The man was suffering from chronic back pain, and had come to consult with a new doctor. The doctor seemed like a warm and compassionate person. With an air of unhurried calm, the doctor looked him in the eye and asked him to tell her whatever he wanted her to know. The man began to pour out his story, while the doctor paid close attention, listening to every nuance of the tale. After a few minutes, the man began to weep. When she asked him why, he replied, “No one’s ever let me do this before.”
The doctor in question was physician and literary scholar Rita Charon. Charon is probably the foremost voice in the growing field of narrative medicine, which assumes that listening attentively to a patient’s story is an important part of the healing process.
This sounds simple enough, but doctors typically have to break ingrained professional habits to learn to do this. The managed care environment doesn’t support it. Nor does their medical training, which teaches them to be expert diagnosticians who sift through the distracting clutter of a patient’s words to find the information they need. Many doctors worry that letting their patients tell stories will be a waste of precious time (though the research doesn’t support this), and programs in narrative medicine seek to change that erroneous and dehumanizing perspective.
Whatever our medical condition, how we are “treated” has to do with much more than medical interventions. If we have a story to tell, we want our doctors to listen, to hear. And it can feel like a gift when we encounter a doctor who does.
How much more, then, should we receive it as a gift to know that we have a God who listens to our complaints, a God who pays attention to our words and stories?
. . .
Throughout the Psalter, we can find songs and poems of lament in which the psalmist complains of being harassed and persecuted by enemies. Even Psalm 6, which is mostly a plea for healing from some life-threatening condition, does this. As we’ve seen, the psalmist tells God pitifully that he cries all the time (somehow, the oldie “Drip Drop” by Dion and the Belmonts is playing in my head). It’s not just because of his physical suffering, but also because of his “foes” (Ps 6:7, NRSV; the word can refer to enemies or the dire straits they cause).
And then, as often happens in psalms of lament, there’s a sudden change of tone, a shift toward hope and praise:
Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my supplication;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame. (vss. 8-10, NRSV)
“The LORD has heard.” Twice the psalmist says the same thing, using the personal name of God: “The LORD has heard.” He has heard the psalmist’s weeping; he has heard his plea for help. Invoking the name of God a third time, the psalmist restates that second phrase in different words: the LORD has graciously accepted or received his prayer.
The verb “hear” implies more than just sound entering the ear. How often have exasperated spouses said to one another, “Yes, yes, I heard you,” when they weren’t listening? It’s one thing to hear the words; it’s another to pay attention. The Hebrew can be taken that way: God doesn’t just hear the psalmist’s prayer passively, but attends to it.
Consider that for a moment. Do you believe that God hears your cries for help? That he hears when you weep? If your answer is yes, what does this mean to you? Are your prayers nothing more than background noise to God? Sure, he hears you, but maybe it’s no more significant than the way someone hears a TV that’s constantly on when nobody is actually watching.
In the midst of his suffering and illness, feeling only a step away from death, the psalmist declares: The LORD has heard! No doubt it feels to him like he’s been waiting a long time to say this; that’s a regular part of the grief expressed in the Psalms. But here, even before knowing what sign the psalmist has received, we’re asked to imagine a God who pays attention, who knows our story, who listens.
That is who God is, whatever we may think of the outcome of our prayers.