When God Seems Distant

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When God Seems Distant (Psalm 13)
Learning to Sing the Sad Songs of the Bible - The Psalms of Lament

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

"Were we to hear someone praying in this fashion today, most of us would take offense at such irreverence against the holy and faultless God." (Craig Broyles, Psalms, 85).

Why would our reaction be so severe, especially in light of the fact that this prayer is part of Israel's sacred canon of worship known as the book of Psalms?

We have been taught that good Christians do not experience such crises of faith. Those who do are most likely "in sin." If they were more obedient, more disciplined, or more aware of God's guaranteed "principles of success and prosperity in life" - whether in the word-faith name-it-and-claim-it version or the fundamentalist do-this-and-God-will-bless-you formulas - they would not experience such distress. Rather than complain to God, they need to "forget their feelings" and "think positive," "try harder" and "trust more."

The tragedy of American Christianity is that if anybody ever truly admitted to the kind of feelings expressed in this psalm they would be held in deep suspicion. They would experience either the feverish application of Scripture proof-texts from naļ¶„ but well-meaning Christians or the cold shoulder of believers who interpret their feelings to be proof of their apostasy.

Do Christians no longer have crises of faith? Are we never overwhelmed by our circumstances? Do we always have the answers - a "practical principle" to solve every problem and soothe every trouble?

If we are honest with ourselves, we do have doubts. We are sometimes afraid. There are seasons when we don't understand what is going on around us - and we are troubled and distressed!

What do we do with these feelings? Do we ignore them? (They are "only" feelings after all! Just the caboose on the train... Right?) Do we deny them? Repress them? Put on a plastic smile and pretend that everything is just fine?

We cannot ignore or deny these feelings. Instead, we must integrate these emotions into the whole of our lives. We must embrace them and express them honestly to God. When we do so, our feelings of abandonment and desertion become expressions of worship. God wants our whole heart. To close part of ourselves to God is to fail to worship God truly and fully.


Lament Psalms

The "lament psalms" help us learn to truly embrace and express our painful feelings to God. Lament psalms are psalms that express struggles, sufferings, and disappointments to the Lord. There are three main types of complaints:

  • Troubles within one's own self - one's thoughts and actions (13:1b-2a)

  • Complaints about the actions of others - usually "enemies" (13:2b-4)

  • Frustrations with God (13:1a)

There are more lament songs than any other type of Psalm - almost 60, to be exact. Many people are surprised by this because the evangelical church has done a remarkable job of ignoring the psalms of lament.

For some reason, the evangelical church has embraced the idea that religion should always be soothing and consoling and that religious folk should always be upbeat and positive. God is a "nice" God who wants us to be "nice folk" and have a "nice time" during our stay on God's "nice earth." Self-denial, suffering, sacrifice, costly commitment, and cross-shaped love are not prominent themes in American evangelicalism. They are not upbeat and positive. They are too "negative." The power of positive-thinking, the therapeutic affirmations of narcissistic self-love and self-improvement, and the numbing effect of comfortable religious consumerism are much more appealing to American Christians. Our American optimism makes it difficult for us to acknowledge negativity in the Christian faith.

Lament psalms throw a wrench in such superficial thinking. The lament psalms acknowledge a valid dimension of Christian experience - the "dark side" of faith. Walking with God is not always soothing and consoling, upbeat and positive. Walking with God demands that we journey with God through the real world and not a Thomas Kinkade landscape. When we fail to acknowledge the dark side of life, we send a shallow message to the watching world that faith solves all one's problems and that a relationship with God is easy-going and carefree. But the world knows better. They are not impressed by our refusal to embrace the full reality of life by pretending the dark things of the world don't exist or, if they do, they don't significantly impact us.

The lament psalms recognize the reality of evil and its impact on all people. The world is full of darkness, dangers, and difficulties. It is foolish to ignore this. We live in a groaning creation (Romans 8:18-23). It is only right that we would groan as well. The Spirit teaches us how to do this through the groaning psalms of lament.

"And now I am happy all the day" is not in the spirit of the Psalms. It is dishonest, trite, shallow, and unrealistic. We must learn to sing the sad songs of the Bible again - for the sake of the world, for our own sake, and for God's sake. We cannot have an authentic relationship with God without the lament psalms.


How Long? (1-2)

Psalm 13 is the shortest lament psalm in the Bible. It is a paradigm of the essential features of a lament psalm. It begins with protest (1-2), followed by petition (3-4), and ends with praise (5-6).

The psalmist begins by directly addressing the Lord by name ("Yahweh") and repeatedly announcing his distress with the words, "How long?"

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

The psalmist is not seeking information with his questions, but is describing his present situation with rising intensity.

