As I begin writing this article, reports come in like a tsunami about the horrors between Israel and Gaza. Meanwhile, American college students protest with slogans that oversimplify amazingly complex issues. In Washington, our political leaders seem more interested in their own fame than in the well-being of our country or the world. It’s enough to make you throw your hands up in the air and run for distractions you find most consuming.
I’ll let others more qualified and informed than myself offer political and military strategies. And I’ll save my comments about theological perspectives about Israel for other writings. I will say, as a follower of the One who called himself “the truth,” it is deeply disturbing that we live in a time of a famine for the truth. Some so-called “news” agencies seem incapable of presenting the facts without bias and many people seem to have no difficulty blatantly lying to advance sympathy from others. This drought of truthfulness may do more harm than the missiles flying over the Israel/Gaza border.
Regardless of what transpires militarily or diplomatically over the next few months, Christians are called to “love our neighbors.” And one of the most important ways (perhaps the most important way) is through prayer. But how can we pray to advance the Kingdom of God while not feeling dragged down in despair. I confess I find this a great challenge.
The greatest help for me, and therefore the one I am commending in this article, is to follow the templates of Lament that we find dozens of times in the Book of Psalms. Lamenting (as starkly contrasted with griping, complaining, moping, or despairing) is a rarely practiced but remarkably powerful spiritual discipline for trying times such as these. If we can develop the spiritual muscle memory of praying prayers of lament, we will grow stronger during difficult times rather than being discouraged by them.
If you were to categorize the Psalms, as many have done, you’d find groupings such as Thanksgiving Psalms, Royal Psalms, Messianic Psalms, and others including Lament Psalms. You’d also find that there are more lament Psalms than any other category. Apparently, God wants us to learn how to cry out to him during the darkest of moments.
Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke, with a lifelong focus on the psalms, comments, “We may wonder how lament or complaint can coexist with faith, so it is worth recalling well that over a third of the Psalms are laments. This observation by itself informs us that lament and faith are not incompatible. Certainly, it is sinful to complain in unbelief, but lament need not be untrusting of God’s providential care.”[i]
Lament Psalms include common ingredients: cries of lament, reminders of God’s character, pleas for deliverance, and statements of hope. These prayers flow from honest lament to confident trust. They don’t always follow the same sequence but all but one land in a place of strength.
Psalm 88, the outlier, ends with these seemingly hopeless words, “Darkness is my closest friend.” I used to think this was a totally despairing Psalm that never turned the corner. I took ironic encouragement that, sometimes, life does seem as dark as that. But a closer reading of Psalm 88 won’t allow for such a lopsided perspective. Note how the psalmist begins: he cries out to “the God who saves me.” In other words, he began in the place of hope. The very fact that he chose to pray at all expresses a faith we need to find during the darkest of days.
Psalm 13, a beautiful and brief lament can serve as an instructive guide to all the other lament Psalms. Consider its emotional honesty, its theological depth, and its profound expression of trust.
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?
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.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to LORD ‘s praise,
for he has been good to me.
We begin to lament well by recounting to God our pain. Notice how the psalm begins with four statements that start, “How long?” This is not a calmed, cool, “I’m just asking a question” sequence of inquiries. The psalmist is wailing. He feels like God has forgotten him and turned his face away. Pause there for a second. Have you ever felt like God has forgotten you or that he’s ignoring you? Do you feel the pain behind such a blatant contradiction to what we (and this psalmist as well!) know to be true? Our God never forgets anything. He knows everything. And the greatest blessing you can offer someone is for God to “make his face shine upon you.” (see Numbers 6:25). So, to cry out to God the way this psalmist does is not a quiet sobbing in the corner. The volume is turned up high.
Note also that the psalmist looks inward and outward. He wrestles with his thoughts and looks at his enemies. He fears that his foes will take credit for his demise. The Bible talks about our enemies quite often. For most of us, we can think of few human beings who hate us. So, we (rightly!) turn our attention to the greatest enemy of our souls, the devil himself. True enough. But we should not be naive enough to think we don’t have people who hate us. We follow the One who was hated and scorned — enough that they nailed him to a cross. If we haven’t experienced persecution because of our faith yet, we shouldn’t be surprised if that changes sooner than we’d like.
