Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The poetry of anguish

However good we may think we are at deflecting distractions when focusing on God, nothing is so hard to deal with as isolation and distress from being wrongfully accused or persecuted without cause. It can rob us of inner peace and leave us preoccupied with self-defence.

The composers of the Psalms realised that in the absence of peace and security, it is still possible to open the heart and cry out to God from the depths of fear and indignation. It is a remedy against the loneliness of enduring isolation and betrayal.

'All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me ... Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.' (Psalm 41:7 & 9)

Words which will take on a particular resonance after the final meal shared by Jesus with his disciples

' .... people trample upon me; all day long my foes oppress me; my enemies trample upon me all day long, for many fight against me. All day long they seek to injure my cause, all their thoughts against me are evil. They stir up strife, they lurk, they watch my steps' (Psalm 56:1-2, 5-6)

'Even now they lie in wait for my life; the mighty stir up strife against me. For no transgression or sin of mine, for no fault of mine, they run and make ready.' (Psalm 59:3-4)

The Psalms are full of appeals to God from those who are under pressure from the contempt and false accusations of others.

'We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those about us.' (Psalm 79:6)

The sense of being overwhelmed by fear in hostile circumstances is described as being like drowning in a swamp.

'Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.' (Psalm 69:1-2)

Courage comes, not by suppressing such deep feelings or numbing oneself against them with alcohol or medication, but from voicing the fear, identifying what it is that destroys the self, then appealing to God for strength to cope, and overcome the inner terror. There is no need to conceal any anguish from him. Lingering guilt and shame can lead us to feel that affliction endured is a punishment from God, his expression of righteous anger at our sins, disproportionate to what we think is wrong with us. In the Psalms, cries of anguish are invariably related to remembering God's compassion and mercy.

Jesus sees such tribulation as inevitable in life, regardless of our sense of self worth. He encourages nobody to look for trouble or trials, rather the opposite. In the Lord's Prayer, he teaches us to pray 'Lead us not into temptation' or 'Do not put us to the test' or 'Save us from the time of trial', depending upon how the original Greek word peirasmos is translated. For his own part, he chose to embrace trial and suffering, to sacrifice his life to reveal the infinite depths of God's mercy and healing grace.

When Jesus was crucified he honestly expressed how betrayal, persecution, torture and isolation felt in his anguished cry of dereliction; "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me." (Psalm 22:1). However, this Psalm, developing with such a graphic account of physical and spiritual pain, doesn't end there, but continues begging God for help, and ends in exhortation to praise his sovereignty.

'You who revere the Lord praise him! All you offspring of Jacob glorify him, stand in awe of him all you offspring of Israel! For 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. From you comes my praise in the great congregation ...' (Psalm 22:23-25)

Psalms of lament are not easy to engage with, although what they express may well express experiences close to our hearts. Sometimes emotions switch confusingly between anguish and exultation, with a chaos that is natural when anyone is distressed. In prayer, it may seem like continued distraction, when it is really what we're bringing of ourselves into God's presence.

'Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly ... Eli observed her mouth. she was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk ... but Hannah answered him "No my Lord, I am a woman deeply troubled ... I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul to the Lord .... for I have been speaking out my great anxiety and vexation all this time".' (1 Samuel 1:10ff)    

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