when God is unfaithful

when God is unfaithful October 24, 2013

Last week I attended a lecture on Psalms by Walter Brueggemann at Wayne Presbyterian Church here in suburban Philadalphia. Part of his talk dealt with what he called “God’s infidelity”–those times when God does not come through, or seem to come through, on what he promised, or otherwise acts in ways that are inconsistent with what we believe God should act like.

The psalms that address this sort of scenario are often called “lament psalms–which is a nice way of saying “give God an earful.” About half the psalms have some sort of lament, and some more than others.

Like Psalm 44. Israel is in some national crisis. The people expected God to show up and help, but he didn’t.

The psalmist mentions how they have always put their trust in God, but now God has,

  • “rejected us and abased us”…
  • “you have made us like sheep for slaughter”…
  • “sold your people for a trifle”…
  • “made us a taunt…a byword…a laughingstock”

Thanks a lot. All this has happened, even though “we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant.” So, God, here’s an idea: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord. Awake, do not cast us off forever.”

Translation: “God,  you’re asleep at the switch, it’s your fault, don’t even try to blame this on us.”

Then there’s Psalm 89, which goes for the jugular. After reminding God of his promise to stick by his promise to David to maintain an unbroken legacy of kings in Israel, and that God would never violate that promise, for God does not lie, the psalmist accuses God of doing just that. The Israelites are now in exile in Babylon: no king, no throne, no land.

The psalmist doesn’t ask or wonder out loud. He simply points out the obvious: “You have renounced your covenant…defiled his [David’s] crown…. Lord, where is your steadfasat love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?”

OK, so what’s my point?

Is God actually at the end of the day unfaithful? No, I don’t believe so.

Did the Israelites sometimes feel that God was unfaithful to them and accuse God of such? You betcha. They took their grief and anger and stuck it in God’s face.

Dod God strike them down with plagues, famine, or thunderbolts for daring to oppose his sovereign might? No.

And that’s in the Bible.

What can we learn from this? Here is what Brueggemann said:  “Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.”

Maybe we have lost the “art of lament,” where complaining to God is part of the deal. Maybe, rather than playing church and make-believe, a vital dimension of the spiritual journey is giving God an earful now and then. Maybe God can handle it. Maybe God likes it, because it means we are being real and not fake.

Maybe if you’re angry with God now and then, you’re normal. Maybe that’s part of being the people of God.

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  • Brian P.

    I think it’s easier to find people who’ll pay to be entertained and momentarily happy, than to be profoundly honestly, at times lamentful, and transformed through the guided existential experience of self-death. Some have said, that the lament of the Psalms foreshadow the knowing of God the Father through the coidentified Essence of God the Son and that only through this is the veil rent in twain, from top to bottom. Then I heard every creature in Heaven and earth, in underworld and sea, join in, all voices in all places, singing: To the One on the Throne! To the Lamb! The blessing, the honor, the glory, the strength, for age after age after age. The Four Animals called out, “Oh, Yes!” The Elders fell to their knees and worshiped. Alas, the world isn’t upside-down. The perpetrators and false-promisers will find their end. And the meek, merciful, and just will reign. And maybe that’s part of being the people of God.

  • mark

    What do you mean by “God”? What God? The God of the Psalms? The God of Christian faith? I take this to be some sort of Christian blog. Shouldn’t we first address the question: what God is being addressed in the Psalms (individually, collectively, whatever)? Who is this God and what does he have to do with the God of Christian faith?

    Hint: Maybe Mark S. Smith has some ideas that could prove useful in addressing these questions.

    • Brian P.

      As I read the Psalms, there are multiple “Gods.” Some even seem to be premonotheistic conceptions of Yahweh, you know, the guy getting on with Asherah, slaying Leviathans, stuff like that. Sure, related to “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but the way JC conceived his Abba and patristics conceived as having the same Essence, isn’t necessarily the same it seems to me. What/which G/god is an interesting question. Personally, maybe even a good question for contemplating in the Daily Office as those Psalms get read again and again leading through the Law and the Prophets and into the Epistles and Gosples.

