If I close my eyes and think back to the scene in her bedroom, I can still hear her gasping for breath. I can still see my mom’s eyes close as she falls asleep mid-conversation. I wince when I think about her bedsores, and I can’t help but well up with tears when I picture her sallow complexion and sunken cheeks.
She battled pancreatic cancer for just over two years, and especially in the final six months of her life, my family and I repeated the refrain of the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” more than a few times. How long, O Lord, are you going to make this suffering last? How long are you going to put her and all of us through this? How long are we going to be in this in-between place, this place where there’s neither healing nor death?
Paul said that “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), and when I saw my mom slowly deteriorating before my eyes in hospice care, I couldn’t help but agree with him. Why are you not bringing her home, God?
In seasons of grief, I’ve found that middle place, that wilderness, to be especially difficult. Of course I didn’t want my mom to pass away. I didn’t want to lose her––but there came a point when my desire for her suffering to end outweighed everything else. I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched her, This has to be over soon, right?
King David knew this feeling well when he wrote the words of Psalm 13. The passage says:
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?
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.
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.
One of the deepest griefs is the grief that comes when it feels like God is absent. During those times it can seem like his back is turned to us and his fingers are in his ears, not listening, not answering. I felt that while my mom was sick. No answers, no healing, no change except her painfully slow decay. It’s in those times that the practice of lament tethers us to hope.
Pastor and scholar Bernhard Anderson wrote, “(T)he laments are really expressions of praise, offered in a minor key in the confidence that Yhwh is faithful and in anticipation of a new lease on life.”1 If the psalmist had no hope, there would be no point in crying out. But, in fact, he does cry out––because his hope is real. The psalmist gets brutally honest with God. I picture him flat on his face, weeping, maybe pounding the floor with his fists. I get that posture. While I haven’t had enemies chasing me, I understand what it’s like to have no words for God but anger and dismay, even doubt.
The truth is that God can take it. And when we practice lament, we’re being honest before our Maker. If there is no hope, why come to God in the first place? But honesty before God keeps us walking toward him instead of away from him. Far better to yell and cry, to scream in anguish before our God than to turn away from the only One capable of wiping every last tear.
In Psalm 13, the psalmist moves from anguish to trust. We have no indication that his circumstances changed or that he saw God fix his problems. His inner transformation can be summed up in the words of Martin Luther when he said, “hope despairs and yet despair hopes.”2
So many of us have experienced seasons where our hope despairs. Our bodies are tired, our souls utterly depleted. But lament reminds us that despair also hopes. Offering our cries of despair to God reminds us who he is and what he can––and one day will––do.
God never healed my mom from cancer. She died on a bitterly cold February morning. I watched a couple of men carry her out the front door in a black body bag, and I had a few choice words for God in the days and months that followed. But despair––when done before God through the practice of lament––hopes.
The last couple of verses of Psalm 13 declare with confidence that God will bring salvation. David’s confidence, his hope in who God is and what he would do, was not brittle glass or shifting sand. Instead, like Tish Harrison Warren wrote, his hope is as solid as a stone rolled away.3
- Bernhard W. Anderson and Steven Bishop. Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000, 60.
- Quoted in Tremper Longman and David E. Garland, et al. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008, 170.
- Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 57.
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