Obviously, his struggle has continued for a long time. Time has slowed to a crawl. There seems to be no end to his situation: "Will you forget me forever?" The repeated "How long?" underscores the psalmist's impatience with God. It also underscores the growing urgency of the situation. The psalmist does not feel he can take this much longer. "It is not under the sharpest, but the longest trials, that we are most in danger of fainting" (Andrew Fuller). The psalmist's heart is on his sleeve before God. He has held nothing back. He is in dreadful emotional pain and feels stretched to his breaking point, with no end in sight.

What troubles the psalmist? Three things - God, himself, and others. The psalmist is clearly frustrated with God and God's apparent lack of concern (Psalm 13:1). Though it is not clear whether Yahweh is the cause of the psalmist's distress, he certainly holds Yahweh responsible for its perpetuation. The repeated "How long?" reveals the psalmist believes Yahweh has the power to answer the question and to do something about the situation. "As 'hiding the face' implies a deliberate act, so 'Will you forget me forever' may imply the same-in other words, these problems may not have merely slipped God's mind, God may be deliberately ignoring them" (Broyles, Psalms, 85).

The psalmist feels abandoned - deserted by God himself. Could anything be worse than this to a God-fearing individual? He feels forgotten by God; left to himself, alone in the universe. Is not this the very essence of hell itself? The psalmist is experiencing hell on earth - no wonder he complains so urgently and intensely!

The psalmist is also troubled with himself (Psalm 13:2a). His sense of alienation from God brings inner turmoil. He wrestles with his own thoughts. This constant wrestling leads to a deep sorrow in his heart - a desperate emptiness at the core of his being. Since the presence of God is the believer's most precious possession, the loss of God's presence is the believer's greatest fear.

The psalmist also complains about the actions of others (Psalm 13:2b). Will his enemies be proved right in the end? Does it really pay to serve Yahweh? Could unbelievers be correct in rejecting God?

The psalmist's complaints address the full scope of possible troubles - troubles with God, self, and others. The psalmist does not hesitate to speak of his feelings in regard to each component of his personal hell.


Hear and Help Me! (3-4)

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed";
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

The psalmist's complaints are followed by two petitions: "Hear me!" "Help me!" (Psalm 13:3). The two petitions are supported by two motive clauses: "lest I sleep in death" (Psalm 13:3b) and "lest my enemy say..." (Psalm 13:4).

An amazing thing happens in this section. The psalmist's lament ("How long, O LORD") is followed by his affirmation of God as his God ("O LORD, my God"). It is this affirmation that is the support for his petitions for God's attention. While crying that God has deserted him, he "is actually talking, face-to-face, to the God whom he accuses of forgetting him and hiding from him!... When we begin to speak to God about the fact that he has deserted us, we are no longer at our lowest point; the tide has turned; we are on our way up again" (Sinclair Ferguson, Deserted by God?, 26). If desertion does not make one pray, nothing will!


I Have Trusted. I Shall Sing! (5-6)

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Here is the most puzzling aspect of lament psalms. Every lament psalm, with the exception of one (Psalm 88), ends with a recommitment to God. What is the reason for this abrupt change of mood?

Commentators offer a variety of proposed solutions.

  • Perhaps the composer was a manic-depressive, subject to wide mood-shifts. If this is the case, there are a lot of manic-depressives writing psalms!

  • Perhaps the psalmist is a nervous believer who tacks on positive praise at the end in order to soften the harsh complaints at the beginning. But the psalmist seems too authentic for this to be the case.

  • Perhaps the psalm is liturgical, and the last third is the priest's answer to the psalmist's petition. However, the personal pronouns don't indicate such a drastic switch in voice.

  • Perhaps the psalmist is writing the psalm after the fact, so that it is a biographical backward glance at a more difficult time that he has now passed through. This may be in some cases, but it doesn't negate the fact that the psalms are written for other worshippers to guide their own experiences in the present.

I think the answer lies in the word, "hesed," translated "steadfast love." The reason the psalmist can recommitment himself to God even though his situation has not changed is because his hope is not in himself or his situation, but in God's "hesed" - God's faithful covenant love. Although he feels abandoned and doesn't understand what he is experiencing, his prayer is rooted in the belief that those who belong to God by covenant really do matter to God ("my God"). Behind the real anguish is the real certainty that God will ultimately deliver. God's delay is the cause of the psalmist's anguish, but God's deliverance is certain.

