“I cry aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying. You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Psalm 77, opening verses (NRSV)
Anxiety can come from the purest place. Paul Tillich often spoke of it. For him it was the realization that we are separated from that to which we truly belong, to which there is the inconquerable desire to be reunited. His thought born out of the era of crisis theology still makes sense to us today, though the truth is that this realization is as old as as our species.
The Psalmist knew anxiety well. In German there is a word for it, “sehnsucht.” It means longing, though it is not a verb, but a noun. It is a state rather than an action, though it is certainly capable of producing action. Like sin it is the place we are in, before it is acting in a certain way or doing a particular thing.
We can only guess what makes for the Psalmist cry. Perhaps the Psalmist cannot give it language. C.S. Lewis said “we have an inconsolable longing for what we know not.” As Tillich and Lewis were theologians, we may be quick to answer that the “we know not what” is God. But what solace does that give us? After all who or what is God? The vague answers of thinkers and temple priests will not comfort the Psalmist. His anxiety is too real. His human heart feels too deeply. And like us, his humanity makes him too limited to offer an answer that does not retreat back into silence and keeps him from the restful slumber of night.
We lay awake often and tell ourselves, “your will makes no sense to me. What could my suffering and longing have to do with anything whatsoever? Why did you bring me to such a loathsome geography?”
We are small. We know this. Our hubris may inflate our egos and our accomplishments get the best of us, but we are very small. As children we sing, “I am weak, but He is strong.” In the quiet of night, the Psalmist knows this. He was given dominion over many things, but at night, he was lonely and afraid. At night he was every person. He knew his longing and weakness, but he also knew God was strong.
“I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples. With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. When the waters saw you, O God, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. ” Psalm 77 conclusion (NRSV)
It is not enough to live in the abstract of angst. Besides we are not equipped to stay there. In the dark night we will ponder our state and fill it with an unquenchable longing. Though we will also recount the deeds, both the mighty ones of our heritages and the personal ones that show us the beauty of a good creation and the kindness of a merciful God. And in this we will know we are not alone.
And it is not enough for God to have covered our history with mighty deeds or whose tender mercy has given us our days in the sun. God is not so one directional. He is not one to only direct our story, He must also be active in it. As if our suffering, and for many of us a deserved suffering, is anything. God was and is not content to be in heaven alone. He had to assume our beautiful and wretched form. He had to hold the carpenter’s awe, to sweat in the midday heat, form friendships and when it was time and though deserving of no such suffering, He was abandoned, pinioned to a chunk of wood and unable to breath, He bled out.
The mightiest deed God ever performed was putting on us that we may be allowed to put on Him.
Our dark nights will continue as well as our days in Eden. God knows how this feels for He himself felt and continues to feel these things. And when we lay awake at night or walk in the garden, we may be unable to give anymore language to who or what God is as we are our own longings, but we will know He is there.
Note: Painting: Weeping Girl, Edvard Munch, ca. 1907, Munch Museum Oslo Norway.