Fruitless faith?

Nobody likes someone who complains too much, particularly at church, and even more so when God is the subject of the complaint. Complain about a church program? Well, okay; everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Complain about someone on staff? That’s potentially more divisive. But complain about God? In some churches, that will get people talking about whether you’re even a Christian at all.

But as we’ve seen over and over in our meditations on the Psalms, the Psalter is full of complaint and lament. The psalmist repeatedly cries out the equivalent of “God, where were you when I needed you?” — and institutionalizes the complaint in song, so the community can complain to God and curse their enemies in four-part harmony.

Try that in your church.

There are moments in the life of faith when things are hard and God seems distant. The psalmist, for example, never ceases to believe in God’s existence, but sometimes has trouble holding on to the belief in God’s faithfulness and care. The psalmist tries to remember all the good things God has done in the past, but is overwhelmed by the troubles of the present and therefore agonizes over the future. In obedience, the psalmist meditates on God’s character and his instruction for life, but sometimes derives little comfort from it.

Psalm 77 is a case in point. The psalm begins in unresolved anguish:

I cry aloud to God,
    aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
    in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
    my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
    I meditate, and my spirit faints
. (Ps 77:1-3, NRSVUE)

The psalmist’s meditation brings no relief from his suffering. He tries to remember the good old days (vs. 5) and continues to meditate through the night (vs. 6), but is still plagued with doubts: he worries that he will never again know God’s favor, grace, compassion, or steadfast love (vss. 7-10).

And yet he persists. Though he wonders if God has forgotten his people (vs. 9), the psalmist determines to remember the miracles God did in the past (vs. 11). Four times in the psalm, he uses one of two Hebrew synonyms for “meditate.” The one above, in verse 3, means to “ponder” and is used three times. The other is the word used in Psalm 1:2, which describes how the faithful person meditates continuously on God’s law. These two words come together in verse 12 of Psalm 77:

I will meditate on all your work
    and muse on your mighty deeds.

Clearly, the two halves of the verse are meant to express the same thought. The words translated as “meditate” and “muse” are the synonyms mentioned above, and the first is the word used in Psalm 1. But if we were to preserve the word order of the Hebrew, the translation would be “I will meditate on all your work, and on your mighty deeds muse.” In effect, this is a poetic way of placing the work/deeds of God at the center of his meditations. And after that, for the remainder of the psalm (8 out of 20 verses), there are no more doubts, only the memory of God’s faithfulness.

That is not to say that the psalmist’s meditations forever erase all doubts. In our highly technological society, we tend to think too instrumentally, looking for self-help solutions to problems. The psalmist’s meditations aren’t a “technique” for relieving distress; they are an act of obedience, born out of a deep desire to remain faithful no matter what.

What we learn from Psalm 77, I think, is not simply that we have permission to lament, though this is certainly the case. Rather, the psalm demonstrates that faithful reflection on the goodness and faithfulness of God doesn’t always bear immediate fruit. Still, the psalmist keeps at it, which is itself a courageous act of faith.

When people complain, we can tell them to ponder what they know of God’s grace. We can tell them to remember God’s past faithfulness. We can tell them to meditate on Scripture. But we must also be patient: these acts of obedience may not “fix” anything in the short-term. We must allow time for God’s Spirit to work.

And if we can be patient with others in that way, who knows? We might even be able to be patient with ourselves, as we continue to keep God’s faithfulness at the center of our meditations.