how pilgrims suffer

My Soul Waits for the Lord
Psalm 130, A Song of Ascents.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
    O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    that you may be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.

Suffering is a uniquely human experience. Animals feel pain, of course, but don’t suffer as humans do. Human suffering occurs when pain has a context: how long have I felt this way, how long will it last, what will I do next? Or not do? Suffering is a kind of grief, for lost opportunities or damaged relationships or unfulfilled potential.

In Briddin, Nepal, we met a man with polio. But this was not the true measure of his suffering. He and his wife were trying to make a better life by expanding a guesthouse, in a village where several others were trying to do the same thing. She had to do the physical work because of his limitations, but he tried to organize the villagers into a co-op that could market their collective guesthouses and native crafts.

They had debt to pay and were falling behind. Their village was so small the government would not provide a teacher, so their children had no school. A daughter, 5, had been sponsored by a couple of trekkers and attended a private school in Kathmandu 15 hours away. They have a younger son, 2, and worry about him. The father has emailed Katie a couple of times— perhaps anxious for help with their son’s education. I doubt his suffering could be described in terms of the pain he feels in his body each morning. His pain is deeper than that because suffering includes all the things that surround our pain.

This is what the psalmist is feeling when he begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” He pleads for mercy. And for forgiveness. Our suffering is compounded by guilt and worry and loss. The psalmist here is completely humbled before a Holy God—if you “should mark our iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

The great beauty of the Psalms is they take our suffering seriously. Suffering is real. We need not mask it or deny it, at least not with God. We come before him broken. We come before him honestly. We come before him as people who suffer. “Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy (vs. 2),” we pray.

What we don’t find in this Psalm is easy answers or cheap psychological tricks or meaningless distractions. We can find those in self-help magazines and well-meaning friends. Nor do we find the money for our young son’s tuition.

What we do find is that God forgives (vs 4). His love is sure and his redemption rreal (vs. 7). In our need, we find God himself. Pain is real. And God is real. But they don’t cancel each other out.

Sometimes we cry out in our pain and the answer we get is silence. What to do then? Wait. “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word, I hope.” Certainly, our suffering leads us to his word and the hope that it offers: “he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” But the theme in this Psalm is waiting. “My soul waits, like a watchman for the morning.” This is repeated for emphasis. This is our job: to be a watchman.

The watchman is waiting for the sunrise, and it will rise as steadily and surely as ever. The dawn will break. The light will come. And the watchman just has to wait. He walks around, chats with the janitor, checks some locks. Only occasionally he warns of danger, but mostly he waits, with no doubt at all that morning will come, no matter how long or dark the night may be.

So waiting is the cause of human suffering, but also its redemptive gift—as we wait we “hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.” Without the darkness, we would never seek or know the light of our God. P. T. Forsyth writes, “think more of the depth of God than the depth of your cry. The worst thing to happen to a man is to have no God to cry to out of the depth.”

On our trek, we would never have known the heights if we had not started at the bottom. So wait. And hope. And know the steadfast love of the Lord.

The water wheel in Briddin. See guesthouse in the upper right by orange in prayer flag.

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