Good Grief: An Unexpected Journey through the Psalms of Lament
I typically enter a new year with a sense of wonder and excitement. But this year I begin it with trepidation and sorrow as this particular new year brings a “newness” that I never desired or expected. Without getting into specifics, I have suffered a loss that seemed at times unbearable.
I cried. I pleaded. I questioned. I prayed. I drank. Rinse. Repeat.
A counselor recently told me, “Never let a crisis go to waste,” so in that vein, knowing many have, and will continue to struggle through similar experiences of sorrow, I thought I would share just one of the many things I am learning through this crisis with the hope that it may help others. I am far from an expert on this subject, for I am not far along on this painful journey and know not where it will lead; however, I am learning to channel my inner Muddy Waters and sing the blues.
Singing in the Minor Key
It doesn’t take long to grow weary of pious platitudes and evangelical cliches from well intentioned people while grieving. There are no easy answers to the complexities of life, family, or marriage. What is needed in such times is the comfort of God’s Word and Sacraments. I’ve been reading and praying through the psalms more than any other portion of Holy Scripture lately. They express the full range of human emotion in a profoundly raw and inspired way: anger, joy, wonder, praise, and of course, lament.
The psalmists expose a vulnerability before God and man that I have always struggled with myself. For example, Asaph writes an ancient blues song to channel his grief Godward in Psalm 77.
1 I will cry out to God and call for help!
I will cry out to God and he will pay attention to me.
2 In my time of trouble I sought the Lord.
I kept my hand raised in prayer throughout the night.
I refused to be comforted.
3 I said, “I will remember God while I groan;
I will think about him while my strength leaves me.”
4 You held my eyelids open;
I was troubled and could not speak.
5 I thought about the days of old,
about ancient times.
6 I said, “During the night I will remember the song I once sang;
I will think very carefully.”
I tried to make sense of what was happening.
Things are not going well for our bluesman and his nation. In verse 5, Asaph remembers better days. However, it seems to only magnify the pain of the present. It’s taken nearly three months for me to sleep even a few hours in a row. Most nights I awake to replay the past several months. It’s the what-ifs and why’s that really become the source of insomnia and keep the “eyelids open” (v. 4). What if I had said this? What if I had done that? Why me, O Lord?
7 I asked, “Will the Lord reject me forever?
Will he never again show me his favor?
8 Has his loyal love disappeared forever?
Has his promise failed forever?
9 Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has his anger stifled his compassion?”
10 Then I said, “I am sickened by the thought
that the sovereign One might become inactive.
Asaph asks six rhetorical questions that give voice to the very root of his depression. Where is the Lord in the midst of this misery? Notice that these opening stanzas are preoccupied with “If you hurt, there is nothing wrong with expressing it and telling the Lord what you feel.” Sing it. Scream it. Pray it. Channel your grief and questions to God for He is your heavenly Father. But do not stop there, rehashing your disappointments ad nauseum. Like our bluesman, you must eventually move on and turn outward for true comfort and healing.
11 I will remember the works of the LORD.
Yes, I will remember the amazing things you did long ago!
12 I will think about all you have done;
I will reflect upon your deeds!”
13 O God, your deeds are extraordinary!
What god can compare to our great God?
14 You are the God who does amazing things;
you have revealed your strength among the nations.
15 You delivered your people by your strength–
the children of Jacob and Joseph.
16 The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and trembled.
Yes, the depths of the sea shook with fear.
17 The clouds poured down rain;
the skies thundered.
Yes, your arrows flashed about.
18 Your thunderous voice was heard in the wind;
the lightning bolts lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 You walked through the sea;
you passed through the surging waters,
but left no footprints.
20 You led your people like a flock of sheep,
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
When we are perplexed or anxious about things we do not understand and cannot fathom, the best starting place is with what we do know about God. And this is what our bluesman does. He remembers and reflects upon the attributes of God as seen in Israel’s long history, centered chiefly on Israel’s freedom from the bondage of Egypt.
In the midst of his lament, Asaph offers a practical theology at its best. When confronted by life’s circumstances, our sin, other’s sin, things out of our control, follow the logic of the second half of this song.
1. Remember: I will remember the works of the Lord (v. 11)
Remember what you know to be true of God as revealed in Holy Scripture. This is why we Lutherans place such a premium on the reading of Scripture in our liturgy with an emphasis on the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in our calendar and preaching. By constantly having Christ placarded before us, we are reminded that Jesus was despised and rejected, One who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness; people hid their faces from Him; He was despised, and we considered Him insignificant. (Is 53:3)
Suffering is universal as we all experience pain, loss, and rejection in varying degrees. Jesus was no exception. When Lazarus died, He wept. It was a friend and follower who betrayed Him to the authorities. On the cross, He uttered the most desperate cry in all of history, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)
2. Reflect: I will reflect upon Your deeds (v. 12)
I’m just now coming to terms with the rejection I have experienced, but I know my heavenly Bridegroom has not and will not. In the midst of my ordeal, I have been comforted by the fact that nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord. (Rom 8:39) He has loved me and given himself for me, sanctified me by cleansing me with the washing of the water with the Word, and will one day present me along with the rest of his bride to himself as glorious—not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. (Eph 5:25–27)
We can face the unexpected and unwanted harsh realities of life head-on because they have been decisively confronted by our King on the cross once and for all. They have not lost their power to hurt or harm, but they have lost their power to destroy. The hope the Gospel gives us is the freedom to expose the wound of our human condition because it alone provides the cure.