Why are we as a culture so obsessed with only portraying our “best side” to even those supposedly closest to us?
To take that question a step further, why does the culture within the church seem to exude this obsession maybe even more than the rest of society? Is it because we believe a good Christian should always have their “stuff” together? Is it because we believe it’s our job, as members of the church, to make God appear to be this joviality-inducing entity? Is it because we are scared people won’t be attracted to God (or “our” church) unless things feel light-hearted? Is it because it makes us feel (or at least look) like we’re worthy to come before God because we don’t have (or appear to have) any heavy sins/burdens weighing us down? Is it because this is how we have always been trained to act at church? I could go on. I’d be willing to bet we’ve all believed in at least one of those falsities at some point in our lives. For many of us, we’ve been raised to believe we keep our burdens to ourselves for (at most) behind-closed-door conversations, and at times keeping them from even our spouses and closest confidants.
My family is approaching 9 months being a part of The Parish Church. It’s tough to even put to words our experience thus far. Living in community, of which TPC is deeply committed to, will without a doubt create pain, controversy, inconvenience, frustration, and countless other negative adjectives. However, when pursuing a life in Christ is the core of your pursuit in community, those emotions end up paling in comparison to the growth, healing, sense of belonging, and peace that will ensue.
Psalm 130 brings these truths together in a beautiful, authentic way.
Help, GOD—the bottom has fallen out of my life!
Master, hear my cry for help!
Open your ears!
Listen to my cries for mercy.
If you, GOD, kept records on wrongdoings,
who would stand a chance?
As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit,
and that’s why you’re worshiped.
I pray to GOD—my life a prayer—and wait for what he’ll say and do.
My life’s on the line before God, my Lord,
waiting and watching till morning,
waiting and watching till morning.
Oh Israel, wait and watch for GOD—with GOD’s arrival comes love,
with GOD’s arrival comes generous redemption.
No doubt about it—he’ll redeem Israel,
buy back Israel from captivity to sin.
— PSALM 130 —
The Psalmist makes it evident immediately he is coming from a place of despair and suffering. Yet, in the same moment, shows no sign of shame associated with his suffering.
The flow of this psalm is such a beautiful template for prayer and the character of God. If I try to break it down, it ends up looking something like this:
Help, God! Life Sucks! (Suffering is real, but I know You’re the one who can help me)
Please hear my cries for mercy! (I’m desperate for help from You, and I know You’re the sovereign God)
If You kept score, I’d be screwed. (I know You’ve got the power to condemn, and I can’t express how thankful I am that You forgive!)
I’m anxiously waiting to see how You show up for me (I know You’re faithful and You hear me)
You redeem (Amen!)
Eugene Petersen says it so well in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:
And so we find in Psalm 130 not so much as a trace of those things that are so common among us, which rob us of our humanity when we suffer and make the pain so much more terrible to bear. No glib smart answers. No lectures on our misfortunes in which we are hauled into a classroom and given graduate courses in suffering. No hasty Band-Aid treatments covering up our trouble so that the rest of society does not have to look at it. Neither prophets nor priests nor psalmists offer quick cures for the suffering: we don’t find any of them telling us to take a vacation, use this drug, get a hobby. Nor do they ever engage in publicity cover-ups, the plastic-smile propaganda campaigns that hide trouble behind a billboard of positive thinking. None of that: the suffering is held up and proclaimed—and prayed.
I believe each and every one of us has a deep longing to be truly known, and that’s not possible without knowing the good and the bad, the highs and the lows.
Many people suffer because of the false supposition on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition. Therefore ministry is a very confronting service. It does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.
With that said, Psalm 130 also points out the need to…
…immerse the suffering in God - all the suffering is spoken in the form of prayer, which means that God is taken seriously as a personal and concerned being. Certain sentences in the psalm show specific knowledge of the character of God as a personal redeemer: God is personal so that we may have an intimate relation with him; God is redeemer so that we may be helped by him… And this, of course, is why we are able to face, acknowledge, accept and live through suffering: we know that it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries.
Such are the two great realities of Psalm 130: suffering is real; God is real. Suffering is a mark of our existential authenticity; God is proof of our essential and eternal humanity. We accept suffering; we believe in God. The acceptance and the belief both emerge out of those times when “the bottom has fallen out” of our lives. But there is more than a description of reality here, there is a procedure for participating in it. The program is given in two words: wait and watch. The words are at the center of the psalm. “I pray to GOD—my life a prayer—and wait for what he’ll say and do. My life’s on the line before God, my Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning.” Wait and watch add up to hope… The psalmist’s and the Christian’s waiting and watching—that is, hoping—is based on the conviction that God is actively involved in his creation and vigorously at work in redemption.
[Hope] is imagination put in the harness of faith.
For the person who suffers, has suffered or will suffer, Psalm 130 is essential equipment, for it convinces us that the big difference is not in what people suffer but in the way they suffer. The psalm does not exhort us to put up with suffering; it does not explain it or explain it away. It is, rather, a powerful demonstration that our place in the depths is not out of bounds from God. We see that whatever or whoever got us in trouble cannot separate us from God, for “forgiveness is your habit.” We are persuaded that God’s way with us is redemption and that the redemption, not the suffering, is ultimate.