How do you typically respond to the hard emotions of life? Fear. Sadness. Loneliness. Anger. Guilt. Rejection. We’ve all experienced such emotions. Life in a fallen world is hard and we can’t help but have emotional responses to it. But what do we do with those emotions?
The weight loss company, Weight Watchers, once had a commercial using a popular children’s song, “If you are happy and you know it,” and turned it into a song about overeating. The song went, “if you are happy and you know it eat a snack, if you are sad and you know it eat a snack, if you are lonely and you know it eat a snack.” The commercial showed people eating junk food for whatever emotion they are feeling. Overeating can be one of the ways we handle our emotions, but it’s not the only way.
When emotional turmoil stirs in our hearts, we might seek comfort in food, shopping, or Instagram. We might busy ourselves with projects or work long hours to keep our mind oﬀ our pain. We might seek ways to control the struggles and challenges we face. We might blame others for our struggles. But a question to consider today is, in the midst of all your painful emotions, how often do you seek help and hope in the word of God? How often do you turn to him when you feel anxious, distraught, or abandoned? How often do you bring your burdens to your Savior?
There is another way, the way of lament.
The Psalms of Lament
What are the Psalms of Lament? They are those psalms many of us turn to when our heart is heavy with sorrow. They are those psalms that seem to voice what’s going on in our heart in a way we can’t. We read those psalms and whisper “yes, that’s how I feel.” In reading them, we don’t feel so alone. We realize even the psalmist felt the same way. We find comfort and solace in their prose.
When we read and study these laments in the Bible, we begin to see that they have a kind of pattern. While the psalms of lament were written by a variety of psalmists, in various circumstances, and for varying reasons, they nevertheless share a common structure. They include certain things. They have a certain flow. Nearly all the laments move from the negative to positive, from sorrow to joy, and from fear to trust. The laments represent the journey of the soul. In learning the way of lament, we too can cry out to God in the midst of our pain. We can follow this pattern in our own prayers to God.
What is that pattern?
The Structure of the Laments
- First, the psalmists come to God with raw honesty. There is no pretending or wearing masks before the Lord. The writers spell out their problems with descriptive adjectives and vivid metaphors. The Psalmist tells the Lord exactly what he is feeling. “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (Psalm 55:4-5).
- Another aspect to the laments is that the psalmist asks God for help. Just as we need to be open and honest about our emotions when we come to God, we also need to be honest about what we need. In the laments, the psalmist does not hesitate to ask for what he wants. In Psalm 13, David says, “Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death” (vv.3-4). He asks for help and relief from his sorrow.
- Another lesson the laments teach us is to focus our hearts on who God is and what he has done. In Psalm 13 above, David refers to God as “my God.” This refers to the personal relationship he had with God. Our God is not distant; he is very near to us. Throughout the laments, we see the writers reference God’s character. They refer to God as savior, rock, refuge, deliverer. The psalmists describe God’s love, steadfastness, and faithfulness. In Psalm 38:22, the writer says, “Make haste to help me, O Lord my salvation!”
- Nearly all the laments end with a response of trust, praise, and worship. After the psalmist has voiced the depths of his pain, after he has cried out for help, after he has reflected on who God is and what he has done, he ends his lament with praise. “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13:5-6). This is the journey’s end for the laments, a return to joy. It’s the goal of the laments. The process of bringing our emotions to the throne of grace changes us, it restores our joy, it reshapes our emotions.
When you face hard emotions in life, read the Psalms of Lament. Use the pattern of these psalms to shape your own prayers to the Lord. Bring all your cares to the throne of grace and engage with God in all your troubles. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1).