Praying Lament Psalms (and How to Write Your Own)

You’re sitting at Bible study. It’s time for prayer. The middle-aged woman beside you has been wrongfully let go from her job. She is the main source of income for the family and cares for her mother, who suffers from dementia. Her resume lends her few job prospects, and she doesn’t know how she’ll make ends meet. She was a hard worker and was pushed to the side—legally but wrongfully—in favor of a younger employee. She starts to pray: “Lord, they are so evil and think they can get away with this. Break their arms and chase them down until they are destroyed.”

You can hear the shuffling in the room. Someone delicately clears her throat. You shift uncomfortably in your seat and squint your eyes open to see if she’ll continue.

Does this woman have an anger problem? Does the Bible study group need to do a lesson on forgiveness or on joy in suffering?

Or has she been reading the Psalms?

Rage Belongs Before God

At some point, many of us developed a “prayer voice.” In my experience this wasn’t the result of explicit instruction—though perhaps it was for you. I can remember times my pen would pause as I wrote in my prayer journal. My mind was blazing with what I felt. The words were there, banging against the door, waiting for the flow of ink to let them onto the page. But a sense of decorum made me reword my prayer into something more “proper.”

We feel we need to clean up our language and tidy our emotions. We stifle our grief, our rage, our questions to present composed prayers, polite prayers, dignified prayers. We do it in the name of respect, as if we will offend God’s sensibilities, as if He has not heard our thoughts already. We do it in the name of submission, as if our spirits will calm if we simply do not acknowledge the way our bruised and bloodied hearts wrestle for faith.

Where, then, are we to work through our outrage? Where do we take our smothering sorrow? Who will hear our doubts when we don’t know how to believe? What do we do with raw, open-wounded pain? If we cannot take these emotions, these moments to the God we call Father, where else will we go?

Thankfully, the Psalms give us permission to bring our fiercest, untamed thoughts and emotions to God. They teach us, as Miroslav Volf says, that our rage belongs before Him. They also offer us a model for how to do this.

Lament Psalms: Patterns for Prayer

Psalms of Lament are the most common type of psalm in the Bible. (Just a side note: Rarely hearing these read in corporate worship is a part of our implicit “instruction” about how and what we pray.) Some of these lament psalms are shocking, particularly if you reword them into modern language.

The psalmists pray in vivid terms about their anger and grief. They bring complaints to God about their situation and freely say, “God, I don’t like this. Why aren’t you doing something?”

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But the lament psalms aren’t about letting emotions go wild. They are a means of bringing these wild emotions to God Himself.

When the psalmists voice their complaints, they aren’t grumbling about what God is doing “behind His back” (as if this were possible). They bring their complaints directly to Him. When they express anger, they aren’t plotting a time to break their enemies’ arms (think of the prayer above). They’re bringing these vindictive feelings to God and asking Him to intervene. When they question God’s actions and wonder if He’s abandoned them, they are still speaking to Him. The act of bringing these emotions, desires, or doubts to God is itself an act of faith.

This is where we see the true answer to the question of submission or reverence, when they stifle our prayers. Submission doesn’t come in not feeling. It comes in taking our natural feelings and reactions in faith to God. Reverence doesn’t come in treating God like an old Victorian aunt. It comes in recognizing Him as the source of justice, healing, and comfort. Submission and reverence come as we take our broken reality and place it with limping, dependent faith at God’s feet.

Lament Psalms follow a typical pattern that teaches us how to put this into practice:

  • Protest: Tell God what is wrong.

  • Petition: Tell God what you want Him to do about it.

  • Praise: Expression of trust in God today, based in His character and His action in the past, even if you can’t yet see the outcome.

(For some examples, take a look at Psalm 6, 10, 13, 17, 22, 25, 30, 31, 69, 73, 86, 88, 102.)

Lament psalms teach us to bring our raw emotion and desires to God—with no filter or polishing—and how to release those emotions and desires to His care. Even before our situation has resolved, we can find comfort. We come needy and desperate, and we sit expectantly with the solid truth of who He is.

