“When they call, I will answer”

Robocalls. We get several a day from telemarketers, because we still have a landline. We can hear the messages they leave on our answering machine, and the kind of fraud to which they’ll stoop to get you to pick up the phone can be galling, puzzling, or both. “This is your final courtesy call for you to renew your auto warranty,” is a typical ploy. Of course, we’ve received scores of such “final” calls.

And even when the messages are identical, they may come from different phone numbers and locations. Some leave me scratching my head. Hmm. Didn’t know the Department of Water and Power was into auto warranties these days. Guess they decided to diversify.

Thus, we’ve had to learn to screen our calls. We’ll only pick up if someone we know is calling.

The psalmists knew nothing of this. But if they were writing their laments today, I suspect they’d use something similar as a metaphor for their frustration: God, are you screening your calls? Why won’t you answer? Don’t we have a relationship? Am I nothing more than an annoyance to you?

Other psalms, however, like Psalm 91, portray the opposite attitude, the confident hope that God picks up immediately when the psalmist calls. How do we hold these together?

. . .

Psalm 91, as we’ve seen, contains a stunning and sweeping assertion of God’s protection of the faithful: “Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent” (vss. 9-10, NRSV). Make God your metaphorical dwelling place, and nothing bad will even get close to your actual dwelling place.

And if that weren’t enough, the psalm ends with a similar oracle from God:

Those who love me, I will deliver;
    I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
    I will be with them in trouble,
    I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
    and show them my salvation.
(vss. 14-16)

The word translated as “love” here is not a common one; it only appears 11 times in the Old Testament, and only here in all of the psalms. It suggests clinging or being joined to someone, in delight and longing. In the passage above, that’s the description of the human side of the relationship.

And how does God respond? God delivers. God protects. God answers when they call. God is with them. God rescues them and honors them. God gives them long life. God saves.

Seems a little lopsided, doesn’t it? Who’s doing all the work here? Small wonder that Psalm 91 has been such a source of inspiration and comfort to so many through the centuries. Rightly so.

At the same time, we need to be wise about the kind of encouragement we take from this psalm. In particular, I’m concerned about the way that people treat verses like these as inviolable “promises” from God, with the consequence that people begin to believe and/or teach that Christians shouldn’t suffer (or perhaps suffer greatly, wherever one draws the line) and those who do either don’t love God or are weak in their faith.

As I suggested in the previous post, try telling that to Jim and Elisabeth Elliot.

For that matter, try telling it to the psalmists themselves, when so many times they cry out to God to answer their calls, to stop looking the other way, to wake up and pay attention. It’s like the disciples out on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee with a snoozing Jesus. “Master, Master!” they cry, as the boat pitches violently. “Wake up! We’re drowning over here! Don’t you care?”

. . .

Please don’t hear me as trying to take anything away from the stunning promise of protection in Psalm 91. My concern is over how such verses have been misused in spiritually abusive ways. Here, I might propose the “Jim Elliot test”: would someone who drew encouragement from Psalm 91 still believe in the faithful love of God even in martyrdom? Or would hardship lead to distrust and a sense that a promise had been betrayed?

That’s not to say that the faithful might not complain. Hardship is… well, hard. And if we learn anything from the lament psalms, it’s that complaint is part of the life of faith. Children who trust their parents absolutely don’t for that reason stay stoic and calm, never fussing or whining. Fussing, in other words, is not faithlessness; the honest expression of distress is not to be equated with distrust.

There are no limits to what God can or will do on behalf of his beloved; surely, the cross itself is confirmation of that. But there are limits to what we may presume. To see this, we need to connect Psalm 91 to the life and example of Jesus.

And, oh, to the example of Indiana Jones as well. Let’s deal with that one first, in the next post.