Praying the Psalms in suffering – Sue Hartley

It can be difficult to pray in times of distress. We ask: How can the sovereignty, justice and love of God be reconciled with the reality of evil and suffering in the world? This session is about how we can respond to suffering without papering over the cracks with an over-triumphalist theology. A person who is suffering does not, primarily, need an answer to the question “why”. Theories are usually unhelpful in a crisis. A person needs to find a way through their suffering, not a way round it. And this pathway needs to be one that both keeps faith alive and generates hope without denying the reality of their pain.

The psalms are poems: as such they appeal to our imagination and emotions in a way that prose does not.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we can find words resonate with our experience.

Many years ago, when my home in North Wales was devastated by a flood; there were words from the Psalms that were a great source of strength and hope to me.

The Lament Psalms

About a third of our psalms are classified as laments. They are honest cries from the depths of pain. Through these songs, the psalmists release to God the whole gamut of negative emotions: hurt, grief, fear, shame, doubt, despair, anger and revenge. They reflect all manner of situation: illness, injustice, betrayal, guilt, feelings of abandonment etc. The cry of the sufferer is; “how long, O Lord?”

Do we Christians feel uncomfortable about accepting and acknowledging our negative feelings? But to lament is not unbiblical. Throughout scripture, the cry to God and the response of God are fundamental themes. In Romans 8, Paul writes that despite all God has done for us and despite our future hope; we still groan as we wait for the completion of God’s work of creation in us and in the world. The scriptures give us permission to lament.

Our God is a covenant keeping God who draws us into a committed and loving relationship with himself. Within the context of this relationship, God is not just the focus of our praise, but also of our protest when we feel he has broken his promises.

The psalms of lament are a wonderful resource to help us pray through suffering. They give us both the permission to lament and also the tools through which we can articulate our pain. They give us a way of dealing with strong negative emotions which neither represses them (harmful to us) or vents them on others (destructive to them). Laments enable us to put our negative emotions on to God rather than cause us psychological damage or others hurt. Through the way they are expressed, they help turn the sufferers towards God, not away from him. By encouraging the naming of what needs healing, laments become a means of providing comfort and hope within suffering. They enable a person to articulate their experience and to engage with God. God had broad shoulders and can take our doubts and questions and even our cries for vengeance.

Some of these psalms are written from the perspective of an individual, others from the perspective of a group. They provide a liturgical outlet both for individuals and for communities in distress. Psalms of lament keep our praise from becoming unrealistic; they are a safety valve allowing us to worship with integrity and honesty; and without lament we deprive ourselves of life-changing encounters with God. In summary:

  • The Psalms give us permission to express our emotions and feelings

  • They help us put our feelings into words

  • They reflect the heart of God; his anger at injustice, his sadness over suffering; his compassion for those who suffer

  • They are the prayer of the church. Even if we pray the Office alone, we are one with the prayer of the church being offered 24/7 across the world, sustaining those who are in the depths.

  • They speak to our personal needs; we can use them sensitively as we minister to others in need; we can use them to help us articulate our concerns for society.

  • Many are quoted in the NT: e.g. Jesus cried: “My God, why have you forsaken me” from Psalm 22.

Brueggemann’s Teaching

When suffering comes, we may move into a season of what Brueggemann calls disorientation. This happens as the awareness of our new situation strikes home. We experience a rush of negative emotions as we face up to a new situation in which the security of God’s care and protection seems to have been removed. We sense that God bears some responsibility for this, and so our protest must be addressed to him.

For the Christian, these Psalms find their fulfilment in the cross of Christ into which his sufferings and ours are taken up and subsumed.

But then a shift occurs to a new sense of orientation. There is no rational explanation for this: it can only be due to the gracious intervention of God. All of a sudden, there is a rush of positive responses as the psalmist experiences a reversal of fortune. He joyfully expresses this shift into a new life-giving situation where God’s way and will are again known to prevail: he asserts his renewed confidence in the reality of God’s rule just when he had lost hope. For Christian faith that articulation of new orientation is embodied in the resurrection of Jesus.

