How Long, O Lord?

How Long, O Lord?

The Welsh have not (generally) adopted that legacy of Platonism in post-Renaissance culture, commonly called "the stiff upper-lip." The Welsh, you see, give voice to their complaints with reckless abandonment. Typical here is Wales's most famous twentieth century poet and writer, Dylan Thomas, in what is admittedly an un-Christian (and for Thomas, anti-Christian) sentiment at the approach of death:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Plato would not have liked Dylan Thomas or the Welsh. Come to think of it, the Welsh don't care for Plato very much either! The Greek Philosopher thought emotion a bad thing, something to be corralled into the depths, never to see the light of day. Mr. Spock, the Vulcan of Star Trek fame, is thus the ideal individual: pensive and logical, as emotionally frozen as a Siberian winter! No wonder Michelangelo depicted Plato in the Vatican pointing up to the heavens. It is the world of ideas that matters, not the physical universe or the intemperate human frame which houses irrational outbursts of uncontrollable passion.

Bible writers, on the other hand, from Job to Jeremiah, express heart-felt emotion at the drop of a hat: by turns, anger, rage, frustration, regret and down-right unadulterated complaint. Typical here is Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

And have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psa. 13:1-2).

So pervasive is this sort of thing in the Bible that those who study these things have coined a term for it: lament songs. If you haven't been reading your Old Testament lately then find some time to peruse the moaning sighs of David, Job and Jeremiah. Such passages as Palm 55 where David says, "I am restless in my complaint and I moan" and "Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan" (Psa. 55:2, 17); or Job, "I will give free utterance to my complaint. I will speak in the bitterness of my soul" (Job 10:1); or, Jeremiah, "the weeping prophet," in what looks like a copy of Job 3 (perhaps he'd been reading it in his morning devotional), "I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me" (Jer. 20:7). A veritable cacophony of moans and groans, then, and we are barely scratching the surface. Chief among them is Psalm 88, surely the darkest spot in Scripture apart from Gethsemane. Miserable Christians sing the blues as good as, and arguably better than, any blues singer from New Orleans. When Heman the Ezrahite makes the woeful cry that "darkness is my closest friend" (Psa. 88:18, NIV), we have struck rock-bottom.

The genre of Lament is characteristically predictable in its form. It begins with an invocation, moves on to a plea for help, complains bitterly about something or another, sometimes issues an imprecation (curse) on God's enemies (real or imagined) and sometimes, though not always, 'resolves' in a word of prayer. Occasionally, the lament finds occasion to confess sin, seeing personal blame as the cause of the woe. This, of course, is a moot point, since there are times when the complaint comes from a perceived sense of integrity rather than wrongdoing (Job being the obvious example).

Whatever the subtleties of the form, the focal point (and our focus, too) is the complaint. Why, we now ask, has God placed these woeful outbursts of anguish in the Bible? What possible function do they serve except to show that Bible writers were weak and sometimes spineless, and decidedly not supermen (or women). The answer seems to be along these lines: they provide a corrective for the euphoric, celebratory notions of faith - romantic portrayals of the Christian life as sweetness and light; they earth trust in Jesus Christ in the reality of a broken and often hostile world, refusing to allow pain and strain to be chased away into hidden corners. As Alexander McLaren put it somewhere, "Doubts are better put into plain speech than lying diffused and darkening, like poisonous mists, in the heart - expressing them is like cutting a channel in a bog for the rain water to run." Such passages of Scripture teach us that God uses beat up, discouraged, lonely saints, with horribly complex psychological responses, to accomplish great things for his glory. Thus David Brainerd (one complex individual to be sure), who lived for twenty-nine years, only eight of them as a believer, could write journals (posthumously edited by Jonathan Edwards) in which he showed a man who struggled with chronic pain and given to melancholy that would provide modern psychotherapists with a lifetime's work. So candid are his "dark night of the soul" entries that Edwards pulled some for fear the Christian public would question the genuineness of his conversion. And yet, his "Life" is still being read and written about and preached as a model (in part if not the whole) of urgent living for Christ no matter what the costs may be.

