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Songs of Our Tears

Illustration: A couple of weeks ago, I attended a worship conference. One of the classes focused on the different purposes and styles of worship. A music professor from Redeemer College in Ontario began one of the class sessions by saying something like this:

"I went to a church to worship a couple of weeks ago, a church I had never attended. I saw something when I walked into the sanctuary that I've never seen before. It was so unique that it captured my attention immediately. I couldn't take my eyes off from it. What do you think it was?"

We tried to guess but failed. His answer: a box of Kleenex. Here was a church where it was permissible to cry. There aren't many churches that way. Most churches subtly, and some not-so-subtly, say, "Don't cry." When you do, you generally feel uncomfortable.

Psalm 13 is a psalm of lament. Psalms of lament make us uncomfortable. They say things we aren't sure should even be said aloud. They get in touch with the pain inside of us that we're not always eager to engage.

Psalm 13 and the other psalms of lament are part of the inspired Word of Almighty God. They have been placed there by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, deliberately, thereby giving us permission to lament.

The neglected psalms

Before we look at this specific psalm of lament, we ought to begin by reminding ourselves that psalms of lament really are the neglected psalms. There are a good many of them.

Psalm 10 begins with "Why, 0 Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" When was the last time you began your prayers like that?"

Or Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 0 my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer; by night, and am not silent." Do you remember who prayed that one Friday afternoon on a cross?

Psalm 42: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, 0 God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night." There are a lot of tears here.

Psalm 88 is perhaps one of the bleakest: "I cry to you for help, 0 Lord. In the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, 0 Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?"

These are earthy psalms.

There's a lot of crying in the Book of Psalms. There are reasons why they are such neglected psalms. There is a spirit among us that seems to think crying and complaining and lamenting to God are signs of poor faith: If you had strong faith, you wouldn't feel that way. Good Christians don't cry. Good Christians are always happy. Good Christians are always upbeat, we're told.

So we think it's a sign of weakness, of a failing faith, if we lament before God. In addition, we feel that perhaps God doesn't give us the right to weep, to feel pain, to lament, to cry. We picture God as a big, authoritative figure in heaven who points his finger at us and says, "Now, now, buck up, and be strong." We see a God who's impatient with people who cry in church.

Churches have often become places where people engage in denial, in cover-ups, in bottling up the pain that life wrings out of us. Churches have led people to believe that they ought always be ready to sing only upbeat choruses-"Always praise, no matter what. No tears here at all. We're strong people."

The necessary psalms

We need these laments. We need them deeply. We need them because there simply is so much pain in life-physical pain, emotional pain, mental pain, spiritual pain, your pain, your friend's pain, the others' around you.

A recent survey was conducted as people left church. Between 60 and 75 percent of the worshipers said they came to church that morning with some significant pain either in their lives or in the lives of someone close to them; they felt the pain themselves.

We need these laments because there's so much pain.

We also need these laments because it's the only way to be honest with God. How can churches ever be honest before God if all they will sing are praise songs when the Federal Building in Oklahoma City is bombed? And how could we be honest before God if all we did today was to sing praise songs when a frightening bus accident down 32nd Street took the lives of five senior citizens, injuring everyone else on the bus? It's a matter of honesty. How can we not lament when loved ones are stricken, when a father or wife is taken?

We need laments for the integrity of the Christian faith. We need them also, you see, because it is healthier for us to pour out our pain. There's something therapeutic about it. I have a feeling that many Christians today would be a lot healthier if they did not bottle up their pain and their laments but had the freedom to come to the Lord's table, the baptismal font, with a box of Kleenex.

This is not just a complaint. This is not just ventilation. This is always done in the context of trust. We express our pain. We raise our questions. We give vent to our feelings of abandonment always in the context of saying, "Yet, I know God exists. I know he loves me. I know he cares for me. I know he will unfailingly love me. And it's because I know that I can be so honest with him."

