We live in a culture that prizes success and achievement. We are dazzled with powerful athletes who swim, run, climb, or otherwise amaze the watching world. We scroll through social media feeds and like the posts that are positive and inspiring. Maybe we experience pangs of jealousy when it’s a picture of precisely what we ourselves are apparently lacking.
Meanwhile, our quotidian lives unfold: work, class, maybe kids, whatever we have going on. And there is quiet pain, hidden sadness that does not fit the mold social media offers. In the lives of all human beings – and I do not believe this is universalizing – yes, in all our lives, there is pain, loss, hurt, or even the subtle, caustic overwhelm that comes COVID isolation. There’s regret and all the dark wondering that often accompanies it [did I marry the right person? what if I got that job?].
We look to articles and the experience of others for help and advice, and answers flood in faster than we can absorb the breadth of their perspectives. Sometimes it’s to our edification. But often we are left feeling no better than before. Advice and answers seldom do much good for our souls when what we really desire is to be heard, seen, cared for, loved. Sure we want answers and direction for the path forward, but not from a place of abstraction. Rather, we want someone who gets us.
Quiet pain, the kind that doesn’t fit on social media, exists in my life. Today, my son wanted a snack, so I asked him if he wanted Dino gummies or cinnamon buns. He opted for Dino gummies, but as he gobbled up his last gummy he demanded cinnamon rolls too. The answer was a gentle no, repeated a number of times. This spiraled him into a tantrum that took – and yes, I watched the clock – 10 minutes [the record is 50 minutes by the way]. I did the right parenting thing to offer an option, and yeah, I gave him a nice snack that he got to choose. But he’s small, he’s young, he’s learning. I don’t want him to go through the yelling and crying; my heart aches with him. It’s also frustrating, though, since his 10 month old sister is asleep upstairs. It’s quiet, hidden pain that isn’t making any headlines.
Quiet pain exists in my vocational life right now as well. Amidst the pandemic, I left my job and moved across the country back to Grand Rapids. It was a move we prayed about, a move that was necessary. And it has been difficult recommencing work. Several promising opportunities, over the past several months, have vanished before my eyes. I have hope for what is ahead, but in this liminal time, if I’m honest with myself, it hurts. And I don’t like sharing it with anyone because ego.
Quiet pain exists, as I take the meta view, amidst the pandemic as well. So many have seen loved ones die. Other have watched their businesses, their passionate enterprise, flounder or fail. Mental health and substance abuse have risen sharply and our government and churches have taken their turns disappointing us. We cling to the beautiful stories of generosity [some actor leaves a 1000% tip! yay!] and yes, it is lovely to see such kindness. And yet, we must be honest about the pain and loss lest we deceive ourselves and others.
Something I love about the Christian faith to which I hold is the startling honesty with which the authors approach pain. The gospel writers did not fail to mention the final words Jesus uttered from the cross: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Paul was physically and psychologically tortured for his ministry efforts, and saw little in return. Hebrews 11 is a litany of leaders in faith who “never received what was promised.”
God is ultimately making all things new, but it isn’t complete yet, and the incompleteness is filled with a whole lot of pain. We realize the sun is merely hidden at night, yet the darkness is no less palpable.
It may be the rugged spirituality of the Hebrew Psalms that best express what our souls and bodies require amidst the darker moments, during seasons that feel, literally or figuratively, like winter. Psalm 102 is one such psalm, and opens like this:
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
2 Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
If you’re a skeptic looking for evidence about how God is absent or, worse, doesn’t exist at all, here’s your ammunition, right here in the Bible [or, if you want a really dark Psalm, head to number 88. There’s not even the smallest shred of hope]. The writer is clearly desperate:
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
Doesn’t sound good. Too tired to eat? That’s strikes me as a whole lot worse than me trying to feed three kids while at least getting a few morsels into my system, granted much of it is their scraps!
The writer doesn’t move to any kind of praise until verse 12:
12 But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
Turning to the strength and enduring power of God does something for us finite beings, stirring us to imagine what God might one day do.
Tomorrow I have to fix a leaky roof at my investment duplex and do a few other tasks to keep the tenants safe and cozy, carve out time for church amidst family craziness, get our three small kids through the day safely, stay sane myself, and be a humble and kind partner to Kaile. And today, God is God, and God is love. God is enthroned forever, and our security as God’s created beings is apparent in our brotherhood with Jesus, God’s Son. Whatever daily challenges plague us, God is good, and God is present.
But that doesn’t mean we need to pretend away the pain, minimize it, push it off into a corner. No. Furthermore, it can harm us to act as if nothing is wrong, and harm others. I’ve done that, maybe you have too, bottled up my frustration to the point at which I blow up. That typically harms those closest to me.
When I’m healthy and processing well, I live alongside my psalmist friends. I express my emotions to my wife: “babe, I’m feeling exhausted and impatient this afternoon; the kids are struggling to listen. I am so glad you’re here.” *hug* When I’m at my best I breathe in one prayer, maybe “be still and know;” then breathe out another “that God is God.” At my worst I try to tough it out, powering through like some kind of hyper- masculine solitary who has it all together with his plan always unfolding. Those times I tough it out are the times I most regret.
But when I walk with the awareness of my companions in the psalms, I’m reminded these now-deceased voices have an enduring legacy in the lives of my very real friends, and in the life of the worshiping community worldwide, the church. God is concerned, even, with those who insist there is no divine!
Praying out the psalms connects me to God, to others, then also to myself. I too am a sacred being bearing the very image of God according to the very first chapter in Scripture. Instead of losing sight of the light God has placed in me, I see myself, love myself, care for myself. And I can trust God fully grasps the challenges of human life, for we have Jesus as the centerpiece of Scripture. God is not removed from human experience, not distant or uncaring; the triune God literally showed up in our world, starting out as a baby, just like the rest of us.
Moving back to our psalm, at first glance it’s slightly anticlimactic how the writer closes. Going a bit deeper, however, I observe a profound hope. After bespeaking God’s never-ending nature that exceeds even the earth and heavens, there is a not-so-subtle nod to the security God provides:
27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall live secure;
their offspring shall be established in your presence.
Even the offspring of those who serve God are on good footing! As a parent keen to spark faith in the lives of my children, I am relieved to know God is already at work making Godself known to them. Jesus is real enough to them already that they’re marveling in their 4 and 5 year old ways at everything he went through to do so, to make himself known. The Spirit is no doubt opening their young eyes to the hope they have. Even amidst these troubled times in the world and the church, we who have seen and known God are established in God’s presence.
And so, amidst whatever quiet pain we are walking with, may we join with the psalmists, with our friends, with the worshiping world as we honestly express that pain, inviting God’s Spirit into the cracks and crevasses of our lives. May we feel seen, heard, understood as we look to Jesus, our brother and our Lord, who has walked our broken world and felt our pain. May we know and experience the hope that is ahead, even if we yet cannot see it fully. May we be established in God’s presence.