Hope in the How Long – Part 2

Before we dive in to looking at the pattern that helps us deal faithfully with our pain, let us pause here and read Psalm 13:

Psalm 13 – To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?    
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul    
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;   
 light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”    
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;    
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,    
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

What is the pattern that we see in this psalm that can help us to faithfully process our pain?

  1. The psalmist finds himself in a day of trouble or with a pressing problem

    One of the beauty of the psalms is their intentional ambiguity, while some psalms are specific about the situation in which they were written, most leave us the space for them to apply to a variety of situations. That space enables us to engage with them when we find ourselves in a circumstance that causes us to say or feel the same things as the psalmist. Psalm 13 is one of these psalms in which we have no guidance as to when David penned it, but we can imagine various situations in his life when it would have been plausible for him to write such words. Those situations or circumstances generally revolve around pain or trouble and they highlight for us the reality of the life of God’s people in a fallen world. The trouble may be enemies at the gates and the pressures of war, it may be the breakdown of family relations, it may be external or internal, it may be a dark night of the soul or it may be grief or sin. Whatever it is, it shows and demonstrates that God’s people face trouble.
    That cannot be underestimated or undervalued in the current climate of our faith world especially with the increased amount of prosperity gospel preaching present and accessible. In that view of faith, the pain and trouble of this life is something that should be and can be escaped from, and that can be done by an act of the will in sowing the seed of ‘more faith’ or ‘just have more faith,’ statements that are a disgrace to the gospel. While we cannot hide from the fact that our sin has active consequences which we face the burden of in this life, we must not be tempted to think that God grants His children some sort of divine immunity from the troubles and pain of this life based on faith as if it is some guarantor of an easy, pleasant life. David’s raw and honest words here reveal to us how that is not the case, couple that with the life of Peter and Paul and our Saviour Himself and we are shown so clearly that there is trouble and pain to be faced in this life even for those in faith. God’s message is not one that means through faith our lives are pain free but rather that even pain and suffering have a purpose and are part of His plan through which He will work all things together for good and for His glory.

    Where do we see this in Psalm 13?

    In v.1-2 we see the effect of the fallen world pressing down upon David in his feelings of being forgotten, having no one to turn to, having no emotional stability to cope and having the pressure of others looking down and ready to down upon him.

    What does this teach us?

    The reality of living life with fallen faculties in a fallen creation means that trouble, pain and suffering are enduring problems even for God’s people. Yet despite the problem there is great comfort in seeing and knowing that God’s people have faced these things before and that you and I are not alone in feeling what we feel, thinking what we think and saying what we say. We can connect with the psalmist as we face our trouble, as he faced his.
    Though we can connect with the psalmist somewhat in their situation or circumstance, we find that it is not in the cause in which find our most potent connection but in the effect. In it is that effect that we see how our feelings, our thoughts and our words line up with the psalmist and give us permission to work through our hearts as we see them revealed to us on these pages. You see as the strife of this world causes the psalmist to speak, it should also cause us to speak. This is where the pattern of the psalm leads us next.

