Because there is so much that we can’t fight. When we are waiting we are often painfully aware that we are not in control. This agitation can push us into badgering others, anxiety attacks or the occasional misplaced obsessive compulsion. On our better days it pushes us into prayer. And in this waiting place, prayer can be like walking into an empty room, a conversational cul-de-sac. When you most need Him, God doesn’t show up. The God who spoke all life into being, from whom “every good and perfect gift” comes, who died to defeat death, pain, sin and hell for us—where is He now with His good gifts and power to save?
After the death of her mother and crumbling of her marriage, Lauren Winner describes her feelings this way: “When you find that God is absent, you do many things… You narrow your eyes at your absent God the way you would narrow your eyes at your lover, in a fight, when he has just said something awful and mean and true about you, the way you narrow your eyes before you say Fine, then! And storm out of the room. You are growing a carapace, to protect yourself from this absence. You begin to turn your attention elsewhere, to any elsewhere that might pay you some attention back.” My husband and I recently wondered whether we are getting more skilled in trusting God or just getting numb to the ups and downs of anticipation and delay. Are we just looking elsewhere for attention, distracting ourselves with more urgent concerns than an absent God? If so, then we are not waiting well.
Psalm 22 is some good waiting: fully voiced despair, demand for God alone and unflinching, steely-eyed hope in Him. If the psalm itself doesn’t charm you, Jesus’ meditation on it through the cross experience ought to lure you in. And for both Jesus and the psalmist, declaring God’s victory was best done in the midst of apparent defeat. The timing of faith is crucial; it’s not faith when it’s over and the answer is clear and the pieces have all fallen into place—faith is most faithful when the object of its hope is utterly unapparent.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
The first irony here is that the psalmist is still calling out to a God that he accuses of absence. The Septuagint’s translation of the cry here is something akin to “why don’t you pay any attention to me!?” And his enemies’ taunts only prod his fear awake: Let Him rescue him if he delights in him… The implications of this unmet reality are devastating for one whose life centers on the covenant, who from birth has called on my God. We wonder… maybe He ignores me because I am insignificant to Him, because He disdains me and my inability to hold it together, my pathetic pleas.
In contrast to his forefathers, who were delivered, he is ashamed. Denied the security of the primary relationship of his life, he doesn’t even feel human: But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people… He feels eyes upon him, the discomfort of unanswered questions, the tsk-tsking as heads wag, the eventual vocalization of long-held suspicions and finally outright attacks on his integrity—this from his own community! Much like Job, he realizes that only the solidarity of God is useful.
He comes to this argument perhaps less nobly than Job. He is less convinced of his righteousness in his desparation, but desperation for God is still good. Sometimes our faith is little more than a shoulder-shrugged statement like Peter’s “to whom else would we go?” He fights doubts of God’s pleasure in him with something of a blameshift: I’m not sure how you feel about me now since you’re ignoring me, but don’t forget that you’re the one who made yourself my God! As you sit by watching me face death, don’t forget that you’re the one who brought me here in the first place. I have no one else besides you—for good or bad, you’re my God! His enemies are closing in, encircling him while God is nowhere to be seen—but his eyes are still scanning the horizon for a savior.
The psalm gradually turns from despair by way of several halting jerks back and forth: current absence but past presence, pragmatic but nonetheless loyal attachment to his God, and then a commitment to fully explain God’s faithfulness to a community that now disdains him. While still under the calculating eyes of his enemies, the psalmist envisions a day of praise and this is what he plans to say: That God doesn’t scorn the lowly. That He is not annoyed by the desperate pleas of the poor. That He doesn’t look away, averting his eyes from our pain. That when we cry, He is listening. That He saves.
He has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD…All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.
The Gospels unanimously portray Christ meditating on this psalm throughout his suffering and finding its honest resolve fortifying. Even the accusers are painted with this psalm’s language—they wag their heads and echo “He trusts in God; Let God deliver him now if He desires him…” One scholar interprets Jesus’ cry of “It is finished!” (Jn 19.30) as a restatement of the psalm’s final phrase: “He has done it!” In light of the timing (pre-resurrection), it at least borrows its boldness. While still in his precarious position, the psalmist vows to God that he will someday tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. Then Hebrews 2.7 tell us that we are those brothers. That when Jesus was on the cross he was gaining the voice of experience and planning to use it to convince us of God’s faithfulness. For it’s not angels that he helps, but people. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God… for because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Jesus waits with us. The One who could do anything, with all things at his disposal, chose suffering. God does not give into demands, but He stays by those who pray.
So here, in brief, are some waiting words:
– keep calling—stay loyal
– remember God’s goodness in the past and let those memories form your actions. This is not dishonest—it is accurate. (We know more about the past than the future or even present.) And then push yourself a bit more to use it to shape the way you imagine the future.
– Put the shame to shame, giving it no weight. You may feel shame before people, but never before God. He knows every sin, hears every cry, sees every impatient sigh, every shallow and easily frightened spot of our souls. And is still our God. If there are taunts, lifted eyebrows, and uncomfortable questions they are not from God. He does not squirm in the face of evil like the powerless do.
– If you are crying out to silence, assume it is the silence of One listening, hanging on to every word.
And, finally, it helps to imagine the devil writhing in agony over your well-timed faith. “Do not be deceived Wormwood. Our case is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (C. S. Lewis’s master tempter Screwtape)