Father, our hopes are drying up just like the earth, turned to dust; just like the leaves, shriveled to paper. No sign of change; no rain. How long must your people wither, shiver in thirsty air that claims all moisture as its own? Tears are gone with the wind. Our hearts ache and find no solace. How long must our eyes burn, longing, searching the horizon for some glimpse of hope? Slap the violent out of their arrogance! Pull their stolen chairs out from under their fat bums, grown gross from slurping up the profits of the poor! Nail them to the crosses they’ve erected for the innocent, judging them guilty for their names or point of view! How long, dear King, our Father? We know you rule the universe. Let us see your justice— we beg this of you! Hear our prayer, this petition signed in anxious trust. . . all our hope is in you.
The gorgeous colors of Michigan’s autumn are fading away; leaves are mostly on the ground. The tree skeletons wait, ready for winter. When I wrote the lament “How Long?” we were in a similar season in northern Côte d’Ivoire: the glorious greens of rainy season were gone. Leaves were either withered and fallen or covered with dull brown as the harmattan wind blew in, plastering everything with dust from lands north of us. It seemed like a picture of the divided country’s hopes. Withered. Dried up.
We were dealing with years and years of rebel rule all around us, with political figures in government in the south who seemed most interested in amassing personal glory and wealth. The south was deeply suspicious of anyone from the north. The stories of violent oppression were circulating. A woman had been pulled off a bus heading toward the Ghanaian border she disappeared. Her name labeled her a northerner. A man heading into the southern territory from the north on a bus was shot at a police stop; he had the wrong name, too, one associated with a Muslim people group but widely applied to others as well. And a man in our town was killed by a rebel unit when one of his actions disgruntled the local rebel leader.
We were trying to help certain students from local families get accepted into vocational training programs in the south. After a while it became clear that one had to give a huge “gift” of money to those in charge, or there was no hope of getting accepted. These poor northerners were constantly left out.
Could there ever be peace? Could the country become reunited?
“How long” has been a theme of countless followers of our Lord, for centuries.
I am absolutely terrified, and you, LORD – how long will this continue? (Ps. 6:3 NET)
O Lord, how long are you going to just stand there and watch this? Rescue me from their destructive attacks; guard my life from the young lions! (Ps. 35:17 NET)
How long, LORD, must I cry for help? But you do not listen! I call out to you, “Violence!” But you do not intervene! (Hab. 1:2 NET)
And there are multiple times in the Scriptures when those same words are launched back at the people:
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mk. 9:19 NIV)
“How long will you simpletons love naiveté? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? (Prov. 1:22 NET)
Is the “how long” song familiar to you? My prayers still lean that way at times. Just reading the news headlines confirms that violence is a daily norm, that fake news spreads like wildfire, that the pandemic is not over since cases are actually rising.
It may not be the national or world situation that is so distressing. Other social fractures, or sickness, or loss and grief that do not seem to get healed, all fuel the same kinds of lament.
From our limited perspective there often seems to be no hope, no response to our prayers. This is when we need to renew our trust and notice the answers that may be sliding in sideways. God’s purposes are often hidden to us. We need to dismantle naiveté and keep our eyes and hearts open to what he desires, to grow in knowing him and his ways.
At the same time that all that corruption and disunity was breaking our hearts in Côte d’Ivoire, the Lord was doing some amazing things.
One of the young men from Tiepogovogo, where we had been planting a church, had just finished one year of pastoral training when the war and crisis forced the school to close for a while. So Fouhoton Pierre was back home in his village. He used that change in plans to spend time visiting people in neighboring villages, telling them about Jesus and how he had changed his life. Suddenly the struggling little body of believers in Tiepogovogo was growing, welcoming lots of new believers walking from neighboring villages to fellowship with them. Fouhoton realized that some people in more distant villages were needing to be discipled as well, meeting with them where they lived.
Not squelched by the dangers all around, the Nyarafolo Group that had been meeting to make songs in their traditional musical style began to plan Bible conferences, choosing a different village each year so as to encourage the various groups that were scattered in the region. The first one to take place after our return in 2006 was at Pisankaha, where the very first small group of Jesus Followers had begun in 1964. For years they had been the only group of Nyarafolo believers. At the conference the Pisankaha believers told stories of how the Lord had brought them through years of persecution from the Sacred Forest (the men’s society in the traditional religion), and how much they had learned to trust their Lord. The Nyarafolo Group put on a dramatic skit that told how Abraham’s faith was tested as he offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice, obeying God, and how God answered with a great solution, confirming Abraham’s faith as real. Everyone came away encouraged. And for the first time ever, they heard part of God’s Word read to them in Nyarafolo. My co-translator, Moise, and I were working on translating Genesis, and the Abraham story was now in their language. As he read it they were transfixed.
There were many other things happening, too. But those are examples of the way that the Lord was still at work, even when the broader country situation did not seem to be changing.
We need to rest in the confidence that the King of the Universe knows every detail of our sorrows before we even express them, and is not shocked at our cries of distress. He has heard them for thousands of years. And even though we may not see the answers we are hoping for right away, or in the way we are hoping to see them, we can trust his goodness, kindness and love. He still has undercover projects going on. He still is at work drawing people to himself and testing the solidity of the faith of others. We are indeed being sifted, or you could say that true colors are showing up through these processes.
May we choose trust! And when we cry out to him, may we be willing to wait to see how he will work, always listening for his voice! We know that he accepts our petitions and loves to see us lean on him, honestly expressing our needs as well as our confidence in him.
All our hope is in him.
I call to you for you will answer me, O God. Listen to me! Hear what I say! Accomplish awesome, faithful deeds, you who powerfully deliver those who look to you for protection from their enemies. (Ps. 17:6 NET)