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?”
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.