How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)
Psalm 13 is a member of the frequently-occurring category of psalm – the lament. Though only six verses, it features all the things found in laments that make us uneasy. It is a no-holds-barred prayer in which the psalmist affixes blame for his dire situation with God. In two verses, the psalmist levels four straight questions at God, all starting the same way: “How long?” It is an emphatic, even impolite, series of questions.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann warns against jumping to conclusions. Only to an outsider does this illustrate a failure of faith. On the contrary, it is, as Brueggemann writes, bold faith. Bold faith insists on presenting reality as it is experienced. It refuses to give a polite, edited-for-TV version. Prayers that arise from a contrived faith settle for a contrived god, a god who can’t handle the truth. Laments refuse to settle. They seek God and nothing less. Thus the jarring language.
If the first four verses of Psalm 13 are jarring for their boldness, the last two are jarring for their rejoicing. Like many laments, this psalm takes a 180-degree turn. “But I trust in your unfailing love,” writes the psalmist. “My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s name, for he has been good to me.”
Between the last line of verse four and the first of verse five, note the horizontal strip of blank, white page. I wonder how much time is tucked into that blank strip. Obviously things changed for the psalmist between verses four and five. How long did it take for that change to come? Before the rejoicing began? How many days passed in which verses one through four were the extent of his prayer and beyond that was just an unbounded blank? Maybe that blank space covers months. Maybe it took years before the joyous change in his situation compelled the psalmist to compose those final lines.
We don’t know. Even as these laments ask “How long?” over and over, they seem dead set against giving specifics. They give us only blank spaces. At the same time, this psalm is showing us how to live inside those blank spaces – wide, narrow or in-between. What do we do? We wait. We wait on God. Whether we wait patiently depends on what we mean by “patient.” We are patient in the sense that we refuse to give up on God and settle for second-rate alternatives. In other words, we refuse to dull the pain of blankness with alcohol or mindless entertainment. We refuse to simply distract ourselves with busyness. We don’t want to be numb (despite its appeal); we want what the alternatives can’t deliver: rejoicing. So we endure the blank.
Not that we like it. The blank always sucks. But here’s where the laments prove helpful. Their purpose is not to put us at ease with emptiness and the absence of God. Their purpose is, first of all, to give us permission to speak honestly with God about that discontent, even if it’s at the expense of politeness. Second, they remind us that the blank always comes to an end— when God shows up.
The question is simply a matter of how long.
Father, be with me in the waiting. Show me how to be patient as I wait for You to move. Speak into my life when I feel like You’re being silent.