This sermon is part of the sermon series "Beautifully, Tragically, Fully Human". See series.
In 1997 Sara McLachlan wrote a song entitled "Dear God." It's a searing complaint against God—raw, brutally honest, and irreverent. As a believer, perhaps I should be offended by these lyrics. However, the amazing thing is that this song is really just a diluted version of the "complaints" already found in the Bible. That's right: God has given us the words—raw and brutally honest—and instructed us and encouraged us to pray anguished, passionate prayers of complaint.
These complaints are called laments, and the Bible is full of them. Actually, nearly every third verse in the Book of Psalms, which has been the private and corporate prayer book for Jews and Christians for thousands of years, is a prayer of lament. Most of them were written by David, a man whom God called "a man after my own heart."
We're looking at the life of David. I call the series "earthy spirituality" because David lived as a very human person—a warm, colorful, daring, passionate, bold sinner-saint. But he was also a man on a quest for God, or rather, a man chosen and pursued by God, who then spent his life responding to God's relentless love. As we study this man, one thing is clear: David knew how to lament.
As our story in 2 Samuel begins, David and his soldiers have just returned from a major military victory. After two days of relaxation, a young man arrives in the camp, his clothes torn and his head covered with dust. "I have just escaped from the Israelite camp," he says breathlessly. "The men fled from battle. Many of them fell and died. And Saul and his son Jonathan are dead." Jonathan and David were best friends, bound by a sacred oath to care for one another and their entire families for as long as they both lived. Saul was Jonathan's father, the king of Israel for 40 years, a complicated, tormented man who tried to kill David on numerous occasions. But nevertheless, he was the king, God's chosen instrument to rule his people. Now both Saul and Jonathan are dead. The Philistines cut off Saul's head and nailed the rest of his body to a wall—a brutal end to a proud life.
So in verse 17, "David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan and ordered that the men of Judah be taught this lament of the bow …." Did you notice that? David ordered everyone to learn the lament, memorize it, and then repeat it out loud together. In other words, lament is communal and mandatory. The second thing to notice about lament is that David spent time crafting a beautiful poem. This poem or song is crammed with nuance, metaphors, and word plays. It's not the wail of a wild animal; it's a work of great power and beauty. Notice the refrain that occurs three times: "How the mighty have fallen." David's deep grief is touched by memories of Jonathan and Saul (see verse 23). They were courageous, victorious—like lions and eagles, they were powerful, swift, and mighty. It's an exclamation of anguish and grief.
As I said, this isn't the only lament in the Bible. There is an entire book devoted to lamenting: the Book of Lamentations. The Book of Psalms is also devoted to lamenting; sometimes these psalms are called prayers of "complaint."
Isn't lamenting just a waste of time? Isn't it better to deal with whatever you're feeling, move on, and get over it? Apparently not. Apparently God thinks that lament is a good idea—and not because he gets something out of it. As a good and gracious heavenly Father, he knows that the act of lamenting may heal our broken souls and our broken world. Why is there healing power in lament? Why does God encourage us and invite us to lament? Why did David spend time writing a beautiful, haunting poem of lament? Why did David order his people to take up, memorize, and recite this prayer of lament?
Laments deal honestly with grief and loss.
We could divide the Psalms into three categories:
Orientation: the times when you feel like you belong with God and the world; you're adjusted and happy and filled with praise
Disorientation: the bottom falls out and you feel sad and lost and hurt; you wonder, Where is God and where am I going?
Reorientation: you've been through the disorientation, the loss, the hurt, and now you've come through on the other side; you're reoriented.
Psalms of lament are prayers for the middle phase, the times of disorientation. And there is one thing that is absolutely certain about your life: you will get disoriented. You will feel the pain of loss and grief. You will lose big things, and the grief will suddenly stab your heart with an ocean of pain. Abuse, death, divorce, trauma, infertility, betrayal, the death of a dream—these are the oceans. But then there are also the puddles of life, and according to a Russian proverb, it's usually the puddles that eventually drown us. You look in the mirror and realize that you're growing older every day. Friendships fade. Your children start to move away. Church leadership changes. A romance ends in heartache. A pet is run over by a car. Are they small losses? Perhaps, but then the puddles start to run together, and suddenly you're overwhelmed.
