I’m not saying that joy isn’t a profoundly Christly sentiment, or that there’s any special virtue in misery. I agree with St Teresa of Avila who famously prayed for deliverance from “sour faced saints”.
But yesterday in our Sunday morning worship, as we sang song after song about how great God is and how happy he makes us, I wanted something else. I was feeling frustrated. Perplexed. Questioning.
Why this, God? I wanted to ask. And why that? But the songs were busy declaring goodness and glory. They weren’t asking anything.
Oh dear, I thought, maybe I’m in the flesh.
On Sunday nights, after supper, I usually set an hour apart for prayer, walking in a local park (we’re blessed with a big, beautiful one with trees and gentle hills).
Usually, I just walk and think – about our community, our church, people I care for, and myself (not always, I confess, in such a self-abnegating order). I pray in tongues quietly, as I think. More often than not I’ll settle on one or two topics on which I’ll express myself to the almighty, best I can. Sometimes I “hear” a divine response – a word, a mental image, or just an impression be it of peace or urgency or anything in between. Sometimes God just listens, a patient parent, to my childish prattle.
Last night I found myself chewing on some of the frustrations and yearnings I’d been feeling, in particular, the situation of the Jesus Army nationally. Putting it frankly, it bothers me that we’re not doing better. Fully aware as I am of the dignified wisdom in sayings about God’s calling to be “faithful rather than successful” (attributed to another even more famous Catholic Teresa), it nevertheless deeply concerns me that we are so often frustrated in our endeavours around the UK.
There is much to be thankful for – from individual lives changed to new Jesus Centres and our expanding network overseas. Yet there’s planty of heartache as some of our churches fail and quite a number of our newly baptised disciples slip back or fail to continue in faith. We’re not growing as we long for. Our northern front, from Liverpool to Leeds, is nigh-on a scene of desolation. We need many more leaders if we’re to plant the churches and communities we’d like to – and as we do really believe God has called us to.
Is God unable to bless us? I found myself asking God whether there was some "master sin" afflicting us corporately, hindering us, blocking God's blessing. Of course, we’re a church of sinners (no church I know isn’t), but it seems to me that, at heart, we genuinely desire to be faithful to God’s call.
I was left with the question hanging on the night air as I arrived home. It was one of those nights when God didn’t seem especially talkative.
Then this morning I read Psalm 44.
O God, we have heard with our ears,
our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old…
But you have rejected us and disgraced us
and have not gone out with our armies.
You have made us turn back…
Often in the Bible, such agonized prayers are followed by a confession of sin. Israel’s exile, for instance, was recognised by the prophets as having been the result of the nation’s rejection of God. But this psalm doesn’t take this stance. Instead, it contains the following surprising lines:
All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way…
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
This last line was quoted by the apostle Paul as a description of the experience of the Christian Church. Given that, whenever Paul quoted Old Testament scripture, he always had the whole passage in mind; and given that the passage in which he quotes this is about groaning and aching in prayer for the fulfilment of Spirit’s plans; and given that Paul knew quite a lot about setbacks and desires frustrated – I think we can see such frustrations as all part of what it means to be God’s people in the world.
And I think Paul had in mind the prayer that concludes the psalm:
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!...
Rise up; come to our help!
Shocking. Surely the psalmist should be telling God how beautiful he is, or how lovely it is to be resting in his arms, or how happy we are – not telling the almighty to wake up and remember his covenant obligations? Not suggesting that God isn’t with his people and he jolly well should be because his people have been faithful? Dreadful theology. Can hardly believe it’s in the Bible.
In fact, I reckon there’s a place for this in our praying and our worshipping. An important place.
“Come on, God! (Groan.) Go out with our armies! (Ache.) Rise up! Come to our help! (Sigh.) Don’t let us go down the pan! (Yearn.)”
We need songs and prayers that express longing, express questions, express groaning, even express impatience with God.
Time to read a few more psalms – and write a few new songs.