Celebration and Suffering: Psalm 22
What does hope look like among a people who strive to live out God’s mission in this world? What is hope? What does it do, what does it feel like? Is hope something more than a political slogan or campaign buzzword? Is hope anything more than wishful thinking?
To appreciate what hope means, we need a word of wisdom about our human condition that is more ancient than our American culture in the 21st century. We need a word of wisdom that is much deeper than our reductionist reading of Bible. We need a word that truly speaks what we feel rather than what we think we should feel.
There is such a word in the Psalms. We find it buried beneath the sweet and comforting glow of Psalm 23. We find it on the lips of Jesus as he suffers on the cross. It is a word familiar to God’s children, but unfortunately we haven’t always felt comfortable discussing it. It’s like one of those family secrets that everyone knows but no one can ever verbalize.
But this psalm was written down for all generations. It was set to music and arranged to be sung in worship. It became the earliest Christians’ Scripture for understanding Jesus. Unfortunately we have given this psalm to Jesus, applied it to Jesus, but never owned it ourselves. If we are going to take up our cross and follow him, then we need to open this psalm up. For as raw, ugly, and seemingly irreverent as this Psalm may seem, it is a key that unlocks the meaning of hope.
Crying out for help: What do you say when God seems silent?
There are times when our rote prayers just don’t seem to have any meaning. Sometimes it is easy or even comforting to shout praises—to declare God is great, God is good. We should and ought to give thanks. We should and ought to pray, “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name!”
But sometimes, we cannot because we feel like we are shouting into an empty darkness. Let’s be honest; there are times that we want to ask, “God, where are you?”
This Psalm (and many others) gives us permission to ask the questions that may seem inappropriate or irreverent. After all, God doesn’t want a relationship with people who don’t have any expectations of him (do you want that sort of relationship?).
On the cross, Jesus doesn’t pray, “Our Father who art heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Rather he verbalizes a question that he dare not ignore—a question from deep within his soul: “God, why are you so far from me?”
Jesus takes this whole thing very personally, because Jesus isn’t a Pharisee. He’s not a hypocrite. With the Pharisees, God is all business. When something goes wrong, well God didn’t mean anything by it. It’s not personal. But for Jesus, this is Father and Son. And if it is for Jesus, then it is for us.
We have expectations for God—we remember how he has helped other people in times of trouble. We can read stories about the mighty things he has done. And rather than give God an excuse not to help in case God doesn’t want to, the psalmist holds God’s feet to the fire.
This is more than just a prayer—something religious to say so we can remind ourselves and others that we are believers. This is a plea.
If it seems irreverent or sacrilegious to make such a plea and accuse God of being away from his post, then let me explain why this matters. First, we are going to feel like this no matter how often we lie to ourselves and others. Second, if we dress up our prayers and lie to God, then what have we lost? We have lost our expectation that God will do anything. We are essentially numbing ourselves to the pain and suffering and all of our prayers are saying, “Whatever.” There’s no hope there.
Psalm 22 is a deeply reverent prayer. It affirms that God should be God. It remembers how God helps those who need it. It has high expectations of God and calls God out. High expectations lead to hope. It’s not enough to accept that God can do what he has done before—we must hope that he will. Expect it and call out for it!
God is near.
The psalmist reflects on God’s presence. God was there when he was born. God was there when he was just a nursing child. God is present in the little things. In the smallest, most common efforts at survival. God is there not removing it from us, but working in it.
Now all the more since this psalm is spoken by Jesus on the cross, the experience of pain and suffering in this world is changed. It isn’t that pain and suffering are really different, but there is new perspective. God doesn’t run away from our suffering. He doesn’t abandon us.
Pain and suffering may come about because of our poor choices, but God doesn’t abandon us. It isn’t always divine retribution. How can we say that?
The cross and the words of Jesus show that God identifies with the weak and suffering. He participates in it. It is radical to suggest that God suffers.
Suffering is not a sign of misfortune. Nor is God trying to teach us a lesson. Remember that Jesus made this personal. God isn’t a dispassionate divine despot experimenting on us poor humans. He is in the trenches with us. He has risked something in order to make a difference.
Hope feels like the experience of verse 24. God doesn’t ignore or abandon those who suffer.
Celebration and suffering: Hope promises to praise God.
The psalmist fixes hope on the anticipation of telling the story of God’s help. There is an expectation in the goodness of God. Somehow, someway, when this is over the story of God’s help will be told. It will be sung.
Notice the setting for the praise—the assembly! Others will hear it. Generations later will tell it and sing it (vv. 25-31). Like evangelism it is going to be told everywhere.
But I have to ask: Do we give a place in our assemblies for people to bear witness? Do we permit ourselves the opportunity to praise God for his help? Not just in general, but the real stories. Can we name the pain and suffering we feel? Not just the surgeries and sicknesses, but the depression, the fear, the pain and sickness of heart. Dare we name our brokenness like the psalmist? Like Christ?
In our culture we spend a lot of time and effort trying to ignore suffering and pain. It is good that we have treatments and therapies that have been unheard of in ages past, but our attitude of secrecy and our advertising of solutions has implied that if you are hurting or suffering, then something about you must be abnormal. Furthermore, we get the idea that if life isn’t always glamorous, exciting, perfect, and snappy, then something is really wrong. If boring and sad are problems for our culture, then how much more is suffering a problem? Our efforts to ignore pain and suffering are stressing us out.
When I say culture, I mean us in the church too. Can we be different enough to allow our psalmist to tell what God has done? Is our assembly a time and place that allows the afflicted to fulfill their vows to praise God (v. 25)?
Imagine our assemblies and our congregations as a place of hope. Like God we do not hide our faces from those who suffer. Like God we do not despise or abandon those who feel forsaken. The praises of those who have received help, strengthen those who cry out for it.