  2. In the midst of his problem the psalmist cries out to God.

      This is the effect with which we can connect as our hearts are given voice to say what we feel and think towards God. We need to take time here to note David’s direction before we consider his intent. Ask yourself the question of to whom does David direct his questioning heart? It is not to us, we are only centuries late spectators to his words, and it is not to his kingly court or family. David directs all of this to God. He calls out to God about how he feels emotionally, spiritually and physically. It is that direction which always stops me in my tracks because it forces me to ask what image of God David must have to still go to Him in his trouble. Despite how God’s promises look frail or like failures or as if they have been forgotten, David still directs his heart towards God.  Throughout the Psalms we see this as despite the difficulties of life the psalmist does not question God’s existence but details his difficulty in trusting Him. A way that I have come to phrase this is that people don’t necessarily have belief problems in God as most people will admit the possibility of the existence of a being like God, but they do have trust issues. And God’s people can exhibit that trait in their lives as they struggle, not to believe that God is real, but to trust that He is good. God, in a continuing demonstration of grace, does not tell us to avoid our trust issues or to bury them, but to bring them to Him and He demonstrates that by showing us that His people have been allowed and encouraged to do so before.
    Though the psalms are beautiful poetry we have this tendency to read them with a overly sanitised nuance that doesn’t infuse us with the gravity and rawness of the words. Spurgeon described the opening lines of Psalm 13 with its ‘how longs’ like the howls of a dog going up to Heaven . Engaging our imagination as we read these words can help us to grasp the heart wrenching heaviness of David’s words and in turn express ourselves more clearly and more deeply. If we were to step back and try to imagine these words written on a note to a parent as a teenager packs their bag to walk outside to find a new home anywhere away from here, we would feel it. If we were to picture a husband and wife in a heated argument and hear the intensity of these words being said to each other, wouldn’t we then grasp the depths of them as a cry from a heart barely able to go on because that person feels as if they have been abandoned and rejected by the person who has promised to protect them, provide for them and love them. When we wipe away our Ladybird book version of the Bible and see the weighty intent of these words it should motivate us to let our stiff upper lips quiver and our hard exteriors of pushing through crack under its brittleness.
    As it does that and our lips and hearts are freed from the chains of trying to keep going as our world falls in around us and we are given a voice. That voice God has not silenced but allowed to speak and given in a direction as words are meant to go to person with whom we think we have our greatest quarrels and griefs, God himself.

    Where do we see this in Psalm 13?

    The whole psalm is a cry out to God which moves from despair to hope but the beginning of v.3 as David says ‘Consider and answer me’ are a pivot point as David moves from his questioning cries to one of desperation. In that moment, it is as if David has been engaged in a conversation, asking those questions, and the other party have given him the silent treatment for so long until he couldn’t stand it any longer and he cracks, and the words come shouting off the page, “Look at me, answer me, talk to me!”

    What does this teach us?

    The psalms are showing us the direction that our cries should take and that direction should be Godward. The cries that pain forces from us are not meant to be stifled by our pillows or spoken into an abyss of nothingness, they are meant to be taken to God. God wants to hear from His children, He wants them to speak their hearts out to Him. The weight of the world and pain often acts like a wedge driving distance between us and God and that distance can be devastating and draining on our relationship with Him, but that distance is closed by the direction in which we chose to take our cries when life weighs heavy on us.
    Joseph Scriven spoke such truth when he said, ‘Oh, what peace we often forfeit, Oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.‘ What David does in this psalm is not only a pattern for dealing with pain, it is a pattern and an advertisement for the greatness of prayer. So much of our pain is amplified because of the distance we have allowed to grow in not directing our cries to the only one who can help.

    3. The psalmist questions the covenantal character of God.

    I don’t simply use the word ‘covenantal’ out of being Reformed or Presbyterian, I use it because this is how God is described and explained Biblically, and it is what the psalmists are often referring to.  J.I. Packer stated that the ‘reality of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.’ God has chosen to interact with His people by covenants, in covenantal terms, with covenantal language and covenantal provision. God has entered into this legally binding promise, like a marriage, with His people in which He has promised to be their God and provide for them, and He has sworn those promises by and on Himself so as to break them would be to break Himself. That is how great God’s dedication to His promises are, that He would swear by the most enduring, unbreakable, unchangeable, unrelenting, unstoppable power and person that is Himself. 
    However when pain, suffering, and circumstance change come into our lives they obscure those covenantal truths and call this relationship into doubt. We start to think that because of the where we find ourselves and what we find ourselves subjected to or feeling, that God must not care. We find ourselves sitting across the table from our seemingly estranged spouse, weeping out the words saying, “I thought you loved me, I thought you cared; you said you did and you promised me that you would.”  That is what questioning God’s covenantal character looks like and it is the language that the psalmists go to as they express themselves. There the pain and suffering being experienced is usually framed as either a covenantal curse or as the reversal of a covenantal blessing. You can see this in Psalm 13 in v.1 as David speaks of being forgotten. To be forgotten is to have God’s hand of sustaining grace removed so that life itself is in peril. Think of how we feel when someone earthly has forgotten us, we feel as if they have murdered us in a way as their forgetfulness makes us feel as if we are dead to them. Now amplify that feeling as you think of what it would be like to be forgotten by the creator of the universe, as to be forgotten by Him would mean sure and certain doom. How could a feeling like that not open the door to despair in our lives? The latter part of verse 1 and into verse 2 continues in this questioning of God’s covenantal care and character as David says, ‘how long will you hide your face from me?’ There you can see how David frames his feelings in a reversal of the Aaronic blessing in the Lord making his face to shine upon you and give you His peace (Numbers 6:24-26).

