To be human and live on this earth means to suffer. Not just to suffer, of course; there are many joys we experience too. But all of us will experience hardship and hurt. When God first created the world, it wasn’t this way—everything was good. But now the world is broken. Many things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. And while Christians look forward to someday living in a perfect world again, we’re not living there now. So how do we handle suffering while we exist on this earth? The psalms of lament can act as a guide for us.
Lament means “to cry out in grief” (Merriam-Webster). While other psalms celebrate the beauty that still fills this earth and praise God for it, psalms of lament stare unflinchingly at the brokenness of the world and mourn it. It’s often easy to think that we should try to push away feelings of anger, grief, or sadness. Sometimes we believe we should ‘focus on the positive’ or ‘stop complaining and just find a reason to be joyful.’ But God has gifted us with the invitation to bring our grief to Him.
If you flip through the book of Psalms, you’ll find many laments, some meant to be individual songs or prayers, and some intended to be sung communally as national laments. You can often recognize laments because they contain similar language and content. These four things that happen in many laments can teach us how to respond to grief as well:
The Psalmist Addresses God Directly
Lord, you are the God who saves me; / day and night I cry out to you. (88:1, NIV)
Hear my prayer, Lord; / let my cry for help come to you. (102:1, NIV)
In psalms of lament, the author often speaks right to God as in a very personal prayer. It demonstrates the author’s closeness and trust in God that they feel comfortable taking their heaviest, worst feelings and expressing them to the Creator. It’s good to know that instead of denying our sorrow or carrying it alone, we can cry out to God as the one person who can truly understand and help us.
The Psalmist Complains Openly
I am worn out from my groaning. / All night long I flood my bed with weeping / and drench my couch with tears. (6:6, NIV)
Why, Lord, do you reject me / and hide your face from me? (88:14, NIV)
My heart is blighted and withered like grass; / I forget to eat my food. (102:4, NIV)
In psalms of lament, it’s clear the psalmist feels completely free to complain to the Lord, something we often tend to discourage today. He honestly pours out feelings of grief, anger, abandonment, injustice, insomnia, physical suffering, anything! He also often asks “why” when God feels distant or when He seems slow to act.
The Psalmist Asks God for Help
But you, Lord, do not be far from me. / You are my strength; come quickly to help me. (22:19, NIV)
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, / for I have put my trust in you. / Show me the way I should go, / for to you I entrust my life. / Rescue me from my enemies, Lord, / for I hide myself in you. / Teach me to do your will, / for you are my God / may your good Spirit / lead me on level ground. (143:7-10, NIV)
Laments typically don’t end without a plea for God to intervene in some way. Even if he doesn’t feel particularly close with God at the moment, he understands where help comes from. Lamenting isn’t a lack of faith or a rejection of trust in God. On the contrary, it’s a confirmation of our faith. Even at our darkest moments, when we may feel furthest from God, we turn towards Him instead of away.
The Psalmist Finds Hope in God’s Promises and Character
He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; / he will not despise their plea. (102:17, NIV)
But I trust in your unfailing love; / my heart rejoices in your salvation. (13:5, NIV)
Finally, psalms of lament often end by remembering what God has done for the psalmist in the past and what he knows about God’s goodness, righteousness, and faithfulness. Even when we grieve, we can choose to believe that His promises are true, that He cares for us as He says, and that His plans are good, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the moment.
Sitting with our grief and crying out to God openly is something we should feel comfortable doing. The Psalms of lament show us that even sorrow can be turned into worship.