How long, Lord, will you look on?
Rescue me from their ravages,
my precious life from these lions.

Psalm 35:17

 

How long, Lord?

This may be one of the most common questions offered to God in prayer. Almost all of us know too well the experience of crying out for God’s help but hearing or receiving nothing. A boy intensely looking on.We pray for God to heal us or our loved ones, but healing never comes. We ask the Lord to restore our broken families, but estrangement remains. We cry out to God for help in a desperately difficult workplace situation, but God seems to be on vacation. We seek God’s justice for the poor and oppressed, but hunger and violence continue to haunt the lives of millions. We believe that God sees all of this and has the power to make things better, but he appears to be silent and inactive. Thus, we join with David by crying out, “How long, O Lord, will you look on?”

What I find most encouraging in this psalm is the boldness of the psalm writer.

 

Faith requires us to live in the tension of what we call unanswered prayer. Some have found ways to escape this tension. For example, some theologians claim that God does not have the power to intervene in human affairs. God looks on and does nothing because God’s hands are tied. Others envision God as a kind of mindless force that really doesn’t look at all. Such an impersonal power cannot be expected to do what we request in prayer. Still others reject the notion that God is compassionate. Their unfeeling God may look down on our pain, but has no reason to act.

Explanations like these let God off the hook when our prayers are not answered, but they also deny fundamental biblical truths about the nature of God. Scripture reveals God as an all-powerful, personal deity who cares deeply about us. This God does sometimes act in amazing ways to alleviate pain or deliver people from distress. This God promises to hear our prayers and to love us unceasingly. So, when God looks on and does nothing, this inaction can seem incompatible with God’s own nature. God puts himself on the hook here and refuses to be let off.

I believe there is much to be learned when God seems not to answer our prayers, though, personally, I don’t like to learn these lessons. We can learn that God’s timing is not our timing. We can come to understand that God’s ways are not our ways. We can begin to see that God is at work, though not in the ways we had hoped. These are just some of what we can learn when we cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

But, what I find most encouraging in this psalm is the boldness of the psalm writer. He doesn’t pretend everything is just fine in his relationship with God. He doesn’t create a false religious self, pretending he is not desperate and despairing. Rather, he cries out from the depth of his soul, demanding God’s help and challenging God’s apparent lack of response. The example of Psalm 35, as well as many other psalms, encourages me to be fully honest with God, to cry out in my need, and to ask, when it is necessary, “How long, O Lord, will you look on and do nothing?”

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

When have you cried out to the Lord, “How long?”

Are you praying this way right now?

Do you feel free to lay before the Lord all of your thoughts, feelings, fears, and hopes?

Will you let Psalm 35 help you to be more open in prayer?

PRAYER:

Indeed, dear Lord, how long? How long will you allow injustice to infect the earth? How long will you allow children to starve from lack of food? How long will you let disease inflict your people? How long will you allow tender hearts to be wounded and broken? How long will racism ravage our world? How long, O Lord?

Thank you for the example of Psalm 35, which gives me confidence to pray boldly to you. Thank you for helping me, through my prayers, to know you more truthfully. Thank you for teaching me to hope in you, even when I struggle to believe. Thank you for your love, which will never let me go. Amen.

 

P.S. This devotion is based on an earlier devotion I wrote for The High Calling. It is used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Explore online Bible commentary: Introduction to Psalms at the Theology of Work Project.