Written by Lauren Lobenhofer, Lead Pastor of Cave Spring UMC, Roanoke, VA
I often hear people ask, “Where is God when bad things happen?” Where is God when God’s people suffer from poverty and illness, or when creation is damaged or destroyed? In the face of immense suffering within creation, we find ourselves wondering why God allows such horrors to occur.
In Psalm 82, God flips the script on that conversation. In this Psalm, instead of humans asking where God is in the midst of suffering, God asks those who exercise power in the world why they have allowed injustice and hardship. The “divine council” mentioned in verse one may refer to the local deities worshiped by the other people in Canaan, or they may simply be a metaphor for the powers and principalities we elevate within our societies. However we understand this phrase, it points to the people and institutions who wield power in the world. It is these people and institutions God confronts.
Just as humankind wails “How long, O Lord?” in Psalm 13, God returns the question in Psalm 82. God sees the brokenness of the world and cries out, “How long?” The Almighty names conditions that break our hearts: Injustice, poverty, oppression, the suffering of the vulnerable among us, and God laments these ills, too. Just as our hearts cry out for our hurting siblings in our community and around the world, God mourns the suffering of God’s children. God shows deep compassion for God’s people and powerful longing for the world to be made whole.
But where we wish to cast the blame on God, in this Psalm the Holy One points to our complicity in our neighbors’ misery. God calls to account the power structures that cause harm and suffering and, by extension, those of us who support and participate in these systems. God says in Psalm 82:6, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;” our Creator reminds us that we have the power to contribute to harm or to resist it. We have the ability to change things for the better or allow them to get worse.
It is this power Jesus points to when he quotes Psalm 82 in John 10. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus contrasts the self-sacrificing love of the good shepherd with the selfishness of thieves and bandits. He proclaims his identity as the Son of God and cites his care for God’s flock as evidence of this truth. When the religious authorities push back on this assertion, Jesus quotes Psalm 82. Like the Almighty in the Psalm, Jesus reminds these religious folks that they are God’s children, that they have the power to make things better. In the midst of this assertion sit challenging questions: Where have you been while your neighbors have been suffering? Have you used your power to make the world better?
Jesus then answers the question for himself. Jesus tells his audience to look at what he has done, to recall that he has fed people, healed people, cast out demons, and revealed God’s kingdom love. Jesus reveals his identity as the Son of God and the Savior through his acts of love—those he has already performed and, most importantly, in the death and resurrection for which he is already preparing.
In Jesus we see where God is when humankind is suffering. God is with us. God is lamenting alongside us, sitting in solidarity with our pain and grief, crying out “How long?” God is working for good, for redemption, for the transformation of the world. God is giving God’s Son to save us. And God is inviting us to join in this task, to use our power as children of God to love others as the Son of God has loved us.