The Practice of Lament: How to Write Your Own Lament Psalm

Using the pattern of the lament psalms and the freedom they offer in prayer, we can incorporate lament into our own spiritual disciplines practice. I have found this to be formative and a source of great comfort in painful seasons of life. It has provided me with words when I feel so overwhelmed that I don’t know what to pray.

You can incorporate the lament psalms in several ways. You can choose a lament psalm from the Bible and simply read it in prayer to the Lord. The book of Psalms is a prayer book, so we should feel free to use it in this way.

You could then take a lament psalm and reword it based on your current circumstances. Perhaps the “enemies” you’re crying out to God about aren’t human beings but are cancer or depression. Adapt the psalmist’s words to reflect your situation.

You could also write a lament psalm completely on your own. You don’t need to be a poet to do this. It’s for your own benefit. Simply follow the pattern. In your own words, tell God what is wrong. Then, in your own words, tell Him what you’d like Him to do about it. Then offer an expression of trust or a reminder of who He is. I have found it to be helpful to think of a character attribute of God or an example of how He has acted in the past, either in your own life or in the Bible, that applies to the situation.

For the woman in the prayer group above, a prayer of lament may read like this:

God, I don’t know what to do.
In spite of my hard work and diligence, I’ve been treated unjustly.
It’s not fair. Why did you let this happen?
I don’t know how I will make ends meet.
The rent check is due, and so is Mom’s medical bill. But there’s no money.
I don’t see any way out of this. It feels like my prayers are bouncing against a wall.

God, do something about this.
Bring me justice and punish the people who’ve done this to line their pockets with more money.
God, do something about this.
Provide for my family and be our helper.
Hear my prayers and make a way that I can’t yet see.

I will praise you, God, because you are a God of justice and you see right and wrong.
God, I won’t forget how you provided when my husband died.
I won’t forget how you gave me this job when I was unemployed.
I praise you because you are a Provider and a Helper and you see us.

The Fruit of Lament

We are formed as we pray using the Bible’s pattern of lament. We find a God who meets us in the lowest places. We enter into the sacred place where our emotions, pain, and circumstances collide with the character of God.

Sometimes we see answers to the prayers we’ve prayed. We see provision or healing or justice.

But often the “answers” we receive are surprising. They come to prayers we didn’t know to pray. Our lament bears fruit, and we see the change within our own hearts. As we bring our pain to God, we are slowly transformed.

We are reminded of His faithfulness, and we learn trust. We are reminded of His justice, and we release our desires for revenge. We are reminded of His grace towards us, and we learn to forgive. We are met with His comfort, and we learn a new shape of joy.

We find Him. Not in fancy words or composed phrases, but in the humble, simple faith of a child. And in His presence, our lament slowly becomes a place of hope.


Have you incorporated lament into your own spiritual life? How have you found it to be helpful or meaningful? I’d love to hear about it.

Be Not Proud: Friday Morning Coffee #73

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

- John Donne, “Holy Sonnet X”

“Death, be not proud…" John Donne’s centuries-old words came unbidden when we got the news of Scott’s grandmother’s passing this week. They’ve become a comfort to me when death provokes a primeval outrage deep within that screams, “This should not be.” Instead of stifling this outrage, I’ve learned to keep space for it as something sacred. I stand with the One, who is Resurrection and Life, weeping at a graveside. For, as those who affirm the Bible’s story of Redemption, death should not be. Death, suffering, separation, and pain. Sorrow, injustice, division, strife - they should not be.

And this is where we collide with weighty, glorious hope. They should not be, and they will not be. The hope Christianity offers is not that of escaping away from a broken earth, of detaching from corrupt physicality into an ethereal spiritual reality and washing our hands of the place. The hope we are offered is of a King returning to claim His Kingdom, of that Kingdom come fully and permanently. It is of our broken-beautiful creation made new, restored, re-enlivened. It is a hope of the remaking of the cosmos - the corruption of sin demolished, justice finally complete, light exploding darkness, pain erased, sickness healed, death sealed in the grave.

