Songs of Praise, Songs of Lament
Have you ever stood in church on the verge of tears as you sing a worship song? Maybe the tears actually flowed. But why? Was it because you were so overwhelmed with the goodness of God that you were singing about? Was it because your heart was breaking and you could only sing them as a cry for help? Or maybe you couldn’t sing at all.
While God has been using the some of the hymns in the Psalter in my life this summer, these songs aren’t the only psalms that I’ve been turning to. As I mentioned, the hymns are part of a group of psalms that OT scholar Walter Brueggemann has called “psalms of orientation.” But the Psalter also includes “psalms of disorientation,” often in the laments. (Psalms 13, 35, 74, 79, and 86 are some examples.)
Lament isn’t a word that you hear very often these days. To lament means to express deep grief. In the Bible, the laments express individual or communal loss to God. They can reflect individual circumstances or a community’s experiences. While the laments are widely represented in Scripture, especially in the Psalms, they don’t tend to be widely used in our churches. Why not, though? Brueggemann offers two possible explanations:
- Praise instead of lament my represent a defiant faith that proclaims God’s goodness in spite of what we see and experience.
- We may be ignoring or denying circumstances that are part of a reality that we don’t want to (or are unable to) face.
Brueggemann may be on to something here. How often do we paste on a smile right before we walk in the church doors? Can we admit that we’re angry, broken, or hurting to our church community? How about to ourselves? Can we admit that our communities are full of hurting people who hurt people? And what does it say about our faith or trust in God if we admit that pain, failure, or anger out loud?
I’ll add a third possibility. Maybe we sing praise despite the world around us in desperate hope. We focus on God’s ability to help us because He is our only hope. We remind ourselves of His sovereignty, even if we are questioning whether or not He will actually do anything about our circumstances.
A Bold Faith
While we may sometimes focus on praise as part of a defiant faith, a subconscious act of denial or self-deception, or in desperate hope, the lament psalms teach us that honestly acknowledging the reality of life in a fallen world doesn’t represent a lack of faith. Admitting the truth doesn’t mean that we think God has lost control. Not at all!
Instead, with Brueggemann, I’d like to suggest that these songs represent a bold act of faith. That faith may look a little different than we have come to expect it to, though. Sometimes we think of faith in terms of blind trust. The laments don’t do that. They don’t express simple submission to the way things are. No. They express fear, abandonment, and anger. They plead for God to intervene and change things.
So how might we see praying the laments as an act of faith? Two ways are particularly relevant:
- The laments are brutally honest! They don’t pretend that everything is OK. They teach us that being candid about our experiences doesn’t mean that God, God’s character, or God’s sovereignty are somehow diminished because our lives aren’t perfect.
- Praying these psalms—taking the ugliest parts of our lives, thoughts, and experiences to God—insists that everything should be taken to Him. Nothing is outside of His sovereignty or concern.
In other words, the laments teach us that just because our lives aren’t perfect or we aren’t on the mountaintop doesn’t mean that God isn’t in control or that we don’t trust Him. They reveal a steadfast faith that keeps seeking God and His work in our lives, regardless of life’s circumstances.
So, maybe this week we can meditate on and pray some of the laments, whether for ourselves or for a struggling friend. And while I pray that God will intervene in our circumstances, just as importantly I pray that He will give each of us a deeper understanding of who He is and how He works in our lives. Perhaps especially in and through lament.
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The image of the apple tree is by StockSnap, courtesy of Pixabay.