As an example, after 15 months of living on Long Island, it seemed like everyone in our family was getting adjusted. Then in September, after my four kids started school for the second year (and before my wife got thyroid cancer), I sat at my desk and stared at this clay pot. It was a replica of a special type of Japanese pottery made in only one city in Japan. It's intentionally made with flaws to remind us of our flawed humanity. As far as I know, there is only one American who knows how to make this pottery—a good friend of mine from Minnesota named Larry. Larry gave this to me as a going-away present. I sat at my desk, looked at the pot, and wept. The grief was catching up to me. I missed Larry. I missed Minnesota. Loss is the norm, not the exception.
How we deal with loss and sadness is crucial—crucial to our relationship with God and with others. How do we normally handle loss in this society? We prefer two options: denial or distraction. Numb it, or think about something else. The denial industry in this nation is immense. We have so many ways to stuff our pain. Addictions are perhaps the most popular way to deny and stuff down the pain in our lives. Of course, addictions can come in all shapes and sizes—drugs, alcohol, work, busyness, shopping, sports, TV. These can be ways to avoid the pain in our lives, always staying one step ahead of the wolves that howl in our soul.
Christians can become adept at denying reality. After all, we should be joyful. We are more than conquerors. Depression? Bah. Loss of a loved one? Hah. Infertility, loneliness, eating disorders, abuse, divorce, loss of friendships—I laugh at them all because I know Jesus. Like many modern Christians we use "facts" to deaden our heart and stuff the pain back down. Have you ever read the psalms? Have you ever considered why David ordered his people to lament? Laments disrupt the assumption that we can avoid the groaning of this life (see Romans 8:19-22).
Laments help us to face the painful reality of loss and disorientation. Why do we need songs and prayers of disorientation? Because life is disorienting. Someone has compared life to one of those long, stretchy, slinky dogs. You can pull on one end and the little dog will keep stretching and stretching way beyond its normal length. But eventually the dog's rear end will come crashing into its head. You can only stretch so far. The ends will meet in the middle. In the same way, we can try to pull far away from our grief, but eventually the ends of our life will come crashing together. We can't continue running from our loss and grief and disorientation forever.
Laments bring the pain into God's presence.
When we pray the laments, we reject easy answers and spiritual platitudes like, "God has a wonderful plan for your life," "Don't worry, be happy," "God will cause everything to work out for the best." They're all true and they may be well-intended, but the clichÉs, the neat little formulas, are not God. They can become Christian substitutes for the real thing—God. Often, when we're in a season of lamentation, we feel disconnected from God. Perhaps we're shocked by the level of pain, outrage, anger, loss, and disappointment we're experiencing. Perhaps we feel that these raw emotions disconnect us from God. The Bible says that lament—an honest expression of our feelings towards God—keeps us connected with God.
Consider Psalm 6:6-7. The pain of life is not spiritualized away with a five-point sermon on "How to get a grip on the anguish of life." The psalmist enters into the pain and vocalizes it with passion. This is not denying God; this is engaging God. The Prayers of the Bible, especially in the Psalms, notice everything—the goodness of creation, but also the evil, injustice, and the apparent absence of God. They engage God, like a small child might engage his father.
Of course, for a follower of Jesus, there is something even greater: when we lament we stand with Jesus, the One who knew the power and pathos of lament. When he cried from the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" he entered into the depths of lament. Now when we lament, we're never really alone. Sometimes we stand with Jesus at the cross and we hurt together. This can't happen when we try to run from the pain of our losses.
Laments invite us into a larger story with a larger God.
