The Worship of Lament
I have been thinking about worship this week. What does it look like to worship in the midst of a global pandemic or personal tragedy? How do we approach God when things are less than OK? Often we react in one of two ways: we shut off that connection and turn away from God, or we pretend that all is fine and continue on, ignoring hardship and suffering. But what would it look like to worship while acknowledging deep pain and difficult circumstances? To neither deny God nor the realities we are facing? In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop puts forth a pathway toward hope, even in the darkest circumstances. This pattern of lament is seen all over the Bible and helps us when we don’t know how to move forward.
The first step is to turn. Turn to God in prayer! It takes faith to call out to God in the middle of our suffering; to keep talking, to keep praying through pain. Using Psalm 4 as an example, we see in verse 1:
Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
The psalmist, David, is crying out, calling for God’s attention to his circumstances. He acknowledges God and his work in his life in the past, despite what he is going through now. This may seem obvious and overly simple, but moving towards God in our pain is where all hope begins.
Next, after we cry out to God, we are to bring him our complaints. This might seem illogical or just plain sinful to us. We have absorbed the admonishment to “do everything without grumbling or complaining”, which is, of course, good and true. We are not to bring our complaints and grievances to other people, who have no power to change our situations, but to God, the one who has all power. We see David all over the Psalms bringing his complaints to God and in Psalm 4:2 he says,
O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?
He names his specific problems to God- namely that his reputation has been destroyed by the lies of sinful men. Many times, these statements begin with “How long..” or “Why…” before they name the individual grievances. Of course, even as we bring our complaints, we need to come with reverence and humility- we are addressing the omnipotent, living God. Yet this sovereign Lord cares for our every specific need.
But we don’t stop there. After we have brought our complaints, we are to ask boldly. In the lament Psalms, we see this change often marked by a “but” or a “yet.” The psalmist will move on from focusing on his complaint and set his eyes on God.
But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.
Here in verse 3, David is calling on the Lord to hear his cry. In this sense, hearing means answering; he is putting his trust in God responding to his prayer. He doesn’t sheepishly petition within the framework of “if it’s your will”, but rather asks boldly and allows for God to answer in accordance with his will.
Finally, after we have turned, complained, and asked, we are to choose to trust. This trust is not a shallow hope that what we have prayed for will come to fruition, but rather an “active patience.” Not a one-time choice to trust God, but a continuing, day-after-day decision to see God as worthy of our faith.
Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.
The rest of Psalm 4 is, I think, devoted to that choice to trust God and what that looks like. Not sinning in our anger about the situation. Offering right sacrifices, which in other places in the Psalms is defined as thankfulness (50:14, 23, 107:22, 116:17) and a broken and contrite spirit (51:16-17). Remembering that all true goodness and joy comes from the Lord, who has given us the ultimate cause for joy in Christ: reconciliation to God! And seeing that peace and safety only come from the Lord, and not temporary circumstances. This trusting acknowledges that God alone is God, and will answer all our cries in a way that is both for our good (Romans 8:28) and his glory (Isaiah 48:11).
You may be thinking, as I once did, that you may have no personal reason for lament. Maybe you have nothing “grievous” in your life and you feel like things are going well. However, lament is not just for the “big” problems of life, although it certainly is. It can be practiced in the small things of this fallen world, like the grief of my kids missing their favorite sports season or the daily sin that creeps into my heart, just as well as the momentous things of a global pandemic that disrupts all sense of public normalcy or being diagnosed with a chronic disease that does the same privately. All of these occasions offer us a chance to turn to God, bring him our complaints, ask him boldly, and choose to trust him. And that is worship. Praise God!