My Church Started 2021 With a Service of Lament
Big Idea: When you suffer, tell God how you feel, ask for his help, and reaffirm your trust.
We’re doing something very different today. We’re holding a service of lament.
That sounds awfully depressing. I didn’t want to tell you that this is what we were going to do today because I was scared you wouldn’t show up. It almost sounds like announcing that we are going to hold a service of bellyaching. It seems like a very strange thing to do.
But we’ve just completed a very difficult year, and we have every reason to expect that the next year will be difficult too. We don’t know when things will start to improve, but a full recovery from this pandemic will likely take some time.
The North American thing to do is to think positive and charge ahead. But the biblical thing to do is to lament. The book of Psalms has 150 psalms in it. Out of the 150 psalms, the greatest number — 40% — are psalms of lament. There are more psalms of lament than there are psalms of praise, thanksgiving, or wisdom. And that’s not even to mention that there is a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations.
That tells us something about life — it’s hard. It also tells us something about how we should respond — in lament, in coming to God with what’s hard in our lives.
One pastor (Soong-Chan Rah) says:
The Psalms that we all know and are familiar with come out of the theology or context of celebration. That those of us who have good things and are living in comfort, safety, protection, provision, privilege, we want to sing the triumphant songs of victory, praise, and celebration. Lament on the other hand arises out of a community that suffers, that sees the world not as a place where you flourish but maybe a place where you barely survive. So the tone of lament is going to feel different than the tones of celebration…
Lament arises out of suffering; it is when folks are struggling with the reality of their lives because they can’t pay their bills, can’t put healthy food on the table, the heat is about to get shut off, their son has been killed in a drive-by shooting, their father has been jailed for a minor offence, their mom has lost her job, or their grandmother is sick with cancer. Those are very real scenarios, and the Bible actually responds to real life. So lament is the proper response to suffering. We jump so quickly to everything’s going to be okay, everything is awesome, everything is going to be fine. We forget that the Bible actually allows us, and in fact encourages and maybe even commands us, to stay in those places of suffering, to speak the honest truth, “Lord, this is how I’m feeling, God, this is the pain I’m experiencing,” instead of jumping so quickly to “God is so good, God loves me, God’s going to take care of me.” So I think lament is the honesty that sometimes we lack in the church.
If we don’t lament, then we have no place to take the suffering and sorrow in our lives. As another pastor says, “Without lament we won’t know how to help people walking through sorrow. Instead, we’ll offer trite solutions, unhelpful comments, or impatient responses … We need to recover the ancient practice of lament and the grace that comes through it. Christianity suffers when lament is missing.”
So let’s look at the psalm of lament we just read. Here’s what he teaches us:
First, we can tell God how we’re feeling. (13:1-2)
Verses 1 and 2 say:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
No pretending here. Complete honesty. David repeats a single phrase four times: “How long?” His distress is complex:
- in relationship to God — it felt like God had forgotten him, and hidden his face from him
- in relationship to himself — his thoughts were full of turmoil; his heart full of grief and pain
- in relationship to his enemy — David faced a threat against his life itself
There are times that it seems like God has hidden his face from us. There are times, even in the life of a believer, that our thoughts are full of turmoil and anxiety. There are times that we face external threats that are a real danger to us. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that this your life will be free from trouble. We live in a Genesis 3 world, a world that’s been damaged by sin. We will experience what David did. We will go through times that it feels like God has hidden his face, our hearts are full of sorrow, and we face very real problems.
So what do we do about this? Don’t react with anger or denial, which is our normal ways of dealing with our sorrows. Not by shaking our fist at God, which is the angry response, or stoicism, which is the denial response. Instead, tell God how you’re feeling. Bring your feelings to him. Tell him about it.
This completely changes our approach to prayer. Rather than coming to God with only part of your life, come to him with all of it, including your messy parts, the parts you’re ashamed of. Tell him how you feel. Spill your guts to God. See your struggles as something that God wants you to bring to him. “Prayer is a place to be known. Prayer is not a place to escape reality, but is a place to rest with God in reality.” (Beloved Dust)
My favorite book on prayer says this: “The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.”
