Of Suffering and Hope

Psalm 31.9 – 16 NRSV

by James Blay

Somebody once told me that to lose hope is the greatest disaster that can happen to a person. The circumstances of life can bring us much despair, and hope is the only reprieve many of us have. Hopelessness is like a dark pit without a bottom, and when we fall into that pit, we keep falling.

I am reminded of this quote from Nelson Mandela, as I contemplate these times, this moment in the story of our existence, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.

These are interesting times, to say the least! The uncertainty, the fear, being confined to a particular space, trying to figure out this new normal, all of these are challenges we are compelled to live with now. All of a sudden we have come face to face with an important reality that makes us question the way we have lived in the world up to this point. We watch the news; look at social media and we get a glimpse of the kind of suffering people are going through all around the world.

Some of those people are our family, our friends, our neighbors. They’ve lost their jobs, they barely have enough to feed themselves and their family. Some are out on the streets, no place to run for refuge. Some are in the hospitals, sick with COVID-19 or some other disease, and their family can only look on from a distance. It sucks.

While many of us cannot claim that we are suffering right now, the truth is that there are many people who are. Because of this new reality with which we are now faced, our sisters and brothers are not experiencing just physical distress, they are also taking an emotional and psychological toll. Whether we are ready to acknowledge it or not, it is also taking a toll on us. We want this to end. 

We cannot bear the uncertainty. We want to be back to normal. We want to feel safe again. We want to gather again at our favorite spots. We do not want to feel lost or helpless anymore. But here we are stuck in the mire of chaos, searching and hoping for a way out. Gripped with fear, we run to stock up on “essentials” with the expectation that we will have enough to see us through. But our very attempts at self-perseverance exacerbate the suffering of others, especially those less fortunate than us. For example, low-income families who depend on WIC marked down items at the grocery store find themselves staring at blank shelves because those of us who can afford to, bought them all out. Think about the family who waits the first week of the month for their SNAP benefits to come in, only to get to the grocery store and find it picked to the bone of groceries by those of us who can afford to buy throughout the month. Consider that for a moment.  

Suffering is an ever-present reality for a lot of our sisters and brothers. The Rona has forced us to take a harder look at how our society is structured. The fact that children’s nutrition is dependent on whether or not they are in school; that affordable healthcare is tied in most cases to employment, should help us grasp the true nature of suffering many people go through all around us. While we may want to quickly ascribe some of these to the current pandemic and its repercussions, the fact is, suffering is an everyday reality for lots of people. 

So here then is the question; where do we turn in the face of suffering? Where do we find hope? Where do we find refuge and relief? These are the same questions facing the writer of Psalm 31. Like we often do in times of great suffering, the psalmist is crying out in lament, in search of hope, in search of refuge, in search of deliverance. 

Psalm 31 is a lament, a cry for help. Like other similar Psalms, Psalm 31 is a plea amid great despair. We may not have the actual details of what is happening to the writer, but we can infer from the reading that the writer is experiencing some kind of distress, some kind of oppression, some kind of yearning for deliverance and safety. Actually, the entire postexilic nation of Israel is in a constant battle for survival.

The Israelites as a people, and the writer of the psalm in particular find themselves continuously under the threat of larger nation states. They are ridiculed, oppressed, and threatened because of their culture, their faith, and their identity. They are regularly in search of respite from the dangers of the reality they live in. For the psalmist in particular, there is distress and grief, sorrow and misery, a wasting away of life. The writer is suffering anguish and neglect. 

Like most psalms of lament, the place of lament is not the end of the story for the writer. Lament in the psalms usually makes a shift towards confidence and hope, looking towards the future that the psalmist predicts God will provide. But this hope is deeper, richer than some of the clichéd theology we see around suffering in our own culture. These aren’t cliché statements thrown about, like “It’ll all be okay” or “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God is testing us.” Many of these have been thrown about already.

The psalmist is expressing deep trust in God’s ability to protect, to comfort, to provide refuge amidst suffering. Two things are happening here that our society tells us cannot coexist, anguish and hope. Too often we feel we can only exist in the dark places of life as one or the other; if we have hope, then we shouldn’t feel anguish. Or if we are in anguish, we don’t allow ourselves to see any hope. But the psalms of lament push us beyond this compartmentalization of grief and hope to a place where they can maybe coexist together.

So here we are now, on this Passion Sunday desperately looking for answers. We want the suffering to end. We are in search of refuge and hope. We want to know how to carry on every day in the midst of the uncertainties. Maybe it is time to let the psalm be our guide, let the psalm point us to hope in spite of suffering. Let’s allow the psalm to direct us to the source of our hope, so we can live faithfully with the tension of suffering and hope. Let the psalm remind us that even in our deep anguish, God is with us. After all, Jesus has modeled for us what it means to hope in the face of suffering.

Let us like the psalmist say with confidence in these uncertain times;

But I trust in you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.

Mary Oliver in her poem, “Lines Written In The Days of Growing Darkness,” like Psalm 31has given me reasons not just to hope during these dark days, but also a reason to live faithfully and fully. She writes;

Every year we have been witness to it: how the world descends into a rich mash, in order that it may resume.And therefore who would cry out to the petals on the ground to stay, knowing as we must, how the vivacity of what was is married to the vitality of what will be?I don’t say it’s easy, but what else will do if the love one claims to have for the world be true?So let us go on, cheerfully enough, this and every crisping day, though the sun be swinging east, and the ponds be cold and black, and the sweets of the year be doomed.

My prayer is that you too will find hope and strength in these words, you will find new reasons to live faithfully in these troubling times, to love deeper than you have loved, to spread joy further than you have imagined, to offer grace when least expected, to give of yourself in more ways than you can name, to let the light of Christ shine in and through you brightening the way for others to experience the hope that sustains you in these troubled times. Amen.