Even When God is Silent - a reflection on Psalm 22. Scripture from the Voice translation
Updated: May 9, 2020
The Psalms have been described as poetry that springs from true religious experience (Merton). And many of the psalms that we are familiar with express the joy and wonder of being connected to and aware of the Divine. This twenty-second Psalm, like a few others, expresses a different religious experience however. It is a Psalm of lament and it expresses the doubt and suffering of one who, rather than feeling connected and aware of God feels abandoned instead.
A lot of folks don’t realize that the Bible contains devotional material that rails against God. In the 22nd Psalm the author has no problem expressing his or her incredulousness and pain. Here is a Psalm in which a very clear complaint is given voice. And it begins with a question that we have all asked at one point or another in our lives.
Where are you God?
I am in such pain.
I can’t sleep,
The weeping rips through me
Like convulsive waves,
And I don’t feel your presence.
You have left me in my grief
And I am clearly alone.
At hospitals and in hospice one hears this sentiment often. It is the very cry of Jesus from the cross, my God, my God why have you forsaken me. Sitting for hours in a hospital bed, alone and in pain, or watching someone waste away from disease, and losing someone to illness, accident or violence - such experiences can leave one feeling just this way.
The Psalmist tries hard to find reassurance by falling back on the history he knows, but it’s clear he doesn’t quite believe that what has been true in the past will be true for him in the present:
They say you rescued our mothers and fathers.
They cried out to you,
They trusted you,
And you saved them (he says).
You haven’t saved me.
I am a creep
And a disgrace.
Everyone makes fun of me
And my pain.
They whisper behind my back
They sneer and mock me
For trusting in You.
His argument, that God is absent, seems only to gain strength as the poem progresses. At this point his loss is not the only thing that has caused him to question God. Now he has the added burden of people criticizing his faith; asking why he would believe in a protective supernatural power when everything in his life is going to hell in a hand basket.
The vivid description of suffering in this Psalm is agonizingly accurate. I’ve seen that kind of pain. I’ve even felt that kind of pain. Perhaps you have too. Perhaps you are familiar with:
A body that is broken
A heart that has melted
A spirit that is dry
A person who is as good as dead.
When we are in that place; that place of deepest despair, it is really difficult to trust that God is present. Even if we have always believed that we are surrounded by God’s love, held by God’s hand; when tragedy strikes - that trust can be hard to hold onto.
Here, in this Psalm, is a believer who is not afraid to lash out at God. Here is a person who feels cheated by God’s apparent silence, and he practically screams his dissent:
I trusted in you!
Since the day I was born
I have trusted in you.
But now I am surrounded
By beastly people
Who are already fighting
over which of my possessions
They’ll take when I’m gone.
Like anyone, caught in the clutches of grief, the Psalmist moves back and forth between anger and trust, disbelief and desperation. He wants so badly to believe that he is not alone, but all he can manage is to beg God to stay close;
Please [he says]
And save me.
In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff writes about the suffering he experienced at the loss of his beloved son who died in a mountaineering accident at age 25. Wolterstorff describes how he struggled with the fact that he could do “nothing else than endure in the face of this deepest and most painful of mysteries.” Through his anger and tears and his numbing grief this father came to the conclusion that “instead of explaining our suffering, [which is what we want] God shares it.”
“In what respects do we mirror God?” Asks Wolterstorff. “In our knowledge. In our love. In our justice. In our sociality. In our creativity. These are the answers the Christian tradition offers us. One answer rarely finds its way onto the list: in our suffering.”
The Psalmist would have understood this sentiment. The God of Israel; the God of a persecuted people, understood suffering. God had seen the despair of the Jewish people and had led them to freedom. I think that’s why the Psalmist could say with such confidence that he would tell everyone….
That you, God, are not afraid of my suffering;
That you are not ignoring me.
I will tell everyone [he says]
That you are listening.
And that commitment to God, in the midst of his misery, will be the reason others turn back and look for the Eternal One.
The rich and the poor,
And the young and the old,
Will humble their hearts and worship you.
Who have fallen in grief
Those whose lives are falling apart
Will turn to you [he says]
Herein lies our challenge. When we are touched by suffering it can either kill us or change us. I think Wolterstorff says it best when he insists that “If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish,
if love for those around us is not expanded,
if gratitude for what is good does not flame up,
if insight is not deepened,
if commitment to what is important is not strengthened,
if aching for a new day is not intensified,
if hope is weakened and faith diminished,
if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won.”
Clearly the Psalmist knew this to be true as well. Perhaps that’s why he was able to embrace so completely, in the Psalm that follows this one, the saving nature of the God who walks with us through the valley of death.
We too, in our own way, rail against God at times. It’s ok. God can take it. In fact I think of this 22nd Psalm as a blueprint for voicing our grievances. But it’s also a blueprint for finding our way back to the One who is all too familiar with our pain, and is always ready to walk through it with us.
As Christians we believe that Jesus, the son of human parents, was sent by God to transform the world. And he did that very thing, but not through conquering the mighty or crushing the oppressors. He transformed the world by accepting the suffering that comes with speaking truth. He transformed the world by not returning violence with violence, and by showing his followers how to love unconditionally. Jesus is intimately familiar with our grief and pain because he lived it himself. And rather than killing him it changed him.
May you find strength through your faith in a loving God to endure and be changed by your suffering and so claim victory over death and despair. Amen.