Impatient with God?
A STUDY OF PSALM 6
Do you ever get impatient with God — especially when things aren’t going your way? When we are forced to be in the vise of affliction, we may find ourselves saying, as David does in Psalm 6, “O Lord — how long?” If you want to find out what’s in a sponge, you squeeze it. If you want to find out what’s in you, watch what comes out when you are squeezed…by circumstance, I mean. Adversity will expose what’s in our hearts.
- What is the situation?
- What temptations does the situation provoke? Or, what sins do we commit in reaction to the situation?
- What does our reaction reveal about the condition of the human heart?
- How does the gospel address the heart’s condition?
- How might we respond with living faith, expressed in active love?
The value if these five questions, I believe, is that, taken together, they help us to hear the gospel in just about any text of Scripture. As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I developed this set of five questions from reading Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp’s book, How People Change, and from listening to David Powlison’s recorded lecture series entitled, “Reading the Bible for Personal Application.” I highly recommend both of these resources.
So, what happens when we ask the questions of Psalm 6? Let’s see.
What is the situation?
First, we ask: What is the situation? And what do we see?
Illness. Suffering. Affliction.
In Psalm 6:2-3, David attests to his adversity with these words. He says: “I am languishing…; my bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror.”
The term “languishing” is a rendering of the Hebrew ‘umlal, which relates to being weak or feeble. It is derived from ‘amal, which means literally “to droop” or “to hang down one’s head.” So, David, the petitioner in Psalm 6, is describing a sickness of some sort, an illness that affects both body and soul. Thus, we read, “My bones are shaking with terror. My soul also is struck with terror.”
David says that he is terrified (Hebrew bahal, which in Niphal means “to tremble”) both within and without. So, this is a very threatening illness.
What temptations does the situation provoke? Or, what sins do we commit in reaction to the situation?
That brings us to question two: What temptation to sin does David’s illness provoke?
The temptation that raises its head in David’s circumstance is found in the latter part of verse 3: I am dealing with terrors within and without, “while you, O LORD – how long?” David addresses the Lord, but he stops mid-sentence. It’s as though he does not go on to say what he set out to say. Why not? Could it be that his original thought is too harsh? I realize that I am on speculative turf just now, but it’s almost as if David were about to say: “I am depleted of strength and hope, O Lord, while you are able to do something about it! What are you waiting for? Why don’t you act?” Instead, he simply says, “How long?” Is there in these words a hint of impatience, perhaps even bitterness toward God, who has the power to intervene but, apparently, has not done so?
Impatience in suffering is not uncommon. It is, perhaps, an irony that the person who is in treatment for some injury or ailment is called a “patient,” a term that we get from a Latin verb, meaning “to undergo” or “to suffer” something. Therefore, the term “patience” involves the idea of carrying some misfortune or annoyance without complaint.
We certainly cannot say that David bears his difficulty patiently! He says in verses 6 and 7, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eyes waste away because of grief.” No doubt, his sorrow is understandable. His situation certainly seems to be extreme. But we must remember: our circumstances do not justify a sinful reaction.
Does David sin in this instance? I do not know. But I do know the tendency to blame God when things do not go my way. The words of verse 3 form an inappropriate banner over any situation: “I am in terror, while you, O Lord – how long?”
What does our reaction reveal about the condition of the human heart?
The third question forces me to ask: When I am impatient with God, what is it that I love more than I love him? What is the disordered affection that drives my anxiety? In other words, what is the “heart issue?” I want relief from some disadvantage. No mystery there! I think I could be better or do better if I did not have to endure whatever misfortune has overtaken me.
Paul was in a similar situation when he asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:8). What the nature of the thorn was we do not know; Paul did not say. But he believed he could serve God better without the limitations it imposed. God, however, denied his request. “My grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord said, “for [my] power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).
