Many know the following verses by heart:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
This is a great passage, full of hope and promise! We need promises of hope in hard times, but we all know how difficult it can be to trust. In our congregations, sometimes opinions and emotions can run high and break trust.
We find this in the Scriptures, too. Genesis is full of stories of the shattered trust between humans and God (Adam and Eve, the flood narrative), and between humans (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers). Abraham and Sarah, recipients of the divine promise, have seasons of lack of trust. Moses, Saul, David, Jonah, Job, Peter, and Thomas all wrestle at times to trust God. Why would it be any different for you and me?
I am writing these words at a time of great uncertainty and suffering because of the coronavirus. While no one knows what the future will be like, one thing is certain: there will be other difficult times. It is one of the reasons the psalms retain their resonance generation after generation.
It is common to think of the book of Psalms as primarily a book of praise. Indeed, psalms of praise are what we probably know best. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (8:1). “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His Holy Name” (103:1). In Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann classifies these as “psalms of orientation.” They express gratitude and praise for God’s ordering of life. When life is filled with blessings, it is easy to trust and praise God.
But we know that life is not always good. Mennonite author David Augsburger states, “Trust is a two-way street. Two-way honesty. Trust, by its very nature, aims at interpersonal truth. . . . Trusting follows truthing; truthing increases trusting” (Caring Enough to Confront, p. 70). If one wants a truly trusting relationship, then one must be willing to confront, to speak truth.
Augsburger calls this “care-fronting.” Interestingly the Scriptures contain accounts both of God confronting humans (God questions Adam and Eve, God confronts Jonah under the withered bush, Jesus offers his wounds to Thomas) and humans confronting God (Abraham interrogates God about destroying Sodom, Moses pleads with God not to kill worshipers of the golden calf, even Jesus cries Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Maybe Jesus’ plea gives us a clue as to the importance of truth-telling and care-fronting.
The psalms are a good place to explore trusting and truth-telling. “The Psalms are a kind of First Amendment for the faithful,” says Ellen Davis. “They guarantee us complete freedom of speech before God, and then . . . they give us a detailed model of how to exercise that freedom, even up to its dangerous limits, to the very brink of rebellion” (Getting Involved with God, pp. 8-9).
I like that. I really like that because my life and the life of the world can be messed up too much of the time. More than one-third of the psalms are prayers of complaint, anguish, and lament, and yet these are the least used psalms in times of corporate worship and private devotion. The psalms are evidence that lament is just as important as praise.
Brueggemann labels these complaints and laments “psalms of disorientation.” They are cries to God when everything is falling apart. “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1). Sometimes it is because of sin and poor choices that we experience judgment (Psalm 51). Other times our enemies are so many and so successful that we cry out in pain and frustration for God to vindicate God’s name and smite our enemies, even their infants (Psalm 137).
Many of us can relate to these feelings. This is the necessary truth-telling before there can be trust. Psalm 88 contains perhaps the most wrenching wail of despair and anger toward God with all hope abandoned: “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? . . . I am desperate” (14-15).
As the world is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, how can we be set free so that trust can be rebuilt, reimagined? The psalms can help us voice our pain, our grief, our loss. We can cry out to God with raw emotions and express our lack of trust in a world that seems to betray us.
The prophet Habakkuk had more reason than most to be up front with God in his truth-telling. The Babylonians had devastated the land, destroyed the temple, and were even lauded as the instrument of God’s judgment. There was much Habakkuk did not understand, and he voiced bitter complaints. Yet in the end he confesses his trust in God: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18).
This type of ultimate trust is found in passages Brueggemann classifies as “psalms of reorientation.” “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me” (30:1-2).
This restoration of trust is not simply a return to previous ways, the status quo, but to a reordering of life that is good for all, especially those on the margins. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob . . . who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. . . . The Lord watches over strangers; He upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (146:5-9).
The psalms describe the whole range of human response to life’s good and hard times. They also describe the variety of ways God responds to this wayward creation. In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris describes her deepening of Christian faith during sojourns in Benedictine communities. She found ways for the psalms to revive trust. As she daily heard the psalms prayed and sung by the community, she realized that God behaves just like we do. God mourns, grieves, suffers, and is even willing to die for us. It is the price of birthing a free creation. The psalms remind us that the Spirit of God laments with us and groans with us.
Finally, a word for us Brethren: We are going through a time when trust is tattered and frayed. This is sad because we have so much more in common than the differences that would divide us. My prayer for us is that our truth-telling be done in the spirit of care-fronting so that trust may be rebuilt. The psalms can help us navigate the process of trusting, truth-telling, and care-fronting.
For further study
To read: Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, by W. David O. Taylor, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2020.
To watch: Bono and Eugene Peterson: The Psalms, Fourth Line Films Production, 2002. Available on YouTube.
David Valeta has a Ph.D. in biblical interpretation. He is on the preaching team at Prince of Peace Church of the Brethren in Littleton, Colo., where his wife, Gail Erisman Valeta, is pastor.