I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me! For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me. Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me!
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!” As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!
PSALM 40:1-3, 11-13, 16-17 (ESV)
Lament is a difficult practice for us. We are so accustomed to immediate satisfaction that every inconvenience must be dismissed, and painful ones especially so. When the time comes for sorrow, we often look to rush past it or numb it or ignore it all together. To be still is to be confronted, so pain that feels too heavy to carry is best left in the rearview mirror.
Lament is difficult to receive though, too. If you’ve ever sat in a hospital room with worried, grieving loved ones, you know the feeling of awkwardness that comes when secondhand sorrow chokes away your words. What can you offer in moments like these that could comfort a friend? What could be said or done that wouldn’t feel like trite symbolism as it came from your mouth?
The hospital room is an obvious place for this kind of awkwardness, but it creeps into our churches too. Anonymity is just so much easier than vulnerability. Sharing our pain or hearing someone else’s puts us on the spot, and that can be terrifying. So we default to drawing down the curtains of experience and hoping that we might find comfort in avoidance.
Confronting pain that comes to us feels counterintuitive. The hurt of dealing with it does not cancel it out but only seems to compound the weight on an already weary soul. In fear of this added emotional stress, we become more and more isolated. This kind of grieving turns to loneliness.
It isn’t meant to be this way. Though withholding our pain often feels like the right move, we quickly learn that it is destructive, to us and to others. We were meant to be temples of life, not silos of pain. Lament is how we return to God’s purpose.
Psalm 40 illustrates the power of lament in growing faith. David has known seasons of grieving. He has felt the weight of destruction and known the kind of pain that takes everything but your tears. David remembers crying out and seeing God deliver him to confidence and praise. This is important because David writes this psalm crying out again. Verse 12 speaks of evil and iniquities beyond David’s power to fight, and as his very heart fails, he once again turns to His God.
It is a gift to David that this is a pain he can’t run from. It isn’t a blessing that David would choose or even a pain that God would endorse, but from this helplessness and despondency, David’s cry strengthens his faith in God.
At a very basic level, a lament is simply an expression of relationship. When you are afraid, you turn to what provides comfort. When you need help, you go to a trusted source. For the deepest pains in our lives, we turn to Jesus and his church.
This is the kind of relationship with God the author of Hebrews had in mind in writing, “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” (4:16). It is trust in the Lord that animates our prayers, emboldens our pleas, and draws us close. Prayers of sorrow are bold. David sings in Psalm 40 with full confidence in God’s wisdom and sovereignty. Because David knows who God is, he doesn’t hide his grief. God is not too big to see his tears, and David’s pain is not too big for God to move. If we don’t trust the Lord to hear and carry our grief, how could we ever trust him to carry our joy?
Jesus knew grief in his life. He wept at the death of a friend. He prayed in anguish knowing the pain ahead of him. He felt abandonment in bloody agony on the cross. When we take our grief to this kind of God, he shows us comfort and teaches us how to provide it to others. This is not a Savior who explains away grief in cold theological terms or stammers through finding the right words. Jesus sees our grief and shares it. He sits beside us as we weep, and as he shares our pain, we might share the joy he prepares for us (John 15:11).
Is this the God you know? Do you trust that He doesn’t dismiss your pain but answers it, that He comes running to it with compassion and salvation? David sang because he knew the heart of God, and when circumstances tempted him with lies about his faith, his song only became louder. Though lament might feel counterproductive, in practice we discover it’s a lot like losing control on a slick road. When you are grieving, you have to steer into the skid to get back on track toward your destination. In lament, we point our pain home and watch God work.
When poet Ann Weems’ twenty-one-year-old son was tragically killed, she turned in grief to the lamentation psalms. They became for her a map to processing loss and strengthening faith. They also provided her with inspiration in her writing, and her book Psalms of Lament contains fifty poems patterned after the Bible’s example. Each is a prayer filled with earnest sorrow, bold language, and full confidence in God’s power and love. I chose one that has meant a great deal to me for today’s devotional.
“Lament Psalm Twenty-Three”
Speak to me, O my God,
speak to me!
Tell me you will help me;
Tell me in a loud voice!
Let me hear words of mercy
from your mouth,
words that will flood my heart
and make it beat again.
O God, in times past,
you have heard the groaning
of your people,
and you have spoken to them;
you have saved them.
Speak to me now, O Holy One,
to me, O God,
the one who waits for your word.
Speak to me so that I can
return to life,
and follow you once more.
Speak, O my God,
speak to me,
the language of your heart.
Speak and I will run
among your people.
All who have the ears to hear
will marvel that your word
has made my feet dance.
To you, O God, goes the glory
for in your word
I find my life.
What grieves your heart today? How might you take that boldly to the Lord in prayer? Read in Psalm 40 the confidence of a broken man who trusts a healing God. Reflect on God’s past care for you and sing the song of faith. Consider also: when was the last time you stood by a grieving friend? If someone in your life is hurting today, make some time to be with her and share her sorrow. Find comfort together knowing Jesus sits beside you both.