Wednesday, January 01, 2014
In my last post on facing violence and hate in the imprecatory Psalms I focused on a problem with the Psalms that we need to honestly confront: the ugliness of hate. We need to face it in the Psalms and we need to face it in ourselves, and what these Psalms show us is that we can come to God, even with our darkest ugliest parts. If we can find the courage to face that ugliness—in these Psalms, and in ourselves—then we can make space for God's light to meet us there in the dark.
This time around I’d like to focus on psalms of complaint, or as the are more commonly known, psalms of lament. One of the most common words we find in those psalms is “Why?” spoken as both an accusation, and as a cry of desperation:
Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Ps 10:1)
God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Ps 22:1)
Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? (Ps 44:24)
An equally common phrase is the question/accusation “How long?”:
How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? (Ps 82:2)
How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? (Ps 94:3)
These psalms of complaint frequently accuse God of injustice. They complain of their unjust suffering, while the wicked go about their lives carefree.
I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits.
They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”
This is what the wicked are like—always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.
When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply
Ps 73:4-8, 11-14, 16
The law promises the opposite. It declares that the righteous will be rewarded with wealth, health and prosperity while the wicked will be cursed with sickness, poverty, and suffering (see for example Deut 28). That was the promise. The assumption of the law then was that if you were sick and suffering, if your were oppressed, if you were poor then this was because you were being punished by God for your sin. These psalms are complaints of those who were afflicted, sick, and suffering who cry out that this is not true, that the system of blessing and curses simply did not work. As the above Psalm 73 declares, in fact they observed the opposite was the case: the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.
A familiar pattern of these psalms of complaint is that they often turn to praise at the end, and because of this there is an unfortunate tendency of many people to simply discount the complaint altogether. It is viewed as a lapse in faith, a failing on the part of the psalmist until he pulled it together at the end. I remember a friend of mine who was a DJ on a Christian radio station telling me that they had a policy of banning any song that expressed doubt or struggle that did not end on a happy note of faith and trust. This reflects our fear that as people of faith we cannot make room for struggle and doubt unless it is immediately resolved.
But consider the verdict of God in the book of Job: Job is afflicted even though he was blameless. Job bitterly complains to God that this was unjust. His friends rebuke him, counseling him instead that he should repent for his sin. Job refuses. In the end God rebukes Job’s friends, and declares that Job is right.
“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7)
Now surely the point of this is not that God is literally admitting that Job is right when he accuses God of being a sadistic oppressor. Something deeper is going on here that we need to grasp because it is central to a healthy expression of faith. This is captured in a line from the Switchfoot song “Yesterdays” (which, incidentally, I believe they picked up from a little line in a book by theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff mourning the loss of his son) :
Every lament is a love song.
The book of Job, even its bitter accusations, is a love song. God recognizes that love, and says that Job is right, even in his anger, and his pious friends are wrong. The Psalms of complaint are love songs. When Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that was a love song, too. Every lament is a love song.
These Psalms demonstrate something very powerful: Questioning and doubt are not only an acceptable part of faith, they are an essential part of it. The fact is, the vast majority of the psalter is taken up with these psalms of complaint. They are not some rare exception, they are a common expression of what the prayers of a faithful people sound like in our broken world.
WRITING OUR OWN PSALMS OF COMPLAINT IN JESUS’ NAME
These Psalms model for us that the Hebrew faith is one that allows for questioning, wrestling, protesting as an expression of faith. So what would it look like if we read the Bible like this too? How might it help us as we struggle with passages where God is portrayed as commanding things that strike is as profoundly immoral, such as the genocide narratives where God is portrayed as commanding people to mercilessly slaughter “everything that breathes” including small children and infants? (see for example 1 Sam 15). If the Psalms question the law as we have seen, can we question these troubling texts that seem to clearly be in conflict with the God Jesus reveals?
It’s important to recognize that making this move would mean going beyond where the Psalms themselves go. The Psalms themselves continue to reflect the ethos of the law which declared that the just would prosper and the wicked would suffer. They do not question the justice of this, but instead complain that it was not being upheld, calling upon God to uphold it. The Psalms therefore do not propose mercy and love for enemies, but call for God’s wrath. The psalmist does not regard himself in Paul’s terms as a sinner in need of mercy, but instead as blameless and righteous.
So based on the Psalms alone we cannot yet question such biblical passages that command genocide. For that we need Jesus. We need to take the model of faithful questioning and protest that the Psalms provide, and add to this the very different understanding of God’s true nature revealed in Christ which leads us to question these depictions of God that look very little like Jesus, and very much like the way all of the pagan religions of the time viewed their gods as violent tribal deities who caused plagues and sickness unless their wrath was appeased by sacrifice.
Note too the way that enemy peoples and races are portrayed in these Old Testament passages as wicked and evil. This acts to dehumanize them, thus justifying their indiscriminate slaughter. That violent view of what God was like shaped the ancient Israelite’s understanding of God’s character, and this resulted in their expectation of a coming of a messiah who was a warrior who would destroy the enemy gentiles, not a messiah who would show those gentiles grace and forgiveness.
As Christians who are instead to be nurtured by the image of God revealed to us in Christ’s enemy love, we need to learn to question these primitive views of justice and of God. The Hebrew Bible itself opens a door to allow for this protest, this questioning, as an act of faithfulness. We need to have the moral courage to speak out against depictions of God in the Bible that act to dehumanize people and justify violence. We need to learn to write our own psalms of complaint in Jesus’ name.