Embarrassing as it is to admit, when the pandemic began in 2020, I thought the fears were probably exaggerated, and that everything would return to normal within a matter of weeks. I had no idea what was coming. And now, almost a year and a half later, we’re not out of the woods.
Things are undeniably better overall, but the benefits are not evenly spread. Stay-at-home orders were annoying but feasible for someone like me: I’m salaried and can do my teaching online. But it was vastly different for hourly wage-earners who couldn’t be sure their jobs would survive the pandemic. It’s a harsh truth: health risks are still related to socioeconomic status.
Thus, the consequences of the pandemic have varied tremendously from household to household — and that’s not even counting who actually contracted the virus and how their illness played out. But as month after dreary month has passed, people across the social spectrum have wondered how long this pandemic can possibly drag on. Right now, for example, my school is projecting that we will back on campus in the fall. But given all that’s happened, I’m not ready to let go of my wait-and-see attitude. I’ll believe it when I see it (and I’m not even from Missouri).
Sigh. How long, Lord?
. . .
This is a common refrain in the Psalms: How long? The psalmist’s suffering has been going on far too long, and the psalmist complains to God. Psalm 13 is a good, brief example of the form. Here it is in its entirety, as rendered in the Common English Bible:
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?
Look at me!
Answer me, Lord my God!
Restore sight to my eyes!
Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I won!”
My foes will rejoice over my downfall.
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.
For all that’s said in the Old Testament about the importance of the “fear of the LORD,” the psalmist’s language is bracingly honest and direct. There is no attempt to be polite for the sake of politeness. That’s not to say that the psalmist is habitually rude or boorish toward God. Rather, the song represents the prayer of people who have been beseeching God so long that their emotional tanks are empty.
Perhaps they prayed more politely before. But now, it would take too much energy to hold back the frustration.
. . .
Note, however, the way the lament is phrased. Yes, the psalmist is complaining about being harassed and defeated by some enemy; that’s the root of the trouble. But that’s only the subject of the fourth and final “How long?” The other three have to do with the psalmist’s sense of abandonment by God. Like a child crying to a neglectful or absent parent, the psalmist pours out his anguish: God, I’m dying over here! Have you forgotten I even exist? Why won’t you look at me? Why won’t you answer me? Why do I have to figure everything out on my own? How long is this going to go on? Tell me! How long?
But having poured out these words of complaint, the psalmist is able to turn back to trust: Yes, it’s been too long. But I know from experience that God is a God of steadfast love and mercy. God won’t abandon me. The day of salvation is coming, and I will yet rejoice and sing.
Remembering the steadfast love of God isn’t a new insight or a sudden revelation for the psalmist. Realistically, I expect that similar words of faith and trust have already have been part of the psalmist’s prayer: God will answer; God won’t abandon me; God will answer, God will answer, God will answer… But we can’t give up repeating the words of trust even when it seems that God has turned a deaf ear. Faith, to be faith, must still drive our obedience even if we feel compelled to lament that God has let things go just too dang long.
Sometimes, we have to wait and see. But the psalmist lets us know that even the faithful get impatient in the waiting, and encourages us to bring that impatience to God in all its awkwardness. That in itself is a sign of trust, the trust that we need to see with the eyes of faith, to wait for and see what God may yet do.