The Grammar of Faith

I am an English teacher, so I notice grammar even when reading the Scripture. I have found the  grammar of the Psalms especially encouraging when facing difficult times. A number of psalms possess a grammatical structure that expresses the essence of faith in the midst trials.  

The grammar of Psalms 13 swings on “but”, the coordinating conjunction in verse five:

            (1) How long, O Lord? Wilt Thou forget me forever?
                   How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me?

             (2) How long shall I counsel in my soul,
                   Having sorrow in my heart all the day?
                   How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

            (3) Consider and answer me, O Lord, my God;
                  Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

            (4) Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,”

                  Lest my adversaries rejoice when I am shaken

            (5) But I have trusted in Thy lovingkindness;
                   My heart shall rejoice in Thy salvation.

             (6) I will sing to the Lord,
                   Because He has dealt bountifully with me.

The “but” connects his trust in the God’s kindness to all the complaints, fears, and doubts in the preceding verses. The difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions is that coordinating conjunctions present what comes before and after them as equally important. One truth is not subordinate to the other.  It is also true that they seldom make any explanatory claims like subordinate conjunctions such as “because” or “since”.

When I was younger, I rushed through the first part of Psalm 13 to get to verse five. The “how longs” sounded whiny. During my sojourn with charismatic triumphalism, I wondered if the psalmist was wrong to recognize the strength of his enemies. His claim to be near death seemed melodramatic. I was glad when David snapped out of it and celebrated God’s goodness and bounty.  

I now believe the first four verses are as important as the last two. Here, and in other psalms, we encounter honesty about the psalmist’s experience and reality. David tells us the truth about what is in his life and his heart. Such honesty is often not celebrated in Christian communities. Many declarations before the conjunction would receive a rebuke or correction. The “how longs”, for instance, might be met with an exhortation to trust in God’s sovereign timing. Complaints about enemies would be met with exhortations to love and pray for them.

But we should not diminish the power of Christian realism. When we dress up our trials in the trite rags of Christian cliches, we fail to let our light shine in the darkness. Honesty about ourselves, our failures, doubts, and fears gives power to our faith when we declare, “But as for me, I trust in Thee, O Lord” (Psalm 31:14). The world is looking to the church for spiritual reality and authenticity—but often not finding it. Faith declared the midst of the darkness and the pain of our brokenness makes the Word flesh, dwelling among us in our day to day lives.

As mentioned already, these coordinating conjunctions (and, yet, but), don’t explain much. The first four verses are not offered as a reason for trusting. The next two verses don’t explain God’s delay or absence. David simply says, “This is true, but this also is true.” This where many of us live. For instance, I am having surgery for cancer, but I believe God heals the sick. I am putting my body in the hands of a surgeon, and my surgeon in the hands of God.

Realism, however, that never gets to the “but”, isn’t realism.  God has entered history and entered our lives.We must be honest about the faithfulness of God, the fact of resurrection, our hope of glory.The “but” or “but for me” expresses our choice to believe. It is where we take a stand and stake our tent. Our experience, or lack of it, is not the final authority or last word.

This conjunction, “but”, is the hinge upon which all our faith swings. Jesus died but rose again. With man there is little hope, but with God all things are possible. Evil seems to reign, but Jesus is coming again. In this world we face many tribulations, but we should be of good cheer because Jesus has overcome the world.

The hinge can get rusty, stubborn, and squeaky. Singing Christmas carols at the Presbyterian church last night gave my hinge a needed shot of oil. I found my heart swinging open to God’s love. Israel had waited long, but her king was born in Bethlehem. “How long, O Lord,” was answered on Christmas with “Now!”

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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