Saturday, July 11, 2009

"How Long?"

Lord . . . if you had been here my brother would not have died (John 11:21).

How long, O Lord? (Psalm 13:1)

People of faith are not people who have stopped asking questions, sleeping soundly at night with every riddle answered, every doubt removed, every tension eased. If deep faith means the end of hard questions, then faithful people are hard to find, even in the Bible.

The Psalms are full of questions. “No questions asked” may reflect something of the way God’s mercies are offered to us. But questions frequently characterize the way our prayers are offered to God.


Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany his presence seemed an empty gesture to those who grieved, especially Lazarus’ sisters. Martha, not one to mince words, spoke what everyone else was probably thinking. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

Her words sound partly like a rebuke, partly like a statement of faith. But beneath the words there’s a question: Where were you when we needed you?

It’s a fair question. Earlier in the story John tells us that when Jesus had learned of Lazarus’ illness “he stayed where he was two more days” (John 11:6). That’s troubling to us. We’d like to see some urgency. We’d like to see some miracle working power being released on behalf of Jesus’ dying friend. Apparently Jesus healed someone he didn’t know from a distance by simply speaking a word. And yet, upon learning of his friend’s illness, Jesus lingers.

Why did Jesus linger? Where was the power, the life giving word? When Jesus finally shows up, four days of rot have been at work in the tomb’s darkness. “Where were you?” Martha’s asking what we all want to know. She’s asking what many of us have asked at some point in our lives.

A repeated question on the lips of the Psalmist is “how long?” That’s a familiar question to many people of faith because those who take God seriously often struggle to understand God’s timing. In Psalm 13 the question is asked four times in a psalm that is only six verses long.

The question reflects faith in that it assumes that God is present and doing something. The question eats at faith because it wonders exactly what God is doing and when it will make a difference. How long will it take me to find a job? How long will it take us to get pregnant? How long will I need chemo treatments? How long will this war last?

It seems to us that God lingers, and in some cases lingers long. And the lingering raises questions for us. But hard questions do not mean lack of faith. As Peter reminds us, God’s timing isn’t like ours. With God a day is a thousand years and a thousand years are a day. To ask “how long?” isn’t sin. In the Psalms, it’s prayer.

Is there something in your life that has caused you to pray “How long?”

Remind us today, O God, that what feels like neglect and delay is actually a divine plan. This is hard for us to understand – and so we are bold to offer our prayers and bring our questions before you. As we pray “how long?” make us strong in faith and grant us patient endurance until you arrive and bring new life, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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