We all know that feeling: That grip on our heart when we turn on the morning news to hear about a heartbreaking tragedy that has just taken place; or when we open our email and read about fellow believers losing their life for the sake of Christ; or when we see our culture dishonor God and his holy Word.
In our fallen world, there is much for us to grieve. There are many things we hear and learn about on a daily basis that leave us bewildered, confused, saddened, crushed and even downright terrified. What is a believer to do? How do we wake up each day to devastating news, to wars and rumors of wars, to heartbreaking stories?
The Psalms of lament
Between the time David was anointed by Samuel and when he finally became king of Israel, he spent a long time on the run from King Saul. Saul wanted him dead and was intent to make it happen. So David and his loyal followers moved from place to place and at times, lived in caves. On once such occasion, while on the run for his life, David penned Psalm 142, which begins, “With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord” (vs. 1).
Psalm 142 is a psalm of lament. Different than the psalms of thanksgiving or remembrance, the laments are those psalms where the writer cries out to God. Many of us read the laments and nod our heads because the psalmist gets it. He knows what the real world is like. He doesn’t sugar coat things; he tells it like it is. The words of the laments are ones many believers turn to when they are frightened, hurt or saddened by the pains of this life.
But the laments do more than just mirror what’s going on in our hearts. They show us how we can live life in this fallen world. They show us what to do when we are grieved by what’s happening around us. They show us how to respond when everything in this world is changing and the unknown future fills us with fear. Thankfully, the laments have a pattern we can follow so that we, too, can cry out to God in our distress.
Learning to lament
- Turn to God. In Psalm 142, the psalmist cries out to God. For example, he says, “I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (vs. 2). This is the first lesson of the laments. When we are uncertain, afraid, confused or saddened, we need to come before our Father in heaven. As adopted children, redeemed by the blood of Christ, we are free to come into God’s presence with confidence and know that he will hear us. Not only that, but he delights that we come before him. More often than not though, turning to God with our emotions is not the first thing we do. Instead, we usually try to distract ourselves from painful emotions, pretend they don’t exist or seek to find a temporary savior to our problems. But the laments remind us that God is King. He is our Savior, deliverer and refuge. He alone is our salvation.
- Cry for help. In Psalm 142, David then cried out to God for help, “Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me!” (vs. 6). This is another element of the laments—asking God for help. Whether it is help for ourselves, for other brothers and sisters in Christ, for our country or for our world, we need to cry out to God. Like David, we need to seek God’s deliverance and mercy.
- Speak the truth. The next lesson we can learn from the laments is how the psalmist speaks the truth about who God is. He reminds himself of God’s character and goodness. In verse three, David wrote, “When my spirit faints within me, you know my way!” He reminds himself that God knows all things. In verse five, he refers to God as his refuge, “I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’” As we cry out to God in sorrow or fear about all that is happening around us, we too need to remember who God is and what he has done. He is good and faithful. We need to remember “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1).
- Trust in the Lord. Lastly, the psalmist voices a response of trust in the Lord, “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (vs. 7). This is the goal of the laments. They move forward from despair to joy, from fear to trust, from loneliness to hope. As the psalmist comes into God’s presence and cries out to the Lord, he remembers who God is and what he has done, and his joy is rekindled. He knows that God rules and reigns over all things. He knows that God’s redemptive hand is at work. He knows that God is good. And so he responds in praise and trust. He doesn’t know when the Lord will deliver him, but he trusts and believes that he will.
The pattern of the laments is for us to follow as well. When our hearts are broken over tragedy, evil, and sin in the world, we need to lament. We need to bring our grief, sorrow and fear before the Lord. We need to cry out to him for help. We need to trust his goodness and faithfulness. For he alone is our refuge and salvation.