5 Ways the Lament Psalms Carry Us in Troubled Times

The Bible first shocked me in high school. Our pastor read from Psalm 137, and the last verse blew my mind—and not in a good way.It read, “Happy is the one who seizes [Babylonian] infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

I recoiled.

Our pastor explained that the Psalm was meant to horrify us. It demonstrated that there was no human emotion that God had not encountered before. But I wasn’t so sure because I loved the straight and narrow. I kept my emotions in tidy rows, ready for inspection. And I knew that saying you’d kill innocent babies just wasn’t nice.

Twenty years later, that Psalm soothes me because in the midst of deep sorrow, being able to say my own awful, horrible things to God saved my faith.

According to G. Brooke Lester, a lament poem is a genre of psalm where “a petitioner addresses God directly on the occasion of some calamity.” I was surprised to learn they are the most numerous kind of Psalm in the Israelites’ songbook. That is a lot of songs about death, calamity, and horror.

“As a culture, we don’t know quite what to do with ugliness.”
In Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann points out the American church rarely sings laments. As a culture, we don’t know quite what to do with ugliness. But Biblically speaking, lament is a central way of addressing God, even if we rarely do so in a corporate setting.

There’s good reason for laments’ importance. Laments also help us to question our formulaic assumptions about success. They name abuse and help us anticipate the ups and downs of our faith journey. Laments ultimately bring us closer to Jesus, who was, as Isaiah put it, acquainted with grief.

We live in a world filled with calamity. When sorrow comes upon us, the lament psalms can help us weather the storm.

Here are 5 ways the lament psalms carry us in troubled times.

1. Laments Give Us Permission to Be Honest
The laments’ honesty pierces our hearts. Sprinkled throughout the gorgeous psalter are moments of shocking ugliness and complaint—psalmists begging God to break people’s teeth, or force the children of the wicked to gorge themselves on wrath.

The violence is purposeful. It bares Israel’s whole heart to God. As Brueggemann says, “What is said to Yahweh may be scandalous…but…whatever must be said about the human situation must be said directly to Yahweh, who is Lord of the human experience and partner with us in it…Yahweh is expected and presumed to receive the fullness of Israel’s speech.”

By trusting God to handle our wayward hearts, we avoid presenting a careful mask to the Almighty. Our honesty affirms God’s power and dominion over all parts of our lives, even the parts we’re ashamed of.

Honesty is also the beginning of comfort, since only through full intimacy with God can we truly receive love.

2. Laments Question Our Reliance on Success
Psalm 44 is another one that shocked me: “[God] gave us up to be devoured like sheep and [has] scattered us among the nations.…All this came upon us, though…we had not been false to [God’s] covenant.”

In other words, the Psalmist asserts Israel had done nothing wrong and still experienced calamity. Understandably, he felt betrayed. Often, we emphasize that the Hebrews always violated their covenant with God, thus earning punishment. Follow the rules, we tut, and success will come, easy as pie.

Not that long ago, that logic gutted me. When I struggled with faith and spiritual disciplines, I assumed I was at fault. I scoured my heart for wrongdoing.

“We want to believe we can control our way to a trouble-free life.”
Psalm 44 explodes those simplistic assumptions. It assures us that bad things do indeed happen to good people, and that calamity can come without a tidy explanation. When we feel betrayed by God, lament psalms help us know we’re not alone, commiserating instead of pointing a finger.

We aren’t always so generous. It’s easier to believe people always reap what they sow. We want to believe we can control our way to a trouble-free life.

Life simply isn’t that simple.

The laments give us permission to scream at God about how unfair our pain is. Laments stare unblinkingly at our worst moments and affirm that we are held in God’s firm embrace—even when we don’t feel like it.

3. Laments Lay Bare Abused Power
I spent decades floundering in faith, desperate to pin down what I’d done wrong. It never occurred to me to ask what wrongs had been done to me.

Then, four years ago, I realized I’d suffered abuse as a child and in my high school youth group. The anxiety, shame, and sense of inadequacy I struggled with wasn’t just a personal failing; it was a result of people in power mistreating me.

Frequently, I receive letters from readers confessing their lack of faith. Almost as an aside, they mention they’re in abusive situations. Just like me, they barely connect the dots between their fears and the people who hurt them

“Sin is not only a personal failing, but a communal and structural one. ”
Laments name oppressors unflinchingly. In Psalm 137, the mistreatment of the Israelites by the Babylonians is front and center. Likewise, in David’s lament, Psalm 55, he cries out about how he was betrayed by “my companion, my close friend.”

Sin is not only a personal failing, but a communal and structural one. Yes, we must repent individually when we fall short, but we must also name the context of our suffering and cry out against abuse of power.

In Still Evangelical? Lisa Sharon Harper says of the Bible, “…every single word of every single verse of every single chapter of every single biblical book was by an oppressed person.” When we read the Psalms, we hear the marginalized talking honestly about their lack of power. They understand that evil happens not just because we make bad choices, or don’t have enough faith, but because systems of injustice surround us. Laments release us from the lie that our suffering begins and ends with us.

4. Laments Tune Our Hearts to Seasons of Faith
For a long time, I assumed maturing in faith was like ascending a ladder—it should always head upwards. If I couldn’t praise God optimistically, something was wrong.

But if most of the Psalms are laments, then failure, tragedy, and sorrow are an expected part of faith. If we lament, we’re not off-course—we’re in a broad tradition of people wrestling with God.

In the Psalms as a whole, the writers praise the cyclical nature of nature. In Psalm 104:19-20, the psalmist writes, “He made the moon to mark the seasons and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl.” The psalmist describes God’s creation as including many opposites, with darkness and light, cold and hot, predator and prey all represented.

Finding utter darkness in the lament psalms should not surprise us. In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Taylor Brown puts it this way: “Even when light fades and darkness falls–as it does every single day, in every single life—God does not turn the world over to some other deity…”

God, who separated the light from the darkness, is not surprised by shadow.

5. We Must Become Acquainted with Grief
I’ve lived abroad for a little over a year, and one of the things I missed most about the United States was its optimism. Staying in another country, I noticed how comparatively cheerful and hopeful Americans were. That optimism is part of who I am.

Still, though, Americans’ bent towards optimism can sometimes blind us to the necessity of grief. Though Christ reigns triumphant, his time on earth was hardly a typical success story. Born of impoverished refugees, Jesus achieved little material success and died a horrifying death. Isaiah 53:3-5 says of him, “He was despised and rejected by men a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…”

“…God welcomes even our most terrible thoughts.”
Our ugly emotions, sorrow and pain are not failures, not a sign of God turning away from us. The lament psalms assure us that sorrow can bring us before God’s throne, and that God welcomes even our most terrible thoughts. Through the crucible of lament, God transforms our pain into intimacy with him, not by erasing it, or explaining it away, but by fully acknowledging its horror.

I still struggle with the raw emotions I find in the Psalms. Yet like a sharp knife, they cut away my pretense, expose the roots of my suffering, and give me a realistic picture of the brokenness of this world. Candid and compassionate, the lament psalms are wise companions for every suffering soul.

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