2 July 2022

Comfort in being known by God through despair

By Brian Rosner 

3 December 2021

When COVID-19 first hit few predicted that it would still be going strong at the end of 2021. All of us hope we are coming out the other side, but either way, the suffering it has caused is untold, not least in Melbourne. A pandemic is a disease of despair.  

What does Christian faith offer to those in distress? Along with the hope of divine intervention through answers to prayer and the practical, loving concern of a faith community, there are two vital resources located in the Christian tradition. One is the opportunity to voice your complaints to God, the other the notion that you are known intimately and personally by God, even in your distress. As it turns out, the two are related. 

The cry of lament 

The most frequent type of psalm in the Bible is that of lament, a cry of pain, sorrow and grief in the middle of suffering. In Psalm 13, verses 1-2 we hear:  

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? 

Such cries are less a crisis of faith than a crisis of understanding. The psalmists complain to God because they expect better of him.  

As it turns out, almost all the psalms of lament end in trust and praise, and in many the psalmist takes comfort from being known by God. The end of Psalm 13 is a good example, reading: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.”  

John Swinton writes that, “Lament provides us with a language of outrage that speaks against the way things are, but always in the hope that the way things are just now is not the way they will always be.” 

Known by God 

One of the things we need when facing serious hardship is the encouragement that someone knows what you are going through. The psalms also testify to such expressions of faith. In Psalm 31 we read: “I will rejoice and be glad in your faithful love because you have seen my affliction. God knows the troubles of our lives.” 

In the Old Testament, Israel experienced a series of distressing circumstances – slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, and exile in a foreign land. In each case God comforts the Israelites by reassuring them that he knows them in their distress. Though it would be an exaggeration for most of us to compare our pandemic plight to such experiences, sometimes examples with the volume turned up can be instructive.  

Oppressed and enslaved 

Early in the life of Israel, the people suffered considerable hardship when they were in bondage in Egypt. They performed “hard labour” under a maniacal Pharaoh. We hear: “The Israelites groaned in their slavery.” While not enslaved, many of us have experienced feelings of helplessness, and the sense that there is no end in sight. Such feelings can linger. 

Exodus 2:24 confirms that Israel was not left forgotten and unnoticed by the divine. We hear: “God looked on the Israelites and knew them.” Even if the alleviation of their suffering was some way off, knowing that God had taken notice of their anguish was the first step in its relief.  

Wandering aimlessly 

Following their rescue from Egypt the Israelites sojourned in difficult conditions in the wilderness for some 40 years. It was like living in “the waiting room” of the doctor’s surgery. They knew of the promised land, but year after year they languished. Where was the promise of blessing the nation?  

For some of us, pandemic life feels like we are in an interminable “holding pattern.”  So many of our plans have been abandoned or postponed. Does God know you when things seem to be going nowhere? God comforts the Israelites in the wilderness with the reassurance that he knew them even in the wilderness, saying: “I knew you in the desert, in the land of burning heat” (Hosea 13:5; my translation).  

Longing for home  

Our final example is several centuries later. In the ancient world exile was an extreme form of punishment. In 587 BC Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had captured the city of Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and sent into exile many its inhabitants. The psalmist wrote: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion [Jerusalem]” (Psalm 137:1).   

Missing home is a powerful and unpleasant emotion and can be an aching loss. Home is where you belong. The pandemic disruptions have left many missing the life we once had. You don’t have to be queuing for a return flight to have that gnawing sense of feeling out of place. Does God know when life seems to be missing the warmth, nurture, and love of home? 

In Israel’s case, God had not forgotten his people in exile. Describing his relationship to them as that of a devoted parent, he insists that there is less chance of him forgetting them than of a mother forgetting her child. We read, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).  

Taking Refuge in God 

We find in the story of Israel surprising resources for our own present experience. In times of distress, we may feel worthless and unloved, as if no one cares or even notices. Being known by God is a significant counterpoint to these destructive thoughts. To be reassured of God’s continued care, we can take refuge in the God who knows us intimately and personally: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (Nahum 1:7; ESV). 

If you or a loved one need support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. 

If life is in danger, phone Triple Zero (000). 

Reverend Dr Brian Rosner is the principal of Ridley College. He is the author of several books, including Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity. This article is adapted from an article he wrote for ABC Religion and Ethics and is used with permission. 

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