      • mark

        I like it.

    • Guest

      “I take this to be some sort of Christian blog.”

      Nothing gets by you. 🙂

      • mark

        heh. not gonna bite at that.

    • Tim

      Yes, approximately – more like, which *understanding* of God?

      I sometimes suspect it says more about a person’s understanding of God by how they understand suffering than it does about God per se…

      • mark

        Agreed, Tim.

  • Collins


    I am a daily reader and I think these kinds of posts are my favorite ones that you do. I have told the story that you shared about your young son telling you he didn’t believe in God anymore and you responding “you should tell God about that.” I love that. I think posts like these from guys like you really model something well for the church: we can study and investigate and push for truth as deeply as we want and that’s perfectly fine. God isn’t going anywhere. We can take our fears, doubts, questions, and “what the h*ll” moments to him and the result is intimacy with Christ. Thank you!

  • I don’t think we’ve “lost the ‘art of lament,'”; I think we’ve lost the art of repenting. We say “peace, peace” when there is no peace. Contrast this to Nehemiah:

    As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.”

    We don’t know how to say we’re wrong and then accept God’s power for change. We are terrible at it! You see, I think we are sufficiently self-aware that we know deep-down that sometimes when God seems to have abandoned us, we have abandoned him. Since we don’t want to admit that we may have started the abandoning-God process, we refuse to think that God might have abandoned us.

    Edit: I added the underlined ‘sometimes’, because it isn’t always true. And more correctly, that statement probably should be oriented toward communities, not individuals. I should have known better than to state the original version, and I appreciate Andrew Dowling’s correction, below.

    • Josh K.

      I am unprepared to claim that all troubles and feelings of abandonment are due to sin. That’s what Job’s friends were claiming. They were wrong.

      • That claim is difficult, because we have:

        1. my sin
        2. the sin of others in my time
        3. the sin of people who have died
        4. the [possible] sin of non-human agents
        5. apparent evil which doesn’t seem due to sin (the blind man)

        How can we sort these out? The only [Godly] reason to portion out blame, in my opinion, is to understand how to make it less likely that the bad thing will reoccur. For example, India was able to avoid mass loss of life with the recent cyclone. I think they could have done this with the 2004 tsunami, if only we had responsibly deployed the relevant technology and if only the Indian government had cared enough to take the relevant precautions (which they took for the recent cyclone).

        If some of the cause for badness comes from my heart—either via choices I made or attitudes I inherited from my family/culture—then I must repent of it. Otherwise, I fail to learn from suffering, and invite more suffering, such that a human at some point will be sufficiently convinced that it is evil, and take sufficient measures to actually learn from it, instead of letting the same terrible thing happen yet again.

    • Andrew Dowling

      “You see, I think we are sufficiently self-aware that we know deep-down
      that when God seems to have abandoned us, we have abandoned him.”

      Sorry, but this is a horrible statement, and leads to the type of situation you see above in Heather B’s comment. Blaming calamities, sickness, suffering on some type of sin has been many religious tradition’s scapegoat for the problem of evil for millenniums, and it simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

      • You are absolutely right; thank you for correcting me. Please see the edited version. Also though, please see my comment below, which I did not edit.

  • Seraphim Hamilton

    The best thing about praying the Psalms is that they give me an “authorized” way to complain at God.

  • I love the Psalms and I love this post.

    I have been blogging through the Psalms one at a time, in order, for a year and a half. When you ponder the Psalms without avoiding the tricky ones, for that long, their voices of lament and honesty ring through loud and clear.

    One reflection I wrote recently was how this could be better reflected in our worship songs. We tend to only give the happy endings and fulfilled praises. But in the Psalms, the witness seems different. I wonder how someone stuggling with God would feel walking into a service with a song or two that felt more like blues than pop? http://www.everydayawe.com/singing-about-the-breaking-point/

  • wwutt.com

    Blaming God is sin (Job 1:22). A lack of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Though God did not always respond angrily toward complaining (Exodus 16:7-8), He did ultimately punish those who grumbled against Him, in His good time (Numbers 14:29).

