Borderland Experiences: Counter Testimony in the Story of God and His People

BORDERLAND EXPERIENCES

“I lost my job.”

“A family member passed away”

“My doctor told me I have cancer.”

This has been the life of The Crowded House since we launched. Amidst our celebrations there has been pain and sadness. Amidst our thriving there have been borderland experiences.

While some are telling stories of joy, others of us are telling stories of dismay.

The easy thing for a local community of faith to do with those in the borderland is offer platitudes of comfort. Proclaiming things like “God is in control” is at best insensitive and at worst theologically spurious. Even if this statement is a true proposition, it is not existentially true. The larger story or metanarrative of Scripture may reveal a God who is working all things together for good, but often our experience speaks to a world that is riddled with evil and suffering – a world where it seems God is not in control or even absent.

In a small-localized family of faith, issues of suffering, pain, and evil are not theoretical. They are real, present, and disruptive to our lives and community. Because of this, we cannot ignore these moments. We must find ways to be present in these moments and speak of them as they truly are no matter how desperate and painful. The good news is that this is the way the followers of the God of Israel have always lived. There has always been space created within the community for testimonies that seem to speak against the larger story of what God is doing.

THE COUNTER TESTIMONY OF ISRAEL AND THE PSALMS

Within the narrative of Scripture, there are moments when the authors of Scripture seem to speak against the larger metanarrative of Scripture. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann refers to these moments in Scripture as Israel’s counter testimony.[1] In the moments when “Israel’s lived experience” does not line-up with the grand story Israel is telling the world, Israel is free to cross-examine the grand story by offering a counter testimony.[2]

Brueggemann notes that cross-examination and counter testimony is a “characteristic way in which faith is practiced.”[3] It is not an act of unfaithfulness but is part of the life of faith for the community of God’s people. This counter testimony is integral to the life and faith of the community and it is incredible that we find it present in the holy text of the Israelites. As Brueggemann writes:

I propose that the process of cross-examination is required of Israel’s daring testimony, which attests to the “mighty acts” whereby Yahweh transforms the world. Moreover, the process of cross-examination seems to go on in the Old Testament text itself, the text being pervasively disputatious…. It is remarkable that the process of cross-examination goes on in the Old Testament itself, partly in utterance of Israel and partly in the alleged utterance of non-Israelites. As a consequence, the cross-examination constitutes part of the record of testimony, and it is understood in Israel as a way in which the testimony itself must be undertaken.[4]

The Israelites openly question the grand story of God and his work in the world. This is not done in disobedience or in doubt. In fact, the counter testimony and cross-examination of God and his story happen precisely because the Israelites believe in a God who has a plan for the good of the world and its inhabitants.

Psalm 88 is a prime example of this counter testimony taking place within the narrative of Scripture. The Psalmist starts out with a brief recognition of the grand story of God’s goodness and redemption. The psalmist begins by identifying God as “the God who saves me” (NIV) or the “God of my salvation” (NRSV). The grand story of God includes his saving work. However, the psalmist quickly moves toward a counter testimony and never returns to the grand story of God and his mission with and through his people. The rest of the psalm unfolds a bleak picture of one of God’s children feeling abandoned and scorned by God

The psalmist declares that he is like those who go down to the pit without help and it is God’s wrath and work that has led him to the pit (88:4, 6-7). God has allowed the psalmist to be rejected and shunned by both friend and enemy (88:8, 18). Through all of this, the psalmist cries out but God does not respond (88:13-14). The psalmist paints a picture of Yahweh as the God who should save his child but has instead neglected this child. Breuggemann writes this of the 88th Psalm, “The context of these verses in the psalm make clear that YHWH is unresponsive and indifferent”.[5] This works against the grain of the grand story the Israelites are telling the world.

Through this counter testimony and others, Brueggemann points out that these moments of counter testimony happen “on the way.”[6] They are not the end of the story or advocating for some kind of propositional or objective truth about the nature of God. These moments reveal an existential reality and truth for the Israelites in a specific time and place. The Israelites still hope and believe that God is compassionate and good, but during the moment of expressing the counter testimony and cross-examination “the evidence is all to the contrary.[7] Communicating these existential moments with honesty, the nation of Israel is refusing to be placed under any ideology. Israel is only committed to telling the truth as it is being experienced.[8]

The 88th Psalm is a great example of a counter testimony or a questioning of the metanarrative found within the narrative flow of the text. Within the scriptures themselves, a pushback to the grand story is found. This is a psalm for the community of God’s people to sing again and again as their experience doesn’t seem to match the great story of God and his mission in the world.

Following the cry of Psalm 88, the 89th Psalm is a psalm of lament that calls on God to remember the covenant he made with David. There is a progression from 88, in which an individual raises a counter testimony, to 89, in which the community calls on God to remember the covenant. Moving to Psalm 90, the community of God begins to recognize the sovereign God who is in control of life and death and finishes with a request to experience again the goodness and love of God. Finally, the 91st Psalm declares that God will save and protect “whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High.” (91:1).

This progression from Psalm 88 to 91 reveals a journey from complete accusation of God and the metanarrative of Scripture, to a restored faith and experience in God and his mission in the world. Canonically, the counter testimony leads to a return to faithfulness to God and his work in the world. The counter testimony is never the last word in the narrative of Scripture. The narrative of scripture leads the community back to the mission and story of God in the world.

THE COUNTER TESTIMONY IN THE CHURCH

The counter testimonies within the Bible give the Church a way forward in interacting with borderland experiences within the church. The example of Psalm 88 helps the Church navigate these moments. The psalmist was allowed space within the community to voice doubt, frustration, anger, and even accusation against God. The psalm stands alone with no immediate corrective or propositional discourse on why the psalmist was wrong. The community let the psalmist simply exist in the counter testimony and within the community at the same time.

When the church refuses to be led as an institution and exists as a family, space is opened for people to honestly speak about and live in these borderland experiences. There is no shame in the doubt that naturally occurs here. There is no fear of rejection or judgment. As we follow the way of God’s people in centuries past, the church allows time given for honest reflection, frustration, and anger at the apparent absence of God in the borderland experience.

Being present in these moments (not rushing through them) is not an act of rebellion. It is an act of being human and wrestling with the story of God when that story appears to be crumbling.

The church as family can handle these moments because it has no agenda outside the wok of God in the world and in his people. The church can handle the counter-testimony because the church is a community of diverse stories and experiences coalescing into one grand story. The counter-testimony does not break the church, but draws it into the future where God is reconciling all things unto himself. We don’t rush the story forward but serve as faithful witnesses as we experience the unfolding of God’s work.

May we be a church that is not afraid of borderland experiences. May we walk with our brothers and sisters through these times. May we not rush through them but experience them for all they are worth. And in doing this, may we rediscover God’s work in the world as we experience his reconciling work in all things.

[1] Walter Bruegemann. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 317-318.

[2] Ibid., 317-318.

[3] Ibid., 318.

[4] Ibid., 317.

[5] Walter Breuggemann. Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008). 110.

[6] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. 378.

[7] Ibid., 378.

[8] Ibid., 379.

About the author

Leave a Reply