Why ponder the sometimes imponderable?
by Patrick Lafferty
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. (Hosea 4:6)
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? (Psalm 13:1)
Hosea 4:6; Psalm 13:1
If memory serves, he was a composite character—a personage representing a type of student C.S. Lewis encountered as an Oxford Don of literature. In the 1993 film version of Shadowlands, the character goes by the name of Mr. Whistler—a bright, but aloof budding scholar who is sometimes caught napping during Lewis’ heady class discussions.
Whistler’s apparent disinterest in exploring the deep themes of modern and ancient masterpieces strikes his professor as disrespect. But only when Lewis pays a visit to his student’s dorm does he find his melancholy visage to be the product of great personal burdens rather than sophomoric ennui. In fact, Lewis hears for the first time true passion to learn in the voice of this troubled young man. Whistler confides in his somewhat awkward professor how deeply he loves to read, and explains that desire in a very personal way: “I read to know I’m not alone.”
If you know how Shadowlands unfolds, you remember that Lewis has his paralysis in intimacy broken by, at first, accommodating a personal need of one Joy Gresham, and then, in time, falling in love with the feisty American poet. You may also remember that near the end of the film, after he loses this most unexpected love to cancer, Lewis adapts Mr. Whistler’s earlier sentiment, saying, “We love to know we’re not alone.”
Mark made a case from Hosea 4 last Sunday for feeding on the Word of God—lest we become literally bedeviled by sin. Whistler and Lewis provide us a thought that explains another reason for making the pursuit of the meaning and implications of God’s Word central to our existence: to know we’re not alone. At first glance, it’s an unlikely place to find solace that we’re not alone, but Psalm 13 does just that. Have a look at this brief psalm, full of both lament and hope.
We don’t know the psalmist’s precise predicament there, but we can relate to his palpable feeling that God has forgotten him—even turned Himself away—amid a protracted plight. Four times in two verses, he asks the reasonable question, “How long?” How long will this unceasing difficulty persist? When can he expect some relief? Cannot the God who set the planets in motion not intervene and deliver (vv.1–2)? The life of faith is often fraught with distress, and the temptation arises to assume a stoic frame. But it is some comfort to know that faithful people are free to express their anguish before a God whose work sometimes feels awfully hidden. And so, we read the Word—and particularly texts like Psalm 13—to know we’re not alone in our afflictions.
His cry is more than a lament though, more than mere woe. It is a plaintive entreaty for deliverance. He has endured much, wondered much about God’s rationale for allowing the pain to continue. But his weariness has not siphoned away his faith so much as to quench his beseeching. He even makes a kind of case for God to strike at what afflicts, appealing to what God values as a justification for the Almighty’s intervention: as God would take no pleasure in the death of his saints, or injustice prevailing, it would only seem fitting for Him to set right what’s run afoul (vv. 3–4). Amid whatever our suffering may be we may resign ourselves to asking nothing of our Father who loves to give good gifts (cf. Lk 11:13). But this psalm reminds us that since we are not alone in our petitions, we may freely and effusively ask for His help, whether for deliverance itself or for the daily strength to face it with faith.
We read the Word of God for yet one more reason, a reason represented by how the psalmist concludes his prayer. Though his affliction has been unremitting, his importunity commensurately impassioned, his confidence in God has not flagged. Circumstantial evidence might justify jettisoning hope, or at least seeking it elsewhere. Instead, the psalmist retains his hope on the basis of what he knows is true of God—the one who is full of steadfast love. Before Job had his misfortunes overturned he was content simply to know that God was there. Hope in God, and not just His gifts, (or even His deliverance) was sufficient to sustain the suffering saint in his uncertain future. Few would dispute that the scriptures often require intense attentiveness to ascertain their meaning and implication (cf. WCF, I.7), but one thing is clear why we labor to understand them: to know we’re not alone in our hope.
Has your feeding on the Word of God become a peripheral matter, squeezed to the margins for the sake of managing all manner of perfectly respectable responsibilities? Have you allowed what is imponderable or inscrutable in His Word to alleviate you of the responsibility to immerse yourself in it? Or have you simply forgotten why we submit the story of our lives to the story the scriptures tell? I don’t think it’s morose to say that at some point Psalm 13 has been, is, or will be part of the story of our lives. If our greatest need in the middle of that kind of moment is to know we are not alone, why would we come to the pages of the Word of God with any less ardor as Whistler did to books?