Why should God act?

Every so often, I am called to pray at the bedside of someone who is sick or terminally ill. Honestly speaking, I always feel like I have no right to be there at such holy moments, standing at the intersection of life and death. I feel my own limitations, my own mortality, my own brokenness.

But hopefully, I then realize that the problem is precisely with my obsession with myself. These are not occasions for performance anxiety, but for submission to the simple fact that I was the one who got the phone call, whatever the reason. My job is to show up, and to ask God to show up — or better yet, to let us know that he’s been there all along.

At times like these, there is always the temptation to offer overly officious prayers that sound somehow wiser or more godly for all their sanctimony. I try to avoid that if I can, opting instead to imagine myself in the place of the sufferer and his/her friends and family, and to try to give words to both the hope and the dread that may be hard for them to voice. And typically, I ask God to act not because he owes us any favors, not because we’ve earned a break from suffering or an extra few years of life, but because he is by his very nature gracious, and death and disease are not his will for creation.

I will pray for healing, and healing may or may not come. But hopefully, all of us in the room will continue to believe that God is still the Healer, the one who designed us for wholeness, even as we suffer our own mortality for a time.

. . .

Psalms of lament, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us, often include one or more reasons for God to grant the psalmist’s request. Psalm 6 is no exception. Indeed, the psalmist gives two reasons, found right in the center of the psalm:

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
    deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
    in Sheol who can give you praise?
(Ps 6:4-5, NRSV)

The second reason is the stranger of the two. The modern western world doesn’t have an equivalent for what the psalmist refers to as “Sheol.” If you studied Greek mythology in high school, though, you may be familiar with the concept of Hades, the name for both the god of the underworld and the realm over which he ruled.

Unlike classical images of hell as a place of eternal fiery torment, Hades was a place of shadowy gloom, where the spirits of the dead wandered endlessly. The idea of Sheol is similar; indeed, the Greek translation of the Old Testament renders “Sheol” as “Hades.”

The psalmist, at first blush, seems to be bargaining with God: “Please save my life, God. If I die, I’ll go down to Sheol. And in Sheol, no one praises you. If you let me live, I can keep praising you — wouldn’t you like that?” Realistically, it’s possible that this is part of the psalmist’s thought.

More likely, however, given the intimacy of the prayer, the psalmist is also saying, “I have always enjoyed an unbroken relationship with you, a relationship for which I am constantly grateful. I would be devastated to lose that.” The psalmist, in other words, is just asking God to continue his life, but to continue their relationship.

And the first reason given tells us something about that relationship. The Psalter is full of pleas for God to remember his “steadfast love” for the psalmist and all God’s faithful. God’s love is dependable and trustworthy; it is demonstrated and remembered in all the stories of rescue and salvation that have been handed down from generation to generation. When the psalmist prays “deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love,” he is asking God to act in accordance with his nature: Please do it, because I know this is the kind of God you are.

This is instructive. Psalm 6 teaches us something about how we pray for healing. We draw upon the relationship we already have with God, and express our suffering with full honesty. But the reason for God to grant the prayer has nothing to do with our own merit, and everything to do with God’s character: God is a God of steadfast love.

We can pray for healing, and we will certainly give God praise if he delivers us from death and illness. But at some point, we must all die. Our habitual attitude, therefore, must be to praise God that physical death is not the end of the story, and to praise him for being a God who hears, a God of steadfast love, now and forever.

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