Pain can feel eternal. Suffering slows the clock to a crawl.
In the hospital where I work, I see people in deep pain on a regular basis. Physical pain that so fills the senses it’s hard for the patient to think about anything else. Emotional pain as a loved one lays in bed, unresponsive, with tubes and monitors all over the place, and going downhill on a slow but definite angle.
We humans know suffering of unlimited shapes and sizes. To have a body is to be vulnerable to pain. To have relationships is to potentially have your heart ripped out. And it happens to all us eventually. In fact, I read somewhere that at any given time 80% of the people you know are in the middle of some kind of relational pain. I don’t know how true that statistic is, but I’m guessing that if any of us would take stock of our lives, we’d find something significantly broken.
Sometimes, the pain just won’t quit. Sometimes, there’s a waiting that goes beyond normal waiting. It undermines our sense of justice in the world. It wracks our bodies. It sends earthquakes through our relationships. It undermines our faith.
There are times when we’ve hung on for so long, we’re on the verge of giving up and letting go.
“How long?” is a cry of desperation. It’d beyond a cry for help. It’s a cry that follows many, many cries for help. It’s a final cry.
Psalm 13 is one of our “How long?” psalms. It begins with four salvos of “How long” questions.
How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
As a kid, I waited for my Mom a lot. She was always busy, running from here to there. And there were so many times I was left alone and waiting that we came up with a deal. For every five minutes she was late, she’d owe me a pack of Star Wars collector’s cards. The original Star Wars movie had come out recently and I ended up with the biggest collection of all my friends. Hundreds of cards, thanks to my forgetful mother.
But she didn’t forget me forever. She always showed up. Eventually. There were times, though, when I would get so mad at her for it, feeling so abandoned the Star Wars cards didn’t make up for the hurt I felt. It’s the same way my kids have felt when I’ve forgotten them, too.
To be forgotten is to feel worthless. I’m not even worth a thought. I’m so insignificant, I don’t even register.
Paired with this feeling of being forgotten by God is feeling as if he’s hidden his face. This doesn’t refer to our inability to see God. Rather, it’s a feeling as if God has turned his back on me, that he’s intentionally looking the other way in order to avoid me.
Where being forgotten is to unintentionally turn me into a nothing, to have God hide his face from me is to intentionally turn me into a nothing. A less than nothing. An anti-something.
After the initial questions aimed at God, David the psalm writer, turns a question toward himself and another toward his antagonist. And there we have the three sources of suffering: God, ourselves, and others who are out to get us. I find David a keen observer of his own soul by including his own wresting with his thoughts and his sorrows as a source of suffering.
But once he’s asked his questions, David states his demands to God. He lays down two imperatives.
Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
If God’s face is turned away, he’d better turn it around and look at me. If he’s giving me the silent treatment, he’d better cut it out and start talking. I need a new spark or else I’m dead. Not only will God’s silence kill me, it’ll give my enemies something to cheer about. Injustice will be complete.
Then comes the Gospel word: But.
The word “but” is one of my favorite words. It speaks a new story into one that’s gone spinning out of control. It’s speaks the possibility of something other than my pain.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
The “but” is a present hope for a future outcome, based on a past experience.
In the middle of pain and a feeling of abandonment by God, David remembers what God has done for him in the past (“for his has been good to me”).
Memory of past goodness is essential to a hopeful imagination. It pulls the mind out of its present pain and its cramped imagination that has shrunken down to the size of its suffering. I’m reminded that the bad I’m currently experiencing isn’t the only thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve known God’s goodness in the past. And if I’ve known it before, I can know it again.
David turns his memory into trust and that trust into rejoicing. This isn’t a snap-of-the-fingers thing, but the psalm’s brevity contracts time to show us it’s possible.
God’s love has never failed and will never fail. And even though it feels like it’s failing now, I will trust in it anyway. And this trust leads to a rejoicing in a salvation that hasn’t yet happened.
This is Paul and Silas singing in their jail cell. This is the blind, mostly deaf, and seriously ill man I met in the hospital who longed to go to church, “So I can say thank you to God.”
This is down-payment praise. Salvation hasn’t yet taken place. Pain is still keen. But even so, I start to rejoice with faltering lips and a weak heart, knowing the day is coming when I will be able to let loose with power and passion.
In six short verses, David has mined the depths of his pain, not minimalizing or marginalizing it with a brave face and an “I can handle this” through gritted teeth. No. He faces God, himself, and his antagonists head-on but refuses to get stuck in his suffering. Instead, with intense resolve, he stirs up his memory, which fortifies his weary heart.
This is a psalm to keep in a back pocket for easy and frequent access, because pain is never far away.
Questions for consideration
Where are you waiting for God?
What hurts most: God’s silence? Active hurt caused by others? Constantly reviewing the pain in your mind?
Lord, come quickly! Delay no longer. Break your silence and turn your face toward me. Ease my pain. Straighten out the path in front of me. End the opposition I face. And turn my mind away from withering replayings of past hurts and toward memories of your good and loving presence. I want to replace my sorrows with songs of joy. I want to live resurrection. Amen.