PSALMS: Suffering by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Prayer Book of the Bible

Suffering by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

From Psalms

Where do you find more miserable, more wretched, more depressing words than in the psalms of lamentation?  There you see into the heart of all the saints as into death, even as into hell.  How sad and dark it is there in every wretched corner of the wrath of God. (Luther)

The Psalter gives us ample instruction in how to come before God in a proper way, bearing the frequent suffering which this world brings upon us.  Serious illness and severe loneliness before God and men, threat, persecution, imprisonment, and whatever conceivable peril there is on Earth are known by the psalms (13, 31, 35, 41, 44, 54, 55, 56, 61, 74, 79, 86, 88, 102, 105, and others).  They do not deny it or try to deceive us about it with pious words.  They allow it to stand as a severe attack on the faith.  Occasionally they no longer focus on suffering (Psalm 88), but they all complain to God.  No individual can repeat the lamentation psalms out of his own experience; it is the distress of the entire Christian community at all times, as only Jesus Christ has experienced it entirely alone, which is here unfolded.  Because it happens with God’s will, indeed because God knows it completely and knows it better than we ourselves, only God himself can help.  But therefore also must all our questions again and again assault God himself.

There is in the psalms no quick and easy resignation to suffering.  There is always struggle, anxiety, doubt.  God’s righteousness which allows the pious to be met by misfortune but the godless to escape free, even God’s good and gracious will, is undermined (Psalm 44:24).  His behavior is too difficult to grasp.  But even in the deepest hopelessness God alone remains the one addressed.  Neither is help expected from men, nor does the distressed one in self-pity lose sight of the origin and the goal of all distress, namely God.  He sets out to do battle against God for God.  The wrathful God is confronted countless times with his promise, his previous blessings, the honor of his name among men.

If I am guilty, why does God not forgive me?  If I am not guilty, why does he not bring my misery to an end and thus demonstrate my innocence to my enemies? (Psalms 38, 44, 79).  There are not theoretical answers in the psalms to all these questions, as there are none in the New Testament.  The only real answer is Jesus Christ.  But this answer is already sought in the psalms.  It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and agony on God: “We can no longer bear it, take it from us and bear it yourself, you alone can handle suffering.”  That is the goal of all the lamentation psalms.  They pray concerning the one who took upon himself our diseases and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ.  They proclaim Jesus Christ to be the only help in suffering, for in him God is with us.

The lamentation psalms have to do with that complete fellowship with God which is justification and love.  But not only is Jesus Christ the goal of our prayer; he himself also accompanies us in our prayer.  He, who has suffered every want and has brought it before God, has prayed for our sake in God’s name: “Not my will, but thine be done.”  For our sake he cried on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Now we know that there is no longer any suffering on Earth in which Christ will not be with us, suffering with us and praying with us – Christ the only helper.

On this basis the great psalms of trust develop.  Trust in God without Christ is empty and without certainty; it is only another form of self-trust.  But whoever knows that God has entered into our suffering in Jesus Christ himself may say with great confidence: “Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me,” (Psalms 23, 37, 63, 73, 91, 121).

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