When it comes to promising the sky, Psalm 128:1-4 doesn't beat around the bush:
Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
Thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord.
There have been times in my life when I read this psalm and think, "Oh yeah?"
Aside from its sexist viewpoint, the text seems way too simplistic. Unrealistic. And after all my life experience of trying to walk in the ways of God, it may even be fraudulent. It begs to be doubted, if not scoffed at.
Wouldn't it be great if it were true? But I've known people whose lives come close to this portrait of happy faithful living, but then are devastated by an unexpected tragedy. Or financial reversals wipe them out. Or a child descends into the world's darkness never to emerge again. I know I have my own scars.
Adversity seems ever ready to attack us, despite our faith, despite this promised happiness. Cleo LaRue, the eminent preacher and Princeton professor, said this in a sermon broadcast on the "Day 1" radio program I host:
"Our hearts are filled with platitudes when adversity comes. We say such things as: 'Good things come to those who wait!' Not always. Sometimes bad things come to those who wait. We say: 'Behind every dark cloud there's a silver lining.' Not always. Sometimes behind that dark cloud is some more lightning and thunder and it is coming your way. We say: 'The darkest hour is just before the dawn.' Not really. The darkest hour, according to scientists, is just after midnight and you still have five or six more hours before day."
We want so badly to be a living example of the image of this psalm, but it seems so far away, almost unreachable.
How do we deal with this? How do we read this lovely psalm about simple faith and the promised benefits thereof and compare it with our own lives and the suffering and pain and frustration we are forced to deal with at times? Is this a fairy tale? Is it all a sham?
New Yorker critic James Wood, in a review of the book God's Problem by Bart Ehrman, explored the question of why God permits suffering, especially in the lives of the righteous. He cited a single recent day that brought news of earthquakes, cyclones, bomb attacks in Iraq, Northern Spain, and Pakistan, and on and on and on. How can all this happen if there is a God of love?
"For the lucky few," Wood writes, "there is reason to hope that life will be a business of evenly rationed suffering ... Plenty of suffering for a life, certainly, but most of us subsist on the plausible expectation that fortune [or God?] will draw a circle around the personal portion, and that the truly unbearable -- murder, rape, dead children, torture, war -- will remain outside the cordon."
But these lucky are indeed very few, it seems. Wood reviews the major teachings of Judaism and Christianity, which over the millennia have attempted to explain this problem of suffering, and then concludes: "The problem for Jews is that the Messiah never came, and everything stayed the same (or got worse), while the problem for Christians is that the Messiah did come, and everything stayed the same (or got worse)."
The disturbing thing to me is that Wood makes some good points. But the gut-level truth is that I'm not ready to toss my faith over the side over this. I may have doubts and lots of questions, but I know there is substance and reality to my faith.
And those pithy aphorisms Cleo LaRue spoke about? Well, he points out:
"Sometimes these adages and aphorisms that we love so dearly can actually get in the way of what God is doing in our lives. They get in the way of the lesson that is to be learned. They get in the way of the strength that is to be secured from enduring adversity. Sometimes these pithy sayings actually hinder us from attaining a deeper, more intimate knowledge of the ways of God and how God works out [God's] purposes in our lives in spite of the setbacks that are sure to come."
Here's the reality: We all have doubts, and we need to dive into them and feel them and examine them and work through them. Hiding from them or denying them only causes them to fester in our soul.
Let's be honest. Let's talk about our doubts and questions. Let's share our own experiences, and see what God says to us in the process. Let's let God do God's work in our lives through it all.
Then we can read these verses and let them seep into our minds and hearts. We can see them as an ideal to aim for, realistically. And together we can learn to be happy, truly happy, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
There is great blessing in living like that in the fear of the Lord.
Adapted from the book 'Connected: You and God in the Psalms'.
Follow Rev. Peter M. Wallace on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pwallace