    David feels that the presence, the provision and the peace of God has been removed from him and as He feels that, He questions God’s promises and then God Himself. That pattern permeates throughout the psalms as we read of their authors feeling as if God has turned His face away and removed His blessing and is not providing for them or keeping them. In light of that God’s promises look as if they are weak, or have failed and so God looks similarly small, weak, incapable, unwilling and even cruel.  As the psalmists cry out and question we are exposed to a continuing human problem in interpreting God’s character in light of our circumstances rather than God’s character helping us to see our circumstances more clearly and sustaining us through them. With God’s character called into question, we now take the opportunity to drag His promises and Himself into court asking Him to defend what seems like hollow words to us. We ask God:  ‘Where are your promises now? Can you not keep them? Do you not want to? Are you unwilling, unable or all of the above? Are you unfaithful?’ The result of such questioning is that God’s people feel abandoned and the door is opened to a pit of nihilism in which we feel like despair is our only option and only resort. The world with all its pain and suffering has been proven empty and worthless and now our God seems to have been shown to be a capricious liar. We feel as if we are, as Loreen Eiseley calls humanity, ‘cosmic orphans’ and so made to think, ‘what if I am only the accidental by-product of nature, a result of matter, plus time, plus chance’ and there we see how Satan’s tactics have not changed since the day in the garden as he slithered in and asked the question, ‘Did God really say?’ By that question Satan starting our course on an enduring spiral in which humanity generation by generation and day by day, would ask the same question and come to some poor conclusions. Satan is the Father of lies and does his best work by twisting truths as the thumbscrews of this fallen world cause tears that blind us to the real truth of who God is. Yet as Satan twists truths, God illuminates them and so the truths that we questioned and caused us to cry out, become the source of our cure as we shall see next.

    Where do we see this in Psalm 13?

    This is seen in verses 1-4 as David questions the covenantal character of God as the blessings that the covenant gives to the people of God seem to have failed or been forgotten. The covenantal blessings are meant to incorporate God provision, His peace and His presence and David feels as those things are nowhere to be found. Since David feels as if he isn’t experiencing what God has promised, he calls into questions God’s promises and then God Himself.

    What does this teach us?

    As we try to process our life in this world and specifically our pain we find ourselves directing these raw and heartfelt questions towards God. However, there is a fine line between questioning Him as a child to a father, compared to coming as a lawyer trying to win a case. The latter is where we find ourselves being drawn to more quickly than we would have thought. Maybe it is because in this internal spiritual courtroom we think of ourselves as defenders of our personal justice while we actually embark on a cross examination assassination of God as we question His promises and His character. We are being shown through the psalms how our questions, while temporal in nature i.e. how long will this go on for, are actually spiritual in target and in source. So while we think that pain may be our problem we find that what the pain reveals about our hearts is more pressing; that we had an image of God based on the world rather than the Word and our circumstances, rather than His revealed character. To put this simply, life causes us to doubt whether God loves us and that is soul destroying.  Yet the psalms don’t leave us in that place, they don’t leave us interpreting God by our circumstances they move us to interpreting our circumstances by His gracious character and that is where we go next.

To be continued in part 3 . . .

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