I have a couple of strongly differing opinions on Psalms of deliverance like Psalm 13. One is that I think I really like these Psalms because they feel incredibly honest to me. They start, like Psalm 13 starts, by asking “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” That’s a brutally honest question that one part of me rather likes. But the other side of me trembles at these Psalms because I feel like many people—perhaps most people—hear this not as some honest, beautiful prayer of vulnerability but as some kind of affront to their piety. It feels like doubt and doubt feels to us like the opposite of faith. I think we are at risk in our modern world of losing that sweet spot of vulnerability where we can pray prayers like this. I see plenty of examples of people who pray prayers of thankfulness or prayers of necessity, but prayers of trust in spite of the circumstances seem rarer. Perhaps this is because we are results-oriented people, so the idea of praying “How long, O Lord?” quickly turns to “I don’t believe in God because God has not answered me to my timely satisfaction.”
For the writers of the Psalms trust in God is the bedrock of their lives. Because God is their certainty they feel free to pray anything and everything—they pray “How long, O God?” and they pray, “Defeat my enemies, O God” and they pray “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They pray all this and so much more because God is not under debate—they are. They are more certain of God than they are of themselves. The modern problem is that we approach prayer, like we approach so many things in life, as a test of what is true in the world. God is very much under debate and often we are not. This is the opposite approach to those who wrote the Psalms.
For the Psalmist sometimes prayer is simply yelling stuff at God, because to yell our barest emotions at God is still to acknowledge God first before ourselves; it’s OK to be upset with God, just not to decide, in a moment of crisis, that now is the time for a crisis of faith as well. It is much better to yell at God than to decide in the midst of turmoil that God doesn’t exist… that God doesn’t matter… that a truly just and merciful God would never allow this thing to happen to me. In the face of despair all the cracks in your façade will appear and the question of what you truly trust will rise to the top. The Psalms don’t have time to decide in what they put their trust; by the time it’s here it’s too late.
In a way, the kind of faith we find in the Psalms are a warning for us. Deal with your demons while you have some semblance of control, because in the midst of things outside of your control you simply need to let go and fall back on what you trust. You see, the Psalmist makes this beautiful move in Psalm 13 from yelling at God to ordering God, “Consider and answer me!”--exclamation point!—to bargaining with God: “Give light to my eyes or I will sleep the sleep of death”—do this or I will die—to finally saying “my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. // I will sing to the Lord, // because he has dealt bountifully with me.” That’s the part that is beautifully bizarre to our modern ears. Do this God or I will die, but I will sing to the Lord because of how great he has been to me.
The Psalms don’t pull punches both directions. They are honest that things stink and they expect something better from this life, and they are also honest that, in spite of how much things stink, God is all they have at the end of the day. Everything they have is a gift and, sure, they can imagine a life that is better—especially in the face of tremendous loss—but that is no excuse from acknowledging that anything they do have they have as a gift. This is a tough dichotomy for us to grasp but it is paramount that we’re paying attention because we do have quite a lot in our lives to say “Thank you” for. We are blessed, and while it is normal and natural and even good to express our grief and pain over loss this is also not the last word and, tellingly, it’s not the last word not because God has a beautiful plan but because of the gift of life itself. The Psalmist doesn’t put his or her trust in God’s plan but in God’s self. That is a distinction we desperately need to make, because trusting God’s plan is no guarantee; trusting God is.
You cannot argue with a plan; you cannot yell at a plan; but you can yell at God. You cannot be frustrated by a plan—after all, if that plan is preordained, so what good will it do?—but you can be frustrated with God. You cannot love a plan, but you can love God. Most of all, God’s plan is often the same thing as saying “my plan” but you are not God, and this is something of which the Psalms are painfully aware. We are not God.
The Psalms take it all because God is their bedrock. It takes a certain kind of faith to say “How long, O Lord?” not as a test of God’s existence but as an honest prayer. Prayers like these are tough but they’re honest and they’re critical for us. So read the Psalms and sit with the Psalms. Pray the Psalms.