The “What Have I done to Deserve This?” Blues

The "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" Blues (CaD Ps 44) Wayfarer

All this has come upon us,
    yet we have not forgotten you,
    or been false to your covenant.

Psalm 44:17 (NRSVCE)

One of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen in a film is that of Antonio Salieri in the movie Amadeus played masterfully by F. Murray Abraham. We are introduced to Salieri at the beginning of the film as he resides in an insane asylum. He narrates the film as he tells his story to a priest. Salieri was an accomplished composer who was a devout believer and lived his life with the notion that there was a certain reciprocal arrangement between him and God: If he lived a good, devout life and sought to write music that glorified God then God would make him the greatest, most successful composer in the world.

At first, things were going along according to the plan. Then Amadeus showed up on the scene. Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart was a young, wild, profane man who gave himself over to every human appetite. And, he was an amazingly gifted composer. Soon, the depraved young brat Mozart was getting all of the commissions Salieri wanted. He was writing music so pure and inspired that it left Salieri mad with envy. God appeared to have been granted Mozart the answers to all of Salieri’s prayers. Salieri felt cheated and he allowed his jealousy, rage, and resentment to drive his soul to madness.

I thought of Salieri as I meditated on today’s chapter, Psalm 44. This psalm is different. It’s a lament like other psalms, but rather than expressing the heart of an individual, Psalm 44 is a community lament, and it is written as the community struggles with the loss and defeats they’ve been experiencing at the hand of their enemies. The songwriter structures it almost like a well laid out legal argument to God:

  • In verses 1-8 establish God’s faithfulness through history and the covenant relationship between them and God. It remembers how God had done great things for them and they, in turn, placed their trust in God.
  • Verses 9-16 make an abrupt 180-degree turn and lyrics lament their current misfortunes and defeat, laying the blame for their woes squarely at God’s feet.
  • Verses 17-22 make a case for the people’s innocence and faithfulness to God.
  • Finally, in verses 23-26, the people pray for God to wake up. They cry out for deliverance and redemption.

One of the things that I love about the psalms is the way they express really honest human emotions. As an individual who has tried to follow Jesus faithfully through the years, it’s easy to feel that God has let me down when things don’t go my way or when I see what appears to be really bad human beings prospering in ways I can only dream about. The “What have I ever done to deserve this?” blues are a raw human emotion that I can identify with.

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve come to realize that like children or teens blaming their parents for everything wrong in life, I sometimes can do the same thing with God. Yet, God never promised me life would be Easy Street or that every one of my self-centered wishes dressed up in the liturgical robes of prayer would be granted. The path of comparison leads to really tragic places. Just watch the opening scenes of Amadeus as the priest walks through the asylum to find Salieri.

In the quiet this morning I find myself challenged by Psalm 44 because I find the premise of the lyrics, that the nation’s defeat was somehow God’s failure, as misguided. At the same time, I am reminded that in my spiritual journey I’ve had to work through all sorts of misguided notions of my own including those not unlike that of today’s psalm. In expressing my honest feelings and getting them out in the open I make it possible to process them just like a child sometimes has to throw occasional tantrums on the path to maturity. Which is a much healthier path than the one Salieri took.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

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