This summer we’ve just begun a new sermon series looking at representative selections from the Book of Psalms.
The Book of Psalms is a rich and diverse collection of the prayers and songs of our spiritual ancestors in the faith.
Based on how they are quoted and used in worship and as the inspiration for Christian music, many people assume this is a compilation of bright, sunny, and upbeat tracks – praise after praise song being lifted up to the Lord.
But for those who take a closer look and more careful read, we discover while there are indeed many expressions of thanksgiving and unabashed joy within this book, the largest category within this collection – about a third – are what are known as the psalms of lament.
About a third of these songs and prayers express deep sorrow, hurt-filled protests, questions borne of frustration, and unfiltered anger – all directed toward heaven – all expressed before the face of God.
Interestingly and surprisingly, these laments – what are often called the neglected psalms – haven’t gotten a lot of air time in the life of the Church.
We hardly if, ever, sing these songs as a part of our regular worship.
Pastors rarely preach and teach on them.
And so, lots of people are shocked to realize prayers and songs like these actually are in the Bible – are part of the word of God.
In fact, I’ve noticed that even among Christians when they do become aware of these psalms of lament, still tend to be uncomfortable with them.
Hearing these raw, earthy, from-the-gut prayers can cut against the grain of what we’ve been taught and told a life of faith in God is supposed to be.
We perceive what we find expressed in these songs – all the doubts & questions let alone the seeming cynicism & negativity – to reflect the exact opposite of belief – of faith.
And so when we come across one of these lament psalms, in our shock and embarrassment, we politely flip the page to the next one – until we find a psalm that sounds a bit more cheery and positive.
But maybe songs and prayers like these – these psalms of lament – that so frequently appear in the Book of Psalms, do so for a reason.
In a world where pain, suffering, and loss are consistent and inevitable experiences – certainly the last year and half has only made that clearer – maybe God doesn’t want us to ignore these psalms.
Maybe God doesn’t want us to ignore them. Maybe we need them somehow.
Let’s explore this possibility – what psalms like these have to offer us – as we read and reflect together on Psalm 13 – a lament psalm written by David in the midst of his own troubles – his own questions and doubts about God. (TEXT)
David is at the end of his rope when he writes this prayer.
Overwhelmed by a prolonged season of adversity and affliction in his life, David exudes a mixture of emotions – dejection, frustration, anger.
David’s opening salvo in this prayer is a volley of accusations and protests – all directed towards God.
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” Psalm 13:1 – 2
The first two verses are so raw, we can picture David on his knees – hot tears streaming down his face – even as he is violently pointing his finger up to heaven, calling out the Lord – challenging the very character of God.
It’s not clear what the specific circumstances were in David’s life at this moment, but most scholars believe he wrote this prayer during all the years before he was king of Israel – when he was on the run – being constantly threatened and persecuted by King Saul.
Whatever the particular situation, David is demanding answers to his questions against the backdrop of a clear and present danger.
The threat before David is two-fold.
There is the immediate physical danger of losing his life.
Notice the contrast between David’s self-proclaiming, singular enemy – death and his foes – who are harrassing and persecuting him.
“Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.” Psalm 13: 3 – 4
David perceives death to be coming for him which in turn will lead his foes to rejoice when David inevitably loses his life.
But listen carefully as the threat – the coming defeat that David sees before him is not just physical; it is also spiritual.
As his foes continue to succeed in tormenting him, as the shadow of death increasingly looms over him, David, ultimately finds himself spiritually lost.
Based on his immediate circumstances, it looks to David like God has abandoned him.
Perceiving the Lord’s absence rather than the Lord’s presence, David acutely feels the lifelessness that results.
In this anguish, David accuses God of being distant and disinterested – of the Lord not coming through on his end of the deal – his covenant promises – of being there and having David’s back.
The stakes are high. Not just his life but David’s very faith is on the line.
Being hard pressed on every side, David is beginning to lose hope. Doubt is overtaking him.
But David does not remain silent in his suffering, he instead laments to God.
To lament is to openly express our grief or sorrow – not matter of factly or clinically but passionately, unreservedly.
To lament is to let it all out – “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.”
To lament is to protest – to complain – to push back against the reality of sadness, suffering, and brokenness in our lives and our world.
Biblically, the focus then of our lament – the one to whom we are to direct our protest and complaint – is none other than the Creator and Sustainter of all life – the Lord God Almighty.
As I mentioned earlier, the idea – let alone the practice of lament can sound foreign and very uncomfortable to many Christians today, because it can seem like a lack of faith and trust in God.
Many of us have been taught that doubting the Lord – questioning God – complaining to the Almighty – is wrong, sinful, and liable to get us struck with lighting or something worse.
