“When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face, they are terrified;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.”
It’s not particularly comforting to think of a whimsical God who dispenses his favor by mood or temperament. That our God could or would simply turn his face and leave the room, for no apparent reason, absent himself from our lives, makes me shake.
Reminds me of that scary Dickinson poem—“I know that he exists,” a poem which starts with a proud affirmation, then does an about-face into bitterness: “I know that he exists/Somewhere, in silence./He has hid his rare life/From our gross eyes.”
In Psalm 104, the psalmist’s vision of our world and his creation becomes praise a tribute to his omnipotence, in him and through him and for him all things have their being. Of all the truths of scripture, the sovereignty of God wears best, or so it seems to me. It’s an amazing comfort that there is no such thing as chaos, but that his eternal, steadfast love, true every morning, spreads over us all the time. And it does. There are times when its vividly there, and times when—or so it seems to me—we feel it far less warmly.
For my whole life, I dealt with scads of college-age kids, some of whom, at the Christian college where I taught, were immensely sure-footed in their faith, energized by it, ready to reshape the world for the Lord. It was good for me to be around them—it really was.
But they were young, very young, sometimes younger, it seemed, when I was older, younger than they were when I started to teach. I taught literature, much of it far less cheerful than they were, and in the last few years especially that task became more than occasionally difficult. At times I hesitated forcing them to read things—really great stories and poems and novels—that I knew would dampen their optimism or make them question their faith. Made me feel like the grim reaper.
But if I listen to the Word, it seems that few greater threats to authentic righteousness exist than wealth, the bubble of arrogance bred and nurtured by affluence. What’s more, fear is in the atmosphere today, and affluent fear builds hearty defenses. In those last years, I sometimes wondered whether Christian kids, evangelical kids especially, didn’t live in a more heavily-walled fortress than their grandparents had, growing up in the 50s. At times, they seemed farther from life’s realities than students were fifty years ago, so beloved by soccer moms and helicopter parents.
It was my job to show them Psalm 104: 28 and 29, to help them understand that when God smiles, all’s well; but when he turns his face, the world’s roses can wither on the vine.
Life is never a box of chocolates or bowl of cherries. But then, neither it is just plain grim. Besides, I like to believe (that’s faith, isn’t it?) that God never ducks out of our lives, never really hides his face, but that his love is always with us, even if we experience the darkness far more often than we—or my sweet students—would like to.
It shouldn’t hurt them to read Emily Dickinson, to know that she felt as terrified as the beasts of the field do when God hides his face. We. All. Do.
What the Psalms tell us, unequivocally, is not to fear. We've all been there, and so has He.