I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. I pour out my complaint before him… (Psalm 142:1-2).
Many Christians simply do not know how to talk to God. And we are particularly uncomfortable talking to God about our discontent, grief, or pain.
Yet the Bible actually models for us how to do this very thing. The Bible encourages us to bring our discontent to God in genuine lamentation. We often think that if we are not coming with words of overflowing gratitude, or with happy songs of praise, or with full assurance of God’s forgiveness for our sins then we have to wait until we feel those emotions before we can come before God in prayer.
Brokenness In the Bible
One of the lessons we must learn about prayer is that it is okay to be unhappy in God’s presence.
Although I would disagree with our Christian brothers among the Free Church of Scotland, who feel conscience-bound to sing only psalms in their corporate worship — we make a grave mistake if we do not recognize the value of the Psalms for singing and praying, both individually and corporately.
Lament songs — or “complaints” — often ask questions of God, because there is an apparent difference between God’s promises and the current experiences of the psalmist. These questions are not inappropriate; God is not afraid to answer our questions!
Going to God in prayer and expressing our complaints to him allows us to be real with God.
Psalms of lament express deep and real sorrow (Psalm 137), anger (Psalm 140), fear (Psalm 69), unfulfilled desires (Psalm 85), confusion (Psalm 102), desolation (Psalm 22), confession and repentance (Psalm 51), disappointment (Psalm 74), or depression (Psalm 88). These crises can be brought on by shame (Psalm 69), guilt (Psalm 51), physical or medical problems (Psalms 38, 41), loneliness (Psalm 22), despair (Psalm 88), old age (Psalm 71), oppression (Psalms 22, 143), or death (Psalm 116).
The fact is we live in a troubled, broken world.
We all struggle with sin every day in our own hearts, and we are surrounded by fallen people and circumstances as well. There are times when we simply do not know what God is doing, or which way to turn. Going to God in prayer and expressing our complaints to him allows us to be real with God, to come to God as we truly are, and how we truly feel. There is not a single adult who is not hurting in some significant way. Songs of lament reflect this human reality.
Sorrow Is Not Suspect
We Christians in the West are too suspicious of sorrow and mourning.
We may give someone space to grieve for a few weeks after losing a loved one, or a few days to feel discouragement if they are going through a trial — but then we expect them to snap out of it. After all, we think to ourselves, too much mourning is not healthy and true faith trusts in God no matter what, so we are not supposed to be very sad.
Sorrow is sometimes the only right response.
While it is true that Christians do not sorrow like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), the Bible interestingly has much good to say about the genuine recognition and expression of sorrow in this broken world.
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh … Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:21, 25).
Of course weeping or mourning are not ends in themselves, but as an accurate appraisal of the situation it is appropriate.
Whether mourning sin in our own lives, or some great tragedy that has befallen others, sorrow is sometimes the only right response.
In our culture, where we are given to escapism and often seeking the quickest way out of any trial, we too quickly truncate the appropriate response of mourning in the face of deep and real pains. Yet it is this very process of facing the real pain with soulful mourning that is part of the healing process, and which is part of agreeing with God in his dissatisfaction with this broken world.
Refusing To Ignore the Pain
Christians come together in worship, or spend time in personal devotion, not to ignore our pain or grief but to deal with it biblically. And dealing with soul-sorrow biblically does not mean receiving some health-and-wealth promise that if we just believe strongly enough, or pray hard enough, or sing loud enough that all our problems will go away.
No, Christians deal with real problems in prayer by expressing them truthfully to God, along with the corresponding truth that we do not understand them, we do not know how they will be solved, and we recognize that they may not be going away any time soon.
Prayer reminds us of who God is, of how God works, and of what God has promised.
Christians deal with their problems by, among other things, expressing to God their struggles to believe his promises, to trust in his superior wisdom, to rely on his unfailing love. Christians admit to God that we are hurting and that we do not know what all the answers to our sufferings are.
However, Christians ultimately deal with their problems, not just by expressing them out loud like a patient on a shrink’s sofa, but by bringing them to God in prayer. The prayer of lament is, in a way, the beginning of a solution itself. Instead of just feeling doubt, fear, and pain — and trying to bottle it all up or plow our way through it in our own strength — we are taking it to God in prayer. While we are admitting to God our doubts and fears even of Him, we are admitting them to Him — and that is prayer!
As we see over and over again in Scripture, taking our problems to God does bring about resolution to our problems. Not necessarily by ending the pain or removing the loss, but by reminding ourselves in prayer of who God is, of how God works, and of what God has promised. Prayer of honest complaint to God helps us not just to communicate our problem to God, but to recognize God as God, to own God as our God, and eventually then to exult in God as a result.