Throughout the scriptures there is a desperate cry that humans make to God that simply says, “How long, LORD?” To put it in today’s vernacular it would be something like, “What are you waiting for, God?!” This may not be polite church language, but make no mistake, it is church language. You can find these words in the First Testament (Psalms 6; 13; 35; Habakkuk 1), and also in the New Testament (Revelation 6). The place these words are hardest to find seem to be in our worship services (myself included). Perhaps it’s because there is an element of ‘uncomfortability’ in this kind of question. As a worship leader, it’s hard to know where to make words like this fit in a service but perhaps this reveals more about my heart, and our cultural preferences than I care to admit.
Cornelius Pantinga, Jr. wrote a book called “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin” (reviewed here) in which he broke down the definition of shalom as “the way things ought to be.” God created the world for shalom but when sin entered the world things became different. We looked around and said: this is “not the way it’s supposed to be.” We still do. In the past 15 years we’ve witnessed what seems to be a increasing amount of suffering in the world. When a tsunami took the lives of over a quarter of a million people (a third of whom were children) on December 26th, 2004, there was a deep sense that this was not how things are supposed to be in the world. When we hear about the atrocities that ISIS is committing across the globe we feel the same. The surmounting racial tension and the massive increase in school shootings on our own soil also leave us with the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong. What can say when we are faced with such a blatant “vandalism of shalom?” Well, in the church we say “How Long, Lord?”
There are, of course, other possibilities. We can, for example, say nothing and pretend that things are better than they are. In our consumer culture there are plenty of ways to entertain and distract ourselves so we can numb the pain, but when the church cries “how long,” it confronts such madness. Whether in the church or on the street our cry can seem uncomfortable at first. While it may seem uncomfortable, it is actually a wake up call to remind us that the world doesn’t fit together nearly as neatly as we try to convince ourselves that it does. Things aren’t the way that they are supposed to be. As the Church we must lament our way through a culture that has become, in the words of Pink Floyd, “comfortably numb,” and remind ourselves and the world, that things will not always be this way. This means that it is not a cry of despair. Michael Card once wrote, “lament and despair are polar opposites. Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of belief in God. Despair is the ultimate manifestation of the total denial that He exists.” We mustn’t ignore suffering, nor should we despair; but we should lament. As we read the scriptures we find an amazing thing happens when we cry; God hears. When Hagar was in the desert and let out a cry; God heard. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and cried out; God heard.
In the New Testament we see an example of Jesus hearing and answering that cry. Jesus came down the Mount of Transfiguration and when he arrived at the bottom of the mountain he found a boy who was suffering terribly from seizures. His father told Jesus that the boy would often fall into the water or into the fire, and he pleaded with Jesus for mercy. Jesus saw evil forces at work and cast a demon out of this child. Things are certainly not as they should when an evil spirit can do such terrible things to a young boy. Still, we recognize in Jesus the power to bring shalom where there is deep trouble.
The question, of course, is why doesn’t God intervene more? It’s a good question and one that we must wrestle with, but in the midst of our wrestling we remember that Jesus too asked “how long” questions. When the boy’s father came and asked Jesus to heal his son he remarked, “I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him” (Mat. 17:16). Jesus was frustrated with His disciples and said, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (v. 17).
I cannot attempt to address the problem evil here, but I know that if you have eyes to read this page you’ve probably encountered some form of “vandalism to the shalom” a time or two. Rather, my challenge to all of us today is to remember that in the face of evil we must live the question “how long?” We live it first by refusing to allow ourselves to be numbed into silence, or led into despair. We cry out to God, like the faithful who have gone before us, “How long, Lord? How long?” But we also live the question by remembering that while we can’t do everything, we are expected to do some things. The God to whom we cry “how long” sometimes asks us – even us – to hear His voice in that question. At times, that question will be asked by others and we the children of God are intended to be His answer to them. Faithfulness to Jesus involves asking the question and at times, may involve God reflecting the question back to us: ‘What are you waiting for?’ May He shape us into the kind of people who learn how to ask and live the “how long” well.