For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 3 – Psalm 30
One of the most common questions which Christians and not-yet-Christians alike struggle with is the problem of suffering. For Christians who have somehow picked up along the way the idea that God is there solely to make life nice for them, and will instantly get them out of trouble should something bad happen to them, the onset of suffering feels like a faith-shattering smack in the face. And Non-Christians who have kind of assumed that God is supposed to be nice and kindly can use experiences of suffering, both their own and those of others, as proof positive that God can’t be there after all, because if he was nothing nasty would ever happen.
So it is a bit strange that the Bible doesn’t really give us a clear coherent theological answer to this most severe of problems. It does give us plenty of reflection on it, notably in the book of Job, but even there the ultimate answer seems to be ‘Man up and get on with it – God can do what he wants’, which you may or may not think is that helpful. So if we do want to find some kind of answer to the problem of suffering, we need to dig deeper. Psalm 30 is one of the places we might begin our excavations.
The heading probably is not original, and does not refer to the original composition of the Psalm, but is likely to be a liturgical instruction for when it might have been used. In fact the suffering is alluded to, rather than described, so we don’t really know what dire circumstances the psalmist found himself in. It’s almost as if he’s saying that it isn’t the specific circumstances which matter; it is the general principles about how we cope with suffering in the light of God’s purposes. Whether the problem was some severe illness (v.2) or an enemy attack (v.1), or even a rebuke from God himself (v.5) doesn’t seem to matter. So what might some of those principles be?
First of all, he acknowledges that life is a lot smoother when things are going well (v.6-7), and that the temptation to complacency is strong. Even then, though, it is wise to see the good times as precious gifts from God. When that favour and protection seems to slip, dismay is an appropriate response (v.7) I’m very grateful for the times in my life when I haven’t had to ring for the fire engines: I need to learn the discipline of thanksgiving for those times.
Secondly, he realises that suffering will come, and that it might not be all instantly made OK. V.5 isn’t saying, I don’t think, that God’s help is always instant. It’s a realisation that in comparison to the lifelong blessings of God, on the grand scale of things our pain is temporary, a principle echoed by Paul in Romans 8. Following Jesus doesn’t make us immune, but it does give us resources to help, until we reach that day when tears, crying and mourning will be no more, and our resurrection life will seem like waking up from a bad dream.
So is pie in the sky when we die the only real answer to suffering? No, the psalmist says, we have resources for the here and now. The whole tenor of the Psalm is about praise for the God who has delivered him from his sufferings, literally turned things around, rescued him from death and restored joy to him, not after he has died but because he didn’t. As with last week, it is easy to see why the Church reads this as an Easter Psalm. The turning point was that he called out to God (v.2) – the Hebrew word refers to a scream of anguish rather than a polite prayer. There were two results of this cry for help. God rescued him (v.3, 11), and he pledged himself to heartfelt praise (v.1, 12). The suffering evidently restored his perspective, and taught him not to be complacent but to make praise a constant way of life.
But there are two more elements in this Psalm which are worth mentioning. The first is what we might call ‘blackmail’, which sounds bad but is actually a feature of several Psalms, and also of the prayer life of Moses. Here it comes in v.9 – Lord, this my reason for wanting your help, because if you don’t step in you’ll be missing out on my praises. Your reputation will suffer. We may find this idea a bit strange – trying to twist God’s arm so that he’ll do what we want – but we have to acknowledge that it is a common part of OT spirituality. And finally note the corporate elements which come through strongly. Because of what God has done for me, I invite the whole community into worship (v.4). In our individualistic culture we like to keep things to ourselves, but this joyful exclamation of God’s rescue provides an encouragement to the whole community to praise. This is testimony to others as well as praise to God.
One last word – I’m always aware when I write or speak about suffering of the danger of appearing glib, particularly to any in the audience who are weeping in the middle of the night of suffering, and waiting, perhaps for years, for the morning rejoicing to come. This is of course not an attempt to deal with the myriad questions and doubts which plague us during those long dark hours, but rather an affirmation that there will be a rescue, a solution, and accompanying joy, whether in this life or the next, and that from the eternal perspective our current sufferings, awful though they are, will seem as nothing. You might not want to hear that now, but it remains true.