Psalms always get me. Literally, they get me: I don’t think I’ve ever felt an emotion that isn’t contained in one or many psalms. We Christians are privileged to have these ancient prayer poems as part of our sacred text.
They’re honest yet stubborn.
They’re raw yet reverent.
They’re earthy yet transcendent.
Over the past week, my wife Kaile and I have both meditated on Psalm 44. It’s this sweeping Psalm that covers a massive swath of not only the human soul but also a stubborn theology of protest toward God, referenced here as Elohim:
What a gorgeous word, isn’t it-this word to name our strong, creator God?
Our Psalm kicks off with a delightful nod to God’s past work within the people of Israel. Once slaves, they were delivered from Egypt. Once foreigners, they had received a place to call their own:
…for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them [v. 3].
For the first eight verses, we have a soaring poem of praise. It is a communal sense for the first three verses, as the psalmist writes in the plural [we have heard with our ears!] but quickly becomes personal too, shifting between the sense of personal trust and a tone of thanks for God’s acts among the community, the ancestors and current people of Israel [bolded emphasis mine]:
You are my King, O God… [v. 4]! …In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever [v. 8]. Selah.
The psalmist is remembering. Clearly this psalmist has experienced God, and he understands that God has been at work in history. This, in and of itself, is the resounding point of large swaths of Scripture: remember God’s actions in the past! In remembering God’s actions in the past, we become increasingly attentive to God’s activity in the present.
So, the opening salvo of our Psalm reveals God to be faithful in the past. But after a *Selah* which is essentially a brief pause in the flow of the psalm, the writer launches in at God with a string of epithets, calling out God for God’s apparent inactivity:
But you have rejected us and disgraced us [v. 9]… You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples [v. 14].
The Psalmist begins to bargain in verse 17, petitioning God and taking note of how he had been taking God’s covenant[s]/promise[s] seriously:
All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant.
Finally, as the Psalmist attempts to keep everything in perspective, he leans into God’s covenant-faithful love at the end:
Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
By speaking out the kind of love that God promises people, it seems the struggling psalmist reminds not only God, but himself about the promises. He clearly feels that God is distant, yet also knows in his soul that God is love. The phrase “steadfast love” comes from the Hebrew word hesed:
Much scholarly discussion exists regarding the sweeping meaning of this concept, but it all centers around God’s never-fading love and faithfulness to his covenants/promises.
So let it be known, God is indeed faithful to promises.
Now let’s turn a corner: what about those moments when we aren’t so sure what will come? What about God’s goodness amidst the loss of a friend, the loss of a life, the loss of a job? Our psalmist is putting God on the hook for a list of overwhelming difficulties, but is God responsible?
I think not.
There is theological determinism, the belief that God willed everything that will ever happen, including all the bad things.
But that’s not what we learn in the book of James. The book starts off with a challenge:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Ok, so who’s doing the testing? Is God the agent?
According to James, nope:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
He goes on to write how good things come only from God:
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change
God is good. He is not on the hook for every difficulty that besets us. He gives good gifts; we reap the pain and suffering of our forbears, traced back all the way to Genesis 3 and the great rebellion of humanity from God. Scot McKnight has done good work along these lines in A Long Faithfulness, taking a serious look at the book of Hebrews and the more determinist strands of theology that exist.
To sum it up, God isn’t giving us cancer.
God isn’t strategically taking away loved ones.
That terrible thing that happened isn’t God’s fault.
God isn’t sending trials and difficulties our way because they’re some kind of divine litmus test of our faithfulness and trust. They come our way regardless, yet God walks with us through those dark times.
We can learn to grow closer to God, and maybe even experience joy amidst trials [James!] because we know God is at work in a much larger sense [see the very last two chapters of the Bible!].
And all good things come from God. Whether we believe God is at work or not, everything from hugs to good food, everything from meaningful relationships to economic progress: it’s all from God.
God’s not on the hook for every difficult and painful experience, even when we pray to him with frustration like in Psalm 44, wondering how we can make sense of his leading in our lives. Instead, we’re on the hook for clinging to God in the strength of the Spirit that Jesus gave in a new way at Pentecost.
We can cling honestly, like the psalmist, putting God on the hook for our pain. I think there’s a place to get honest like that, and the psalms give us permission.
But we still cling to God’s bigger goals for the cosmos.