4 lessons on lament from Psalm 42

May 19, 2020

Years ago, I preached from Psalm 88. Psalm 88 is a dark psalm with a rather despairing tone. It ends with the psalmist saying that “darkness is his only friend.” I had conversation after conversation with people who told me that the message from Psalm 88 was exactly what they needed to hear. For such a small church, there were dozens of people who felt like the psalmist. They felt overwhelmed by grief and fear. They felt like they were drowning in despair, but they didn’t know that they could turn to God with their trouble. They didn’t even have a vocabulary to communicate their pain. But as one author put it, “God’s Word gave voice to their pain.” 

The people in that small church were not unique in their pain and problems. Journal articles in major health publications attest to the fact that we are living through a time in our society where more and more people are wrestling with depression and despair. With the rise of depression and despair in our society, we are witnessing a decline in life expectancy for the first time in decades for the United States. The phrase “deaths of despair” has been coined to describe the role that depression and despair have played in suicide, drug poisoning, and alcoholic liver diseases. 

In an attempt to address the pain, people are turning to self-destructive practices that are leading to death. Thus, while the language of Psalm 88 might make some people uncomfortable, the reality is that for many people, the psalm resonates with their inmost feelings that they do not know how to express or deal with without being self-destructive or isolating. 

God’s people need to know how to call out to him in their crisis. They need to learn how to lament their situations and circumstances while continuing to live in a broken world. We need to learn how to lament. To help us, I want to draw out four aspects of learning to lament from Psalm 42 that show us how to express our pain, depression, disappointments, despair, fear, and needs to God in a manner that seeks to glorify him while doing good to our soul.

First, when we lament, we should exhibit a desire for God.

Like a deer that pants for water, the psalmist is panting for God (vv. 1-2). He desires God in the midst of his distress. The psalmist compares his need for God to his need for water. He concludes by asking the question, “When can I go and meet with God?” The idea of “meeting with God” in these particular verses means something like “see God face to face.” 

Someone might ask, “Why should we desire God in the midst of our crisis?” Those who know God understand why we should desire God in the midst of our crisis. It is because God alone is able to deliver us. When everything around us is falling apart, God alone is the Rock on which we can stand. He is a sure and steady anchor in the midst of the storm. 

Admittedly, it may take years of maturing in our understanding of the character of God to fully appreciate the psalmist’s desire for God in this midst of crisis. It will take time for us to get to know God better and see him as the trustworthy Father who cares for us in our times of affliction. Yet, the better we know God, the more we will trust him. We will recognize that he alone is able to meet us in our need and to care for us. And as we do, when we lament, we will exhibit a desire for God himself to be near to us.

Second, when we lament, we should maintain a disposition of humility.

Humility acknowledges our desperate need for God to deliver us. Humility is an implication of our prayer. For, if we were not humble, we would not pray, because we tend to pray when we recognize that we need God. If you have ever wondered about how you could grow to pray with greater regularity and affection, then you simply need to recognize how desperately you need God. And when you recognize your desperate need, you will approach God in prayer with a disposition of humility.

Verses 3-4 and 6-10 of Psalm 42 gives us a glimpse of the humility and dependence that the psalmists possess before his God. He recalls the former days when he used to gather with God’s people in the sanctuary, offer sacrifices, and hear the promises of God’s Word. Yet, the psalmist also acknowledges that he is far from that sanctuary. He longs for the day he is able to return. He speaks of the need for God to direct love toward him during the day and his song toward him at night. Then, the psalmist confesses that he responds to God’s mercy toward him, he prays back to God, whom he describes as the “God of my life.” This man is humbly dependent on God, day and night. And we also should maintain this disposition of humble need before God when we lament and ask him to move for us.

Third, when we lament, we should disclose our feelings with honesty.

While the psalmist comes before God with a desire to see him and a disposition of humble dependence, he also comes to God with honesty about how he is feeling. Throughout the whole passage, the psalmist is honest with God. He feels as though “tears have been his food day and night.” He is weary of being mocked by those around him who ask, “Where is your God?” The psalmist confesses that “my soul is downcast and disturbed within me.” At times, the psalmist feels as though he is drowning in grief, pain, discouragement, and despair.

Have you ever felt like that? Like you were treading water in a pool of depression and despair, and that you were starting to lose strength and slip under the water. The psalmist describes it as “the deep calling to deep” in the midst of a “roaring waterfall” with “waves and breakers sweeping over him.”

When everything around us is falling apart, God alone is the Rock on which we can stand. He is a sure and steady anchor in the midst of the storm.

The psalmist even asks the “God, His Rock,” if “He has forgotten.” Have you ever felt like God had forgotten you? The psalmist seems to have felt this feeling in his soul. He asks the Lord why he must “go on mourning under the oppression of his enemy.” As we watch the psalmist wrestling with his own emotions before God, we can almost hear him asking the same question that his critics were asking him, “Where is your God?”

As we learn to lament, we must recognize that honesty before God is an invaluable component. Yes, God knows all things. He knows our feelings. He knows them better than we do. Therefore, there is no need to act like those feelings are not there and be hypocritical before God. We must not treat him the way that we often treat others when it comes to our feelings. Typically, when people ask us, “How are you doing?”, regardless of how we are really doing, we will say something like, “Doing well.” But when we come to God in humble prayer to ask him to meet us in our need, it is as if God is asking us, “How are you doing?” We must honestly disclose our feelings before him, even when we recognize that they are not always right about our situations.

Honesty does not mean that we are justified in feeling the way that we feel about our situations. In other words, while we might tell God, “I’m really upset, mad, even angry with you because of what has happened to me,” that does not mean that we are justified in feeling that way. Instead, it gives us an opportunity to ask God to change our hearts and our affections toward him. We might admit that we are angry, but we do not want to stay angry. We should desire healing and restoration. We, like the psalmist, “desire to see the face of God.”

Finally, when we lament, we should declare our determination to hope.

While the psalmist speaks openly with God about his feelings, he also declares his determination to hope in God. He fully believes that while things are not great at the moment, because God is great, restoration is always right around the corner, even if it doesn’t always fit our timelines. When the psalmist confessed the downcast and disturbed feelings within himself, he also habitually determined to “put hope in God, my savior and my God.” Why? Because he knew the future belonged to God and that he would make all things right in his timing. This is why the psalmist was able to say, “I will yet praise Him.”

As Christians, we know that this hope must be rooted in Christ. Our hope in life and in death rest in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We can have hope in our despair, depression, weakness, struggle, and fear, not because we can overcome these things in our own strength, but because Jesus has overcome this world and is returning for us with the fullness of his redemption coming with him. Jesus makes this clear in John 16:33 when he tells his disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome this world.”

What wonderful news. And even though trouble will come in this world, this world will not win. Even as the tears fall, maybe even in this moment, those who hope in God through Jesus Christ “will yet praise him.” As deep as the sorrow and pain may be, if you place your hope in Christ, one day, all the sorrow and pain will be turned to rejoicing. Joy is coming.

Until the day that the joy of God in Christ manifests itself fully, we will weep. We will mourn. We will struggle with pain. We will have sorrow. And while we experience these things, God has called us to humbly seek him, honestly speak to him, and place our hope in him.

Casey B. Hough

Casey B. Hough (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and assistant professor of biblical interpretation at a Luther Rice College and Seminary. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. For more ministry resources from Casey, visit his … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24