Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
The Book of Psalms is the hymnal of the Jewish community. It is a collection of private and public songs and poems that express the heart of devoted followers of Yahweh, through the ups and downs of the life of faith. They provide us with poignant and invaluable insights into the inner experiences of the relationship with God in the context of the world around us.
Walter Brueggemann has written a wonderful book called The message of the Psalms. He suggests that there are three main categories of Psalms:
- There are Psalms of orientation, which were written from a good place in life, where things are well and God is good. Examples of Psalms of orientation include Psalms 1, 37, 112, 133 and 145.
- There are Psalms of disorientation, which were written when life was falling apart, God seemed absent or even hostile, where strong emotions of distress, anger, fear and despair were raging. Some examples of Psalms of disorientation include Psalms 13, 32, 50, 74, 88 and 90.
- There are Psalms of reorientation, which were written when we were surprised again by God’s love and faithfulness, and despair recedes and joy emerges like a sunrise. The Psalms of reorientation include Psalms 27, 30, 65, 114 and 117.
Between these three categories are two moves: a move from orientation to disorientation, where we lament the suffering that draws us away from our confidence in God; and a move from disorientation to reorientation, where we rediscover hope. The first move takes us to the cross of Christ, while the second takes us to the resurrection.
One of the things that strikes me about the Psalms is how different they are as a collection of ancient hymns from our contemporary hymns. If you review the songs we sing in church, you will discover that there are very few songs of disorientation. Mostly, we sing praise and worship, which loosely can be thought of as loud, happy songs that celebrate how great God is and quiet, heartfelt songs that meditate on how great God is. We do not have many (if any) songs that focus on anger, fear, despair. We don’t sing songs that shout at or challenge God. We don’t sing songs about how God has abandoned us. Yet, many of the hymns of the Jews were about just these things.
So, we shall give a bit more attention here to the Psalms of disorientation. Not that the Psalms of orientation and reorientation are not important – but it may be helpful to look at those Psalms that say things we don’t often say. And, of course, we need to figure out what this says about God’s love for us.
The main thing I love about these Psalms is that they are honest – sometimes brutally honest! That in itself is refreshing. Sometimes church can become a collection of botoxed faces all covering up the hurt and pain many of us feel inside. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person struggling with sin, questioning God’s presence, unsure of my faith. Everyone else seems so together. But then other people think I’m always together and superstrong in my faith. If only they knew! It’s so easy for us to be fake with each other. And it is easy to be fake with God too. But the Psalms are not fake – raw, honest expression is what they are about.
The honesty of the Psalms is not unprecedented, though. When I see people for counselling, they are usually painfully honest about the problems in their lives. In the therapeutic context, raw, honest expression is quite appropriate. But perhaps with God we tend to censor ourselves a bit more. After all, it would not be right to offend God. And God is God – God should be spoken to with respect. We should not presume to question or challenge or be angry at God!
But that is exactly what the Psalms do. The Psalmists have learned that with God, anything goes, provided it is honest. They are willing to say anything to God, about God, knowing that so long as it is authentic, God will accept it. God’s broad shoulders are able to carry a lot of bad talk. And lest we forget, the Psalms are not simply private, unspoken thoughts between me and God – they are public, published texts. The Psalms present us with inappropriate thoughts and feelings, both acknowledged and expressed. And God accepts and responds to such expressions. If the Psalmists can do it, shouldn’t we also? The Psalms do not only show what may be done in our relationship with God, but show what we should be doing in our relationship with God. They are our textbook for prayer.
I am often struck by how blunt the Psalms can be:
- How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? (Psalm 82:2)
- You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. (Psalm 88:6)
- Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:14)
- Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. (Psalm 88:16-17)
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. (Psalm 22:1-2)
- Hasten, O God, to save me; O LORD, come quickly to help me. (Psalm 70:1)
The bluntness of the Psalms tells us something important about the view the Psalmists had of God. There seems to be a confidence in the Psalmists that one can say anything to God. That we can voice our thoughts without fear of reprisal. The Psalmists see God as accepting, permissive, tolerant, even indulgent. In a word, loving.
Let us consider one short Psalm in full, Psalm 13:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
The first stanza is a series of rhetorical questions directed angrily at God. God is accused of being absent, silent, hidden. And the Psalmist grapples with internal distress (thoughts and feelings) and troubles in the world (the enemy triumphs). And these troubles are blamed squarely on God – it is because God has neglected the Psalmist, neglected God’s chesed. No holds are barred here; there is no deference to God.
Now, we must imagine a period of silence between the first and second stanza. A time in which the Psalmist chews over the distress, simmers in the absence of God, works to make sense of the suffering. Such silences are in important part of prayer – at least as important as the words.
Then there is a shift of mood. It’s as if the Psalmist, having ventilated, settles down and begins to turn towards God in petition. See the verbs: look, answer, give light. The petition is to be seen by God: “O Lord, my God, please see me in my distress.” And the Psalmist motivates God to answer the prayer – provides reasons why God ought to display chesed.
And now, we must imagine another period of silence. A long wait. A holding of the breath. A hoping for what we dare not hope. Perhaps, even, the Psalmist goes back to the first stanza and repeats the complaint, and then the plea. It is the day of waiting on the Lord. It can take time.
And then there is another shift of mood. There is here a quiet, simple, pared down trust in God. It starts with a ‘But’, which suggests that the cause of the complaint has not been resolved; but nevertheless, in spite of the complaint, the Psalmist has found faith: I trust… I rejoice… I will sing. Quiet, authentic faith rediscovered, in the midst of suffering. A renewed recognition of the goodness of God, perhaps because of some remembered act of goodness, which gives confidence that God may be good again.
What does all of this mean for us being God’s beloved? God is not so high and mighty that God cannot or will not listen to us in our unadorned distress. God is willing and even keen to hear us as we are, warts and all. God does not become angry when we speak out at God. Instead, when we are honest, even angrily or despairingly honest, God meets us. When we say it like it is, we open a space in our hearts to experience something else that is like it is, and that is God.
In my own faith journey with God, I have increasingly come to experience that what God most wants from me in my ongoing relationship with God is authenticity – for me to be who I really am, with all my imperfections, emotions, doubts and questions. Good relationship involves the meeting of two authentic, whole persons – as soon as one or other pretends to be something other than what they are, the relationships becomes fake and, ultimately, unsatisfying. Why should it be any different with God? God loves us, and thus accepts us, wholly, as we are, and invites us to be whole and authentic, not fake. And if that authenticity is angry or despairing or accusing, then God accepts that too. This is how those who love each other treat each other.
Meditation for the Day
How authentic are you with God? Do you say it as it is, even when it’s not pretty? Or are you trying to present a good face to God? What will it take to be truly honest with God?
Prayer for the Day
Oh Lord, what I am really feeling today is… What I really think about you is… I need you to… Help me to trust in you.