Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bonhoeffer on the Psalms, part II: Suffering

One Web site I frequent is PostSecret, a site allowing people to mail in self-made postcards revealing their deep and shameful secrets. It's a beautiful thing, and it sometimes affects me deeply. I found this postcard to speak what is on the hearts of many:

Even this person has an innate sense that the pains and woes of this world, evils both of human and natural cause, are beyond human control. Tragedies remind us, as much as we live and act to the contrary, we aren't sovereign. Lest we drown in a flood of existentialist Angst, we think, Somebody else must be running this planet--right? Someone else has to be able to restore order, peace, health, life--right? But this also brings the sticky problem that this Someone, if he's in control over it all and can cure our ills, must also have been able to prevent the calamity. And we then cry, Why, God? Are you not loving? Do you not care? With Luther our hearts cry, "Bless us, Lord, even curse us! But don't remain silent!"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his little book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, shows us how the laments of the Bible also bring us into the heart of this paradox, this conundrum that seems unreconcilable this side of eternity:

. . . [The Psalms] do not deny [suffering] or try to deceive us about it with pious words. They allow it to stand as a severe attack on the faith. Occasionally they no longer focus on suffering (Psalm 88), but they all complain to God. No individual can repeat the lamentation Psalms out of his own experience; it is the distress of the entire Christian community at all times, as only Jesus Christ has experienced it entirely alone, which is here unfolded. Because it happens with God's will, indeed because God knows it completely and knows it better than ourselves, only God himself can help. But therefore also must all our questions again and again assault God himself.

There is in the Psalms no quick and easy resignation to suffering. There is always struggle, anxiety, doubt. God's righteousness iwhich allows the pious to be met by misfortune but the godless to escape free, even God's good and gracious will, is undermined (Psalm 44:24). His behavior is too difficult to grasp. But even in the deepest hopelessness God alone remains the one addressed. Neither is help expected from men, nor does the distressed one in self-pity lose sight of the origin and goal of all distress, namely God. He sets out to do battle against God for God. The wrathful God is confronted countless times with his promise, his previous blessings, the honor of his name among men.

. . . There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions [about God's justice and motives], as there are none in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ. But this answer is already sought in the Psalms. It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and agony on God: "We can no longer bear it, take it from us and bear it yourself, you alone can handle suffering." That is the goal of all of the lamentation Psalms. They pray concerning the one who took upon himself our diseases and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ. They proclaim Jesus Christ to be the only help in suffering, for in him God is with us.

. . . But not only is Jesus Christ the goal of our prayer; he himself also accompanies us in our prayer. He, who has suffered every want and has brought it before God, has prayed for our sake in God's name: "Not my will, but thine be done." For our sake he cried on the cross: "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" Now we know that there is no longer any suffering on earth in which Christ will not be with us, suffering with us and praying with us--Christ the only helper.

On this basis the great Psalms of trust develop. Trust in God without Christ is empty and without certainty; it is only another form of self-trust. But whoever knows that God has entered into our suffering in Jesus Christ himself may say with great confidence: "Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me" (Psalms 23, 37, 63, 73, 91, 121).*

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1970), pp. 46-9.

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