Monday, August 31, 2009

From selfdoubt to faith

Psalm 42 has always been one of my favourites, probably because it movingly portrays a person who was overwhelmed by life’s burdens, who felt overcome by sorrow and selfdoubt, but who eventually stood up, regained his faith and started living with new confidence. It shows how a person who had been through a time of darkness and depression, who was paralyzed by his unfortunate circumstances, starts seeing the light again so that, contrary to his earlier agony, we can hear him singing songs of praise and joy (v. 11).

To appreciate this remarkable transition from desperation and despondency to deep content and good faith, we have first to understand the reason for this man’s tremendous sorrow and disillusionment. He belonged to a nation that, in the sixth century before Christ, suffered a most terrible fate: the Babylonians had destroyed their land, killed their loved ones and had taken their leadership, their most talented people, into exile. Perhaps the most shattering part of this humiliating experience was that it also put their faith in jeopardy as for many years they had believed that they were God’s chosen people, that God permanently resided with them in His temple and would therefore never forsake them. But now the holy city together with the temple were gone, totally destroyed by an enemy who, adding insult to their injury, kept mocking them daily with the question: “Where is your God? Why has He forsaken you?” In their lonely hours these were the recurring questions, which haunted them day and night.

However, as one reads through the psalm you can’t help sensing a slow and very subtle change in mood. This is the beauty of psalm 42, that while we see the psalmist battling as if in helpless despair, we also see that his struggle is no passive surrender to the terrors of the night. In fact, slowly and determinately he rises up and comes through, almost like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes. When we reach the end of the psalm the tone of sadness, although still there, has been subdued, integrated and eventually transcended by a tone of hope and joy. “Why am I so sad? Why am I so troubled? I will put my hope in God, and once again I will praise him, my saviour and my God.”

Perhaps this is the great art of living – that we learn to embrace the paradoxes of life and remain hopeful in spite of the ambiguities; or as someone else put it, that we accept our lives as reflections of a line which constantly twists and turns in an up- and downward fashion, and still keep trusting and seeing to it that the main trajectory of this line holds a steady upward curve. And we may indeed believe that this is possible because as the psalmist slowly realised, God remains the living God, our Defender, the One who will again show his constant love during the day, so that we may have a song at night, a prayer to the God of our lives (v 8). We can feel secure even if our prayer is at times only uttered by way of a deep sigh, an honest longing for God like a deer panting for water.

Carel Anthonissen

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