Occasionally, my daughter will call me by my full name. Generally, my kids call me Papa, but when I hear her say my full name, I know that she’s been calling for me for a while and I haven’t been listening. Hearing her say, “Peter Santucci!” snaps me back to when I was a kid and my Mom was frustrated by my inattention.
Every November for the past decade, a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book comes out. We’ve bought each book and my kids devour it immediately. In one of the books, the middle school-aged characters decide to pretend one of their classmates doesn’t exist. When he talks, they ignore it. When he hits them, they pretend something else has happened. It has its effect in making the kid feel lonely and depressed.
One of our deepest human fears is not being listened to, not being heard. As children, we fear our parents abandoning us, not hearing us when we cry out for them. As middle schoolers, we fear the lost and lonely feeling of not being accepted by our peers. As people of faith, we fear not being heard by God.
Like a number of other psalms, Psalm 28 begins with begging God to listen, to not plug his ears:
To you, LORD, I call;
you are my Rock,
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I will be like those who go down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy
as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
toward your Most Holy Place.
The worst thing possible for those who pray is for God to not hear us or not be able to hear us. For the only leverage we have with God is our words. If God doesn’t hear us, we’re toast.
Since God rarely gives an audible reply to our prayers, how do we know if he’s heard us or not? How do we know we’re not just “wishing upward” and talking to the ceiling instead of to the God we hope in?
In our psalm, David looks at how God deals with him and with others who behave badly. He lays out a test to see if God listens to him or not: Am I lumped in with the wicked or not?
These people have bright smiles but dark hearts. God should repay them for their deeds. He should match what they’ve done with what is done to them. They should be brutalized by their own brutality. Since they have no regard for God and for the lives he’s built up, their own dilapidated lives should be demolished by the divine wrecking ball and become vacant lots, with the rubble piled up in the corner.
Do not drag me away with the wicked,
with those who do evil,
who speak cordially with their neighbors
but harbor malice in their hearts.
Repay them for their deeds
and for their evil work;
repay them for what their hands have done
and bring back on them what they deserve.
Because they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD
and what his hands have done,
he will tear them down
and never build them up again.
We assume God does just that, because, in an abrupt shift, our psalm stops looking forward and looks backward instead. We’re not told how, but we know the prayer was heard and help was provided. God has been faithful to his covenant relationship (every time we see the all-caps LORD, which designates the divine name Yahweh, we’re reminded that God is being appealed to based on his covenant loyalty, not on his universe-making power). Because trust has been met with loyalty, joy and praise result.
Love is the most appropriate response to mercy.
And wonderfully, God has heard. He wasn’t as deaf as he seemed to be.
Praise be to the LORD,
for he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.
My heart leaps for joy,
and with my song I praise him.
This joy coming from a personal experience of grace is then generalized to all of God’s people as the psalm ends:
The LORD is the strength of his people,
a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
Save your people and bless your inheritance;
be their shepherd and carry them forever.
This is the opposite of what we see in many psalms. Most often, a psalmist will start with the experience of God’s people in the past and prayerfully apply it to his situation. There needs to be a healthy back-and-forth to this in our lives, and the Psalms show us how it’s done.
There are times when we’re in the middle of suffering and we can’t see our way out. It’s in those times that we need to break out of our personal stories and see the larger story of what God has done and, by extension, what he is doing in the world and in my own life. We need to trade the microscopes through which we view our pain for a wide angle lens so we can see the panorama of salvation spread all around us.
But there are times when we have emerged from the darkness of our suffering and into the light of salvation. It’s at those times, we’re called on to bear witness to God’s people of the faithfulness of our Lord. In this way, our stories become part of the community’s memory of our God’s covenant loyalty to us, of God hearing us.
In either case, the telling of our grace stories or hearing the grace stories of others becomes part of the answer to our question of whether God hears us when we cry out to him.