Being raised with a Western mindset where crying is for babies, complaining is for naysayers, and doubting is for the weak, we’ve imposed a cultural image upon God as being a stern, no nonsense, stoic deity who ain’t got no time or tolerance for all our emotions and our questions.
Who are we – just who do we think we are – to question and complain against the hand that feeds us?
We should be happy with whatever we’ve got.
We ought to accept the world the way it is.
We need to stop being so needy and pull ourselves together.
Nobody likes a sad Christian.
People aren’t going to believe in and follow Jesus if we’re moping around all the time.
And so, we’ve fashioned a culture within the Church where we have no room or practice for grieving or lament – unless there is a funeral, unless there is some national or global tragedy that we cannot avoid facing.
We’ve crafted a communal expectation whenever we gather for worship or fellowship that we’re supposed to be happy and to feel blessed.
Complaining and frustration are frowned upon. Tears of joy are fine but sorrowful crying makes a fuss. And if you’re questioning God, you best keep that to yourself or you’re gonna get a heap of quick and easy Christian platitudes.
God won’t give you more than you can bear. If God brings you to it, he will bring you through it. Let go and let God. When God closes one door, another one opens. Everything happens for a reason. You just need to accept God’s will.
But the truth is – it’s not God who can’t handle our grieving – our sadness, our frustrations, our doubts, and our questions.
It’s we who aren’t comfortable with it. It’s we who aren’t good at dealing with it – because we don’t allow any space for lament in our lives – in our walk of faith with Jesus.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve bought and sold a version of the Gospel that presents the Christian life as one victory after another – as blessing upon blessing, mountaintop after mountaintop – without any valleys along the way.
We’ve turned believing the good news of God’s forgiveness, of the Lord’s grace, and the assurance of life beyond death in Christ as a message of instant gratification – your BEST LIFE now.
And yet, Jesus himself, “In this world, we will have trouble.”
Again and again, Jesus presents following him as the way and the truth to a full, abundant and everlasting life – but one that entails counting the cost of change, being willing to die to oneself in order to be transformed, and daring to sacrifically serve others rather than to escape from this world.
Beloved, the good news of Jesus Christ doesn’t mean we have to put on plastic smiles and act like everything is okay.
Believing in the Gospel doesn’t require us to wipe away each other tears before anyone has had a chance to weep – to have a good cry.
When we jump so quickly to Jesus as the answer and therefore, everything is going to be fine and awesome, we misrepresent how the Bible not only allows us but encourages us – sometimes even commands us – to sit and honestly acknowledge those places of hurt and woundedness.
Following Jesus isn’t living in denial or always having to come up with a pat answer when life hurts.
Following Jesus is being like Jesus and entering into and validating the tension and suffering of our broken lives and fractured world.
Following Jesus includes lament – voicing the sorrow, articulating the frustration, venting the anger, raising the questions, and confessing the doubts of our pain and our grief.
Psalms like these – of lament – assure us that the word of God engages not just life as it can be – as it will be one day – but actually responds to life as it is – here and now for us.
For the Bible when we actually read it, is not the story of the best and brightest – of perfect people who are wildly and repeatedly successful in life.
No, what we find when enter into the story of the Bible are flawed, broken, and struggling people like us – to whom God gives voice to their hurting, their oppression, their doubts and their fears.
We cannot read the Bible without encountering words of lament on almost every page.
For prayers and songs of lament are not the attack of the faithless.
Words of laments are not the antagonistic and defiant taunts launched from the cheap seats by those taking pot shots at the very idea of God’s existence long before tragedy strikes.
Words of lament are uttered in the thick of the valley – looking up to heaven shouting before the face of God.
Songs of lament are the expressions of the faithful because you don’t talk to a person you don’t believe exists.
Prayers of laments are those of an active, engaged faith – NOT a passive, resigned faith because you don’t cry to someone for help unless you believe that person is the One who can and should – who has the power to act.
We need to adopt the practice of lament because doing so makes us whole, authentic persons rather than fragmented, distorted, and superficial human beings.
Avoiding our need to lament leads us to deny, hide, or try to kill in some other way the pain we bear and the frustrations we carry.
How do we process our ongoing pain and frustration of living in a broken world – of dealing with imperfect people – of recognizing that we ourselves are works in progress but at the same time, not getting any younger?
Do we try to numb ourselves with mindless distractions, intoxicating ourselves with various forms of entertainment – maybe even to the point of find ourselves dependent and addicted whatever those outlets might be?
Do we try to stuff it all down and pretend its not there – all the while conveniently ignoring how all that pain and frustration still manages to leak out in small and sometimes large bursts – of lashing out against others or even beating up ourselves?
When we refuse to grief and lament – as we toughen up, pull yourself together, stiff upper lip – and we try to go it alone, we are refusing to admit we need God in all things.