To lament means that we connect with God and with the larger story that God is weaving. Without lament our lives fragment into little pieces that don't make sense. But when we lament, stop running from our pain, face it and stand with Jesus at the cross—when we bring all the pieces into God's presence—we begin to realize that we're actually part of a much larger story with a much larger God. When we lament we leave behind a small story with a small god, a manageable god, a god we have all figured out, a faith of clichÉs and formulas, a faith that in the words of author Walker Percy is a mere "crisp business transaction" between us and Jesus. We realize that we're part of a much larger story with a much larger and more mysterious God, the God who says, "My ways are not your ways" (Isaiah 55:9), but who simultaneously declares, "I have loved you with an everlasting love" (Jeremiah 31:3) and will complete the good work that I started in your life (Philippians 1:6).
That's what happens to most of the great lamenters in the Bible. They start out complaining, arguing, doubting, and even deriding God: Where are you? Why did you ditch me? Why don't you wake up and do something? Why did you sell your people for a loaf of bread? But then by the end of the prayer, they're praying, "God, I don't understand, I still don't have it all figured out, but I know that you are good and that you are for me. I know that your ways are too huge for me to grasp. I know that your timing is not my timing. I know that this pain from divorce, marriage, family, grief, depression won't go away tomorrow, but I also know that you are holy and good" (see Lamentations 3:22-23).
Here's one of the key differences between genuine lament and mere self-pity: lament connects us to God and to God's larger story. Eventually—and it may take a while to get there—we begin to sense that we're part of a larger story with a larger God. Self-pity shuts us up in our own little prison of pain; we get stuck there.
As Eugene Peterson articulates, when we lament we begin to see that
we're in a story in which everything eventually comes together, a narrative in which the puzzling parts finally fit, about which years later we exclaim, "Oh, so that's what that meant!" But being in a story means that we mustn't get ahead of the plot—skip the hard parts, erase the painful parts, detour the disappointments. Lament—making the most of our loss without getting bogged down in it—is a primary way of staying in the story. God is telling the story, remember. It's a large story. He doesn't look kindly on our editorial deletions.
When we lament we also open our Bibles and catch a glimpse of the rest of the story. We thank God that a new day is coming. We want resolution to the tension and the mystery of our life—and we want it right now! We get a taste of it in this life, but not in its fullness. But then we remember that we live in a story that will be resolved. God will finish the story, not only for our lives, but for all of creation.
Laments increase the amount of compassion in our hearts.
Pastor Peter Scazzero says, "The degree to which I learn to grieve my own losses is in direct proportion to the depth and quality of my relationship with God and the compassion I can offer others." Most of these laments in the Psalms were to be used in corporate worship, not just for our private prayer lives. In other words, we were supposed to gather together and pray the psalms of lament. Well, what if I'm not sad? You might think. What if I'm in a good mood? Why should I have to say these sad prayers of disorientation? They'll just drag me down, and I'm trying to stay positive. Regular lament—even when we don't feel sad—connects us with the sadness and hurt of others, perhaps even with those whom we've never met.
Here's another crucial difference between lament and self-pity: lament opens us up and connects us with other suffering people. Self-pity just makes us feel bad for ourselves and isolates us from others. Self-pity is just about me—my pain, my problems, my gripes, which, by the way, are much bigger than your pain and problems. Lament says, "I hurt but I see that you're hurting too. So grab my hand and together let's journey to the cross where Jesus is already standing. He will understand the lament. But he can also point us to the hope of resurrection." Lament causes our hearts to grow with compassion.
Without lament we often end up with a superficial faith and a stunted compassion. And without lament we present a shallow faith to a hurting world that doesn't want easy answers. Lament helps us deal honestly with grief and loss. Lament brings that pain into God's presence. Then lament connects us to a larger story with a larger God. Finally, lament causes us to grow in compassion.
How do I learn to lament? First, pray the Psalms. Pray them regularly and often. The Psalms speak for us. Second, learn about Jesus. He was fully God but he was also fully human, and he knew how to dance, and he knew how to lament. Third, in your everyday conversations, give others and give yourself the opportunity to lament. Don't shut that person down. Let her tell her story of grief and sadness.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.