuns, largely freed from manual labor, could become “professional” pray-ers on behalf of the rest of society.

Many of them lived a complete life of prayer, praying day and night. Most Benedictine monks and nuns chanted all 150 psalms once a week in a cycle of seven daily “hours.” One of the first tasks required of novices was to memorize the Psalms – all of them – which took anywhere from six months to two years.

In the New Testament book of Acts, when the original apostles needed to clarify their most sacred obligations, they decided to give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). The New Testament writers pray and quote the Psalms more than any other book of the Old Testament.

Praying the Psalms

The best introduction there is to the Psalms is to begin praying them because the psalms teach us how to pray. Learning the Psalms means praying the Psalms, and praying the Psalms means praying them repeatedly.

If you are not yet convinced why we ought to pray the Psalms, let me offer some more reasons:

1. We learn the promises of God and how to pray relying on those promises. It is both appropriate and necessary to acknowledge God’s promises, remind God of those promises, and look for God to fulfill them.

2. We pick up how to pray together as a community, and not just as individuals.

3. We discover that our hearts need some help with prayer.

“The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Our hearts can sometimes deceive us. Yet, if we can be mindful to tether our hearts to God’s Word, we can focus on what God has promised – and not simply on what we want or expect.

What’s more, by only following our hearts, we may only pray when we feel like it. 

A common temptation is to give up reading Scripture and praying whenever our enjoyment is gone. If we only do things when we feel like it, most of us would never get up in the morning. Prayer and Bible reading are important spiritual disciplines, even on the days we are not inspired to do so.

In truth, to enjoy the Word of God, we must continue to read it; and the way to obtain a spirit of prayer is to continue praying. The less we read, the less we desire to read; and the less we pray, the less we desire to pray.

4. We attain confidence and joy in speaking with God, just like a small child boldly asking for what she wants in wonderful anticipation of getting it.

5. We unearth direction and guidance for our lives; the Psalms are the GPS for our souls.

6. We join a praise and prayer team that has been going on for thousands of years by believers across the ages in all kinds of cultures. Our spiritual forebears serve as a great cloud of witnesses testifying to the power of God to sustain and grow our faith, hope, and love.

7. We realize the heart of God and adopt that heart as our own heart. In praying, we get to know who God is, and we discover the prayers the Lord delights to answer.

In summary, we bring our own situations and experiences to the Psalms and permit the psalter to reshape our thoughts and our prayers. 

This mentality and discipline forms us into God’s people by re-directing our lives with God’s promises and plans. 

The Psalms are meant to transform us. Repeated exposure to Holy Scripture and daily praying through the psalms will change the way we live our lives and our perspective on the world.

May the Lord Jesus Christ guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, the assaults of evil spirits, the wrath of the wicked, the sinful nature, and the fear of both the known and unknown.

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

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.