A typical psalm of lament is Psalm 13. The psalmist feels spiritually abandoned. And yet, he hangs on and pleads with the One he feels has forsaken him and asks how long? As despair threatens to engulf him, he recalls his deep roots in God.

Laments are:

  1. Completely honest and full of feeling. The address to God is blunt and persistent.

  2. They use language which allows a wide range of application. The unspecified nature of the 'pain' allows the psalm to be used in all manner of situations.

  3. These psalms have a structure which provides a suffering person with a constructive means of expressing his pain in a way that both enhances its expression but limits its power. It encourages a shift from petition to praise. Releasing emotion offers temporary relief, but Biblical lament provides a structure in which pain can be faced and contained in such a way that the possibility of healing emerges. A distressed person who gives free vent only to his negative feelings may well descend into self-pity or unbelief.

But a psalm of lament provides a framework of faith within which the sufferer can appropriately, and safely give voice to his negative thoughts and feelings about God. They allow us to express the reality of our pain but, at the same time, moves us forward to a renewed trust in the goodness of God.

The basis for this is our covenant relationship with God. Thus, what might have been merely a cry of despair is transformed into an expression of hope. Lament paves the way to renewed trust and praise.

Let’s look at the structure in a bit more detail:

  • Cry to God for help - an appeal is made to a God who cares and acts because he’s committed to his people

  • Then there is the complaint– a protest v. the seeming inaction of God and a challenge to him to live up to his promises and character.

  • There may be recognition of guilt and confession of sin

  • A petition for rescue: we boldly ask God what specific action we want him to do for us

  • The speaker may call upon the merits of either his or God’s character to seek to persuade God to act.

  • A curse on one’ enemies: To pray for a curse on one’s enemies is known as imprecation. What is the Christian response to these verses? They have great cathartic value – our rage can flow freely whilst contained within the safe structure of liturgical prayer. This is a powerful way for oppressed people to express the rage they feel. These psalms can give people courage in their struggles and a sense that God understands and can bring transformation.

  • Then comes the shift from plea to praise. These psalms are petitions that have been heard. Our God who hears and responds. An answer has come and the psalmist turns to praise. He pledges himself to public thanksgiving and frequently makes a vow of renewed commitment to God. The more realistic the lament, the more honest will be the praise.

Personal Reflection

• In my own episodes of suffering, what has made prayer difficult?

• Am I willing to express doubts or anger towards God? When have done or would I do this?

Laments take very seriously both the psalmist's situation and God's expected response. Praying like this changes the person praying, it has an effect on God, and it indirectly influences those 'foes' that are called into account. We will look at these in turn.

The Effect on God

What effect do our complaints have on God? The Jewish/Christian witness has always been to a God we can relate to.

What would be the point of praying if we didn’t believe he would respond? Our covenant relationship with God is a close one: and in any close relationship, people are affected by each other.

Neither person remains unaffected or unchanged in prayer: in both heaven and earth, prayer is at work creating new possibilities for the implementation of God’s will. Our prayers of complaint and petition stem from our faith in God’s sovereignty and his covenant promises.

Complaint and Petition – Persuading God

Many psalms express a blunt complaint to God about a painful situation. Psalm 44 is a prayer of people whose trust in God has seemingly led them to ruin. There are a whole series of complaints against God: you made us turn back; you have made us the taunt of our neighbours. The psalm ends with an urgent petition – rouse yourself, God; why do you forget our affliction? Such demands are based on the firm commitment that God has the power to respond because he has done so in the past. The freedom to complain is a sign of the strength of the relationship that the psalmist has with God. Prayer is dialogue with a personal God; a Father to whom we instinctively bring our needs. This shows we believe that he has the power to change things and also the heart to be moved by our prayer. Although, as God, he is not controllable, he is persuadable. In Psalm 143, every petition is qualified by a reason: God’s faithfulness; the psalmist’s frailty; God’s compassion; God’s reputation. Thus the psalmist takes God’s character very seriously. This is prayer that mobilises God and labours with him to play his part in working out the answer.