This is the answer to his repeated "How long?" However long his trial, God's faithful covenant love is longer! It is eternal and unfailing. It is a love that will not let go. He has trusted (complete - past tense) in God's hesed (5a). Therefore, whether he feels it now or not, his whole being - his heart - will rejoice (incomplete - future) in God's salvation. There will be an end to his sufferings one day. He will sing again one day (6a). Furthermore, he can sing now through remembrance of the past and confident hope in the future (6b). The "sorrow" in his heart will be replaced by rejoicing ("my heart shall rejoice") - if not now, then eventually. Though he feels no consolation his hope in God's hesed remains unwavering.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel because of God's faithfulness, not his own. It is this hope that carries him through the darkness. It is also this confidence in God's hesed that gives him the freedom to fully express what is on his mind. Even though his perspective is obscured by his sufferings, God's hesed gives him the ability to persevere because God's hesed is unfailing.


Reflections on Lament

The psalmist's circumstances have not changed, but his perspective has. This would not have happened without honest candid complaint to God. The psalmist's lament has led to a more authentic relationship with God - a relationship that can withstand the ups-and-downs of life. Some of our most profound spiritual breakthroughs come in or after lament.

It is the strength of the divine-human covenantal bond that encourages frankness. Our covenant bond with God is so deep we can be entirely honest-even wrong! "For the faith reflected in the Psalms, complaint need not indicate a lack of trust, nor does trust make complaint unnecessary. In fact, it is this trust in God that allows for the expression of such protests in the relationship." (Craig Broyles, Psalms, 87)

Through the lament psalms we learn how to integrate protest, petition and praise. "The psalm leads those who read and pray it from protest and petition to praise; it holds all three together as if to teach that they cohere in the unity of prayer" (James Mays, Psalms, 79). Complex emotions are united in his lament: "Agony and adoration hung together by a cry for life" (James Mays, Psalms, 80). We discover that prayer is meant to be bold, brash, candid-not nice, polite, and flowery.

God wants a real relationship with us. God wants us to be real with him. If we cannot be real with God, with whom can we be real? God wants to hear our story from our perspective. This is the heart of a genuine relationship - communication during all experiences and emotions of life! Faith sees all experiences of life, including life's worst, in terms of a relation to God.

Prayer psalms do not consist solely of petitions. They were not mere business agenda or 'shopping lists' telling God what to do. The laments testify of the value of simply telling our story to God. This is no mere fix-it relationship but a personal one. These laments serve as a reflection on God himself, that he is interested not only in healing but also in pain. (Craig Broyles, Psalms, 32)

The goal of prayer is not "theological correctness" but a real relationship in real life with a real God who really wants to know the real you.

The psalms allow for a free vent to one's feelings. Remarkably, believers are not required first to screen their feelings with a reality check or to censor 'theologically incorrect' expressions before voicing their prayer to God. In effect, God allows our feelings to be validated, even if in the final analysis they miss the mark. (Craig Broyles, Psalms, 32-33)

Pious words will not fool the One who knows the attitude of our hearts.

Only true believers experience crises of faith. Only those who doubt take their faith seriously. The opposite of faith is not doubt, frustration, or complaint, but unbelief. Only those with true faith have the freedom to express their doubts and frustrations to God. It is impossible to experience the agony of the absence of God unless you have at one time known the comfort of God's presence.

The ability to pray lament psalms demonstrates a real and realistic faith, bluntly honest with the realities of life yet taking the promise of God seriously. Perhaps unbelievers will take us more seriously when we show them that the life of faith is riddled with doubts, difficulties and darkness. They realize that "now I am happy all the day" theology does not fit anyone's experience - with or without God!


The Cross: Uniting Complaint and Trust

Lament psalms allow us to see how complex emotions can hang together in harmony. We often experience mixed emotions toward God while in the midst of hardship. Complaint (1) and trust (5) are not antithetical but can exist in harmony. They are not evidence of sin, unbelief, disobedience, or failure to implement God's principles. They are indications that we are truly living the Christ-life.

Agony and ecstasy, sorrow and joy, complaint and trust, feelings of forsakenness and prayers of commitment can be experienced at the same time. They were by Christ on the cross. At the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsake Me!" and "Into Your hands I commit My spirit" are brought together. To experience desertion is to identify with the pinnacle of Christ's sufferings: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." To hope in times of desertion is to identify with the pinnacle of Christ's faithfulness: "Into your hands I commit my spirit." To pray Psalm 13 is to embrace both extremes - abandonment (Psalm 13:1-2) and commitment (Psalm 13:5-6)

The faithful heart can be a heart full of mixed emotions. Protest and praise, complaint and trust, can coexist due to the strength of God's hesed relationship with us.

Our lives are to be cruciform - cross-shaped. Our Christian experience is that of continually dying and rising with Christ. Since the cross shapes so much of our experience, we should not be surprised that we will often have to integrate complaint and trust, sorrow and joy. These mixed emotions can only be harmonized through psalms of lament - psalms of real complaint in the context of covenant love.


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© Richard J. Vincent, 2004

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