By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion (Ps. 137:1, ESV).
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1, ESV)
In light of recent world events and the ongoing sorrows of everyday life in this fallen world, we do well to remember that rejoicing is not the only appropriate emotional response to the life circumstances God assigns us.
My Bible reading lately has been in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Lamentations, and a bleak stretch it is. Israel has persisted in disobedience and idolatry for so long and to such an extent that God sends Assyrian and Babylonian forces to conquer them and carry most of the people away into 70 years of captivity. Jerusalem is besieged and sacked, the temple is destroyed, and the Glory has departed.
In the face of such catastrophe, faith does not demand that we put on a plastic smile when our hearts are breaking. God does not desire us to be false with Him. Grief is a spiritual discipline, too, and at times the only right and appropriate response.
Godly grief expresses itself in the laments of Scripture. Job's speeches and Lamentations fall in this category, and individual or corporate lament is the largest subcategory of the Psalms (which fall under the broader heading of lyric poetry). Scholars estimate that at least a third of the Psalms express lament; a few examples include Psalms 13, 22, 40, 59, 74, 88, and 109.
The Thomas Nelson Study Bible describes Biblical lament this way:
In the lament psalms, we hear the strong, emotional words of sufferers. These are words written by real people in very difficult situations. Sometimes the forcefulness of the psalmists' complaints against God is shocking. But these godly sufferers know that God will not be angry with their honesty, for even when they scream at God, it is a scream of faith (887).These are the prayers for the sleepless nights and weary days, for the seasons when we feel like Bilbo Baggins, "too little butter spread over too much bread," for the days which seem more Romans 7 than Romans 8, for hospital rooms and funeral homes. The sheer multitude of laments in Scripture bears witness that hardship is a commonplace in life in a broken world, yet God desires to fellowship with us in the midst of suffering as we cry out to Him. What is more, they offer us a guide for how to do so and give us words when we have no words.
Although no strict pattern applies to every lament, common elements include
- an initial cry to God,
- the list of complaints,
- a profession of reliance on God,
- a presentation of reasons God should intervene (such as past covenants, promises, and actions that shape the psalmist's expectations of the future),
- specific requests for deliverance and action, and
- a resolution to praise (TNSB, 887, and Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, 114-115).
These elements may occur in any order or repeat, and some may not appear at all. Psalm 88 never turns the corner from lament to praise, which gives me comfort and confidence that I don't even need to pretend to or force an emotional pivot point before God.
However, Israel incurs God's displeasure and discipline when they whine and complain. What's the difference between grumbling and lament?
In my understanding, there are at least four areas of difference:
- Audience: Grumbling speaks about God to other people; lament addresses God directly in prayer. This resembles the difference between gossip and conflict resolution.
- Content: Complaint disputes God's previously revealed character; lament seeks to reconcile God's character with circumstances that seem to contradict it.
- Attitude: Grumbling stems from a heart of unbelief; lament worships in wounded faith.
- Result: Whining produces rebellion; lament limps forward in obedience as best it can.
Amid all the disasters and crises in the daily news and the personal trials facing friends, family, and ourselves, it comforts me to know that I can pour out my heart like water before the Lord (Lamentations 2:19) and mourn with Him as well as dance for joy. Learning about lament set me free to do that, even writing my own laments from the patterns above, and I have found the Psalms to be helpful guides to prayer in times of trouble. May you also find blessing in these thoughts as you grow in relationship with God in the hard times as well as the glad.
Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature
Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature
(The new book A Heart Set Free, by Christina Fox, also addresses and guides the reader through the process of lament. It is very well-reviewed, but I myself have not yet read it to weigh in. If you had, feel free to share your two cents in the comments. A review may be forthcoming once I have a chance to read it, in which I will update this post at that time to include that link.)
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