Do you ever feel like maybe God isn’t living up to His promises? That He has abandoned you? Isn’t answering your prayers? Or that He should have done something to fix things and hasn’t?
Those are the sorts of thoughts we often feel guilty for thinking. After all, being a “good Christian” involves trusting God (which we often assume means not questioning Him) all the time no matter what, right? And so we try to ignore these kinds of thoughts and bury them deep where they won’t offend God or make us look bad to the other people in our church. But is that how God wants us to handle our painful questions?
There’s a Biblical practice called lament that models how to deal with anguish, pain, grief, and confusion. People of faith in scripture didn’t bottle up, hide, or ignore these feelings. They took them to God, turning questions we mistakenly think of as a lack of faith (or as a reason to give up on God) into a prayer. Over 1/3 of the Psalms are laments — “a prayer for help coming out of pain” (“Biblical Laments: Prayer Out of Pain” by Michael D. Guinan). There’s also a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations. Lament is found throughout scripture, from prophets, to psalmists, to Jesus. Lament is a good and godly practice and, if we learn how to do it, lament can help us hold on to trusting God even when we can’t figure out what He’s up to.
Praying through a sorrowful mood
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning? My God, I cry in the daytime, but you don’t answer; in the night season, and am not silent. (Psalm 22:1-2, all scriptures from WEB translation)
The feeling of abandonment and despair is one that David felt, most of us can sympathize with, and Jesus echoed on the cross (Matt. 27:46). We know God does not leave or forsake His faithful ones, but that doesn’t stop us from sometimes feeling as if we’ve been forsaken. Last week, we talked about moods of faith in the Psalms, specifically a confident, celebratory mood in Psalm 91. Here in Psalm 22 we get another mood — one that is equally valid for Christians and no less worthy of taking to God in prayer.
lament is a form of prayer. It is more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God. (“Dare to Hope in God: How to Lament Well” by Mark Vroegop)
You don’t ask someone, “why have you forsaken me?” unless at least some part of you believes that they’re still listening. When we lament, we’re turning to God with our sorrows instead of letting them turn us away from Him. And don’t worry — He can handle you talking to Him about your pain. It takes a lot more to offend God than someone who wants to trust Him being honest about the things that trouble them.
Writing a lament for today
In his article I just quoted, Mark Vroegop outlines four elements of lament, which he illustrates using Psalm 13. Other laments, including Psalm 22 and many others also make use of these elements. Let’s walk through each of them. I’m going to use them as an outline for a lament-writing exercise, and I invite you to join me. If you feel like the stressful times we’re living in now make you want to lament, grab a pen and paper and let’s get started.
- “Turn to God.” We talked about this one already. The first step to having a lament rather than a more general complaint is to take it to God. For example, I’m starting my lament like this: O Lord, where are you? Why do you seem to be absent right now? We could really use your help.
- “Bring your complaint.” It’s not a lament without something you’re honestly concerned about. Part of lament is bringing your honest emotions to God and laying your questions, frustrations, etc. before Him. I’ll continue: A fearful plague stalks our world, spreads fear through the nations, and blocks us from being together. Haven’t you noticed? Won’t you do something?
- “Ask boldly for help.” We have permission to “draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace for help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). So let’s do that! We know you have stopped plagues in the past and have the power to heal illness. Please step in and do that again for us now. Have mercy on us. Let us learn from this trial and turn back to you.
- “Choose to trust.” As we work through a lamenting process, it should renew our trust in God. Lament helps us find balance between knowing life is hard and also knowing God is good. I’ll conclude my lament with these words: You have proved yourself faithful again and again. We praise your name as we wait on you, and we commit to trusting you. We also hold on to joy, knowing that you will work things out for good in the end.
Hope in Lamentations
One of the most heart-wrenching examples of lament is found in the aptly named book of Lamentations. Each of the five chapters is a poem, and four are acrostics (the first letter of each line goes through the Hebrew alphabet, in order, much like Psalm 119 does with each stanza). These poems aren’t hastily constructed lists of complaints, but literary pieces that conform to a specific style. The poems were originally part of Jeremiah, but they were isolated to read publicly at Tisha B’Av, a fast day commemorating both destructions of the temple in Jerusalem. In short, lament is something Jeremiah and the Jews who followed him took seriously. They recognized its value and practiced this form of prayer on purpose.
There is hope in this book, as I wrote about last year in a post titled “Finding Hope In Lamentations Through Christ our Passover.” But there is also intense sorrow, especially in poems 1, 2, 4, and 5. These mostly contain the “Turn to God” and “Bring your complaint” elements of lament, with only a little “Ask boldly for help.” One example of this last element is found at the very end of the final poem.
You, Yahweh, remain forever. Your throne is from generation to generation. Why do you forget us forever,
and forsake us for so long a time? Turn us to yourself, Yahweh, and we will be turned. Renew our days as of old. But you have utterly rejected us. You are very angry against us. (Lam. 5:19-22)
If that was all we had, Lamentations would be a very bleak book indeed. It seems like Jeremiah is asking God for help with very little hope that He’ll actually come through. And yet, we also find this passage at the center of the third poem:
This I recall to my mind; therefore I have hope. It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. “Yahweh is my portion,” says my soul. “Therefore I will hope in him.” Yahweh is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh. (Lam. 3:21-26)
This is one of my favorite passages in scripture. Even during one of the darkest chapters of God’s people’s history, Jeremiah wrote this stunning example of the “Choose to trust” element of lamenting. This sort of trust is where we want to end up as we work through our prayers of lament. It might take a while to get there, and we can go through cycles of lamenting as we keep working through these different elements, but God will help us get there. We just have to keep turning to Him.
Featured image credit: Thought Catalog via Unsplash