Imagine you’re going through a rough patch. I mean you’re really copping it… you’re being raked through the coals and someone is jumping up and down on your back.
Home life is a mess.
You’re going through an emotional disagreement with your extended family.
Work is horrid, there’s that one co-worker who is driving you absolutely crazy.
You’re late on some bills, money’s a bit tight and then the car starts making a weird noise and coughs to a halt.
One tow truck later you’re home trying to relax, lounging on the couch flicking through your Facebook feed or watching the evening TV. You’re assaulted by the horrors of this life - murder, crime, fraud, government failures, people celebrating abhorrent behavior like it’s the cure for the problems of humanity.
Next morning, after a sleepless night you’re trying unsuccessfully to spend some time in prayer and then you get a phone call.
It is bad news.
The worst news.
It’s news you’d never through you’d hear.
Your soul has just been crushed.
It’s like the world has just broken, and it will never be right again.
You pluck up the courage to call a close friend or family member and you explain what’s happening, starting with a trickle and then a stream and then a torrent of sadness and despair and hopelessness. With the added embarrassment of your stumbling attempts at explaining the situation, you break down into tears.
They don’t know what to say. After some awkward silence they start to respond, but it’s little more than dry platitudes:
“Time heals all wounds”
“I know what you’re going through”
“You’ll learn to live with it”
“Everything happens for a reason”
That last one’s the worst.
Feeling even worse than when you rang, you make some silly excuse about needing to go and hang up.
You are weighed down....
You feel sick from your insides out. You fell bewildered and tossed about even though you’re sitting in your own living room. What do you do next? What CAN you do next? There’s nothing in your power to fix this.
God made us limited beings. Limited by strength, by time, by space. There are things that are outside our control.
God made us emotional beings. He made us people who live with hope. He made us people who have relationships. He made us physical and spiritual.
There’s nothing wrong with theses things. This is the way God made us. We should relish our God-given existence, with it’s shape and limits.
The problem is that the world is stuffed up. It is down-right broken.
It is full of sinners and corruption. Deception and Destruction.
This world is literally cursed.
So you put us people, people made by God to be very good, in a world that is very broken. We’re going to have a tough time of it.
Sure, we get used to it. “Such is life” we say. But sometimes, try as we might to live with or avoid the problems of this world, we are overcome.
What do we do when that happens? When the world seems to fall apart around us? When nothing is “as it should be”?
Well, as Christians, we know there is only one place to go.
To our loving heavenly father.
And the Bible shows us many examples of turning to the Lord in the darkest moments of life, even when it is clear that God had a direct hand in causing those circumstances.
What does the Bible say? We see a God, our LORD, who sympathizes with us in our weaknesses, in our limitations, in our emotional experiences.
What we see across the scripture is countless examples of how to respond well (and not-so-well) to the endless troubles we experience.
This response to the grief and pain of this life is called Lament. It is an expression of what is going on in our heart when we turn to God for answers and rescue. When we question and mourn the sorrow we experience.
Grief is part of this life. It is the normal and even good reaction to the darkness of this world with death, injustice, pain and suffering. Grief is the recognition in our souls that things are not right. “The world is broken, and it breaks my heart.” or even “I am broken, infected by sin, and I don’t know what to do”
If lament is something that shows up regularly in the Bible, and it is a good way to respond in the midst of trials and suffering, we should ask as Christians - How do I do it?
Most of us have experienced some awful suffering, but even if we haven’t yet come to a point where lament is the expression of our souls, it is helpful for us to be prepared for the day that the rug is pulled out for under our feet.
Lets look at Psalm 88. It will show us what lament looks like. There are 5 key elements that show us how to lament.
How do we lament? The first two verses show us the basis for lament toward God, it starts with our attitude toward God.
“O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!” (Psalm 88:1–2)
You see? The lament-er opens by calling on the God that they serve. They already know that God is the one who can help. The writer knows from the start that if there’s anyone who can help with the situation, the Lord can. He is the God of my salvation.
They know that the LORD is God and the one who is both in control of his own creation, and, the one who can address the situation.
The psalm is ascribed to “Heman the Ezrahite”. He was a wise bloke, so wise that he is used as a comparison for the wisdom of Solomon. Sure, Solomon was wiser that this fella Heman, but being a measuring stick for Solomon is still pretty high praise!
