“The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us. Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are.” ~Henri Nouwen
“Man is born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upward.”
As surely as the wind blows in Amarillo. As surely as the Cowboys lose to the Eagles in December with a playoff berth on the line. All people are born to trouble. It just happens. It’s a fact. Jesus says, “In this world, you will have trouble.”
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”
This Psalm of Ascents does two things to the problem of suffering and pain. First, it gives human suffering dignity.
This is an anguished prayer. And by bringing the pain and suffering out into the open like this, by making the pain public, the psalmist gives dignity to suffering. The psalm doesn’t treat suffering like it’s something to be embarrassed about or something we’ve got to hush up or lock up in a closet somewhere so nobody can see it. The writer owns it. I cry to you. Hear my voice. Be attentive to my cry. I am suffering. Me!
And it doesn’t treat suffering like it’s a mystery or a puzzle to be figured out and explained. The pain and suffering is just proclaimed. Boom! Here it is! The depths, acknowledged and expressed. It’s in the open.
And if that’s all this psalm did, that would be huge by itself. Giving dignity to human suffering? Nobody does that. Our culture does not respect people in pain. Our society says everybody should be constantly happy and healthy. And, if you’re not, well, something’s wrong with you. You’re a problem that has to be solved. Everybody you know will try to fix you. And when they can’t fix you, they’ll forget about you.
The problem is that we want to cover up our suffering. We want to ignore it. But that’s not the reality. Suffering is real. It happens to everybody. Psalm 130 knows that and dignifies it by talking about it. This cry comes from deep, dark place; and it’s real. Christians respond to suffering as reality, we don’t deny it as an illusion.
If we ever wanted to ignore suffering, we certainly can’t do it right now. The virus pandemic, the racial injustice, and the economic disasters won’t let us. All the sickness and death, all the disparity and violence, all the poverty and loss — it’s all real. And we don’t avoid it out of fear; we face it in faith.
And we don’t pretend like there are easy answers. No cliches here about what went wrong and how to fix it. No quick Band-Aid to cover it up so nobody has to see it. Psalm 130 is like the whole Bible, really. You never read in the Bible that there’s a quick fix to suffering: take a vacation, pick up a new hobby, go get a massage. Human suffering is held up and proclaimed as the real experience of all people. It’s given great dignity.
And it’s given to God.
All this deep, dark suffering is lifted to God, which means God is taken seriously. God is real. The name of God is used eight times in the eight verses of Psalm 130. It’s not a religious formality, God is at the very center of the whole thing. God is described in this psalm as a personal redeemer: he is personal, so you can have a real relationship with him and he is a redeemer, which means you can expect to receive help from him. Even in the middle of suffering, there is great meaning to your life because there is salvation for your life.
Psalm 130 tells us God forgives sin. It tells us God is full of steadfast love and abundant redemption for us. The psalm says God is not indifferent toward you or apathetic about what’s happening with you. He acts decidedly and positively toward his people. He’s not rejecting. He’s not condemning. He’s not silent, still, absent, missing in action, or not paying attention. And he’s not stingy. He’s not doling out just enough so that you can barely survive each day. He comes to us and he gives us everything.
The presupposition behind the Scriptures is that God’s child is in distress and God’s intent is to help the person out. He is on my side, remember? Psalm 124. He is my help.
We know this about our Father and that’s why we bring our pain to him. That’s why we can face it and live through it. Our God is in control of it and he’s the only one who can do anything about it. And he will. He does.
That’s why we bring our suffering to God in prayer. We don’t write letters to the editor, gripe and complain at the beauty shop, or look for relief in alcohol or drugs or Facebook. We bring it to God. We immerse it in God. Your suffering is real. And our God is real. That’s where we find our hope.
The most serious mistake you can make on the path of discipleship to Jesus is to think God has given up on you. When you get sick, when you feel anxiety, when conflicts come, or when loneliness or grief set in, it can feel like God has left you. God has gotten bored looking after you and he’s shifted his attention to a more faithful Christian and you’re going to have to take care of yourself. God is tired of your up-and-down faith and now you’re on your own.
If that’s what you think, you’re wrong. If you believe God is tired of you or he’s already given you too many last chances and he’s given up on you and you don’t have his love or protection anymore, you’re wrong.
“The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” ~Psalm 121:8
God’s love and care for you, and his presence with you, does not wax and wane according to your ups and downs. I know it’s hard to believe the Maker of Heaven and Earth gives a rip about your mundane everyday life and all your feelings and all your problems. But he does.
Nobody gets out of this life without experiencing some pain. While we’re on this journey, we’re walking the same ground everybody else is walking on. We’re breathing the same air. We’re drinking the same water, shopping the same stores, paying the same gas prices, fearing the same dangers, subject to the same pressures, and dying and being buried in the same dirt as everybody else.
The difference is that each step we take, each breath we breathe, we know we’re protected by God. We know we’re accompanied by God.
Who am I? They often tell me
I step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Lord from his manor.
Who am I? They often tell me
I speak to my jailers
freely, friendly, firmly,
as though they were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bear the days of hardship
unconcerned, amused, proud,
like one accustomed to winning.
Am I then really that which other men tell me?
Or am I only what I myself know of me?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage
struggling for breath as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for songs of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for human company,
quivering with anger at despotism and insults,
anxiously waiting for the next event,
helplessly worrying for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at working,
exhausted, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others
and by myself a contemptible, whining weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me, O God. I am yours!
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. “
“Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” ~Hebrews 12:12-13
In the big cities that host the large annual marathons in which thousands of runners participate, the front of the race is dominated by world class athletes. They’re young and lean and fast and they just seem to effortlessly cruise to the finish line. At the back of the race, though, it’s a different picture. That’s where all the ordinary runners are.
The ones near the back have a few more years under their belts and a few more pounds hanging over their belts. There’s a lot more stopping to catch a breath and to get a drink. There are also people in wheelchairs and on crutches, people with disabilities. Those people are courageously struggling. They’re determinedly suffering. And those people at the back of the race help each other. Have you noticed that? If somebody back there gets weak from the heat or faint from exhaustion, the other runners pay attention to that and they help out. At the back of the race, it’s much more about compassion than competition.
The great race of the Christian life is a lot more like the back of the pack than the front. And you ought to be able to find that compassion in the Church.
If you are a weary or discouraged Christian, if you’re an out of shape Christian, the preacher in Hebrews encourages you to strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. The runners who are lame, the Christians who are struggling and hurting and suffering still have to get out there on the track and run. You can’t say, “I’m too weak to run” or “My legs are too hurt to participate” or “I’m in too much pain.”
In the Christian faith, if you play hurt, you end up healed. If you stay on the sidelines, the injury gets worse. If you keep running, the Word of God, through the people of God, promises complete healing.