When we stifle our emotions in a sea of fabricated pretense, we close ourselves off from our Heavenly Father’s willingness to meet us in our pain, our frustrations, our questions, and even our doubts.
God is not offended by our honest questions or even our heated complaints.
Lament confirms our desire for relationship with the Lord and our faith that life is not the way it’s supposed to be.
But our refusal to lament isn’t merely biting off our nose to spite our face. In choosing not to lament we aren’t just hurting ourselves; we are contributing to the hurt of others. Wait, what? Huh?
When we refuse to grief and lament – to sit with God in our own pain and frustration – the inevitable consequence is that we end up having no sympathy, no empathy, and no compassion to give to others.
When all we do is win-win-win and refuse to admit when we lose, when we hurt, when we reach the end of ourselves, then we tend to view our brothers and sisters as competitors, as rivals – in our attempted avoidance of pain – better them than me or we cast them as scapegoats for our sufferings – we wouldn’t have lost, we wouldn’t be hurting – if it wasn’t for them.
The practice of lament enables us to recognize our solidarity with our brothers and sisters and to stand with them – to embrace the people before us to be hurting, frustrating, and questioning, just as much in need of God as we are.
Maybe one of the reasons we as the Church tend to labeled as out of touch with the sufferings of this word – even the sufferings of the members within our church community – is because all we want to hear, all we want to sing are the upbeat songs, inspirational hymns, and the prayers of thanksgiving.
When ⅓ of all the psalms are laments and yet about 5-10% of the songs and prayers lifted up in worship today deal with grief and loss – isn’t that reflecting our need to create more space for lament?
Maybe one of the reasons the people in our lives have no interest in hearing about Jesus from us is because more often than not we approach those relationships ready to argue and insistent on proving we are right?
When we turn to the gospels, we can’t help but notice that Jesus gravitated the most not towards the people that believed they were right and were looking for a fight, but rather toward those who were hurting and crying out in lament to God.
And as we keep our eyes on Jesus we see him engaging those who are struggling not by arguing with them, not by critiquing them or even giving them easy answers.
Instead we witness Jesus meeting the wounded and the questioning where they were – listening to them – and then loving them so well that they couldn’t help but follow him.
Isn’t possible – dare I say likely, that if we actually followed Jesus, if we were willing to lament with others – to enter into their pain – without correction, without trying to fix it, but just being there, staying there, listening and serving them like Christ, the people in our lives might actually fall in love with Jesus?
Lament is larger than feeling sorry for ourselves – our pain.
True lament encompasses the hurt, confusion, anger, betrayal, despair, and injustice faced by others.
It goes beyond our personal relationships to consider how all creation groans to be restored to God.
And so we need to learn how to lament not just for own sake but for the sake of others.
Because the degree to which we am willing to enter into the hurt and the loss of another person reveals the level of our commitment and love for them.
If I am not interested in your struggles – your pain, your questions, your longings I am not really interested in you.
But as we listen to the laments of those around us, the Spirit will open our eyes to see and empower us to meet opportunities to love others as Jesus loves us.
As we lament our own brokenness – our aching and our grief, our confusion and uncertainty – we just may find that the Lord will equip us, through our own acute sense of loss and doubt, to be more compassionate and able to come alongside someone else’s pain reflecting the healing presence and love of Jesus.
As we dare not to deny or avoid but to enter into the discomfort and afflictions of this broken world – we will become the hands and feet – the means of Christ’s redemption of all creation.
This leaves us with the question of how to lament.
What can we learn from David’s example in this psalm?
To begin with – lament starts by directing our ongoing sorrows and continued frustrations towards God.
Biblically, lament is not simply about getting things off our chest.
Lament is not voicing complaints and questions that go nowhere.
Biblically, lament is an act of worship – not holding back but being transparent, vulnerable, raw before the Lord – offering up as a sacrifice – all our brokenness – our grief, our outrage, and our desperate longings.
Prayers of lament aren’t necessarily pretty or cohesive.
These are not not perfunctory, innocuous, formalic prayers or invocations.
Prayers and songs of laments are the cries borne of wrestling with God from a place of frustration and yet longing.
They are words of a father anguishing over his son who is sick: “I believe, help my unbelief.”
They are the words of a sister grieving the lost of her brother: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
They are the words of Sarah and Hannah each agonizing over being unable to conceive and bear a child of their own.
They are the words of Naomi voicing her frustration at sudden loss of her husband and then her sons.
They are the words of Jeremiah and Daniel bemoaning the loss of their homeland.
They are the words of the apostle Paul struggling with the continual thorn in his flesh.
Jesus, himself, offers prayers of lament – as he weeps over the city of Jerusalem and as he questions God in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion.
