Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Afflicted, But Not Crushed

Afflicted, But Not Crushed
Psalm 22[1]
I think we would all have to admit we have looked at someone who was having a hard time and thought, “They must have brought it on themselves.” While most of us in the church try to be more thoughtful than that, we can still experience the impulse to link misfortune or suffering with some identifiable cause. I think it’s a kind of protective mechanism. We use it, perhaps even unconsciously, to reassure ourselves that nothing that bad would ever happen to us. Even with our attempts to be compassionate, we all can have the capacity to essentially pass judgment on those who are distressed by assuming they are suffering for a reason.
Despite this protective impulse, the reality is that suffering is a part of all our lives. The pipe dream that we can somehow create for ourselves a life that is free from suffering is a by-product of our culture of prosperity and the “American Dream” it has fostered. It is not reality. The truth about our lives is that there really is no explanation as to why hardship strikes one family and not another. It is next to impossible to find any rhyme or reason to the way pain can suddenly cause our lives to come crashing down like a house of cards.
But the good news from our Psalm for today is that God doesn’t view suffering from the perspective that we somehow deserve it. For generations, even for centuries, many countless people have believed that. They believed that if you were good and did what was right, then God would bless you and your life would be happy. If you departed from the straight and narrow and did wrong, then God would punish you and you would suffer. Based on this rationale we have developed the habit of thinking that if someone has endured the mystery of suffering that has no apparent explanation, “they must have done something to deserve it.” And so the conclusion—the judgment—is that God is somehow punishing them.
But our Psalm for today takes a very different approach to suffering. It by no means minimizes the anguish of those who have to endure suffering. The opening lines of the Psalm are familiar to us from Jesus’ cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Ps. 22:1-2).[2] There is no mistaking the fact that this individual is undergoing intense anguish.[3] He says that he feels like he’s surrounded by lions or wild dogs (22:12-13, 16), that his strength has been poured out like water and melted away like wax (22:14-15). His suffering is very real, and he is struggling with the prospect that there may be no way out for him.
And yet, in our lesson for today, the Psalm takes an abrupt turn.[4] The psalmist cried out to the Lord, and the Lord has heard his cries and delivered him from whatever was causing his trouble. This raises a completely different possibility: rather than being the one who inflicts the suffering of those who are afflicted, God is the one who is on the side of those who suffer. The Psalmist says it this way: “he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Ps. 22:24).[5] I particularly like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “He has never let you down, never looked the other way when you were being kicked around. He has never wandered off to do his own thing; he had been right there, listening.” It seems to me the point is that God is the one who is right there, paying close attention to those who are suffering, hearing their every cry for help.
Unfortunately, the idea that those who suffer must be undergoing punishment for some kind of wrongdoing is something that has become ingrained for many of us.[6] We have traveled that path many times, and have the emotional scars to prove it. In my experience, the challenge with a thought pattern that has become a habit for us is finding a way to learn how to take a different path. Learning to think differently about our lives and our reality can be almost impossible. Some of us have spent years, decades, even whole lifetimes thinking that whatever suffering we experience in life is somehow deserved. While the truth sets us free, a lie can imprison us in ways we may not even notice. One way to begin to set ourselves free from that mental rut is to notice what we’re thinking and feeling. Sometimes that simple act can give us the chance to look at things from a different perspective. [7]
I think this pattern of thinking can be most harmful when we encounter suffering ourselves. When hardship strikes us we tend to think, “What did I do to deserve this?” And yet if we can take a moment to step out of the habit of thinking that way, perhaps we can embrace a different perspective. Like St. Paul, who himself was well-acquainted with suffering, we can say that we may have been afflicted in what we have endured, but we have not been crushed (2 Cor. 4:8).[8] As St. Paul makes clear, it is because of God’s sustaining presence that he can make that affirmation. The fact that he could trust in God’s unfailing love despite any hardships he encountered was also based on his faith that at the cross God demonstrated once and for all that he is the one who stands with all the afflicted in their suffering.[9] When we join St. Paul and the Psalmist and many others in trusting that God has always been right there with us no matter what we may have had to endure, then we too can say that we may have been afflicted, but we have not been crushed.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/1/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 109, where he says that the psalmist’s complaints express “the contradiction that rends the soul when the unity of faith and experience is broken.” Thus he “can speak of that rupture theologically only as forsakenness, as the distance of God.”
[3] H. -J. Kraus, Psalm 1-59, 295. In fact, in v. 6, Kraus interprets “I am not a man,” to mean “I have lost every semblance of humanness.”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 111: In the song of praise, “all has changed … . Instead of forsakenness, an answer has come to his cry (v. 24). Instead of the scorn of his fellows and the threat of evildoers, he is surrounded now by a company of brothers in praise and faith. Instead of laments at the encroachment of death, he can offer his brothers a wish for enduring life (v. 26).”
[5] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 764: “The affliction is still very real, but the affliction itself has somehow become an answer (v. 21b). What the psalmist now affirms is that God is present with the afflicted.”
[6] Cf. Sheldon Tostengard, “Psalm 22,” Interpretation 46 (April 1992):167-68: “Whereas the language of causality is rightly alien to faith, it is nevertheless common for Christians to suppose that the presence of a loving God means health and wholeness rather than bones that are out of joint and strength that lies helpless and bleached, like a potsherd along a path. A modern person might well ask what God is good for anyway if it is not to prevent trouble.”
[7] McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:766: “Entrusting one’s life to this kind of God as the psalmist did and as Jesus did, changes everything. For instance, life can be understood not as a frantic search for self-satisfaction and self-security, but as a matter of dependence upon God … . Suffering can be understood not as something to be avoided at all costs, but as something to be accepted—even embraced on behalf of others—with the knowledge that God shares the suffering of the afflicted … . Death can be understood not as the ultimate insult to human sovereignty, but as something to be entrusted to God with the assurance that nothing in all creation can separate us from God … .”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 90: “It is in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings that the powers of the resurrection and the new creation are experienced and are efficacious (2 Cor. 4:7ff.; 6:4ff.). This power is perfected in the weak (2 Cor. 12:9).” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2:633, where he reminds us that Paul’s experience with suffering is such that “he can describe the totality of it as a repetition in his own person of the dying (νέκρωσις) of Jesus.”
[9] Cf. H. -J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 301: “When Jesus now in the agony of the cross prays the first words of Psalm 22, … [he] enters the archetypal affliction of abandonment by God which was experienced in the OT by those who prayed … . But this means that Jesus solidly identifies himself with the entire fullness of suffering.”

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