Discontinuity between Worship and Experience
Every Sunday, in churches around the world, Christians sing words like these:
My foes are many, they rise against me
But I will hold my ground
I will not fear the war, I will not fear the storm
My help is on the way, my help is on the way
Oh, my God, He will not delay
My refuge and strength always
I will not fear, His promise is true
My God will come through always, always
Or words like these:
You hear me when I call
You are my morning song
Though darkness fills the night
It cannot hide the light
Whom shall I fear
You crush the enemy
Underneath my feet
You are my sword and shield
Though troubles linger still
Whom shall I fear
I know who goes before me
I know who stands behind
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side
The one who reigns forever
He is a friend of mine
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side
We sing words like these because they express our confidence in God. This confidence is rooted in our most basic teachings about who God is and what God has done, and it is confirmed by long years of experience with God.
But what happens when there is a disconnect between the words we sing and the life we live? What happens when no “angel armies” come to rescue us? How do we cope when we discover that the battle is over and that the ground we have fought so hard to defend has been overrun by the forces of evil and chaos?
A Road Well Traveled
Unfortunately, a lot of us have walked this dark and lonely road. Some have clung to their faith in spite of the most unimaginable sorrow (cf., for example, the story of Nicol Spohnberg). Others have not fared so well. As systematic theologian Glenn Kreider has observed, people—many of whom have been followers of Jesus for decades—are leaving the faith because they just don’t think it works. Sometimes their disillusionment is the result of unrealistic expectations, but sometimes it is simply a function of the magnitude of their pain.
So how do we help people navigate the inevitable disappointment that comes when God doesn’t show up? Indeed, how do we navigate that disappointment ourselves? Disparaging the questions that people have or the emotions that they feel doesn’t work; it only proves that God (if He exists at all) is just as cruel as His messengers. Sometimes it helps to think about God’s promises for the future, but at other times those promises seem empty and distant. After all, how can we trust that our future will be any better than our present?
One thing that has helped me cope with my own disappointment is to recognize that I am not the first person to shake my fist at God and ask “Why?!” Obviously, hearing the stories of brothers and sisters in my church or in my circle of friends helps me know that I am not alone—and helps me see that I can maintain my commitment to Christ even in the midst of my doubts. But there is something even more meaningful about seeing my own questions and my own frustrations reflected in the writings of Christian Scripture.
Finding Comfort in Shared Sorrow
One of those writings—Psalm 137—has been a source of particular comfort for me. The psalm expresses Judah’s collective agony over the destruction of Jerusalem (and the exile of its elites) by the Babylonians. In order to properly understand this psalm, we need to put ourselves in the place of its implied composers (the “we” of v. 1). They had been taught all their lives that Jerusalem was the symbol of God’s benevolent authority over His people and that the temple was the vessel in which God’s presence was contained. And now, a pagan nation had come and destroyed both the city and its temple—and for no other reason than to maintain its own (illegitimate) claim to power.
As we look back on Psalm 137, it is easy for us to say that they should have known better. After all, prophets had been telling them that this was going to happen for well over a century. But they didn’t know. In the cacophony of conflicting voices, they could not discern which ones were telling the truth, and so it was easier just to listen to the voices that told them what they wanted to hear. They had the nerve to be surprised by the disaster that came upon them—and, very often, so do we.
There is another objection that could be raised to seeing ourselves in Psalm 137. “They deserved what happened to them.” Indeed, the biblical witness presents Hebrew society as being rife with injustice and idolatry. From the Pentateuch onward, God had been clear that injustice and idolatry would not be tolerated. “By contrast,” it could be argued, “my suffering is entirely undeserved. In fact, I have given my life to serving God—and look what it has gotten me!”
Notice, however, that the “we” of Psalm 137 show no awareness of the cause of their suffering. They seem just as hurt as we often are by the way things have turned out. And they feel just as aggrieved as we do about those who are gloating over their demise (v. 7).
Psalm 137 gives me comfort, not because the situation it describes is identical to mine, but because I, too, struggle to understand things that others might claim ought to be crystal clear to me. Like the “we” of this beautiful psalm, I flounder in ignorance and flail in rage. And, like the community behind the psalm, I struggle to hold on to the symbols of my religious naiveté.
By including this psalm in the canon, God has affirmed the validity and the value of our struggle to understand. Moreover, He has given us an example to follow as we wrestle with our own questions of faith. The truth is that the people of Judah kept on believing, even though everything in the common ideology of the ancient Near East told them that their God had been defeated and was no longer of any worth to them. And, in the end, God did show up. He did not do it in the way that they expected, but He did show up. In so doing, God proved that He had not abandoned His people and that their faith in Him was not misplaced.
It’s Still Hard
It’s still hard sometimes. I struggle to sing words like “my God will come through always.” I struggle because I know the questions that lurk in the shadows of my own heart and because I cannot reliably predict how God will behave when it is my life that is on the line. I struggle because I know that there are people all around me who see God’s providence as nothing more than a cruel fiction and because I do not have the power to change their situations or heal their broken hearts.
Nevertheless, I continue to sing. Like the “we” of Psalm 137, I don’t know who I am without the hope that God will, sooner or later, intervene on my behalf. Besides, as my wife often reminds me, proclaiming God’s providence in worship is an act of faith—not just faith that God will bring our words to fruition, but also faith that God understands our struggle to believe the words that we sing. Thus, worship becomes a microcosm of everything that we do as followers of Jesus and a spiritual discipline that God uses to transform us from the inside out.