How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
-Psalm 13:1-2, NIV
Sometimes it’s an everyday, mundane kind of question: “How long?”
“How long until you can get that document to me?”
“How long until we have to leave to make it on time?”
“How long until you can get home for a visit?”
And, of course, the basic question of every childhood car trip: “How long ’til we get there?”
But even in those everyday kinds of “how long” questions, there’s often subtext:
“I need that document now.”
“You haven’t been home for a while, and we want to see you.”
“It feels like I’ve been in this car forever.”
“How long” is one of those loaded questions, isn’t it? It carries more freight than you might realize. Or, sometimes, maybe, what it carries is actually the whole point of asking the question.
“How long does he have, doctor?”
“How long do I have to wait until my country treats me like a full human being?”
“How long will this sin torment me?”
“How long will I be alone?”
“How long do I have to live with mental illness?”
“How long will this war go on?”
None of those questions is really about time frame. There’s much more to them. There’s longing. There’s regret. There’s hope — maybe a little — but it’s fading fast. There’s resentment, frustration, even anger. There’s what Jesus called in the Sermon on the Mount a “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” a burning desire to see justice done, evil beaten down, and righteousness triumphant. But it clashes with the way things are right now. And so, sometimes, all you can do is ask, “How long?”
You might wish you didn’t, but you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve asked your own “How long” questions, too, right? Maybe even today? Maybe even right in this moment. Well, you know, as long as human beings can hope, dream, aspire, and work for something better than the way things are, we’ll ask that question. It’s inevitable.
I’m so glad the Psalmist, David, asks it. This isn’t the only place in the psalms the question is raised, but it’s one of the most prominent. I’m glad he asks it, and I’m glad he asks it in a compilation of texts composed especially for use in worship. More than any other book in the Bible, maybe, the Psalms acknowledge that sometimes human beings ask “How long?” Even human beings of faith.
“How long will you forget me?” David asks. “How long will you hide your face from me?” That’s David saying that it feels like God won’t even look his way, won’t even acknowledge his suffering. Whatever his circumstances specifically, David is “wrestl[ing] with his thoughts” and is filled with grief and sorrow. Whoever his enemy is, David feels like he’s already lost. “How long are you going to let my enemy rub my nose in it, God?”
It’s good that David asks that question, “How long?” It gives us permission to. Don’t worry, when you ask “How long” you’re not implying that God has caused whatever it is that you’re suffering. You’re not blaming God. “How long?” is a question motivated by faith. You don’t ask it if you don’t believe God is there, listening, or that he can’t or won’t do anything about it. David asks the question because he believes in God’s faithfulness, he believes that God can be trusted to come to the aid of his people. He’s just asking why God hasn’t come to his aid yet. He knows God is there; what he doesn’t know is why God hasn’t come to his rescue.
Look at the last two verses of the Psalm: “But I trust in your unfailing love; / my heart rejoices in your salvation. / I will sing the LORD’S praise, / for he has been good to me.” Most of the time, we ask a question like “How long?” because we believe. It isn’t a crisis of faith, not really. We know God has been good to us. We know that he has acted to save us — through Jesus, especially. We know that his compassionate faithfulness never fails. So we wonder: “How long do I have to live with this until you come to do what you do?”
That’s why this question belongs in worship; even in asking it, we’re affirming God’s love, power, and compassion. This is worship in real life, where things are messy. Our worlds aren’t beautiful church buildings filled with smiling faces and uplifting music. Sometimes the music we hear in our daily lives is full of minor chords. The faces aren’t smiling, and there’s as much ugliness as beauty. “How long?” is the question believers ask in times like these.
We see an answer to it in the book of Revelation. It isn’t always a very satisfying answer — though maybe it ought to be more satisfying than it is. There, John sees a vision of the souls of those who have died for their faith in Jesus, crying out to God: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” God didn’t intervene, and they died. And they just know that God, who is “holy and true,” will one day vindicate them. And they want to know — “How long?”
John’s not really interested in ghostly souls crying out for vengeance — this vision is for very much alive believers who are suffering persecution and the loss of sisters and brothers in Christ who really were martyred. They want to know “How long?” as well, and in the next verse of Revelation we have an answer: “wait a little longer.”
A little longer, because Christ is coming and bringing redemption and judgment with him. That may be the only answer we get, too: “wait a little longer.” That’s enough, though, because it rests on the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. What we wait for is as sure as his empty tomb, as sure as God’s love for us displayed on the cross.
So if, like me, you find yourself asking, “How long?” — can you wait just a little longer? Just until God, in his wisdom, compassion, and grace, shows us that he’s never far from his people’s suffering? Until his patience outlasts the stubbornness of those who are his? Until we see the face of Jesus and know that through him God’s face has always been turned toward us? Our enemies, especially sin and death, will be destroyed forever, and the sorrow will be gone forever from our hearts. And then our question will change: “How long, Lord, will we share in this joyous life with you?” And there won’t be an answer.
After all, how do you put a time frame on forever?