    These Psalms are not about grumbling or complaining, and simply reading the Psalm in its entirety, or moreover reading a study Bible, will show you that. Psalm 44 is a congregational prayer, meaning that it was something Israel recited in the assembly more than once, like we would sing from a hymnal. It was not a psalm of complaint, but so that the people would be reminded of God’s faithfulness and their privileged standing as God’s chosen people.

    The persecution that they endure, as exemplified in v.17-22, is for the glory of God (v.22). Therefore, His deliverance will also display His glory both to the people and to their enemies. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul prays to be delivered from torment, but God doesn’t remove it from him, “For my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, Paul says, “I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Israel learns that same lessons through these “lament Psalms.”

    • Seraphim Hamilton

      You missed the point.

      • wwutt.com

        No, I believe Peter Enns missed the point. God does not like complaining. Nor are we to ever be angry at God.

        “Did the Israelites sometimes feel that God was unfaithful to them and accuse God of such? You betcha. They took their grief and anger and stuck it in God’s face. Dod [sic] God strike them down with plagues, famine, or thunderbolts for daring to oppose his sovereign might? No.”

        Yes, He did. And that’s in the Bible. But these Psalms are not the same as the grumbling of the stiff-necked Israelites. If Mr. Enns’ point is going to be the honesty of the church, he needs to make a qualified reference in context. Not misunderstand and wrongly teach the Psalms.

        • Andrew Dowling

          “Did God strike them down with plagues, famine, or thunderbolts for daring to oppose his sovereign might? No.”

          Yes, He did.”

          And what exactly are you referring to?

        • Nor are we to ever be angry at God.

          First, I note that John Piper agrees:

          This is why being angry at God is never right. It is wrong – always wrong – to disapprove of God for what he does and permits.

          Well wait a second. Not necessarily:

          But if we do experience the sinful emotion of anger at God, what then? Shall we add the sin of hypocrisy to the sin of anger? No. If we feel it, we should confess it to God. He knows it anyway. He sees our hearts. If anger at God is in our heart, we may as well tell him so, and then tell him we are sorry, and ask him to help us put it away by faith in his goodness and wisdom.

          Now, here’s the $64,000 question: which is actually being talked about? Are we talking about a rational disapproval of how God does things—a premeditated disapproval which heads toward the kind of territory where one would say, “You do that differently God, or I will reject you!”? If so, I concur that this is bad. But if I’m merely upset with how the world operates, it’s fine to express that to God; indeed, it is commanded:

          Be angry, and do not sin;
              ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
          Offer right sacrifices,
              and put your trust in the LORD.

          Plenty of Psalmists express this upsetness, and then say they’re going to trust and obey God regardless. What you, wwutt.com seem to be missing, is the full space in which to express unhappiness. You seem too afraid, too fearful to really let it go and tell God what’s really on your mind. “He knows it anyway.” I often disagree with Piper, but the bits I quoted seem alright.

          If Mr. Enns’ point is going to be the honesty of the church, he needs to make a qualified reference in context.

          I highly doubt that Pete conflates grumbling with expressing emotions. By the way, it’s Dr. Enns if you’re gonna get formal.

        • Tim

          There is a huge quantum complexity of interactions here. It’s about how far you can push yourself in limit. Feel angry? Fine. Think maybe the anger should be directed at God? Well what does that say about your understanding of God? That God’s responsibility is only out to give good things? What about a less interventionist God that is *present* in both good *and* bad happenings?

          I’m afraid if your understanding of God is so simplistic as to be some supreme authority at which we are “never to be angry” then it isn’t big enough for me.

    • wwutt.com, do you think it is wrong for Christians to feel sad? Hopefully not. Is it wrong for them to voice this sadness to God? Hopefully not. Is it wrong for them to express emotions which aren’t quite theologically correct to God? Hopefully not. Is it right to reaffirm God’s promises? Of course. Can you see this pattern in the Psalms?

