Friday, December 26, 2014

The theodicy of liturgy

Ps 73 is a lengthy meditation on the apparent injustices of the world. Though it begins with the confident affirmation that Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart (v. 1), yet it continues to describe the ways in which the wicked seem to have it good while the righteous go on in suffering. The psalmist describes some of the good luck of the wicked like this:

For they have no pain;
  their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
  they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
  violence covers them like a garment (vv. 4-6).

Not only that, but the wicked are not even recognized as such by the people:

Therefore the people turn and praise them,
  and find no fault in them.
And they say, "How can God know?
  Is there knowledge in the Most High?"
Such are the wicked;
  always at ease, they increase in riches (vv. 10-12).

The psalmist laments his own situation of suffering and travail, and considers that his efforts to live a good and upright life may have been pointless. His sufferings seem an unfitting repayment for his attempt to remain pure in conscience and in his relations with others:

All in vain I have kept my heart clean
  and washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
  and am punished every morning (vv. 13-14).

Quite the depressing state to be in! And yet he doesn't remain in this place, because otherwise he would never have written the psalm in the first place. But what is it that convinces him? What is it that opens his eyes to the truth of the matter, and keeps from compromising himself with the wicked for the sake of an easy gain?

He writes:

But when I thought how to understand this,
  it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
  then I perceived their end (vv. 16-17).

Here we find what we might call the 'theodicy of the liturgy.' The psalmist goes into the house of God and there finds the answers to his troubles, because he is reminded of the judgment and justice of God -- a judgment which lifts up the downtrodden and casts down those who were haughty; a justice which rewards each person according to his due, and does not allow the evil to go unpunished or the good to go unrewarded.

Not that we needed any more reasons to go to church, but here we find yet another. The church service is designed (or at least ought to be designed) to remind us of the truths of God when experience in the world may incline us in another direction. Importantly, the liturgy ought to make us feel glad to be alive, it ought to remind us that the Creator is our Father and that therefore it is good to exist, good to go on living in the world. We meet with struggles and obstacles in our everyday existence and we find it troublesome to persist any further; but God is our Father and he created us for life, not for death. The liturgy and the church service ought to remind us of this, and provide us with a renewed strength and zeal for living over the course of the coming week.

The liturgy must also remind us of the moral order of the universe God has created. We must be reminded of the judgment of God on the wicked, which gives our decisions moral importance and significance; we must be reminded of the promise that Jesus Christ will judge, that we are promised mercy and understanding for our failings. We have to know and hear about Christ's resurrection, which is the evidence that God does not leave the victims of the world to suffer forever and be destroyed, but that the dead can be raised and every evil can be undone by God's power and goodness.

When we sing hymns about the salvation that has been given us, we are made to take our minds off the sufferings of the moment and to see the greater vision of an eternity in fellowship with the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. When we take the communion, we are reminded of the sufferings that Christ underwent for us, the righteous for the guilty, so that we may be saved from the death and doom to which we had been destined because of our sin. When we sing praises to Christ who died, we are immediately reminded of his resurrection, by virtue of which he can receive our praises, which is the proof that life has the final word and not death, good and not evil, God and not Satan. Our church services are a liturgical answer to the problem of theodicy encountered throughout the week.

We must go to church regularly because we have to be reminded of all these things. They give our lives sense; they make it worthwhile to continue living in this universe in which it would seem things often go haywire. We are reminded at our gatherings of the precious truth that God is our Father, and that he cares for us even in times of trouble and toil.