5 Powerful Lessons from Psalms of Lament

Borrowed Light
5 Powerful Lessons from Psalms of Lament

“I’m so angry with God!” 

Have you ever felt that? I’m not asking if you’ve admitted that you felt that, I’m asking if you have. I realize that theologically speaking, we never have a reason to be angry with God. He is good. He always does good. He never makes poor decisions. He works all things together for our good. Yet…

From our perspective there are times when we can feel as if God has betrayed us. We can feel abandoned. We can become confused. We have seasons where we are overcome with doubt, grief, anger, and a swirl of other negative emotions. 

What do we do with them? What does God want us to do with these emotions? Should I run as far away from these emotions as I can get? The psalms, particularly psalms of lament, would lead me to believe that God welcomes us — even in the midst of these uncomfortable emotions. He has given us words to express our frustrations with Him. What kind of God does that? 

The psalms of lament are often neglected in churches. We prefer unicorns and rainbows. But in those moments when you can only see clouds and monsters, these psalms will come in handy. Here are five powerful lessons we can learn from psalms of lament. 

1. Honesty with 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?” (Psalm 13:1-2).

I love David’s honesty. God welcomes these honest feelings. David openly expresses his despair and frustration, questioning what seems like a distant God. God already knows what we are feeling. Rather than stuffing those emotions down into unhealthy places, it is far better to bring them out. It is in the light of reality where hope and healing can happen. 

Psalm 13 also reminds us that God is far bigger than we are. He can handle our true selves. He wants us to bring who we really are before Him. Yes, it would be better if we could have a deep and unquestioning trust in this moment, but God calls us to Himself in whatever condition we find ourselves in. We are to cast our anxieties upon Him — even if we believe God is the source of our anxiousness. 

We understand this with our own children, at least I hope we do. I want my children to be safe enough to come to me when they are full of fear and frustration — even if that frustration is directed toward me. I want that open communication. Our Father is similar. He welcomes us as we are. Psalms of lament, like Psalm 13, can give us words to express our honest feelings. 

2. The Power of Remembering God's Faithfulness

“I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:11-12).

Except for Psalm 88, each psalm of lament ends with hope. And I would even argue that Psalm 88, meant to be paired with Psalm 89, has at least a ray of hope. Often this hope comes through recalling God’s faithfulness. Psalms of lament often tell three stories. They tell the story of a present wound as well as a story of God’s past faithfulness. The psalmist tries to get these two realities to fit together, and out of this emerges a third story — the story of future hope. 

Imagine you are in your sixth-grade band class, just beginning to learn instruments. Your band teacher tells you about the greatest trumpet player of all-time, Louis Armstrong. Your teacher hands out a trumpet to each student, gives a quick lesson on the basics of playing, and tells the class to try it out. The room is filled with the excruciating cacophony of beginner trumpet players, their attempts at music producing a dissonant symphony of screeches, squeaks, and blaring honks. The trumpets wail and whine as the young players struggle to produce any recognizable sound. The painful result is an ear-splitting medley of brassy blasts that assault every sense. 

The band-teacher, wanting to encourage the eager youngsters, tells them they’ve had a fine start, but Louis Armstrong they are not. How wonderful will Louis Armstrong be in the minds of the students? 

Now compare this to the band-teacher taking the same group of students to the Newport Jazz Festival to hear some of the world’s best trumpeters. Now, rather than hearing the relentlessly abrasive clamor from their classroom, they are enchanted by the rich, golden tones of a well-played trumpet. The students are captivated as the musicians play both soft, haunting whispers and powerful, triumphant blasts. After the concert the band-teacher says, “Louis was still better!” How wonderful will Louis Armstrong be in the minds of the students?

Lament plays a similar role. If the only thing I brings to Christ for healing and forgiveness are a few faint confessions wrung out of an emotionally dull heart, we might conclude that Christ Himself is rather dull and small. Learning to lament means bringing to Christ the rich tones of all my emotions – both those maturely offered and those muddled with complexity. In both occurrences, coming with a dull heart or coming with a heart full of lament, we find that Christ is greater. But in which scenario is Christ the greatest? When he can handle all of our emotions, even the complex ones which make us uncomfortable, or when we see him only handling the simple things?

3. Crying Out for Justice

“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises” (Psalm 10:1-2).

Many of the psalms of lament come from a people who have been wronged. They are cries for justice. Psalm 10 is one of these. The world is not supposed to work in a way where the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer. Yet this is the painful reality of life outside the Garden. The psalms are a way to give voice to those who are often voiceless. They are ways to cry out for justice to the Great Judge when the earthly representations are wicked and backwards. 

Have you been wronged and feel as if you have no recourse? Consider reading through the psalms of lament. 

4. Finding Hope from Preaching the Gospel to Ourselves

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:11).

In Psalm 42 we get an inside look into the oscillating heart of one struggling with deep angst. He bounces from despair to hope, with hope ultimately winning the day. The psalm itself shows the power of preaching good news to oneself. Rather than listening to himself, we see here that the psalmist takes his thoughts captive. He proclaims good news over his hurt. We can follow this pattern ourselves. 

I appreciate what Martin Lloyd-Jones has said on this point: 

“The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’ – what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’ – instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.’”

The psalms of lament often follow the same pattern of a gospel presentation. They move from the happiness/goodness which we might find in creation, to the present trouble which corresponds to the fall. The psalms then find their hope in God’s goodness and character, which we see manifest in the person and work of Christ. Lastly, many of the psalms call us to a response, usually a hopeful response, in light of this greater story. These psalms can help us proclaim the gospel to ourselves even in the midst of heartache. 

5. The Importance of Community in Suffering

“I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among the throngs I will praise you” (Psalm 35:18).

Many of the psalms are communal. Some of them are even community laments. Psalm 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, and 90 are considered communal laments. Psalm 35, is an individual lament but even there you see that community is on the mind of the psalmist. We do not heal for ourselves; we heal for others. And often we heal best in the context of a community. 

Pain and suffering tend to be isolating. When we refuse to grieve as the Bible calls us to grieve, through lament, we tend to express our ache in unhealthy ways. These unhealthy expressions often further rob us of community. Pain pulls us inward in depression or outward in rage. The psalms of lament invite us into community. 

Christ Is Deeper

The psalms of lament are often neglected. I would encourage you to dig deeply into these as you dig into your own emotional life. It’s okay to pray and express a full range of emotions. Christ is deeper than any negative emotion you might experience. That is the power of a psalm like Psalm 88. In the darkness of depression, we believe that we have hit the bottoms. Psalm 88 feels like our psalm. But over every one of these psalms, including Psalm 88, Christ is deeper still. He has plunged deeper into the darkness than we will ever go—and He has emerged victorious. His victory is our victory. 

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures, 21

Photo credit: Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.