Jesus lamented. He was hurting deeply, and he expressed that hurt to God. We don’t normally think about Jesus like that, complaining to God. Yet arguably the most famous example of spoken lament comes from Psalm 22, where the psalmist, David, writes, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s famous because Jesus quoted it when he was hanging on the cross, about to die. In that psalm, David says, “God, I cry out to you day and night, I am not silent, but you do not answer.” The psalms often include deep expressions of pain that we call lament. What do we do when we lament, and God doesn’t answer?
Consider Psalm 44, verses 23-24, when the psalmist says, “Wake up, God, why are you sleeping? Wake up! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?”
Wow! Isn’t it shocking to read in the Bible that people are so upset, they blame God for sleeping on the job? They knew full well that God is not a human who needs to sleep. They know he is everywhere all the time, and he is fully aware of what is going on. Yet, that is precisely what is so painful about their situation. God absolutely has not only the awareness of their situation, but also the power to do something about it, and they do not see God intervening, and worse, they can’t see him doing anything about it. Maybe you know the feeling. When the psalmist cries out, “Wake up, God!” his words are loaded with longing and anger and pain and hurt and desperation, as well as confusion and desperation. From their viewpoint, God isn’t waking up. What do you do when you are desperate, crying out to God, and there is nothing but silence in response?
These are hard passages to read. But we need to read them. This week we’re studying Ezekiel 19, and in the previous post we learned that God asks Ezekiel to lament. In this post we’re trying to understand what lament is and why it is important, especially during those time when we lament and it doesn’t seem like God responds. What we see in lament is that it is the cry of a hurting, desperate heart. It is raw. It is difficult. But I’m glad lament is in the Bible. Why?
Lament teaches us that it is okay to express our deepest emotions to God. He can take it. In fact, he welcomes it! If you are going through a difficult time, lament reminds us that God doesn’t need us to put on nice clothes, make-up, get haircuts, write out a script, memorize, and be all dignified and proper and eloquent when we meet with him. God just wants you to come to him as you are and express yourself. Why? Because even though it might not be pretty, even though it might include tears, sobbing, make-up running down your face, anger and accusation and cursing, you are reaching out to God. Lament, therefore, is an act of faith in God. That’s why we call it holy complaint.
No matter how bad life gets, no matter how messy, lament reminds us that God is the one in whom we can place our faith. Often, what we find in the psalms of lament is that, not only is the crying out to God an expression of the pain and hurt, but the psalmist also often meanders around till he finds praise and trust and joy and hope in God. Lament has a way of helping us redirect ourselves on what is true. Both Psalm 13 and 22 are examples of this. If you keep reading them, David eventually gets to the good parts.
But not always. Some psalms of lament just let out the complaint and stop. Take, for example, Psalm 88. What do you read there? 18 verses of nothing but painful, emotional complaining to God. It’s a hard read. We are people who want some hope, some good news, even just a reminder that, in the middle of our pain, God is good. That can really help, right? You probably know what I mean. When you’re going through a difficult time, you know God is good, but the emotion and the pain is overwhelming. When, in the middle of the pain, you hear a Bible verse, a worship song or a prayer, you’re reminded that God is good, and it helps. A couple years ago, I was going through a tough time with anxiety, and the song “No Longer Slaves” helped me so much. I would listen to it over and over again, as it redirected me to think about God’s love for me. The pain is still there, but the reminder of who God is helps you get through the difficult time.
But Psalm 88? There’s no reminder. In Psalm 88 there is nothing but lament. Long, long ago when someone was picking out which psalms should be in the book of Psalms, they almost certainly had more than 150 to choose from. Still, they purposefully chose Psalm 88. That’s a bold choice, because there is no happy ending.
I thought of a recent funeral I officiated, and frankly just about all the funerals I’ve officiated or attended over the years. In our American evangelical culture, the trend for funerals is to make them celebrations. On funeral bulletins, we titled them, “A Celebration of Life.” The songs and the stories in a funeral are almost all joyful and happy. I’m not saying that is wrong. I’m just pointing out that we Americans aren’t too fond of pain and sadness and death. Into that contemporary cultural reality consider the ancient cultural reality that Psalm 88 was picked out to go in the Bible. Someone chose to include Psalm 88 on purpose. In fact, the psalms are basically the hymnal of the people of Israel, and some Christian churches sing the psalms that way each week in worship. Imagine singing Psalm 88 on a Sunday! It’s nothing but gloom and doom. We would much rather have our joyful songs, right?
Lament reminds us that life is not always joyful. You might think, “I get that life is not always happy…it’s an obvious fact of our existence that life sucks sometimes. What I want is some hope and joy!” Where most lament admits that life is rough sometimes, and then moves toward joy in the Lord, Psalm 88 is one of those darker laments that only focuses on the darkness. There are moments, and maybe you are going through one, where life seems to be giving you one bad rap after another. Pain, pain and more pain. No end in sight. Man, is that hard. I was texting with someone about her friend who recently committed suicide. Then this past week, her coworker died. That is straight up difficult.
Or what about 19 straight months of Covid, messed up politics, racial injustice, and natural disasters. Stress, anxiety, depression, on a roll. I don’t think 2021 is as bad as 2020, but it’s not much different. So many people have reason to lament to God. That’s exactly why I started included a psalm of lament in each of my church’s Wednesday prayer guides. We need talk about that emotion, that pain, and we need to let it out to God. It is important to express our emotion. I’m a big believer that emotion doesn’t always tell us the truth. We need to learn to evaluate and reign in our emotions, as Jesus’ brother James wrote, “Consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds.” In other words, “use your mind to control your emotions.” But there is also a truth that emotions are a helpful part of our humanity. Lament is a wonderful reminder that we can and should express our emotions to God.
Maybe you are reading this, and you want to lament right now. Just let it out. Are you feeling pain? Express it to God. Feel free to use this guided lament. Pray it out to God. Journal it.