Vacuous Christianity

If Plato forms one extreme, a certain kind of vacuous Christianity forms another. The kind that insists that (in Mary Baker Eddy fashion) pain is illusionary or at least should, as they used to say of children, be seen and not heard. I remember vividly as a young Christian, encountering a "Cheshire-cat Christian" who reprimanded me for my tea-pot face because, and I think I quote her words correctly (though it is thirty years ago), "When you don't smile, it shows you think Jesus doesn't love you." At that time, I had this urge to pop one on her sanctimonious nose; but I didn't, mainly out of chivalry. I continue to recall the incident and the feelings of anger (righteous anger for misplaced attribution of guilt) are still with me. And, like this mistaken but zealous girl, much of the contemporary church urges the same misplaced demeanor: Christians, so they urge, ought not to find themselves in trouble; it is not God's plan or purpose. To find ourselves in dire circumstances can mean only one thing - a failure to walk in harmony with God. And whilst this may be true of some, to generalize this way places the modern church's zealous prophets in the same field as Job's smug counselors.

Such generalizations are silly and hurtful and have more to do with a combination of greed and "the American way" than with the realities of the Christian life. For, as the New Testament reinforces time and again, the Christian path is cross-shaped. We follow a Savior who himself groaned with loud tears at the darkness of the unfolding will, begging that some other way might be found if at all possible (cf. Luke 22:42, 44).

It is one of the most sublime aspects of the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels that his sorrow and complaint are expressed with such singular poignancy. In the words of B. B. Warfield, "our Lord sounded the ultimate depths of human anguish, and vindicated on the score of the intensity of his mental sufferings the right to the title of Man of Sorrows. The scope of these sufferings was also very broad, embracing that whole series of painful emotions which runs from a consternation that is appalled dismay, through a despondency which is almost despair, to a sense of well-nigh complete desolation. In the presence of this mental anguish the physical tortures of the crucifixion retire into the background, and we may well believe that our Lord, though he died on the cross, yet died not of the cross, but, as we commonly say, of a broken heart, that is to say, of the strain of his mental suffering." ("The Emotional Life of Our Lord").

Bitter Cups

It is here - in contemplating the "Man of Sorrows ... acquainted with grief" - that we begin to fathom another aspect of "complaint." For there is no sorrow through which he has not first of all passed. As Augustine said of Psalm 22 and the complaint of forsakenness with which it opens - "My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?" - "The Master of medicine has first drunk from the bitter cup himself so that the sick would not hesitate to drink from it."

He knows the frailties of our frame,

For He has borne our grief;

Our Great High Priest once felt the same,

And He can send relief. [Roswell Cotrell]

To complain, in one sense, is what it means to be a Christian in this world. Living between the two advents of Jesus means living with "tribulation. " "In this world you will have tribulation" Jesus said to his disciples, meaning that life before the second Coming is marked by things that make us wish for heaven (cf. John 16:33)! The regenerate soul can never sit patiently in the presence of evil. God may give us help to live with it, even to rejoice in the mess - as Paul evidently exhorts in Romans 5:1-11 - but only because we see the evil things as God's way of shaping us for the world to come, and it is that world that we long for. When we view the world in which we live out of sorts, "groaning and travailing in the pains of childbirth" (Rom 8:22), we inevitably ask, "Why?" for instinctively - now that the Spirit has illuminated our darkened minds, we understand that this is not how the world was meant to be. Something wicked has occurred that has distorted the world and we who live in it. As J. I. Packer puts it:

So complaint will be, or at least should be, a recurring element in the praying of the born again. The presence of complaint prayers in God's prayer book (for that is what the Psalter really is) shows that, so far from being irreverent, prayers of this kind, describing the distress of oneself and others in the freest and most forthright, forceful language imaginable, are entirely in order. Ignoring in our prayers situations that are not "just fine" would by contrast be barren unrealism. For this world is a battleground on which Satan and his hosts strive desperately to obstruct and spoil God's work in every way they can; the book of Revelation reveals that in this war all sorts of bad and destructive things will happen to Christians, churches and the larger human community; thus there will always be things to pray about in complaint terms as part of one's regular petitions. Using cursing psalms as complaint prayers against Satan and his forces might be a good way to begin. [Praying (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 193].

None of this should encourage intemperate outbursts - outbursts that give vent to personal vengeance and spiteful resentment. We may think ourselves, like Job, the victims of unfair forces when all along we are culpable for what has occurred. But these observations do help us catch the shape of life in a hostile world - and there is something very wrong about it. These things ought not to be, and it is only right that the Spirit within us urges us to protest.