This suggests to me that the root of my impatience is my view of God. If I am suffering – especially if I am suffering for a long time, as David apparently did – I may begin to believe that God is insufficient to meet my needs, that his grace is not enough.
The problem, of course, is that, not only is my view of God “slant,” but my view of my needs is skewed. God knows what I need, but I refuse to trust his judgment. I begin to operate – at least in my mind – independently of him. I want to have power over my own life; I want control restored to me.
How does the gospel address the heart’s condition?
The witness of Scripture, however, is that God’s power is displayed perfectly in my weakness, so that, as Paul said elsewhere, “it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). This is the beginning of the answer to the fourth question: How does the gospel address the heart’s condition?
David recognizes his need for God from the very beginning of the Psalm. He cries out: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O LORD…. O LORD, heal me” (vv. 1-2a). Again, in verse 4, he says: “Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.”
It seems to me that, in verse 5, he tries to bargain with God. “In death,” he says, “there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol [the grave] who can give you praise?” It is our duty to praise God, but surely God does not need any offer we may make if only he will let us live — or thrive or get better or whatever!
What would be the nature of God’s deliverance were it to be given on God’s terms? The Scriptures tell us.
First of all, God has entered our sufferings in Jesus Christ. He does not simply observe our pain from a distance. He is involved in our affliction. The words that flow from the pen of David could easily have come from the lips of Christ. He endured a state of languishing for us. His bones shook, we could say, with terror; his soul was “sore vexed” (KJV). He went down into Sheol, the grave, for us. His foes were all around him, mocking and scorning him. This was an expression of God’s grace, and it is sufficient not only for my salvation but also for my growth in grace – more specifically, it is sufficient for my growth in patience.
Second, God’s deliverance may come in the form of putting to death those aspects of my sinful nature that seek satisfaction in something other than his grace. I may think that my greatest need is to be comfortable; God may show me that that is not my greatest need at all. I may think that my greatest need is to be strong; God may show me that that is not my greatest need either. I may think I need relief; God may show me that that is not my greatest need. By God’s grace, Paul reached a point where he could say, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
What I truly need, then, is the grace to live my life – and to die my death, when the time comes – “for the sake of Christ.”
Third, David appeals to God’s “steadfast love” (Psalm 6:4). This is a reference to one of the most important aspects of God’s redemptive intent: he has freely bound himself to our destiny and has obligated himself to fulfill a gracious purpose for us. This is “covenant” language. Covenants involve promises, but they also involve penalties if the promises are not kept. The Scriptures reveal to us that, in Christ, God took upon himself the penalty we deserve for our violation the covenant. Christ, however, kept the terms of the covenant perfectly, and now gathers us up in his own destiny. We are in union with Christ, which means – at least, in part – that we have died with Christ (Col. 2:20), we have been raised with Christ (Col. 3:1), and we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). Our suffering is real, but it is not final. Being “in Christ,” we are equipped to wait patiently for God’s promised future, “for this slight momentary affliction [whatever it may be] is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but a what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17f.).
How might we respond with living faith, expressed in active love?
If we have heard the gospel, we need to respond. How will we do so with living faith, expressed in active love? That is the fifth question.
Let’s look at David. Does he “get it?” Does he repent of his impatience and put his trust in God’s deliverance. God’s deliverance, remember, always comes on God’s terms, not ours.
We might say that David seems to respond faithfully. He renounces evil solutions to his problem, even though they may look more inviting in the short term. That’s the beginning of a faithful response to even the most unpleasant conditions. “Depart from me, all you workers of evil,” David says, “for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. The LORD has heard my supplication; and the LORD accepts my prayer” (Psalm 6:8f.)
Maybe that is because David’s prayer is like that of many of mine. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
We ask for deliverance from our afflictions; it may be, however, that the Lord will deliver us through them. Only his grace can equip us to pray for that.
Photo Credit: Sundstedt Children at Their Mother’s Funeral, ca. August, 1924: University of Washington Digital Collections