Provoking God

Provoking God

Do you know how to provoke a response? My wife does. If she’s talking and I’m not listening, she turns toward the wall and says, “Why thank you, Wall. It’s so enjoyable to converse with you today. I delight in these one-way conversations.” She’s provoking a response.

We find good company in Psalm 77. Someone is provoking God to respond to their dark, desperate situation. It begins with an emotive gush:

I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might, I yell at the top of my lungs. I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord; my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal. When friends said, ‘Everything will turn out all right,’ I didn’t believe a word they said.” (The Message)

What’s the problem? We don’t know. That’s what I like about these lament psalms – they are fill-in-the-blank-prayers. I can insert my own trouble. And we have plenty, don’t we?

  • Loss of people we love
  • A cutback at work
  • Shrinking 401C
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Moving to a town you hate
  • A kid going bad
  • A business going under
  • A deep loneliness
  • A painful memory that camps on the front door of our consciousness
  • A marriage getting uglier by the day
  • A checkbook bleeding red
  • A relationship that ended when we didn’t want it to

Psalm 77 has been where we live. Psalm 77 is a prayer uttered in the dark. And the provoker wants God to pay attention. Notice that they do not address God directly, but whine and complain in the presence of God, sure that God is overhearing the diatribe.

Do you ever pray like this?

Sometimes – mostly when I’m in trouble – I wonder if God is paying attention. I think the reason we pray like this is not that we don’t have faith, but that we do. Faithless people don’t bother to pray at all. Faithful people believe that God responds to our cry. So we call him out. We say these things because we are sure he is listening.

I suppose the epitome of the prayer is the conclusion in verse 10, “Just my luck, the High God goes out of business just the moment I need him.” I’ve been with people who have reached this conclusion. It usually comes after they have prayed a lot, believed a lot, provoked a lot, offered God deals in exchange for resolution of their trouble, and waited a lot. And nothing happens. Then they announce to me that God has gone out of business. God doesn’t answer prayer anymore.

I don’t think they believe this; I certainly don’t. I think they need another believer to hear their provocation and to respond in God’s place to assure them that the God who seems absent isn’t.

My response is stories. I never argued with these kinds of prayers – as if you can talk someone into changing their mind about feeling abandoned by God. I just said, “Life takes us to places like this doesn’t it?” And then I’d tell them stories.

Telling stories helps. It’s what happens to our friend in Psalm 77:11-15:

Once again I’ll go over what God has done,
lay out on the table the ancient wonders;
I’ll ponder all the things you’ve accomplished,
and give a long, loving look at your acts.
O God! Your way is holy!
No god is great like God!
You’re the God who makes things happen;
you showed everyone what you can do—
You pulled your people out of the worst kind of trouble,
rescued the children of Jacob and Joseph.”

Do you recognize that story? It is the story of the Exodus. The people of God are slaves under Pharaoh, crying out to God for deliverance from this harsh taskmaster. While they cry out, unbeknownst to them God is having a conversation with Moses at a burning bush. God announced to Moses, “I have heard the cries of my people in Egypt.” Of all the descriptions of God in scripture, I like this one best. God hears our cries. When we are down in Egypt, we don’t think he does because we can’t see anything happening. We are wilting under our fill-in-the-blank trouble and there is no sign of heavenly attention being paid to us.

Our OT story friends are crying out to God in Egypt and God is talking to Moses in Midian. As the story unfolds, Pharaoh is no match for the God of troubled people and they end up headed toward Promised Land with all the wealth of Egypt in their backpacks. Then Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues them. I think this provokes God. A miracle happens at the sea (verses 16-20):

Ocean saw you in action, God,
saw you and trembled with fear;
Deep Ocean was scared to death.
Clouds belched buckets of rain,
Sky exploded with thunder,
your arrows flashing this way and that.
From Whirlwind came your thundering voice,
Lightning exposed the world,
Earth reeled and rocked.
You strode right through Ocean,
walked straight through roaring Ocean,
but nobody saw you come or go.
Hidden in the hands of Moses and Aaron,
You led your people like a flock of sheep.”

And that’s how the Psalm ends. No resolution to their trouble. No answer from God. Only a story about the time they were between Pharaoh’s army and the Sea, and God turned the world upside down to create a way through the sea.

Apparently, remembering the past faithfulness of God helps get through the trouble of the present.

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