It's as if we come to God saying, "There are a lot of people around I don't trust. I can't really be honest with them. But you, God, I trust--so much so, that I can be honest with you in a way I cannot with anybody else."

Look at Psalm 13 now. It's not a long psalm; it's really one of the shortest. But in its brevity, it is packed with harsh words, words that we often are very uncomfortable with, words that sometimes we wonder whether they ought to be in the Bible. Words like this:

"Will you forget me forever, God? Are you going to hide your face from me forever, God? How long are you going to let my enemy triumph over me?"

We don't know the specific circumstances of this psalm of David. It could have come out of a number of circumstances within David's life. We are not told, and perhaps it's best. Then we are able to read into it whatever our experiences are, whatever our pain, ambivalence, and confusion are right now.

This is not a polished or smooth prayer. They are earthy words. Where do they come from? Look through the psalm carefully. Look through your experiences carefully, and you'll see where laments come from.

The sources of lament

There is the first cause, which is pain-physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. It's pain that gives rise to laments-when life isn't what we wanted it to be, when the course of life takes sudden turns along the road, when there are unanticipated disappointments. Pain.

Then delay, when the pain just doesn't go away. Day after day it goes on. Month after month, even year after year. "How long, 0 Lord?"

The Israelites cried to God in their slavery in Egypt. For 430 years they cried to God. It just didn't change. Job, throughout all the chapters of his book, cried out because it just didn't change-except to get worse. Paul called his thorn in the flesh "a messenger of Satan" because it just didn't change.

What's yours? What's the circumstance in your life that doesn't change? You wrestle with it. You pray about it. You ask about it. But it goes on and on and on, never any solution on the horizon. "How long, 0 Lord?"

Which leads to the third cause of laments: unanswered prayer. We easily play word games and say God answers all prayers-sometimes this way, sometimes that way, and sometimes by saying no. That's all true.

But when your pain goes on for years, that prayer feels unanswered. That's what precipitates the crises of faith. That's when it becomes a real problem. That is what David was wrestling with.

He had been praying for something, but God did not seem to answer. "Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" You may be experiencing that right now. You have in the past. And if not, you will sometime in the near future. Certainly you know someone who is feeling that way.

When you get into a situation like that, you begin to wonder if it's even worth it to pray any more. Can you be honest enough to admit that?

Or how about the fourth reason for lament: the sense of abandonment that results from this frustration. I know God never abandons his own, and David knew that too. It was all written down in the promises of Holy Writ. But you don't feel that. There are times in the pain of life when what you know in your mind is not experienced in your emotions, so you feel abandoned.

"Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" You know where those words come from? They come from Numbers 11, the benediction that you hear so frequently: "The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." Or as other translations have it, "The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."

The Israelites always believed that when the face of the Lord was turned toward you, it was a sign of acceptance, a sign of blessing, a sign of his identification with you. The worst thing anyone could ever experience was for the Lord to turn his face away. So many of the psalms will cry out "0 Lord, do not hide your face from me." That's David's fear. He has that sense of abandonment-the face of God has turned away from him. God no longer is identified with him, no longer is blessing him.

That is about the worst anyone could ever experience, except perhaps, the fifth cause of laments: the doubts that creep into our thoughts. How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and have sorrow in my heart every single day? Your mind begins to struggle with these things. What you know in your mind and you don't feel in your experience lead you to ask questions: "Is the Bible true?" "Does God love me?" "Did he forget me?" "Does prayer work?" "Doesn't prayer work?" "Is this whole business a hoax?" "Did I follow it for naught?" Those are terrible experiences.

David is admitting to us there are some disturbing realities that the child of God lives with in this world. There are times life is hard even as the children of God. There are no quick solutions. There are no easy fixes. You can't pull through a drive-in and get it in thirty seconds. You question prayer when it doesn't seem to produce what you wanted it to produce. And you begin even to argue with God.

