Humiliation, part 2

Some of us know all too well what it feels like to be ashamed. It can be the acute shame of having our inadequacies publicly unmasked, or the chronic shame of constantly feeling inadequate, fearing the day when someone will discover our true, flawed selves. And we will expend an enormous amount of effort to avoid being thus exposed.

As we saw in the previous post on Psalm 74, the psalmists don’t think of shame in psychological terms, per se, but spiritual and moral terms. It is the state of being humiliated by one’s enemies, of trying to walk the path of righteousness but being oppressed and taunted by the wicked, of trying to be faithful to God but being mocked for doing so.

How should the faithful respond?

The books of Jeremiah and Lamentations suggest that the psalmist could have said much more about the horrors of Jerusalem’s destruction. But a psalmist is a poet, a lyricist, a worship leader — not a war correspondent. Neither is the psalmist writing a memoir or diary; the psalms are written to bring the faith of a worshiping community to life.

The psalm begins with a typical impolite complaint — “Why, God, why?” — and then calls God to remember his covenant commitment. Even when the psalmist’s words hint at the people’s guilt for their disobedience, there are no words of repentance, just a desperate appeal for God to act on the people’s behalf.

But having vented about the horrific destruction of the temple, having lamented “How long?”, the psalmist seems to take a deep breath, settling down to remember the ancient stories of God’s sovereign might:

Yet God my King is from of old,
    working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
    you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
    you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You cut openings for springs and torrents;
    you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night;
    you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
    you made summer and winter.
(Ps 74:12-17, NRSVUE)

The imagery is cosmic, even mythical, as if in rebuke to pagan myths claiming the power of their own false gods. No, the psalmist seems to say, there is only one true God, one true Sovereign. Our God is the God of creation and salvation. Our God rules over all: the day and the night, the sun and the moon, all of the seasons and all of the earth.

And it only after the psalmist has voiced these statements of confidence in the might of God that the psalm returns to the language of petition: Don’t forget your poor, needy, afflicted people. Remember your covenant. Arise, do something!

. . .

Suffering and humiliation are all around us. Even God’s people can be left feeling small and helpless in the face of what feel like overwhelming and oppressive circumstances. And not only do the Psalms give us permission to lament, they model for us how we as a believing community might respond in faith.

Note the language: a believing community, not just faithful individuals. The psalm is a labeled a maskil, a song, possibly a choral piece with a back-and-forth call-and-response rhythm. This is not a page ripped from a poet’s diary, but from a church’s hymnbook, a piece meant to be performed by a worshiping people, together.

Part of what this means is that it may be inappropriately individualistic to counsel individuals to just buck up and be “more faithful.” It is the community that carries the memories of salvation expressed in the psalm, the stories of God’s sovereign might. It is the community that rehearses those stories in song. This is the social context of both corporate and individual lament; this is the crucible of a faith that can endure humiliation.

We do one another a disservice to encourage individual faith when we cannot face adversity together as a community, when we cannot create the social spaces to lament honestly and passionately before God. We do violence to each other spiritually if the unspoken subtext of our counsel is, “We understand that you’re having a hard time. But your whining is making us uncomfortable. Get right with God, and then you’ll be welcome here.”

That isn’t faith; it’s religious conformity.

And it’s a sure way to exacerbate shame.

We can do better, if we’re willing to be faithful in the ways that the psalmists are faithful. We need to remember the ancient stories, together. We need to speak and sing them, together. And we need to inhabit their wide open narrative spaces, to live inside the twists and turns of those complicated but beautiful stories of God’s covenant faithfulness to a weak and needy people.