Instead of simply resigning ourselves stoically to what is happening to and around us, saying “Well, I just need to accept this as God’s will,” lament honestly confesses disappointments – even annoyances with the Lord.
Lament boldly dares to question our perception of God’s absence – even challenging the Lord to reveal His presence.
Lament is airing it all out before God – acknowledging our fears and admitting out loud what we don’t know, what we can’t do – what only the Lord knows, what only the Lord can do.
Lament does not wallow in unanswered questions forever, though.
Lament moves on from what we don’t know to what we do know.
We have unanswered questions for sure, but we take hope in the questions for which we do have answers.
Let us pay close attention to the move David makes in this super-charged prayer in verse 5.
“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” Psalm 13:5 – 6
David has finished venting.
He’s still speaking but he’s done processing with God and now puts himself in the Lord’s hands.
Notice, David has received no straight answer from the Lord in the midst of all his questions.
There is no indication in this prayer that God intervened in David’s circumstances at this point.
David still has a lot of unanswered questions. David, no doubt, is still aching inside and feeling apprehensive. David continues to confront uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.
But in letting out all his anxiety, all his irritation, and all his doubts – in the face of what is unknown, David finds the grace to embrace what he knows.
Is there a God? Yes. Does God love us? Yes.
Will God save me? Yes.
Is the Lord good – has God been good to me in the past and so can I know that the Lord will be good to me now and in the future? Yes.
David comes to trust that when God acts – whatever God does – all will be well.
What I want to suggest to you is David doesn’t end up here on his own.
In other words, David doesn’t talk himself down or talk himself into – the changed state of mind, this transformation of being.
Rather, David in praying to God is changed by God.
By directing his focus toward the Lord – three times David invokes God’s personal name, YHWH, David can’t help but grow closer to God.
As the Lord willingly embraces first David’s accusations, notice how David’s guard begins to come down – notice how when David next moves to make his demands he now speaks of YHWH as “my God.”
This small but subtle shift leads David to completely put down his defenses. Instead making accusations or demands about what he doesn’t have, David finds himself able to sing – even boast – in the Lord’s faithfulness.
Having laid himself bare before the throne of God, David’s focus has been turned away from his circumstances – and towards who God is – the Lord’s character and promises – God’s unfailing love, God’s assurance of salvation, and God’s goodness that has been proven time and again.
How do we lament?
By not hiding or holding back or unloading on ourselves or others but directing all our pain, all our frustrations, all our questions and our doubts toward God and in so doing, letting the Lord minister to us – receiving all our burdens and baggage – and giving us a renewed and deepened awareness of His presence and faithfulness.
The psalms of lament remind us that the Christian life is lived in the midst of fears, disappointments, and sorrows – not above or beyond them.
Are we angry at the world? Are we frustrated by someone in our lives?
Are we grieving something that has changed – something that no longer is?
Are we facing a growing threat, a overwhelming challenge – a crisis – that just the thought of it is breaking us apart?
We all experience suffering and loss.
We all get frustrated before the mystery of how God moves and works in our lives and in this world.
We all have or will walk through moments or seasons in this life, when we feel abandoned and isolated, when it seems like the hits just keep on coming – and life hurts – when we face the pain of loss – in terms of our health – our career – our relationships – even in our faith in the Lord.
When those times come, when we are brought down low and stripped down to our core – when it feels like we’re staring at some form of death in the face and have one foot in the grave, let us not give up.
Let us give in – let us come before our Heavenly Father and without hesitation express all our heartache and longing – our anger and our disappointments.
The answer we are crying out for is not ever going to be found in the WHYS of this life but only in the WHO of our lives.
There are no easy answers. No quick fixes.
But there are absolute and assured promises of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation – all of them discovered not through our circumstances but in our ongoing relationship – coming to – the God who love is unfailing, the God who will do anything to save us, that God who reveals His goodness by getting us this far along and therefore will ensure we will come through whatever we are facing.
Let us allow the Lord to meet us in our grief – in the dirt and dust of our lives – and remind us that is from where the Lord does his best, his most creative work.
That state of being, which to us, appear to be nothingness, is the starting point from which God first breathed life into being.
That place – which to us – appears to be the end – is where the Lord begins to roll back the stone and declare resurrection.
Let us lament – trusting in the outcome and enduring by the grace of God.
Let us lament and find our voice in the Lord’s promises rather than in our resignation – perceiving the world not as a chaotic, meaningless mess but a certain, purposeful and yet mysterious, suspenseful – and yes, at times frustratingly so – narrative in which the ending is not in question, and will be worth the wait.
Let us lament and receive by God’s grace a living hope that will be not ever be snuffed out – that will – one day – finally bloom – and blossom for all eternity. Amen.