      Furthermore, God affirms of Job:

      After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.

      If you look at Job’s rants and moanings, I believe you will find that he says things that your theology would call ‘sin’. So I suggest you take a good, deep look at what you believe and how it treats people who are going through a rough time. You see, not all rough times are caused by the person; just look at Paul in 2 Corinthians 1. See:

      For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.

      We must be careful to not follow that too quickly with the next verse, because that pretends that Paul and crew immediately knew that ‘everything will be all right’. They. Did. Not.

      Just FYI, I recently got rebuked for being dumb on a similar issue. I immediately edited my comment, because I recognized that I was wrong. I hope that you will sincerely and fully consider that you may be wrong, and that you have the chance to relatively painlessly change how you think about such issues.

    • Peterson Onyeukwu

      Your perspective doesn’t square with the whole counsel of God’s word. God’s role as a Father reveals deep care and concern for his children. Surely God doesn’t revel in our pain. He does provide comfort for us while we experience challenges, challenges that he may have ordained for us to go through.
      Ultimately these challenges and difficulties are for our benefit, but it would be unwise to even hint that we are to ignore or do away with the feelings that naturally arise when we being children do not understand the hand and workings of our Father.

  • Heather B

    I have spent the last 24 years of my Christian life not being honest with God about my anger. Two years ago in a routine female surgery, a robot that was used in the surgery caused major damage to my body. What followed was two years of more surgeries, sepsis, infections, more surgery. This month through a surgery I was told that I was going to need more surgery, and diagnosed with a painful condition that doesn’t necessarily have a “cure”. My husband and I have been faithfully serving God in full time ministry for 20 years. I reached rock bottom this week. I am tired of stuffing things down, I’m tired of being angry at God and not knowing why he allows so much suffering all while people are trying to do His will. I used to think it was whining and entitlement to think such things. But I can’t hold it in any longer. I’m angry. Really angry. And this week I have to say it is the first time I have turned my face TOWARD God and told him what I really thought of Him. I’m over it. I’m over him, and over it and over giving my life in service to him and feeling no end to my suffering. So thank you so much for this post. You have no idea what this meant to me today. I desperately needed to hear it. I’m hoping this is the beginning of a new relationship for me and God.

    • Ajl

      Someone once told me that God would rather you say I hate you and mean it then I love you and lie.

      That is because God understands our hurts, pains, and sin, but is intolerant of our hypocrisy.

    • Jonathan Schofield

      Wow. Honest words can be so powerful. Tears for you.

    • American Christianity gets anger so, so wrong. It makes me ashamed to be called ‘Christian’ at times, and this is one of them. I’m glad you finally broke the terrible mold. I will pray for you.

    • Peterson Onyeukwu

      God has a hand in our difficulties as much as he has a hand in our joys and successes. He reigns supreme over our difficulties and rest assured he will sheperd your soul to deeper fellowship and joy in him.

      Dear sister, I pray that God would overwhelm you with his love for you while at the same time I pray that he will bring a quick end to this physical trial of yours. During this time, I pray he will give you the strength and faith required to bear these difficulties. You truly are in my prayers. God bless you.

    • Beakerj

      I’m really sorry to hear of the awful things that have happened to you. I’m still trying to pluck up the courage to yell at God for basically **cking off on me during my Mum’s death & leaving me with questions to carry as well as grief. I feel infinitely betrayed. May it be new days for us all…I can’t imagine where it could end, or how it could heal. Best wishes to you.

      • Infinetly betrayed. 🙁 I’m so sorry. I am deeply sorrowful to say that I feel the same. Betrayed again and again equals infinte betrayal. I hope that someday it will make sense. As for now, it makes no sense at all. And if God is there, God is loving me in my anger and grief. And you as well. Praying that somehow we sense God’s love today.

    • See my reply to Beaker below. My husband and I are also (or were) ministers for years. And my heart has broken again and again and again and again. And now my husband is suffering constant horrible pain–and I wonder if there is an end to the nightmare we are living. Praying for new relationship for us both.