Heman is not interested is investigating alternate theories about what will solve his issues. He’s not looking into a new diet, or a new philosophy of life with another self-help book, he wants to worship-fully call on the one who is on the throne. King of King and Lord of Lords.
Why is this attitude important? Because the way that we approach our grief, or sorrow and frustrations can be the difference between lament and grumbling. A godly complaint or a selfish whinge.
Notice what Heman is not doing in the psalm? He’s not not grumbling. He’s not whinging.
If you have spent much time with kids, you’ve generally run into grumbling and whinging - where nothing is good enough. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, its too tight, its too loose, it’s too small. it’s too big…
We see grumbling in the Bible - one example being the Israelites in the wilderness. They were whinging about garlic. They were slaves in Egypt, but there was no garlic in the desert. They were so wound-up about the food that they were missing that they were crying. They kept complaining, as if garlic was worth the back-breaking slavery that God had rescued them from.
God has little patience for grumbling; when we fixate on something that we want and then complain when we can’t have it. For example, we treat God like a genie who is expected to deliver on every wish, or like Santa who is supposed to deliver gifts on schedule.
God has far better plans in store than our selfish wishes. And grumbling and whinging about what He does, or doesn’t, do for us is really a form of idolatry. It says “I know better, and God you should do it my way.” This idol put ourselves as the supreme: “Everything would be better for ME if God would only do what I want.”
But we see in this Lament, even though Heman is very much worried about his personal circumstances, he doesn’t presume to know better than God, instead he is seeking God’s response. He wants God to see and hear his plight. He wants God to act. He wants to know why.
He is a supplicant, seeking God’s mercy rather than one who demands he get his own way.
So that’s the first part of lament, we need to recognize God as sovereign. Our ruler not our lackey.
God knows what’s going on, he’s not unaware. He’s not surprised when we say what is going on in our heart or reflect on the circumstance around us.
Let have a look at Heman’s experience. He pour out to God what he is feeling and what he is seeing. Grieving over what is happening, and even seeing God’s hand in it:
“For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah” (Psalm 88:3–7)
There’s no pretense here. Heman feels lost. Deserted. As good as dead.
He is crushed in the midst of his circumstances so that he basically has one foot in the grave.
Now we don’t know what these circumstances are, but this Psalm reflects our human experience, when we’re brought low with depression and despair. This reflects those times in life when it is like we’re walking through a deep rocky ravine and we can barley see a sliver of light overhead. Wandering through the valley of the shadow of death. We feel as if we are walking into the bowels of the earth, never to return.
Heman call out to God through this darkness. Unafraid to tell God what he’s seeing and experiencing.
We are Christians who believe that God is sovereign, in control of everything. So often this is the hardest thing for us. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I can fall into the trap of thinking that I should just reject sorrow and get over it. Take a teaspoon of cement and harden up, because that’s the way God has crumbled the cookie.
But, that is a rejection of the spiritual, emotional and physical way that God has made us. To grieve over evil and loss is to recognize the corruption of this world, and to bring it before God is to say “you alone can rescue us from our hurt”. A habit of blind emotional response to life is not godly, we are meant to control the way that respond to our circumstances, but God is compassionate to us when it all becomes too much and we are overwhelmed.
Jesus reacted with sadness and sorrow over the plight of this world. He wept at the graveside of a friend, even though he was going to pray to raise him from the dead. He wept at the coming destruction of Jerusalem - something that he knew was going to happen anyway, but still he mourned the loss.
We are in good company when we come weeping before God in the midst of our sorrow.
Laying out our case before God, our experience, our feelings, helps us to examine our own heart. As we “talk it through” with God we may be able to better able understand what is happening. Our lament to God may reveal to us that we’re acting selfishly, or that the circumstances are part of God’s discipline to turn our hearts back to him.
It won’t always make you feel better, or give you a light bulb moment, but we will have sought the ear of our loving father. And we will have handed over to him the burden which we carry.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6–7)
Now, having bared our soul to God, we may have come away from our lament feeling reassured that God has it in hand, or that what we’re being treated fairly by God, even if we don’t like how it feels. But often, our lament just raises more questions.
And that’s the third element of lamenting, ask God the hard questions.
God’s got the chops, he can take it if we come to him questioning.
