bible study, lament, promise, psalms

How to Scream at God

I once asked the question out loud, “Have you ever been angry at God?” and I was met with a confusion of quiet stares. On my left I saw a half nod, quickly quieted as her eyes crossed the room. On my right, solemn and serious foreheads wagged stoically, no. A few frozen faces held their breath as the question hung in the air. Yet, for some reason, no one boldly shouted out their yes or no. The question uncomfortably stood before us, naked and embarrassing, and we didn’t know how to answer.

In some capacity, we have all come face to face with a depressing dissatisfaction in this life. Even if it hasn’t been our own, we probably know a friend or family member has suffered with an unsolvable problem. While God isn’t always the immediate culprit for things gone wrong, we must say something about His involvement. We must include Him, because God knows everything – He created all and He sustains all things. So, what is He doing about all this evil that recycles around our lives, day after day? God is supposed to be completely loving, yet He will allow his own dear child to suffer with cancer. What kind of love is this? God is supposed to be good, but He was silent when abuse shattered yet another family. He is supposed to be present everywhere, so where is He in terrible times like these? Logically, our twisted minds try to find a way to make sense of an Almighty God at whom we might be angry.

We smash into a terrifying fear. If we are pushed to the edge of our understanding, then one of these two realities must give way. Possibly, the claims about God are untrue – He is not all-knowing, He is not good, He is not loving, He is not powerful. Maybe there are petty explanations for the way God acts. We can reason that God was never involved in the world in the first place. Here, we totally give up on an Awesome and Perfect Almighty God, just so we can comprehend why He could allowed these things to hurt us.

But on the other hand, in a meager effort to save the reputation of God, we may think it is wise to offer excuses for the Most High God. We may try to trivialize the pain, believing that “God will not give us more than we can handle”. We may tell ourselves that our faith is not strong enough, we must pray harder and do better things for God to come near. The suffering and tears may be explained as His punishment for specific wrongs we have done, all to excuse the actions of God. And some will simply tell us that this is God’s plan. We step back to wonder if we must ignore the seriousness of our heart-wrenching sorrow, just so we can keep God’s name holy.

But when a mother must touch a sweet, cold, breathless shell of a tiny life unlived, after 243 hopeful days of lovingly embracing her now stillborn baby, where does she turn? When any of us are confronted with a tragedy, personal or public, our own trust in the True God is at stake. Here, especially in these times, is where all the prayers, the hope, the relationship, the promises have to mean something to our sadness. When nothing else makes sense, the One who is Good should be there to offer an answer. And so, the most faith-crumbling situation is when that cosmically eternally Good One, is not there. The most soul-crushing relationship is with a loving God who does not love. And maybe the most terrifying relationship is a God that is so just and righteous that He doesn’t care about us. We tremble at our most un-pious, un-patient, un-faithful response when our struggle becomes too overwhelming – because we just might admit that we are viciously angry at our God.

High beyond the invisible heavens, God gives no answer for himself. He does not explain where he has been and why he takes so long. Can He not hear the screams? Why does He wait to act? Nothing. The Amazing Creator of the Heaven and Earth is hidden. His mind, His ways, His plans remain sealed behind the eternal horizon. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom 11:33-34) A God who sits on trial for the tears of his people is silent. And it is too much to bear.

But, instead of shoving words in the mouth of an unsearchable God, instead of explaining away His absence in the pain of our life, the healthy response is to scream at Him. Now, there is no doubt about it, our modern language has lost the words to scream at God. So much so, that we think it might even be a sin to cry out to Him. There is evidence in our advice and counsel and confusion when faced with suffering. Our reasoning and excuses expose our desire to answer for God when He doesn’t. Modern cultural Christianity has shamed those who even begin to complain to God. We somehow equate a turbulent prayer life with an unfaithful walk. But this is just not true.