This hope shapes my behavior today, as I boldly live in light of this future reality. And it allows me to stand in the face of suffering untempered, justice thwarted, in the face of our enemy, death, itself and declare: “Thou shalt die.” Thanks be to God.

No Wasted Time - Everyday Disciple: Mary B.

I met Mary B. while traveling home from a writing conference. The airport was under the assault of an early spring ice storm, and we struck up conversation during the long wait at our gate. In what could have been a miserable travel day, I made a friend, and it’s been a delight to know her. I appreciate the mix of heart and snark that always appears in her writing, and the raw honesty she brings to her faith.

Today, Mary B. shares her experience as an Everyday Disciple. Enjoy!


One year ago I started writing a book. Four months ago I quit my restaurant job and started writing full-time. After three months of blog posting and pitching and development, I'm about to have my first piece published. It's not a paid publication, but it's a step in the right direction. Unpaid progress is still progress, right?

Working for myself is amazing and terrifying. On the one hand, I can work on my own terms. On the other, I have to do everything, and there are no guarantees that I will get any return on my investment. And yet, here I am, doing what I can day by day, moving forward, and believing that I'm doing the right thing. If I just keep pushing, things will take off.

Let me just tell you, it isn't as glamorous as I thought it would be. I probably should have known. After all, I spent almost a year as an international missionary, the most over-glorified calling in the Christian faith, and most days were absurdly ordinary. I was still me, I was just in a different country. I didn't magically become better, or even feel better about myself. I should have learned that this is true in most areas of life and faith.

As I sit at my laptop writing these words, I wonder what exactly I'm putting my faith in. Is it Jesus? Or is it my ability to hustle, my business practices, my obsession with perfection? Is it the online course I took on how to be a writer? Or is it some sort of karmic logic, which states that if I put the work in, I will be rewarded? I believe in this calling and in the voice and experiences that I have been given. I believe that I was made to share them. I believe that this is what I'm supposed to be doing at this moment in my life.

But that doesn't make me any less human. My words and my works cannot save me from the soul-deep longings that I keep trying to outrun. My desire for approval and control are still alive and well. My insecurity and my uncertainty, my anxiety and fear are as well.

I guess that's the comforting thing about following Jesus. He is able to use my feeble attempts at faithfulness for his glory. In spite of it all, he can take these words and make them into something cooler than I could ever ask or imagine. In fact, it is my insufficiency that makes me the most qualified (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

I think that being faithful and disciplined in my work is about openness and longing. It's about seeing the desires that I have been given, the passion for my niche, and using that to love and serve. I think it's also about trusting Jesus to redeem what I mess up.

Today, I remember Hebrews 11, a chronological list of the greats of the faith and the impossible things God was able to do through them. In describing Sarah, the author writes that, "she considered him faithful who had made the promise" (Hebrews 11:11, NIV). Whether I feel that truth on any given day or not, I choose to sit down and put my fingers on the keyboard. I schedule an interview for my upcoming podcast. I read a book. I sabbath. I do one little thing that honors the place where God has set my feet, begrudgingly or joyfully.

Maybe this will work out and maybe it won't. But even if I crash and burn, even if all this work and worry amounts to nothing, I am certain of one thing: this is not wasted time.


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Mary B. Safrit is a NYC-based writer, speaker, and soon-to-be podcaster. Her work has been featured in Fathom Magazine and on the Now She Rises blog. In her upcoming book, Unsuitable, Mary B. describes her life as a single Christian woman and how she learned to claim her place in the church and the world. Follow her blog at marybsafrit.com, Twitter and Instagram @maryBsafrit. 

How Beautiful That We Exist: Friday Morning Coffee #72

The smell of old books greeted me when I stepped through the door. It was my favorite type of used bookstore. The shelves were heavy laden with old books. Haphazard stacks of them crowded my feet. It was a treasure trove. A museum in which I could touch the artifacts.

After a few minutes of browsing, the bookshop owner poked his head around the nearest shelf. He was tall, with an absent-minded spray of gray hair. “I’m running to the post office. Probably be gone ten or fifteen minutes. You guys are in charge.” He gestured at Scott and me with a long finger. “If anyone comes in and wants to buy something, just have them leave the money on the counter.”