Some of us, depending on our personality or culture, resist this terribly. We think the psalmist was sinning when he uttered the first four verses of this psalm. Or we rush to a theological resolution like, “Well…that’s just his flesh talking. He gets straightened out when he remembers that ‘greater is he who is you than he who is in the world.'” To be sure, I John 4:4 is true. But we rush too quickly to resolutions that don’t really resolve if we skim past the lengthy laments in these psalms. We should also remember the many honest expressions of pain in Job, the Prophets, the entire book of Lamentations, and Jesus’s intense prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. God doesn’t tell us to shut up or get ahold of ourselves when we cry out to him in our pain. He listens. And his word encourages us to keep talking — to him and to ourselves — until we see the fullest picture possible.
That larger perspective comes when we remind ourselves of God’s character. In Psalm 13, the two pillars of God’s unfailing love and his salvation provide the structure and strength we need for anguished times. The Hebrew words employed here, hesed and yeshua, are two of the richest and powerful terms in all of scripture. Try to recall some things you’ve read in God’s word about his unfailing love. To prime the pump, reflect on:
- “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” Psalm 103:11
- “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.” Lamentations 3:22
- “The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.'” Jeremiah 31:3
Now do the same with the concept of salvation:
- “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.” Isaiah 12:2
- “The LORD is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?” Psalm 27:1
- “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.'” Jonah 2:9
I’m not saying that, when we remember God’s love and his salvation, all our troubles melt away. We still live in a fallen world. We’re not in heaven yet. But when we allow the truth and beauty of God’s love and salvation to sit on the same canvas where we’ve painted our pain, we see our circumstances in a fuller, better light. Following the flow of the lament psalms forges patterns in our souls that help us move from despair to dependence.
At this point in our reading of Psalm 13, it is crucial we remember a key principle in reading the Bible. We need to read all of Scripture in light of all of Scripture. In other words, we read Psalm 13, seeing it as one of many lament psalms, included in a book of praises (that’s what the Hebrew title for the book of Psalms means), that it occurs during Israel’s history of longing for a Messiah, and that we read it after the arrival, death, and resurrection of the Messiah.
Thus, when we remind ourselves of God’s unfailing love, we have a fuller grasp of what that love entails. We read the verse of the psalm in light Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” And when we see the word “salvation,” we don’t just see it as the psalmist did, as God’s temporal deliverance from a human enemy. We see it as the greatest of all salvations, the escape from unending death. This is all by grace because our Savior paid the penalty we deserved so we can go where only he was qualified to go.
Again, this doesn’t take away all the pain of our current circumstances. But it does help us see the temporal in light of the eternal, the earthly in light of the heavenly, and the fleeting in light of the everlasting.
Having recounted to God our pain and recalling to ourselves God’s character, we now resolve before God to trust in him. You might say we move from the emotional to the intellectual to the volitional. If that helps you remember the sequence, that’s great. But keep in mind that we are not compartmentalized beings. Rarely do our lives progress along such neat patterns. We are persons created in the image of a personal God, not computers programed with silicon chips.
Psalm 13 concludes with dramatic statements of the will. The “I” in the Hebrew text is emphasized to highlight the choice the psalmist makes. You could translate it, “But as for me, I will trust in your unfailing love.” There comes a point in our lamenting when we need to consciously, resolutely, and intently choose sides. In times of conflicting claims upon our thinking and feelings we need to decide which messages we affirm and which ones we reject. “I will” may be two of the most important words in this Psalm. And in our lives!
The final “I will” of this Psalm is a plan to sing. On some occasions, we might just break into song because we feel overwhelmed with joy or gratitude. But often, we choose to sing even if the emotions lag far beyond the melody. I remember hearing Joni Erickson Tada say there are mornings she wakes up singing “because I have to.” Her 50+ years as a quadriplegic propel her to choose to sing rather than to give in to despair. The musical option has brought her to a life of joy, even in the midst of relentlessly painful difficulties.