For years and years, the faithful have had a rich conversation of complaint against God. Vividly, we experience the beauty of screaming at God in the book of Psalms. This collection of prayers captures the best and worst of times for God’s people. It explores the heights of praise and the depths of sadness. And most exquisitely, we can listen to the godly prayers that have been set free to scream at God.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)

Psalm 22, in particular, begins with a heart wrenching cry to God. My God, he says, my God. You are the one I know to be MY God. But everything that follows is nothing like the God you are supposed to be. Why have you forsaken me – you promised that you would never abandon me (Deuteronomy 31:8) Why are you far from me when you should be near? (Deuteronomy 4:7) Where is your sure answer? (Exodus 3:7) Where is my promised rest? (Exodus 3:17) Every “why” and “where” exposes God to be far away from His own promises in this time of serious need.

But there is no answer or explanation. The psalmist cannot rescue God from his absence. The psalmist does not attempt to explain where He has been. God is not near. God has forsaken. God has forgotten. God does not give his rest. Let’s be as plain as he is in this prayer. God is not keeping His own promises.

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. (Psalm 22:3-5)

With jealous admiration, the psalmist remembers God. The great stories of rescue, amazing deliverance from evil. In contrast to His absence of late, this was how God is supposed to act. In fact, God has a home for Himself – He lives on the songs and praises of His people, and that’s right where He belongs. It’s simple. They cried, they trusted and God did His part – He saved. But, with jealous admiration, the psalmist complains to God. THEY cried, THEY trusted. God, now where is your deliverance? And what about me?

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”(Psalm 22:6-8)

So, with no love from neighbor, with no favor from God, the psalmist sees himself as he is, stripped down to the core. He shifts his focus back again to himself. וְאָנֹכִ֣י תוֹלַ֣עַת Yet, I am a maggot, he says, just like the shameful worms that fed on leftover manna (Exodus 16:20). I have no friend by my side. I have nothing to offer you, God, to make this any better. This weak and lowly state is laughed at by the world. And the mocking words are beginning to set in. Where is God? Let Him rescue me! If He is really Lord of all, let Him save me now!

Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.(Psalm 22:9-10)

Just as quickly as the psalmist considers his lowly estate, he looks heavenward and cries to God. In contrast, these few verses begin with כִּֽי־אַתָּ֣ה “indeed you!”, accusing his God. Personally, individually, ever since he was a helpless tiny baby, God caused him to trust מַ֜בְטִיחִ֗י (hiphil participle). It was never his choice or power or will to be born, to be drawn out of the womb. God started this relationship from the very beginning, whether the psalmist liked it or not. At the start of his life as an infant, he was forced to trust in God, as his mother fed him milk for his very survival. It is God’s fault in the first place that this wretched man calls to him even now. So, the psalmist screams to the hidden God that he doesn’t understand, by pointing his finger at the God who claimed his life: the same God that captured the praises of his Fathers, the same God that made him live by casting him on the care of his mother. His identity has always been the same. Fittingly, the last words of these verses are simply אֵ֣לִי אָֽתָּה “You are my God”. The very same God he cried to in anguish at the beginning of this psalm, saying, My God, My God. Promises or not, there is nothing I can do.

Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. (Psalm 22:11)

Here is center of lament, the scream, the complaint, and the answer. The problem is with God, and he is the only one who can fix it. Since we cannot change God, since we cannot control the suffering that devours us, all we can do is scream. Yet, all of this is never outside of a deep and personal faith. In fact, lament it is a vital part of a trusting relationship which praises the complete paradox of God. We cry out the whole truth of God, not just one comfortable piece. He forsakes, AND he surely will keep His promises. He is holy and obscure, AND he is “my God”. He is far, AND he is near. Schizophrenically, faithfully, we cry and praise and scream and pray.

Lament exposes our extreme need for salvation. It makes us confess our works and explanations are worthless. We are but maggots before God’s wonderful and terrible ways. As the psalmist admits: it is You, my God, you alone whom I can trust to save me. There is none to help, I can only wait for your mercy. You don’t tell me why. You don’t tell me how. But it is YOU who must say something.

