The pastor of a Christian Science church was talking to a member of his congregation. ‘And how is your husband today?’
‘I’m afraid he’s very ill.’
‘No, no,’ corrected the pastor, you really shouldn’t say that – you should say that he’s under the impression that he’s very ill.’
The woman nodded meekly. ‘Yes, pastor, I’ll remember next time.’
A few weeks later, the pastor saw her again.
‘And how is your husband at the moment?’
‘Well, pastor,’ she replied, ‘he’s under the impression that he’s dead.’
It isn’t long in life before a bright beginning is touched by suffering. A child is born, and discovers pain. Even Prince George will find that out. A wedding and honeymoon is followed by the reality of each partner’s frailties. Someone is converted to Christ, but then learns it isn’t a rose garden.
Meanwhile, we have people who want to play pretend about suffering. They want to act as if it doesn’t exist, or they demand it be magically removed from existence in an instant. Maybe they even try to get round it in a religious way by saying that the body doesn’t matter, it is only a shell for the real person. That isn’t a view you can take while still believing in the New Testament, with its strong emphasis on the resurrection of the body.
The first thing our Psalm of Ascent this week does is be frank about the reality of suffering.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy. (Verses 1-2)
The Scriptures do not get into philosophical discussions about the existence of suffering and belief in a good and powerful God. They simply enter the story of suffering, and describe that narrative. Our Psalmist here is in deep suffering – he cries ‘out of the depths’. While there are great accounts of deliverance from suffering in the Bible – the Exodus, the healing miracles, and so on – we are not presented with faith as a ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Faith enters human suffering.
And so, before anything else, simplistic and obvious as it might sound to some of us, we need to embrace the reality of suffering and stop playing games. Henri Nouwen wrote,
Many people suffer because of the false suppositions on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. it does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.
Are there areas where any of us is pretending? Are there times when – much as we believe that God heals – he is in truth going to take us the long route to wholeness? We like to believe that if God works a miracle it will be a great testimony, and it certainly can be. However, are there times when we say that, but what we really want is a short cut out of our personal difficulties rather than the testimony? Could it be that God will also bring glory to his name when he takes us on what seem to be detours rather than the direct route?
For me, that was true in one particular instance. In my first year at theological college, I suffered a collapsed lung. My lung had previously collapsed three times a few years earlier, and I had only avoided surgery then when the consultant was inconveniently on holiday. But on the weekend when it happened to me at college, the father of a student friend was visiting. My friend’s Dad was known for having a healing ministry. Surely he would pray for me and I would be healed. But he had left to go home a few minutes before I got back from A and E. This time, I had to have the operation. It meant a week and a half in hospital, a month’s convalescence at home, and three months before I was back to anything like full strength. But God used that experience so that when I visit people in hospital, I have a way of identifying with them and a reason to bring them a word of hope.
That leads to the second piece of frankness in the Psalm: we hear about the reality of God. The Lord is addressed throughout the Psalm. The Psalmist cries out to him (verses 1-2); he acknowledges and relies on the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness (verses 3-4); and the Lord is the reason to wait and hope (verses 5-8).
God is there. God is present. God is even in the depths. The Old Testament describes a God who hears his people’s suffering, even if he does not always act on it as quickly as his people would desire him to do. But the cry of suffering reaches him, and he liberates his enslaved people from Israel. He brings them back from exile in Babylon.
Not only that, the same Old Testament begins to describe God as being involved in his people’s suffering, even functioning as some kind of representative or substitute. I really don’t think you can avoid reading passages such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that way.
What the Old Testament doesn’t have, but which we have, is the filling out of that belief in Jesus, who came as a servant, lived among the poor and suffered death on a Cross.
Ours, then, is the God of the depths – even the depths of Hades. In Christ God stands with us in suffering and he stands for us in suffering. And in doing so, he shows supremely the divine answer to the Psalmist’s cry for mercy and the forgiveness of sins. The merciful God is the One who enters the depths of human suffering, who drinks the cup to its dregs.
As Eugene Peterson puts it,
God makes a difference. God acts positively toward his people. God is not indifferent. He is not rejecting. He is not ambivalent or dilatory. He does not act arbitrarily in fits and starts. He is not stingy, providing only for bare survival.
He goes on to say,
And this, of course, is why we are able to face, acknowledge, accept and live through suffering, for we know that it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries. God seeks the hurt, maimed, wandering and lost. God woos the rebellious and confused. … Because of the forgiveness we have a place to stand. We stand in confident awe before God, not in terrorized despair.
Suffering is awful, but it is not the final word. God has seen to that in Christ. At the Cross and the Empty Tomb we find that God has the last word. God has not stayed remote and sent us a philosophical answer to our suffering. Instead, he has got his hands dirty. He has come alongside us, and also in his suffering he has accomplished what we cannot do for ourselves due to our sin. He has provided for forgiveness and so we can serve him with reverence (verse 4), or ‘stand in confident awe before [him]’, as Peterson put it.
Now this leads us on to the third and final piece of honest faith in the face of suffering that the Psalmist models for us, and that is the reality of waiting. Hear how he uses words about watching, waiting and hoping:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (Verses 5-8)
In the Old Testament, the words ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are very close. There are passages where in one Bible translation the English word used may be ‘wait’ and in another English Bible it may be ‘hope’. You could say that the faithful disciple of Old Testament days waited in hope. Certainly when we face suffering we often need to wait, and our waiting will have meaning and significance if we can wait with hope. That is what we do as New Testament Christians for sure, living in some respects between the suffering of Good Friday and the hope of Easter Day.
But what do we do while we are waiting hopefully? The Psalmist suggests we apply for the job of nightwatchman:
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning. (Verse 6)
In my home church was a gentle, devout Jamaican Christian called Clarence. He was employed as a security guard. Anyone less likely to tour a building site at night accompanied by fierce Rottweilers you would find it hard to imagine. But for most of the time, he told us, he was able to sit in the site office. Each night he would take his Bible and his Moody and Sankey hymn book, and study his faith. He may have been the most unlikely candidate for the job, and heaven knows how he got it, but he used his waiting time fruitfully and every morning, the dawn came.
So it is for us. We are on the night watch in our faith as we wait for God who is with us in our suffering to act on our behalf. What we think should not take him a trice is something he chooses for reasons only he can see to take longer about resolving. Meanwhile, in the darkness we wait.
But … we wait knowing that the dawn is coming. Hence we wait in hope. And during that waiting, it would be good if we put the time to good use, as Clarence did.
How can we use our waiting time? We too can certainly take advantage of opportunities to deepen our faith, too. We can express our trust, even if at times it is a bemused trust, in the God for whom we are waiting. We can share our hopeful waiting with others who are also struggling, so that we may encourage them. Such people can be found both inside and outside the church.
I’ll give the final word again to Eugene Peterson:
The depths have a bottom; the heights are boundless. Knowing that, we are helped to go ahead and learn the skills of waiting and hoping by which God is given room to work out our salvation and develop our faith while we fix our attention on his ways of grace and salvation.