And with that, he was gone. We suppressed our laughter until he disappeared onto the street. I will never fail to delight in such small town interactions.

After he returned from his errand, we paid him four crumpled dollar bills for an Agatha Christie novel and continued on to our destination for the weekend: Acadia.

It’s been on our New England bucket list since we moved here five years ago, and finally, last weekend, we made it there. So much beauty.

The highlight of the weekend was our hike up Gorham Mountain. As we stood on the granite shelf at the summit, we seemed to be on top of the world. My ability to absorb the beauty was inadequate. The words “oh, it’s so beautiful,” uttered for perhaps the thousandth time that weekend, fell short.

“With shortness of breath, I'll explain the infinite
How rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist.”

The words from Ryan O’Neal’s (Sleeping at Last*) song “Saturn” sneak in at such moments. [If you haven’t listened to Sleeping At Last, you really must. It is a frequent writing companion.]

How beautiful it is that we exist. And that we were given a world of such beauty. That we were set loose to explore its mountains and seas and meet its quirky bookshop owners. That in all its vastness we are seen and loved by a Creator who calls us friends. So much beauty.

What Kind of Disciples Are We Making?

My elbows were propped on the dark wood of their table as I listened. They were friends we didn’t see often, and there was much to catch up on. I settled back in my chair, and the rungs nestled into my back. My full belly and the thick warmth of the summer evening were soothing after a busy week.

They were sharing about the challenge of finding a new church. The perplexity was familiar. The questions from those who didn’t understand why they were leaving. The sudden lack of community, lack of friends, the starting from scratch. The uncertainty of how to decide—the criteria of how to make a good decision.

I asked, “Why did you decide to leave your old church?”

This question serves up such a variety of responses.

They looked at each other, their chins tilting as if to say, “Do you want to take this one?” Finally one of them spoke up. “We saw the type of Christian that church was making, and it wasn’t the sort of disciple we wanted to become.”

* * *

When we become Christians, we respond to Jesus’ invitation to “come follow Me.” Follow me into your work and your play. Follow me into your relationships, your dreams, your financial decisions. Let me transform the way you see the world and other people, the way you see yourself.

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Obviously, there is a personal component to our discipleship. We spend time reading the Bible, in prayer, and engaged in other spiritual disciplines. We seek the guidance and molding of the Holy Spirit, to weed out our sin and to allow Christlikeness and obedience to flourish.

But discipleship is also inherently communal. Our Christian life is as a part of a Body, in which all the parts work together and encourage or discourage our health. This is obviously true in our friendships. I think we’ve all seen how the people close to us shape our thinking, words, and attitudes. We see this in our family life. Hopefully we get to experience this in a discipling relationship, in which a mentor invites us to follow them following Jesus and shapes our growth with their hard-bought wisdom.

The church community as a whole fosters our discipleship. We are taught about the highest good and the ideal picture of the Christian life. We learn about how we should engage the culture and the vast world outside of the church walls. We are taught about right belief and right practice—and perhaps taught which of those beliefs and practices are more important than the others. We are given a model for faithful living.

Ideally, this discipleship is occurring explicitly (more on that another time), but discipleship is happening in the church, whether we intentionally engage in it or not. These lessons are communicated implicitly in what we celebrate and teach, what we model and how we teach people to think. The question is not whether it’s happening, but rather what sort of disciples we are making.

Are we making disciples whose lives are marked by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5)? Do we see people who are compassionate and kind, humble, slow to anger, quick with self-sacrificing love? Are we teaching them to idolize marriage and children, to think their work is only meaningful if it’s explicitly “spiritual”? What are we teaching about pain or how to support others when it strikes? Are we cultivating a love for God’s Word, a desire to obey it, and equipping people with tools to study and apply it themselves? Are we making disciples who are grace-obsessed and grace-dependent, or ones who still think they have something to prove in order to earn God’s favor?

The litmus test could be long. Ultimately, though, we must ask: are we making disciples that look like and abide by our particular brand of Christianity? Or are we making disciples that love Jesus, submit to His Lordship, and look like Him?