In the Old Testament, the question “how long” is a question of lament, of longing and of hope in the midst of hopelessness. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psalm 13:1–2) In this and many other Psalms the writer in anguish, feeling forgotten by God, inner wrestling with thoughts, sorrow of heart, and feeling cut off, abandoned by God asks, How long? We can all relate to this because at one time or other these have been our feelings. The bible doesn’t rush past these, ignore them or sweep them under the carpet as if they don’t exist. Rather we find faith is expressed as these hard questions are asked. Like us, the Psalmist knows things aren’t right and he world is not as it should be. The hard questions are asked, not because we or the Psalmist lacks faith, but because we have faith that God knows the answers and he is the one we should turn to in troubled times.
The example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross can help us. Jesus was in the centre of God’s will, yet he was troubled and suffering. In this suffering he did not doubt God but looked to God in prayer. How can being at the centre of God’s will be such a turbulent and dangerous place? We read that Jesus … began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. (Mt 26:37–38). Craig Evans wrote about this, Here we see the frightened Jesus fall on his face, begging God to take away the cup of suffering. This was a spiritual battle, a wrestling of the soul, with horror that lay before him and begging God for another way. In a sense here in the garden Jesus is entering into the depth of all human suffering. The heaviest load Jesus carried on Good Friday was not the weight of the cross, but the weight of human sin. I imagine that Jesus didn’t stop praying when he left that garden, but that through his arrest, trial and suffering he was constantly praying, until with his penultimate breath … Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34) Here is the tortured prayer of our saviour, stricken, praying until his final breath, crying out to God who seems far away.
Laments, cries for help, expressions of anguish like those in the Psalms or on the lips of Jesus do not reveal a lack of faith. If we lacked faith we would not cry out to God in prayer. If we did not think God is just we would not look to Him for justice. If we did not know God is compassionate we would not appeal to his love. Questioning prayers reveal the depth and strength of our faith. Anguished prayers reveal we are holding on, maybe clinging to hope in God. Prayers that challenge God to act reveal that we are holding on to God’s promises and expecting him to be faithful. Sometimes we are like disciples who Jesus takes into a “Garden of Gethsemane”. It is tempting to fall asleep, to ignore the reality around us. But maybe God allows us to feel the weight of sorrow so we will pray, crying out to him in anguish, so we will ask the hard questions, remaining faithful in prayerful hope, even to our final breath.
Have you ever prayed in a time of difficulty or anguish?
Did that prayer arise from a lack of faith or because you were holding on to faith?
Rev John Malcolm