What do we say when we don’t know what to say?

How psalms of lament help us be honest with God…and ourselves

The Wailing Wall, West Jerusalem

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?”

The couplet from the repeating refrain of Psalms 42-43 almost perfectly captures the often-overlooked biblical genre of lament, a form of prayer that directly and honestly brings one’s complaints to God.

It’s one we almost never use.

As I continue to reflect on the idea that many of us are experiencing kind of a collective dark night of the soul (see previous posts here and here), I’m reminded, as biblical scholar N.T. Wright recently wrote, that Christianity as we know it today really doesn’t know how to respond to the grief and trauma brought on by a global pandemic.

I suspect a large part of that is that we have come to believe that our faith should answer all our questions and solve all our problems.

We expect our churches and our pastors to provide relief to our suffering through weekly doses of uplifting music and encouraging messages.

Fortunately, most of them are very good at doing exactly that.

But somehow, when real difficulties come, those inspiring words do little more than cover over our deeper wounds. They may mollify our pain, but they don’t really give us anything to do with it.

Nobody ever tells us it’s okay to be angry at God.

The honor of relationship

Last night during our weekly Zoom meeting of New Wineskins, a non-traditional faith community I’ve been leading for the past several years, we were talking about the psalms of lament and how little we make use of them in our worship settings.

One of our long-time members, who grew up in a fairly fundamentalist household, remarked that he had always been taught that it was wrong to be mad at God for any reason.

That if we felt anger toward God, we’d better get over it.

Otherwise our anger would make God angry at us.

The idea is that somehow being angry at God dishonors God.

But if God really does love and care for God’s people, then what could honor God more than sharing our deepest hurts?

After all, isn’t that what our closest relationships give us? Someone with whom we can share all of our crap? Someone we can go to that will listen to our complaints?

So why should we hold those things back from God?

Not an epidural, but a midwife

In a recent interview for a video produced by The Work of the People, professor and author Brene Brown talks about her return to Christianity after a trauma in her own life.

“I went back to church expecting it to be like an epidural, like it would take the pain away,” Brown explains. “But faith and church was not like an epidural for me at all. It was like a midwife…who just stood next to me saying, ‘push!’”

Lament is like that.

Instead of removing our suffering, lament gives us permission to suffer.

The ancient Hebrew writers of the Old Testament understood lament well.

N.T. Wright writes:

The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.


What to say when we don’t know what to say

We all experience times when we feel separated or distant from the divine. Those times when we start to wonder whether God (or whatever name we may use) even exists.

Even for those of us who have had some more or less direct experience of God (as I’ve written about here and here), it’s hard to remember what that was like, or what it was about those experiences that made us so certain of God’s loving presence.

It was something I began to experience acutely in the early weeks of quarantine, and which, to be honest, I’m continuing to wrestle with.

Because I’ve been around long enough to recognize some of the patterns and cycles life takes us through, I’ve learned that one way for me to cope with that sense of loss of connection has been to read the Psalms.

And lately, it has been the psalms of lament that have drawn me.

And I think the reason for that is that they articulate for me the frustrations I can’t always quite find the words for.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?”

The psalms of lament give me words to say when I don’t know what words to say.

They give expressions to the undefined disturbances I feel when I see things all around me running off the rails.

When people I thought were intelligent choose political ideologies over science.

When leaders knowingly spread misinformation in order to bolster their egos and sense of power and control.

When friends are more content to post conspiracy theories than to accept the reality of our situation.

When we can’t make sense of the nonsense

Even writing those last few sentences causes my body to react…my stomach churns and my heart rate quickens.

And I don’t know how to react. I have no idea what to say to make sense of such nonsense.

But somehow, the psalms of lament give voice to those deep frustrations.

As Wright says in the quote above, it’s not because they provide some kind of panacea or outlet for my complaints.

Reading them in no way makes me “feel better.”

But there is something about how they give permission to my frustrations that makes those feelings a little less overwhelming.

Maybe it’s because they don’t just give voice to our need to be honest with God.

Maybe it’s because they give voice to our need to be honest with ourselves.

The last two lines of the refrain of Psalms 42 and 43 reflect the writer’s hope for a renewed sense of God’s presence. They acknowledge that the psalmist is seeking to reconnect with something that’s been lost.

It’s a noble desire.

But we can’t get there until we acknowledge our lament.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?”

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