“Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy! Attend to me, and answer me…” (Psalm 55:1-2)
"Give ear to my prayer!" "Stop hiding!" "Attend to me and answer me!" These are the desperate solicitations of a man on the edge, a man out of options, out of resources (both material and emotional), and almost out of his mind. They are not well-thought-out words. In them we see a mind unraveling, like a roll of string dropped from the hand of a child and rushing across the hallway floor. Frantic and honest, they are heart-speech, not head-speak.
Advancing with words of pathos and pain, we learn the situation that occasions the poem is grim. The Psalmist is immersed in unrelenting panic ("my heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me, fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me"). Additionally, a personal betrayal by a once-trusted companion has taken its toll: "For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God's house, we walked in the throng." Caught between a silent God and a breakdown in a once vibrant friendship, the Poet reflects on the fragility of trust.
Today, amidst the quaking troubles of everyday life and the depressing theatre of postmodern existence, we find resonance in the confession of an ancient musician who might as well have posted his lyrics upon the storied walls of social media. It is such anxiety, surging from the painful wounds of experience and the burgeoning awareness of aloneness that fog around him with foreboding aggression.
Trust means union, togetherness, partnership. It is the bond that holds relationships together, and the warmth that preserves our hearts from turning cold. As social creatures, we flourish in some form of community. But this man is alone, and his community has betrayed him. His aloneness drives him to fantasize about further isolation: "And I say, 'Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find shelter from the raging wind and tempest."
There is perhaps no better observation about the nature of anxiety and depression than its fundamental desire for avoidance. Life just gets too hard. Simple and small things become sinkholes that greedily steal energy, relationships become burdens that overwhelm serenity, the suspicion of being misunderstood by others creates greater isolation. In that isolation, self-soothing strategies turn destructive: drugs, sex, porn, shopping, eating, cutting, binging, purging, drinking, and obsessing—pick your dark therapy. Soon feelings turn into moods, and moods begin to narrate our experience and a festering gangrene sets in. Having eroded the bonds of trust between God and neighbor, depression and anxiety start eroding the bonds of trust in one's own self. Confidence drops, self-loathing increases, helplessness replaces agency, and self-hate and shame become daily accusers.
In Psalm 55, the Poet screams the venom of brokenness into the night: "Attend to me! Answer me! O God, stop hiding from me!" He reflects and obsesses over past setbacks. He curses those who cause him pain, "Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive!" Yet, through all his pain, he does not succumb to total hopelessness. He does not surrender the truth. Stubborn, defiant, storm-tossed but not stamped-out, the truth anchors itself into reality threading a line through doubt and darkness and into the relational warmth of trust.
The glorious recognition of this reality comes with the word "but." This little word is lavish. It is also a wall-breaker. For the out-of-options person who can't reach beyond the suffocating closure of negativity, "but" is etymological dynamite; it is a blank check for the impoverished, a certain future for the dying, and a torch of hope for the pit-dwellers. "But" means, "Yes, yes, all that, yet something new-something more, something to also consider." The Poet says in verse 16, "But I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice. He redeems my soul in safety from the battle I wage…" Notice what is not said here. There is no sense of how or when God will act. There is only a sense that he will. All the puzzles aren't solved, all the troubles aren't over, and all the suffering hasn't ended. But…as much as that is true, so also is this: God is reliable. The Poet doesn't have all the answers, but he finds a way to have hope nevertheless. He finds his hope by neither diminishing the horrors of his experience or letting those experiences narrate falsehoods about God's reliability. Stuck between a God who will deliver but hasn't, and a breakdown that ensues but will one day end, the Psalmist anchors his hope in who God is, not in visions of how to make things better.
The maturity of this approach is visible in how these verses match with earlier ones. At the beginning of the Psalm, he confesses, "Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy! Attend to me, and answer me; I am restless in my complaint, and I moan." These words are heartfelt and true. Yet, "Give ear to my prayer, O God," is answered with, "God will give ear and humble them." "I am restless in my complaint, and I moan" is met with, "Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint, and he hears my voice. He redeems my soul in safety." "Yes, yes, all your complaining is true…but!"
There is a powerful lesson to be learned here. Hope is not only based on seeing the right options but in trusting the right person. It is essential to understand this, "but" is not a transformation. The Poet is not free from suffering, nor does he stop his complaining. He has not reconciled with his betrayer and still heaps curses at him. But all that being the case, he widens his scope and sharpens his focus upon God. For however real his circumstances are, God is truer. However deep his pit, God's ladder is longer, and however stained in sin, God's forgiveness is a better bleacher. So true is God and his promises that the Psalmist defies convention and mood and teaches himself—teaches himself-- to utter rational-blasphemies and circumstantial-heresies. Faith, like light, pierces the darkness and shines a spot of clarity on the What-is-Coming, the God arriving soon into your future, your savior and deliverer. Thus faith is the bravery that acknowledges the reality of present circumstances while at the same time treating the "not-yet" of deliverance as the "already-here".
Is the Psalmist healed? No. Has he gotten his wish to fly away like a dove? No. Does he have all the answers and options to solve his current dilemmas? No. But he has hope. He has focus, he sees God as being on his side and for his good. He is teaching himself not how to feel but how to live. He is learning how the truth sets free, and the blind see. He is overturning the present reality with a more concrete one. He is reorienting himself to ultimate things. And such focus creates the trust that warms his heart to beat with love and not lose hope. Thus the Psalm ends with another glorious "but", a "but" that says, "yes, yes, all that is true—"but I will trust in You." And thus, the God of promise becomes bigger than the problems of experience when we learn we don't need the answers to move forward and flourish. We learn we can trust the God of the cross in all our circumstances. That trust breaks down walls, so that even if our present circumstances don't immediately change and the constrictions and limited options of life seem unassailable, we trust in the One who makes dry highways through seas and life from death.