  • I think there are two issues here: ‘Should we sometimes lament?’ and ‘Should we sometimes complain to God?’
    Lamenting our circumstances is sometimes helpful and therapeutic. It offers us an emotional release and often leads to new insight and hope. It certainly can build strength and patience when we are going through seemingly impossible rough situations–I know this from personal experience. So–yes, we can lament.
    Should we blame God as the psalmists do? I think not. If we are disappointed in God, it is likely because he has failed to perform as we wish. This means our expectations are misguided; God does not manipulate day-today events for us.
    Blaming God might also result from our desperate circumstances. Are these God’s fault? No, they are not. But when our difficulties seem overwhelming AND personal, and we do accuse God, the God who understands will not hold it against us.

    • I am not sure why I received arrows down, as there were no comments. Was it because I said that our circumstances can build strength and patience? Or because I said we should not blame God for our circumstances?
      My main point is that we can and should lament our circumstances, but our circumstances are not God’s fault. When I was 50, I was diagnosed with a relatively unfamiliar disease that had a tremendous mortality rate. There were no good treatments available, and the ones that were did not help me. My doctors recommended Hospice care in preparation for my death.
      One last hope was a brand-new treatment that, in trials, killed a large percentage of candidates, and those who survived suffered tremendously from the procedure itself. Many people chose not to take it because of the negative side affects, but I chose to do it.
      The side affects and unexpected complications were terrible, and the doctors expected me to die several times. I suffered badly, was in the hospital four months, and returned home a helpless, bedridden slug. And there was still little hope of survival.
      Throughout the entire situation, I lamented my condition. I did nothing to deserve it, but I never blamed God. God did not do this to me; it was a random affliction. Happily, I gradually recovered to a more normal existence. I definitely have more patience and inner strength.
      I like Peter’s article, and I understand why people become angry with God. I do not reject that response, nor do I think God is unhappy with it. I only offer another response option.

      • Lars

        Thanks, JWB – consider yourself upped! Not sure what you said that offended either but I appreciate your willingness to advance the conversation. I don’t believe God should get any blame or any credit for situations such as yours. Otherwise what are we to make of those believers who are not so fortunate despite countless prayers on their behalf. Life, and death, can be maddeningly random and belief in God can provide some hope and comfort when all other avenues seem hopeless. Glad to hear your recovery continues.

  • Stacey Gleddiesmith

    Thank you for this, Peter. One aspect of biblical lament that we don’t always catch is that lament, while an honest and full expression of whatever crappy circumstance surrounds the psalmist, also includes joy. Too often we chop these psalms in half (calling one half the “lament” and the other half the “praise resolution”). What I find amazing is that both of these parts TOGETHER make up a psalm of lament. Even Psalm 89 begins with an expression of trust. It’s saying “the Lord reigns” no matter what the circumstances. I won’t overburden this comment stream – but if you’re interested in how I see the parts of a psalm working together toward trust, you can read about it here: http://thinkingworship.com/2012/01/26/joy-is-not-the-opposite-of-pain/

  • Mike

    Best thing I’ve read in a while! Thank you!

  • Mill

    Interesting comments.

  • Susan_G1

    Looking at God on Trial (about the Holocaust), I came upon this phrase: “Hate the scalpel; love the surgeon.” Really? REALLY?

    God knows everything already. What possible harm can there be in being honest with Him in our despair? Possibly we are too afraid of God’s wrath to do so. Possibly we mistakenly assume we believers aren’t supposed to feel despair. Possibly these are abusive teachings.

    Maybe I am sinning when I confront God. If I am, I believe this about Him: He hates the sin, but loves the sinner, and can handle it better than I can.

    • Leo O’Bannon

      I think you’re right, Susan! I think we are afraid to be honest in our despair as if God is looking down on us with disgust when clearly the scriptures teach that His love for us so great and even beyond our comprehension.

