The helplessness hurt my heart. My best friend’s healthy 39-year old husband had been sick for less than a week when Covid landed him on life-support. He’s a pastor with a young family. Surely God will heal him. Thousands of us prayed. Days later, a helicopter flew him to another state, where a hospital offered a more intense form of life-support. My best friend drove there with her sister and 3 young daughters (all under the age of 5), and the prayers continued. We talked every day for four weeks, but the most I could do was listen, coordinate financial support, and arrange for a laundry service.
Meanwhile, my unborn nephew received a fatal diagnosis, and his parents asked me to come stay with them for a few days. We had prayed for his conception for almost a year. Then we prayed God would heal him. He died while I was there. One of my jobs was to call funeral homes. It was too much for them. All of it was.
Then, the day after I arrived home, my best friend became a widow.
These back-to-back tragedies set off a year marked by the helplessness of grief.
More than a year later, we’re all still reeling. My grief pales in comparison to theirs, yet I reel too. And part of that reeling comes from processing the petitions that were seemingly lost between our mouths and God’s ears.
A Different Type of Prayer
To pray is to hope. We wouldn’t be asking God for help if we thought we were wasting our breath. And the Bible is full of hope-saturated prayers. We like these prayers. We put them on T-shirts, mugs, and calendars. We turn them into songs.
But what happens when those prayers are replaced by pain? What happens when grievance demands gratitude take a back seat? What happens when God didn’t answer the first round of prayers, the ones that could have prevented the heartache?
The songs we sing often shame us into thinking pain and grievance aren’t okay, that our faith should overcome them, and yet the Bible’s scribes recorded deeply passionate expressions of grief. We aren’t as familiar with these laments because they aren’t feel-good verses.
Psalm 77 is only one example. Try reading it aloud:
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
(v. 6b-9, New International Version)
This psalm offers God a shameless complaint. In fact, biblical scholars estimate that up to two-thirds of psalms contain such laments.
Now try singing this metered translation of Psalm 60:3 to the tune of Amazing Grace:
You’ve shown Your people desperate times, and hardship on them sent;
And You have made us drink the wine of staggering lament.
It feels strange to us to say or sing these verses, but we are exceptions in the rich history of the people of God. Ours is among the first generations in nearly 3,000 years to not habitually sing or read these psalms in community. Yet we too are people who mourn, so we need the language of lament no less than they did.
Learning the Language of Lament
When the Israelites complained in the wilderness, the sin was not that they complained but that they didn’t take their complaint to God. Indeed, in English complaint and lament are synonyms. In Hebrew, a complaint is a grumble, but a lament is a loud growl or wail.
The psalms of lament show us we don’t have to hide our bitter groans from God. Rather, we can roar and wail them directly in his ears. In fact, it is better that way.
In leading a session on sacred sorrow, Jason Feffer of The Practice Church describes four basic elements that allow us to pattern our own prayers after the psalms of lament:
- Call out to God. Address him. Think about who he is. Think about his names and character. Choose one to appeal to.
- Express your complaints. Name the pain, anger, or sadness you need to express. Trust that God is big enough and loves you enough to receive it in its rawness.
- Offer a petition. Ask God for what you need or want. This one can be hard because God doesn’t rewind time. But this doesn’t change the reality of our neediness.
- Name your assurance of being heard. Express your hope in God. If this is hard, simply acknowledge that God is listening. Remember that to pray is to hope.
I listened to this teaching in my van, in the dark of a spring evening while I waited to pick up a daughter from her taekwondo lesson.
The griefs of the previous year held hands and danced in a circle around me. I reached into the chaos and pulled one of them aside. I called out to God. And then I named the grievance. I asked for God’s justice. When the grievance took its place back in the circle, it was tamer. God had subdued it.
Later that week, I lamented my own helplessness:
Come near, You-Who-Are –
Come close to we-who-aren’t.
For we are never enough
To calm the rage of the sea.
Outward gusts meet inward gales
And we reel in the wake of their fight.
Calm the wildness of our wind, Yahweh.
Tame the torrents of our chaos.
Let Your Spirit hover over our waters.
Speak peace to our weary souls.
You alone can rescue us.
You alone rule over our rage,
You-Who-Are the helper of the helpless
The One who gives us hope.
The lament didn’t change the status of my helplessness, but I walked with a steadier step that day.
And yet this particular lament feels trite in comparison to the wails the other grievances demanded. This lament isn’t raw enough, isn’t loud enough. But it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it didn’t go unsaid.
Air Your Grievances
If you have a grievance, you have the makings of a prayer of lament. The Christian temptation is to put on a brave face, to grin and bear it while we seethe inside and struggle to breathe. Yet it won’t keep the anger and pain from coming out. Instead, it will just come out in ways that cause our hurt to deepen.
Psalms of lament invite us to be honest about what we are feeling. They show us there is more than one way to talk to God. And when our hearts are heavy, they remind us the load doesn’t belong to us alone.