How can we worship God when we suffer?
During a particularly difficult time in the life of God’s people, the Israelites wondered how they could worship God when they suffered. We hear this lament in Psalm 137: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” They have been defeated by their enemies – the Babylonians – and sent into exile.
Jerusalem had once been filled with wealth, power and prestige. Now it was defeated and empty. For many years the Jewish people reflected on why this had happened. Was God punishing the people for their sins? Had the Lord forgotten them? Was their God no longer powerful? Psalm 137 was written about the misery of the people in Babylon. They wept – no longer able to sing God’s praises. How could they sing, they asked, when they had been separated from the very land that their God had given them – the city Jerusalem where they worshipped the Lord? They remembered the destruction caused by their enemies and they did something very human – they longed for revenge.
Now sometimes, because we proclaim the Bible as the Word of God, we think that every word written in it is God’s desire. But there are parts of it that are instead a reflection of the desires of humans. Verses 8 and 9 of Psalm 137 reflect these human desires. “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
I do not believe that these verses are God’s desire. But these verses reflect the very real human emotions that can rise up when we suffer – when we believe that we have been wronged. The people of Israel suffered and they wanted revenge. Perhaps their own children had been killed. We don’t know for certain. But what we do know is that this psalm reveals to us the depth of their emotions – their despair and their anger.
There are times when we feel despair also. Perhaps you have experienced tragedy. Perhaps you have been wronged. Perhaps you have suffered during the economic crisis – losing a job or a home or financial security. We wonder why God has let this happen. Is God still there? We pray to God to help us. We wonder why he is silent.
In these times, faith can be difficult. I remember one time my brother was injured in a very bad car accident. For several days he remained in ICU close to death. As I sat in the ICU waiting room I could not pray. I tried but I just couldn’t. I was so overwhelmed with fear that I could not see God.
But even in the midst of suffering we are not alone. The Israelites were not alone. The Lord was with them, providing what they needed and eventually leading them back to Jerusalem. The Lord was with me also in that waiting room. I knew his presence primarily through others. A friend came by and brought food. Others came and sat. Others prayed for my brother and for me.
The key to faithfulness is to not let the destructive emotions take over our lives. When we face struggle we may feel alone, we may be afraid, we may feel angry. But to act on these emotions threatens to separate us from God and from others.
I heard a story recently of uncontrolled anger that became destructive. In New York City, a group of motorcyclist were riding in a pack. One stopped suddenly and was hit by a car. The other bikers swarmed the car and started beating the windows. The driver, afraid for his life and his family’s lives, drove off, hitting another biker. The pack then pursued the driver and when they finally caught up with him, pulled him out of his car and beat him. I’m sure that someone thought they were justified in their revenge. But now some are facing jail and others are facing life-long injuries.
When we are suffering, we can chose to not act on our emotions. We can choose instead to trust in God. This is what it means to have faith – to trust in God, even when we don’t see signs of his presence, even when we are hurting, even when it looks like the wrong person is winning. Jesus told his followers that if they had even faith the size of a mustard seed, they could do great things. Now a mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, so all that is needed is the smallest of faith.
But when we step outside of our emotions and trust that God is with us, God will use our lives to accomplish great things.
The Rev. Sally Franklin is pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fort Mill.