How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits,
agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
—Psalm 13:1-2, CEB
It’s been nearly 6 months now since the ripple effects of the pandemic made themselves known. It’ll probably just be a few weeks, I thought naively. A few months at the outside. But now? Who knows? I was just thinking of my teaching schedule, and how careful the seminary has been to minimize risk to the community by going to online instruction. As it stands at this moment, I will still be carrying a full-time teaching load, but probably won’t be back in my office physically until September.
Of next year.
I will, however, be spending a great deal of time in front of my computer. The good news is that I won’t be languishing on long commutes anymore. The bad news is that I may get carpal tunnel.
. . .
How long? The Psalms are full of prayers like that. They’re not polite prayers. Indeed, given my more introverted nature, I find it hard to imagine an entire worship community praying this way as part of its shared liturgy. How long, God? Have you forgotten about me? Why are you hiding? How long are you going to leave me in this sorry state? The psalmist even dares to pray, “Look at me! Answer me, Lord my God!” (Ps 13:3a). He imagines how he will die if God doesn’t intervene, and envisions his enemies gloating over his defeat (vss. 3b-4).
The psalmist’s outlook is bleak, his tone desperate. He doesn’t keep it to himself.
Then, suddenly, this:
But I have trusted in your faithful love. My heart will rejoice in your salvation. Yes, I will sing to the Lord because he has been good to me. (Ps 13:5-6)
What happened between verses 4 and 5? Some psalms are pure complaint (e.g., Ps 88). Not this one. Words of death and downfall unexpectedly turn to words of hope, joy, and gratitude. The change seems to come out of nowhere. How is that possible?
Practice, practice, practice.
The psalmist is well acquainted with honest prayer, including prayers of thanksgiving and praise. “He has been good to me”: the one who is able to say this even when everything seems out of kilter is the one who has already learned the habit of gratitude.
Going to God is not like going to the doctor; prayer isn’t reserved for times of trouble. The psalmist regularly takes note of the evidence of God’s steadfast love and rejoices over it. Expressing that joy to God builds trust, and trust is the wellspring of his hope.
That’s not to say that God, through his Spirit, can’t plant hope directly into our spirits when we need it, when suffering has gone on too long, when we feel at our wit’s end. But I don’t think that’s the way of it, generally. Just as we don’t harvest crops we haven’t planted, hope must be cultivated through the practice of praise.
Lament doesn’t produce hope. But honest and heartfelt lament can reflect a transparent and trusting relationship with God: this is a God I can complain to; this is a God who will listen. And that same relationship of trust should also be reflected in our constant practice of gratitude. Without such practice, we will have precious few memories of God’s faithfulness and love in which to germinate the seeds of hope.
You may not think you have anything to be grateful for at the moment, and I don’t presume to minimize your suffering.
I only ask that you keep looking for the exception to the rule, the things for which you can say “Thank you,” even through your complaint and tears.
Sometimes, that’s where hope begins, like the tenderest of shoots in rocky soil.