  • Carlo Roger Weins

    Praise God, blame God, it makes sense. I don’t have to rationalize why I am blaming God, that is not the point the psalmist is trying to make. The behavior is normal and expected and more importantly beneficial.

  • Leo O’Bannon

    I work at a neurology clinic and see some pretty heavy stuff….Alzheimer’s ms, Parkinson’s, chronic migraines, etc., and most of the patients don’t have two nickels to rub together. I don’t think the “Buddy Christ” thing works (from the movie: Dogma). Genuine love and support is needed. I think most Christians live in Happy Christian Wonderland and are untouched (mostly) by the sufferings of the many that they do appear fake to me.

    • Tim

      Untouched and *ill-equipped*, I’d say – perhaps it’s the attitude that one’s life(style) is supposed to fit their mould that makes for a shallowness of corporate emotional-IQ.

      (I’ve thought some variant of “failure to cope with the real world” for a number of years…)

  • Lee Meadows

    The last 5 years of my life have been really difficult. The circumstances I’m going through actually scare people when I tell them all of the sad and bad things I’ve lived through. These lament Psalms have freed me up to be honest and stop telling myself I have to feel any certain thing.
    One of the deepest kindnesses of God I’ve experienced is how he has been Emmanuel in my anger, despair, cursing, and crying. He has simply stayed near. And he has often been quiet. I hated his silence at times. But, I also know from raising children that sometimes the best thing to do in the midst of their tantrums is simply to stand close until their emotional storm is over.
    Thanks, Peter, for reminding me again of these ancient truths.

    • Leo O’Bannon

      Thanks for sharing, Lee. I think you’re right. Sometimes we just need to vent and He can handle it! I think once my own tantrums are through, He says: Are you ready to get to work?

      • Lee Meadows

        Or even, “There now, are things really so bad as you thought?”

        • GMCrivello

          Strength is perfected in weakness.

  • Martin, Lutheran

    Total Honesty with the God Who knows everything from Before the Beginning to After the End…and who loves us anyway.

    What a shocking, frightening, daring, wonderful idea (Sarcasm NEVER intended)!

  • rvs

    Little Lion Man–Mumford and Sons–would make for a great worship song at an evangelical church: “I really f*cked it up this time, Didn’t I, my dear?”

  • Sian

    Really? It doesn’t occur to you that actually maybe god really *is* unfaithful and the statements in the Bible about his faithfulness might not just be big fat lies? I mean, really, why is it so hard to ask that question and stick with it without having to turn to the usual, pitiful answer that involves some version of ”god’s mysterious ways’?

  • One more of a thousand reasons I love the Orthodox Church which still uses the all the Psalms, especially, the Psalms of Lament, in its daily and weekly cycles of prayer and liturgy.

  • politicaljules

    Excellent. I have said this to people in the past, but Ive not been the best at saying it to myself. That God is big enough to handle my anger. When our child was born with complex special needs, I went through it all. From sheer despair, to thinking she was a punishment for my past bad deeds, to blaming God for forsaking us. Only to come full circle and realize she is the most Divine gift and proof of His forgiveness that I could have ever been given.

    It was during that time that I got a tiny glimpse of the Divine, it was too much for my tiny brain to understand. It brought me to my knees, and instant tears to my eyes.

    I still have my moments of anger. Where I go back to Him and demand my baggage back to carry around and cry ‘why me.’ When am ready to give it up, I take it back out to the curb, and God takes it away. But it is nice to have the validation that it is ok to be angry.

  • Carlo Roger Weins

    Thanks for the post Sian, but is not about rationalizing the unfaithfulness of God to reach some conclusion that will lead us to a place of certainty. Acknowledging the unfaithfulness of God as real is just one of the several alternatives we humans have to process the Psalmist message. If it works for you, Amen to that. Nevertheless the premise here is the faithful imagination. In other words whether God is a revelation that manifest in our minds or an external reality is not our major concern. Either way we embrace it in our own faithful imagination and refuse to believe that the King of the jungle will be the final ruler instead steadfast love will prevail.