The Psalms as a Pattern for Faithfully Dealing With Pain
As we Facetime family and friends, keep our social distance at the supermarket and wash our hands until our skin is red raw, there is one question that is on all our minds, ‘How much longer?’ How much longer are we going to be subjected to all of this COVID-19 chaos? How much longer will people suffer, and some lose their lives? How much longer will it dominate daily life so that every phone-call, every text is consumed by it? How much longer? How long?
‘How long?’ is a recurring questioning cry of humanity. It’s the root cause of the question that has pestered many a parent on a family outing as the ‘are we there yets’ have kept coming. It’s the question of waiting in a queue wondering when your turn will be. It’s the cry of children looking forward to the day when kids learn to drive, go to university, get a career, get married, and start a family. It’s the cry of older adults looking back and looking forward wondering about their departure date and all they have to do before that day.
The question of ‘how long?’ becomes more pertinent and pressing when pain enters into our lives. When that happens ‘how long?’ becomes a despairing cry from desperate lips wondering when there will be any end to what we are experiencing. In those moments ‘how long’ becomes a question that cripples under the weight of wondering and waiting.
It is a burdensome question that all of us will ask at some stage in our lives. As children we will ask of our parents as the long days of summer stretch out like an eternity. As adults will we ask it of our doctors in ‘how long we will have to wait for the treatment?’, ‘how long will it go on for?’, or ‘how long have I got?’ As Christians we will ask it of our God in the ‘how long’ of living in this broken fallen world in our feeble fallen frame and failing flesh. We will plead to Him asking Him for relief and release, wanting Him to reveal the end date of our pain and suffering and sorrow.
It is a burdensome question because it comes from an enduring and persistent form of pain which seems as if it never will relent. In the copy of ‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S Lewis that I have (which is currently in my office and I may be misquoting . . .) there is an introduction from a doctor that talks about how a persistent pain can bring down even the seemingly most mighty of men because as time ticks on, and the pain will not go, it not only cripples but consumes until it seems like the axis of our life revolves around the ‘how long’ of pain.
There are times I have cried that question for myself and for others. For myself it has emerged in a variety of forms. One was the ‘how long’ in caring for my father as his ability to breath slowly deteriorating with COPD over the space of a decade. The ‘how long’ then was a muddling myriad of questions that flooded my mind, some of which I still carry guilt that I thought such things. There were the ‘how longs’ which I could understand in wondering ‘how long will I have my father for?’ ‘how much longer will he have to suffer?’ Then there were the guilt-ridden questions that came as I helped with things, ‘how much longer will I have to do this?’ ‘how much longer will this go on for?’ Then he passed away and the ‘how longs’ shifted to wondering how long this chasm of my heart would be empty or full for? Empty, in how this father shaped hole seemed to have been hacked out of my heart with a blunt knife by a sadistic doctor over years so that the wound would never really heal. Full, in how there now seemed to be a place in my heart able to hold such pain like it was bottomless pit.
For others I have cried it as I have lifted my eyes off myself only to look into their own and see the tears of their grief and sorrow, see fear dilate their pupils as they wondered if there would be any end or any relief to be found.
And for both of those, I have cried the ‘how longs’ out to God in a desperate demand for an answer. As I did so there were times when I felt like a petulant child on a tantrum asking ‘how long’ to his withholding parent as a question to persuade and pressurise them into some action. I thought, why would God listen to such raw words that were like poisonous darts fired from an archer full of hate and anger with eyes set on a shot to the heart of his Heavenly Father. The words seemed borderline blasphemous to me and I wondered why God would listen and not if, but why would He ever answer.
But God has heard the howling ‘how longs’ of His children before and He has let those crying words echo through the ages in His Word to help His people learn how to cope with the persistent pain of living in this fallen world. So, He takes our eyes to His Word and by His breathe and His gracious hand He points us to the psalms and says, ‘look here, look here for my help, my grace, and my voice; look here to see that I do care, that I do listen, that I will answer.’ And there, in the psalms God gives us a pattern to faithfully deal with the pain of living in the how long between the now and the not yet.
Psalm 13 is one such psalm that demonstrates this pattern and it is the psalm that I am going to use to illustrate the pattern that God has laid out to help His people faithfully process their pain. As with all patterns there needs to be a certain amount of leniency as not every psalm will fit neatly with step by step precision into what I lay out here, but every psalm gives a glimpse of at least one of these points in some measure. Patterns also need to be treated with caution so as not to lay them out as one size fits all or to treat these points as towns to travel through to get to the ultimate destination of an ease of pain. These are laid out here to help you process and work through, but they do not detail a neat timeframe in which you can be assured of coming through dark clouds to sunny skies. It takes David only 4 verses to change his perspective and to find hope but we do not know if that was a journey of weeks or months and it may be a journey for years for some of us. I would dare to say that for most of us this pattern will be one that we find we tread almost daily and continuously throughout or lives. Some days stuck at one, others as two or three and some hours soaring in four and five. It would be best then not to treat this pattern as tightly prescriptive but as descriptive in helping you find and feel your way when your path seems to have gotten darker and you are walking through the shadowy valley.
To be continued in part 2 . . . . .
The thoughts of this blog post were used to help for this Midweek Bible Study at Newmills Presbyterian church.