Personal reflection

  • Do I think God is affected by my prayer?

  • Am I able to express negative feelings about God in prayer?

  • What reason would I give in my prayers for why God should do what I ask?

The Effect on the Person Praying

The supreme biblical example of a person praying through suffering is Job. He wrestled with God, seeking comfort and an explanation for what had befallen him. He took himself seriously, not belittling or explaining away his pain. Rather he gave full vent to the agony of his situation, and protested his 'innocence' in terms of the imbalance between his behaviour and God's treatment of him.

And in the end, he found himself a changed person when he encountered God in a fresh, and startling, manner. This same pattern can be observed in the psalms of lament.

Honest Expression

The psalms of lament accept the validity of painful experience and give full voice to it. Suffering is taken seriously. The exhortation to 'carry our cross' can be understood to mean that affliction is to be expected and we shouldn’t 'complain.' This attitude can minimise the experience of suffering. And the feeling that I ought not to express my pain leads to a sense of guilt for feeling as I do. By contrast, the expression psalms of lament are an acknowledgement that the experience of suffering does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong with me. Honest expression of pain before God affirms our dignity and worth in the midst of suffering. It allows me, when afflicted, to pray in a way that takes me seriously, and in so doing offers the hope that God takes me, and my situation, seriously also.

The Prayer of Innocence

We are all familiar with the prayer of confession, so it may come as a surprise, therefore, that confession of guilt and confession of 'innocence' are equally common in the Psalms. But confession of 'innocence' is almost completely ignored in contemporary liturgy. So what role does it have in the prayer of a suffering person?

Psalm 26 begins: Vindicate me, O Lord for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. The psalm continues as a prayer for God's favour in the light of the psalmist's faithfulness to God. He knows he’s not perfect, but nevertheless is still seeking to do what is right. He therefore claims to walk with 'integrity' rather than say that he is blameless.

Suffering might be a consequence of sin, but the confessions of innocence in the psalms remind us that it is not necessarily so.

We sometimes suffer things that cannot possibly be related, in degree or connection, to how we seek to live our lives. This needs to be taken seriously and expressed.

Movement Toward Praise

The psalms of lament move from complaint towards expressions of hope, confidence and praise. But in what way can a person who is expressing his suffering meaningfully conclude his prayer in praise? In many people's experience, suffering can lead to a distorted perspective on life. Pain can be so consuming as to disproportionately engulf thoughts, feelings and attitudes. When hope is lost, grief can spiral into depression. The afflicted person needs somehow to retain a balanced perspective, one that both honestly embraces the reality of pain but also looks beyond it. The psalms of lament offer a means of prayer that has a balanced perspective. They draw attention to the positive aspects of life and faith, without ignoring or downplaying the negative.

They allow a sufferer to hold in tension the reality of her experience, both good and bad, and not to allow the one to be swamped by the other. The memory of comfort that is past, the pain of now, and the hope of relief to come, all coexist. The hope of future comfort may rightly take precedence in the light of God's promises of restoration in the end when 'mourning and crying and pain will be no more.'

Thus these psalms allow us to affirm our faith, however faltering, in the goodness and mercy of God even from within a place of grief.

Personal reflection

  • Have I ever felt guilty about my own suffering, or ashamed of it? Would voicing my distress help to overcome those feelings?

  • In my own times of affliction, what would most help me to praise God? What effect does praising God have on me?

The Effect on Others

Suffering often comes at the hands of other people. Many psalms speak of “those who oppose me” and pray for God’s action against them. Christians have stood back from these because Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. So can these psalms be used by suffering Christians?

Who are our enemies? People who do evil things and/or the powers of darkness? Some people find these psalms helpful as a way of praying against the spiritual forces of evil. Many of us have been taught to hate the sin and love the sinner – but some individuals overstep the mark to the extent we brand them as evil – e.g. Hitler.