And if this tender branch of raw prayer is cut off, then a desperate trust and complete dependence on the true God can rot and die. Without lament, our faith dangerously morphs into a country club for those who are doing just fine, not needing a savior. Without lament, we enthrone the happy and uplifting and repress the suffering of the saints behind a fake smile. Without lament, the greatest virtue is to appear healed and victorious, and not to faithfully scream at God. Suffering and joy, prosperity and poverty, strength and sickness, should all point us to God’s mercy alone. But in reality, when we are deep in lament, we more clearly discern our need for outside deliverance. Lament makes us look away from our own ability to fear love or trust God. We can scream at God, not imagining the purposes and causes and solutions for a hidden God, but clinging to the promise He has given.

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet– I can count all my bones– they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:14-18)

Suddenly, here in Psalm 22 we realize it is not simply an Old Testament psalmist screaming. It is not only our own hearts screaming at God’s unkept unbroken promises. These words also sound just like a crucified Christ, pinned on a bloody cross, screaming louder than we ever could.

Christ was poured out for the sin of the whole world. His bones pulled to extreme contortions to hold each and every failure on His perfect shoulders. His loving heart has melted, His bruises and battered muscles waste away, and He whispers from the cross, “I thirst”. Ungrateful evil eyes surround His last few breaths. They wait to pounce on the last ounce of decency He can give up. And truly, this was the Son of God who bore the greatest of laments.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, Jesus cries. Here, He was graciously enthroned on the torturous punishment of Israel. He was a stripped and scourged, resembling a maggot of mankind. But what others mock as the weakness of God in a lamenting Christ, we hold this prayer dear. He feels the ultimate sorrow. He cries the most abandoned tear. But he does more than just stand in our place of lament. God Incarnate screams at God Almighty, on our behalf. My God, My God, he says for you, why have you forsaken us? Words we only dare to say because we already know the answer. But, the Hidden God doesn’t answer out loud; here He lifts up his Revealed Son.

Jesus-on-Cross
The quiet Father shows his loving hand with two wooden beams stained by his own dear child, instead of you. The silent God shows his goodness early in the morning three days later, appearing for you. The hidden Almighty shows his eternal mercy living and walking and breathing new life in Jesus, now speaking to you. What was and is and will be unknown, God shows you His promised answer: Christ.

Dr. Martin Luther says, this is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore [a Theologian of glory] prefers, works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil… It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his “good works” unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.

It is time to scream to the God who made you trust. It is time to cry to the God whom your Fathers have praised. It’s time to rub the promises of God back into His own ears. My lament cries: I am a maggot, and you – you are my God. I, too, am thrown onto the manna from heaven. I have no choice but to feed on your promise of life. I certainly cry, but at the same time I certainly taste the Feast of forever. And so our prayer of lament is also a prayer of a hope anchored in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it. (Psalm 22:23-31)

Focused on Christ during our suffering, we know God is near. God has not left us alone, He has not forsaken His promises. Especially when we scream at God, we also proclaim Christ has already secured and won the victory. When we cry that this world and our hidden God is unfair, God continues to act for you by body and blood, bread and wine, water and word, revealing His already Revealed. As a bold maggot, we will freely proclaim the only hope we have left. He has done it, it is finished. Christ has completely answered for every scream at God.

 

Further Reading:
Floysvik, I (1997) When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms. St. Louis: Concordia Academic Press. p. 136-176

Davidson, R (1998) The Vitality of Worship: Psalm 22 Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company. Pg. 78-83

Luther, M. (1518) Heidelberg Disputation. Retrieved 10/22/2017 http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php#18

Lessing, R. (2011) On Suffering, the Bible and preaching – Part 2. Retrieved 10/22/2017 https://concordiatheology.org/2011/02/on-suffering-the-bible-and-preaching-part-2/

 

 

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