Don’t just gloss over the commandment to sing. It’s one of the more frequent commands in the scriptures, especially in the Psalms. God tells us to willfully opt for something that engages our whole being — mind, heart, and body — in praise. Singing is not just a nicety of the Christian life. It is an essential component of vibrant spiritual and emotional health. It also binds people together in community. When we gather for corporate worship, we sing and knit our hearts with others and with the Lord’s. That’s why soccer fans sing in the stadiums, Taylor Swift’s audiences sing along in sold-out arenas, and political rallies include patriotic bands. Corporate singing of praise to God has even greater benefits.
In a deeply disturbing scene in the television series “The Crown,” Prince Philip recounted to Queen Elizabeth his moving experience at a funeral for 81 children who had died in the tragic mudslide in Aberfan.
The dialogue went like this:
The Queen: How was it?
The Prince: Extraordinary. The Grief. The Anger – at the government, at the coal warden…at God, too. 81 children were buried today. The rage behind all the faces, behind all the eyes. They didn’t smash things up. They didn’t fight in the streets.
Q: What did they do?
P: They sang! The whole community. It’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard.
Q: Did you weep?
P: Did I weep? What kind of question is that?
Q: It’s just a question.
P: I might have wept. Yes. Are you going to tell me it was inappropriate? The fact is that anyone who heard that hymn today would not just have wept. They would have been broken into a thousand tiny pieces.
Yip Harburg, the lyricist who wrote the words to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and dozens of other show tunes, reflected deeply on the power of a song. In a presentation at a YMCA in New York, he said, “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”
We need songs to make us “feel the thought” that God is our salvation, that we can trust in his unfailing love, that he works all things together for the good of his people, that, even in the darkest of times — especially in the darkest of times — God is our rock, our stronghold, our refuge, our king, redeemer, savior, and shield.
Tough times will change us, for good or for ill. If we don’t handle them right, times of pain can make us beaten or bitter. Taking in bad news can leave us feeling beaten down, hopeless, burying our head in the sand, and wishing all the news sources would just leave us alone. Or we can find a false sense of strength in anger and bitterness. Unanswered or delayed answer to prayer (note the difference!) has been the basis for many people’s rejection of the gospel. C. S. Lewis honestly looked back at his years of unbelief and admitted, “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing.”[ii]
But tough times can also make us better. If we lament well, if we process pain effectively, if we opt for thorough wrestling instead of shallow dismissals, we can be transformed into more compassionate, more trusting, more mature disciples of the One who chose to endure the ultimate suffering “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2).
Imagine being the kind of person that people turn to for comfort when they go through difficult trials. Imagine they do so because they sense a stability in you they can’t find elsewhere. Or consider what your life would be like if you grew in grace instead of in griping when times got tough.
As I reflect on the current world crisis that is centered in (but not restricted to) the Middle East, I need to lament well. If I don’t, I’ll be beaten down by the statistics, bitter at political forces, and hopeless as I look to sources of solution other than the Prince of Peace.
We who live after the finished work of the cross have even greater resources than the writer of Psalm 13 had for his lamenting. Our prayers of lament follow the arc of the gospel itself that moved from suffering to glory, from death to resurrection, from a suffering and crucified savior to a risen and glorified Lord.
In the episode of “The Crown” mentioned above, the mourners who gathered at the funeral at Aberfan sang the hymn “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” Read (and sing!) the lyrics below. Listen for the notes of lament. But don’t miss the symphony of hope.
Jesus, Lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past.
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh, receive my soul at last.
Other refuge have I none;
Hangs my helpless soul on thee.
Leave, oh, leave me not alone;
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on thee is stayed;
All my help from thee I bring.
Cover my defenseless head
with the shadow of thy wing.
[i] Bruce K. Waltke and Fred G. Zaspel, How to Read & Understand the Psalms, Crossway, 2023, 235.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, (Geoffrey Bles, 1955; this edition, Mariner Books, 2012, 115.