Come to God honest about what’s going on in your life. Spill your guts to God. Come humbly but honestly. Use the Psalms as a guide. Tell him what’s really going on in your life.
Here’s a question: what hard thing in your life haven’t you prayed about? Why not take some time today and come to God in complete honestly, and tell him exactly how you are feeling?
That’s the first thing this psalm teaches us. We can tell God how we’re feeling. Here’s the second thing this psalm teaches.
Second, we can ask God for help (13:3-4).
Look at how David asks for help in verses 3 and 4:
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
These verses are the turning point of the psalm. David feels like God has abandoned him, but David doesn’t totally trust his feelings. In simple faith he pleads with God to hear and answer prayer.
- Consider — David asks God to take notice. Remember David said that he believed that God had forgotten him? David asks for this sense of alienation to end.
- Answer — He also wants God to answer his prayer.
- Result — David asks God to light up his eyes. He wants God to change his situation so that his eyes can sparkle again.
We don’t know the exact circumstances, but we see that David asks God for a change. And we can too. Keep coming to God, even when it feels like he’s abandoned you. Ask him for what you need.
One of the best things we can do is to meditate on all the invitations to come to God, such as:
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8)
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7-8)
Scripture repeatedly tells us to ask God for what we need, and then to leave the results to God.
John Newton, the slave-trader-turned-pastor and the hymn writer who wrote Amazing Grace, received almost unbelievable answers to his prayers because he believed in what he called “large asking.” When explaining what he meant, Newton would often cite a legendary story of a man who asked Alexander the Great to give him a huge sum of money in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Alexander agreed, and told the man to request of Alexander’s treasurer whatever he wanted. So, the father of the bride went and asked for an enormous amount. The treasurer was startled and said he could not give out that kind of money without a direct order. Going to Alexander, the treasurer argued that even a small fraction of the money requested would more than serve the purpose.
“No,” replied Alexander, “let him have it all. I like that fellow. He does me honor. He treats me like a king and proves by what he asks that he believes me to be both rich and generous.”
Newton concluded: “In the same way, we should go to the throne of God’s grace and present petitions that express honorable views of the love, riches, and bounty of our King.”
I like that. Become a large asker. Go to God’s throne and assume that he is loving, rich, and that he cares for you, even when you feel like he’s absent. Ask for his help.
Tell God how you’re feeling. Ask him for his help. Become a large asker.
There’s one more thing this psalm teaches us to do:
Finally: this psalm teaches us to reaffirm our trust in God.
Read verses 5 and 6:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
What a change from the beginning. What happened? Something happened when he turned to God in lament and committed his griefs to God and asked God for his help. He remembered God’s steadfast love. “God has a history with his people,” writes. Mark Vroegop. He is trustworthy.” David reminded himself of God’s character. He reminded himself of God’s salvation: that God is continually working out his purposes in this world. And he expressed his trust and praise of God even in the valley.
Lament is powerful. It is a way of being honest before God and asking for his help. But it is most powerful when the lament turns our hearts toward belief, reminding us of who he is. Lament is best when it leads us to trust. “Lament is how you live between a hard life and God’s promises. It is how we learn to sing and worship when suffering comes our way … Learning to lament gives us the grace to keep trusting.” (Mark Vroegop)
Here’s what I want you to hear today: When you suffer, tell God how you feel, ask for his help, and reaffirm your trust.
We have every reason to lament right now: to tell God how we’re feeling, especially after a very difficult year. We can ask God to set things right, to bring an end to COVID. And then we can move toward reaffirming our trust in God: the one who has expressed his love so powerfully to us in Scripture, who didn’t spare his own Son.
So let’s come and do this right now. Let’s tell God how we feel, ask for his help, and reaffirm our trust.
This article originally appeared here.