Our lives are relatively comfortable – so should we criticise those who have lost homes and livelihoods at the hands of someone like Robert Mugabe for identifying him as the enemy in their prayers. And, if we are honest, we may have had similar feelings if we’ve been the victim of crime.

These psalms can serve as a genuine protest v. evil and a way of channelling the rage that the powerless feel in their oppression. And the fact that such anger is being channelled into prayer suggests it is being submitted to God and subsumed under his purposes of justice and mercy. The cursing psalms are the vehicle whereby we surrender our desire for revenge to God and this is the 1st step of healing. Let us allow the imprecatory psalms to drive us to the cross where Jesus absorbs all hate and turns it back on his enemies in forgiving grace.

Cry for Vengeance

Psalm 58 seems to be a bloodthirsty cry for vengeance. So how are we to come to terms with our discomfort with this language and embrace it as a model of prayer for those who suffer at the hands of others? Let’s begin by looking through the eyes of those who have no-one to turn to except God. When we are the victim of a crime, we wouldn’t hesitate to call the police so the perpetrator will be brought to justice. But where there is no justice system, people can only look to God; and this is what the psalmist does here, rather than take the matter into his own hands. He relies on God to meet his need. The psalm takes seriously the presence of evil in the world and the need to oppose it. Righteous people who suffer at the hands of others can use the psalm to move God to act on their behalf. The right response to evil is to implore God to do something about it and to change those who perpetrate it.

These cursing psalms might not be relevant to us – but they are relevant to others. We are one in the body of Christ with those who are being persecuted so we need to pray with and for them. We can use these psalms to help us identify with them in their anguish and cry to God on their behalf. These psalms can express the feelings of the relatives of the victims of terrorist attacks. Let us learn to pray these psalms through the eyes of such people.

Personal reflection

  • What is my attitude towards those who have inflicted pain on me? Is there a discrepancy between my true feelings and how I think I ought to react?

  • In what circumstances might I want to use a psalm like this? How do I feel about praying it on behalf of others?

  • Compose a lament for the church and think about how well this would fit into your normal style of worship.

Pastoral Application

Lament allows us to face the painful tension that exists between our faith in God and the reality of the world. We are called to travel, in prayer and pastoral care, with those who are in the depths. When people encounter the Psalms, there is a connection because they find a language that articulates their experience.

We need to encourage people to use this language to articulate their pain: to help them list their complaints specifically.

It may be helpful for people to write down their lament or to express it in some artistic medium. And then we encourage people to engage with God who is faithful and just. We are there to guide people in their journey from pain and protest to praise. The last thing to do is to offer them pious platitudes. The best thing we can do is to put them back in touch with a God they cannot help believe in.

Lament in Church Litergy

In much of church worship, we sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disorientation. Corporate worship must surely acknowledge and embrace pain and offer a journey from one to the other. We need to unlearn languages of prayer that have been steeped in politeness. God invites us to speak plainly. The psalms of lament offer us a language that we can borrow and appropriate. They give us the confidence and authority to speak as the Psalmist spoke. Psalms of lament are a form which encourages us to speak directly to God, to make our protest, to ask him to act, to invoke his character and covenant as a motive for him to act, and to acknowledge that he is a God of mercy and faithfulness. Lament offers a form in which pain, protest, imprecation and questions of God's presence can find a place in our prayer and pastoral care.

CONCLUSION

These psalms offer us a tremendous resource to express suffering. There is usually an immediate resonance with the language of lament when it is introduced to a people who have been starved of it. Those seeking God no longer seek primarily a set of doctrines that make logical sense, but an experience of God that works and is authentic. My prayer is that this session will have helped us rediscover the value of the laments, both for ourselves and for those for whom we pray; and that they will be a resource for us in our pastoral care of others. As those well acquainted with the Psalms, let’s encourage our churches to rediscover them and use them creatively in liturgy.