Last year, my grandfather had a stroke and I went to visit him in the hospital. The family and I gathered in the waiting room and took turns visiting with him at his bedside. During one of my rotations in the waiting area, I looked up and saw my grandmother standing at the nurse's station, crying. I rushed to her side and learned that the doctor told her she needed to make a decision about putting my grandfather into hospice care. I didn't know what to do or the right words to say to her. Finally, I put my arms around her and said, “Let’s go pray.”
We went to the hospital’s chapel and cried out to the Lord. We wept. We asked for wisdom. We asked for help. We asked for strength to make it through the coming days.
The Psalms of Lament
Dictionaries define the word lament as “feeling or expressing sorrow or grief.” It’s not a word we use much these days. In fact, lamenting is an art that we don’t often practice in Western culture. Rather than express our emotions, we tend to hide them, distract ourselves from feeling them, or even pretend they don't exist. When difficult circumstances cut into our lives, we are likely to seek out false saviors to rescue us. We bury ourselves in work, entertainment, or a pint of ice cream. We might even take things into our own hands and attempt to control our circumstances. We’ll do anything but face the pain and heartache we feel.
Yet, Scripture is filled with lament. Habakkuk lamented the coming judgment on Israel. The book of Lamentations is one long lament. Our Savior cried out a lament in the garden of Gethsemane. The psalms of lament are poetic songs that give voice to the sorrows and pains of God's people.
The laments in Scripture do more than just voice painful emotions. The psalms of lament, in particular, go further than just releasing pent-up emotions. They are more than mere catharsis. Within themselves, these psalms are a theology, a doxology, a form of worship. They are reminders of truth. They are exercises in faith. They are transformative for the believer. And there is much we can learn from them.
The Pattern of the Laments
While the psalms of lament were written by a variety of psalmists, in various circumstances, and for varying reasons, they nevertheless share a common structure and pattern. Nearly all the laments move from the negative to positive, from sorrow to joy, and from fear to trust. The laments represent the journey of the soul. In following the way of the psalmist, we can learn the art of lament so that we, too, can cry out to God in the midst of our pain.
The psalms of lament share a number of common elements, but the three main ones are:
Crying out to God. In the laments, the psalmists begin by crying out to God. They come before God just as they are, with tears streaming. They don’t clean up the mess of their lives before seeking out their heavenly Father. God already knows what is going on in their minds and hearts, so they don’t pretend that their lives are better than they actually are. The psalmists voice the depths of their pain with vivid descriptions and adjectives: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Ps. 6:6).
Asking for help. The psalmists then ask for help. They beg God to rescue them. They ask for relief from their pain. They ask for help and salvation. Whatever their needs are, they ask God to step in and provide for them: “O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me!” (Ps. 71:12).
Responding in trust and praise. Throughout the laments, the writers often reference God’s character, His past acts of salvation, His power and wisdom, His love and faithfulness. As the psalmists cry out to God and remember who God is and what He has done, they end their laments with a response of trust, praise, and worship. For those of us reading these laments, it seems like an abrupt ending. We might wonder, how do the psalmists go from feeling as though their lives are ending to praising God? The laments do not take place in real time. Before writing, the psalmists have gone through a journey of wrestling with their thoughts and emotions, of crying out to God over and over, and of reminding themselves of the truth. And in so doing, they respond in trust and praise God: “I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever” (Ps. 86:12).
This is just a small taste of what we can learn from studying the pattern that the psalms of lament follow. Learning this pattern and adopting it as our own helps us to cry out to God with our own pain, sorrow, grief, and fear. Following the way of the psalmists turns our gaze from ourselves and toward the One who alone can save us. The more we do so, the more we find ourselves in the presence of our gracious Father in heaven, that place where we are encouraged to go: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published May 6, 2016.