“For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
Your name endures to all generations.” (Ps. 102:9-12)
We learn early on in life what emotions are appropriate and what emotions are inappropriate. We learn that we are to be happy at weddings, even if we feel sad or nervous. We learn that we are to be sad at funerals, even if we feel relief. Through the conditions of being part of a community, we are given unspoken rules of how to behave that include even our feelings.
Most of my life in the church, I was expected to be happy. We are praising God, after all, which should be exciting. We have been saved from death and hell for life in Christ, this should fill us with positive feelings all the time, right? Even the praise hymns and songs we sing (all in major keys) work to cultivate this feeling in us. When we are at church, when we are with God, we should be happy.
The psalms have a different vision. Psalm 102 is a psalm of lament – a psalm which brings both grief and anger to God in prayer. It’s raw and visceral. It is not happy, but burdened. The superscription at the top names it as ‘a prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the Lord.’ These are the types of emotions that the Spirit, through the psalmist, envisions us bringing before God.
Lament gives us permission to appeal to God to be faithful to his promises, particularly when it looks like God has broken them. Grief mixes with memory and indignation to place the whole of our selves before a God who we trust is faithful. It is exactly that trust in the faithfulness of God and his sovereignty over all creation that allows us to lament. It is in believing that God does keep his promises that we can appeal to his past actions and promises in prayer. It is because God has said he is merciful and good to those who love him, that we can cry out that we seem to be experiencing no mercy and no goodness from the Lord. It is because God is lord of all creation that we can pray with frustration that all is not right with the world. God’s character makes lament possible and even invites it. When we feel God’s absence or the painful effects of a fallen world, the psalms do not let us mask them with happy feelings, but calls us to bring these before the living God.
In her book, The Church and the Crisis of Community, Theresa Latini argues that our church cultures can silence types of sharing. In focusing on small groups, she says that “members provide emotional support for each other, but they also censure particular kinds of sharing. Unspoken rules suppress certain personal and political topics. Small groups stifle conflict and difference and thus inhibit the growth that can emerge when we encounter those different than us.” While Latini focuses on small groups within the church, I think her insight extends to the whole of our life as the body of Christ. We censure ourselves and live daily with unspoken pain. Miscarriages. Abuse. Adultery. Loss of Job. Loss of Identity. Depression. Mental Illness. We are often refused permission to speak these pains because we are supposed to ‘rejoice in the Lord always.’
But the psalms give us permission to lament – to grieve, to rage, and to experience deep joy. There is joy in the psalms of lament, but it comes after moments of anguish and honesty. Most psalms get to the point of saying, ‘it is well with my soul,’ but it takes time and prayer. I think the joy is deeper that way.
I have been in small groups. knowing big hurts in the lives of some of the members and a question about that comes up. no one shares and an opportunity to carry each other’s burdens is missed. maybe small groups should study more Psalms. and not skip the laments.
Beautiful, profound thoughts, Stephen! And good for you for shining a light on a church problem, and giving people permission to feel their feelings. I haven’t seen you in years, but this post makes me think God is well pleased with you!