If you're uncomfortable with all of that, let me tell you David is known as the man after God's own heart. David is the outstanding man of God, the king of Israel, the father of the Messiah. But he did not cover up the fact that he also went through those dark periods. A lot of what he said does not sound right to our pure ears, but it came right out of his soul.

Some of you have known this by your past experience. Some of you are experiencing it today. Some of you will know it in the days ahead. All of us know it because of other people who are and have been very near to us. We need laments. They do come. And when you come to church, it's okay to cry.

The healing from lament

But don't stop with a lament. We need to go on past a lament, and David does too. What do you do after you lament? What is the sequel? For four verses he has been weeping out his complaint before God, arguing with God. All of a sudden he catches himself-But! "But I trust in your unfailing love. My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me." What do you do after you lament? You experience healing.

A religion that forces us to bottle our pain and tears does not produce health and healing. It produces increased anxiety and disease.

A religion that gives us the right to come before God openly and candidly with our lament is a religion that is capable of bringing God's healing to our spirits. You know from your own relationships that you will be a lot closer to other people with whom you share your deepest thoughts and pain and questions and struggles. Relationships are bonded when you share that candidly together.

What is true on a human level is even truer in our relationship with God. Your personal relationship with God will be deeper, more honest, have greater integrity, and be closer when you are willing to be honest. You will experience healing by being that honest with God.

Secondly, after we lament, we do exactly what David spoke about in verse 5: We trust his unfailing love, his covenant faithfulness. We trust that he'll never walk out on us.

Lament is always done in the context of trust, of saying to God, "I'm able to be this honest with you. God, because I know you won't walk away from me when I'm honest. I know I can trust your unfailing love."

A lament is really an affirmation of our trust in God-his unfailing willingness to receive us for who we are, his gracious intention to heal us from where we are, and his full love for us given in Jesus Christ the Savior who came to purchase us to be his children.

We affirm with our mind what we are not yet experiencing in our emotions. We say, "God, while all of this pain goes on in my life, I still do trust your unfailing love. My heart still does rejoice in your salvation in Jesus Christ."

After we lament, we hold on. A Christian lament is never an expression of wanting to walk away from God. We may raise our hard questions for him. We may raise our objections. We may complain. We may even argue with him. But we never come close to walking away from him.

When this broken world presses in on us, we still hold on. In spite of the fact that the pain is still there, we go ahead. In spite of the fact there is no easy solution, we go ahead. In spite of the fact that there is no quick answer to our prayers, we go ahead.

In spite of the fact these circumstances make no sense, we go ahead because we know God holds us. He holds us in the name of Jesus Christ who himself went ahead even when the cross and the tomb stared him in the face.

We look ahead, beyond tomorrow and next week or next month, when we hope this pain will be resolved and these circumstances will be different. We look ahead to that day when Jesus Christ will come again and we will experience full and complete resolution of all of these difficulties that wring such tears out of our soul now.

In Romans 8, Paul says, "[T]he creation groans." With creation we groan too, waiting for that day of full liberation of the sons of God.

Sometimes the best benefit of our laments is that it reminds us that Jesus Christ has purchased for us a new world, a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells, where you'll never hear a lament again.

By recording this lament of David's in his holy book, the Holy Spirit was giving us permission to enter into an intimate relationship with God, to be honest with him, and to help us realize he accepts that. You and I need to learn that when we're that honest with him, we're traveling the path to healing.

Whatever your pain is tonight, whatever lament rings out of your spirits, I pray that as you bring it before God you will know the healing of this God who in unfailing love never says, "Now, buck up. Good Christians don't cry." I pray that you'll know the God who puts his loving arm around you, pulls you close in an intimate, divine hug, and says, "Just hold on, my brother, my sister. We'll travel together."

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

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Sermon Outline:


I. The neglected psalms

II. The necessary psalms

III. The sources of lament

IV. The healing from lament