It’s what Heman does in this psalm, in verse 14:
“O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14)
He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t understand. So he calls out for answers.
We do the same. When things do not align with what we know to be good and right we question: Why?
If God is good, why do bad things happen?
If God loves me why is he letting me experience this horrible situation?
If God hear our prayers through Jesus, why won’t he respond to me?
If God loves Justice, why does he allow injustice to continue?
These are all valid questions, that once again arise out of the disconnect we see being people made in God’s image but infected with sin and living in a corrupted world.
“When will you fulfill your promises God?”
“How will you change my stubborn heart?”
“What will you put me though before my life is done?”
I’m sorry to say, even though we can ask God our hardest questions, we may not get a response. God will hear our yearning questions, but he will not always answer the way we want. Remember Job? He wanted to know what God had against him, why God had taken everything away from him. He didn’t understand and he longed for an opportunity to go before God and get a response. God did not give Job any of the answers he was looking for.
We get the hindsight of the book of Job, but for the man who experienced all the pain and suffering, there was no insight for him, other than the reassurance the God is the LORD, the one who has all wisdom and power, who does nothing out of spite or just for kicks.
So sorry, you may not get an answer to your hard questions. But we can still ask them. Perhaps, one day in the future God will answer, perhaps you will one day have the answer jump off the pages of Scripture or explained to you in a sermon. Perhaps it will only be answered in eternity. We don’t deserve answers, but our God will hear our lamenting and questioning.
While it is not clear in Psalm 88, the whole psalm is a prayer to God to act. It is the implicit force behind the whole thing. All of those theoretical questions are leading to the point – “God please hear my prayer, act to save me”.
He is asking, “Do you gain anything by my destruction God? No? Then please save me so I can serve and praise you!”
Our laments are often uttered in a time when God seems far from us, but he is near to us too. He hears those who call on him and he will act to protect and grow His people.
When we are in the midst of our crying out to God, we call on him to come to our aid. We are in distress and we know that only He can really sort it out.
We can be discouraged when we call and God doesn’t respond in the way that we would like, but that should not stop us from going to him again and again to asking him to fulfill his promises and give good things to his Children.
James reminds us that sometimes we don’t have anything from God, not because God is unwilling, but because we have been unwilling to ask for it, OR, we have asked for what we want selfishly:
“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:2-3)
Our laments should include asking God to resolve the problems of this world and in our lives. We implore him to make this world and us more like the New Heavens and New Earth that are coming one day soon.
The last part of Christian lament is that it is touched with Hope. We hope that this pain and grief is not the end. These present sufferings that we endure will be overcome.
Even buried under the weight of our despair, there is an expectation that God will act, some how, some way.
This particular psalm of lament has that, even though it is almost lost in the cries of despair. It doesn’t end on an upbeat note. A lot of Laments do end well, with the singer reassured that God has everything in hand, and that God will deliver on His Word. Psalm 88 doesn’t.
Heman doesn’t reach that point. He still knows that the Lord is his God, and that God is in control, but he feels abandoned. His hope is almost lost, yet, he keeps coming back to God: “Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.” (Ps 88:9).
There are times that an answer is not forthcoming, when the struggle we are facing just goes on and on and on. Perhaps, after crying out to God and pleading with him things even get worse. Yet, even in our darkest hour, the Christian lament is still tinged with Hope.
A favourable outcome is not guaranteed. God doesn’t say that our lives will be easy. This life is infected by sin, and this world is corrupted. Until God finishes excising our sin nature and remakes the world, we will have a tough go of it.
But we have Hope. For that Day, when the sin is fully and finally removed! When the world is recreated to perfection! When God’s promises are all fulfilled!
That is the day we long for, we hope for. In the mist of our lament, we must remember the promises of that future day. It may not make everything better, it may not even feel all that reassuring, but the barest smidgen of that hope in our lament prepares us for our days here on earth, full of pain and suffering, knowing that there something much better beyond this present plight.
God sent Jesus into the world to save all those who would call on Him. What is he saving us from? A sorrow greater than the ones we can experience here on earth. Life in opposition to God only leads to a perpetual lament - cast out in utter darkness where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus is saving us from coming judgment when God will judge the living and the dead. He will take away sorrow, wiping the tears from the eyes of him treasured people.
One day our laments will be no more because they will all be answered.