When a psalm is read in church, you are much more likely to hear a psalm of praise than a psalm of lament. Are we missing something that can help us face the suffering in our own lives and the world?
Dancing for grief
I was once taught a circle dance from eastern Europe. It was accompanied by a mournful folk song. The movements were slow and suggested long suffering, yet the rhythm bound people together in a common expression of sorrow. It was surprising; I couldn’t think of anything that we dance to in Britain that expresses shared grief. We tend to shy away from the painful parts of life.
The Bible does not do this. Its writers express faith and they express doubt. Why does God not act? Where is he? Does he care about my suffering and the suffering of the world? There are plenty of places in the Bible expressing the dark days in human life, but how often do we read them? Perhaps we feel a duty to cheer each other up!
Nothing is off limits
Yet we are neglecting something important. In the tough times, which we must all face at some point, we need to know that we can ask tough questions of God and express all emotions and thoughts to him. Nothing is off limits. Moreover, the psalms of lament help us to continue to be people of faith – however tenuously – by giving us the tools we need at such times.
Jesus himself recited psalms of lament. As he hung on the cross, he uttered the first words in this psalm;
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is simultaneously a cry of despair and an affirmation that the scriptures lead us into truth, the truth that will ultimately set us free.
The expression of dark thoughts continues:
“O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” (v. 2)
But then comes the word 'yet'. Psalms of lament are not just about expressing pain, they are about reaching for hope. The psalmist remembers what he has learnt about God in the past, and declares it. It is hard to reconcile the despair with hope, but our pain and suffering is not the last word on God.
The psalmist builds up further reasons for hope:
“In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.”
Faith in the dark
God has proved trustworthy in the past. Remembering what God has done in the past is another vital tool in Christian life. We have known the loving care of God, the one who stands above human life, in authority over it. Moreover, our experience of God is shared with others; it is not just our own experience that is relevant.
So, when you or someone you know is struggling to connect with God, feeling the frustration of faith in the “dark”, remember that others have walked that way before. Your thoughts are not the last word.
We are the “people yet unborn” (v. 31) who will be delivered from evil.
Why not read Psalms 13, 42, 44, 130 for more examples of lament? What provides a turning point from despair to hope?