"I hauled myself through the days”. This is how someone recently described their experience of a period of sustained grief and loss. It resonated with me—not just as a way to describe my experience in the present season, but also in other dark times in my life. It is at these times that praying can be difficult. There are complex emotions at play and uncomfortable conversations to be had with God. My attempts to pray can turn into times of ruminating and anxiety rather than a conversation with God. This does not mean that my worries and wailings are a no-go area in my praying—it’s actually quite the opposite. I know that prayer involves bringing our real selves to the real God, but I have needed help in this. In recent years, the lament Psalms have provided that help.
WHAT ARE THEY?
The category of ‘lament’ is applied to nearly one third of the Psalms in the bible. The subject matter of these psalms concerns a range of difficulties experienced by God’s people. Some are about bearing the weight of sin. Some are a cry for help in the face of powerful, persistent enemies. Others sound like complaints. Still others express a feeling of abandonment and isolation. Often hard questions are faced with God: ‘Why?’, How Long?, ‘you have done this!’ There are raw emotions expressed—anger, indignation at injustice, grief, tiredness, anxiety, bewilderment. They are messy not formulaic—and they are in God’s inspired word. God has graciously given us words to use with him when we are hauling ourselves through the days. Little wonder that Jesus had them on his lips as he went to the cross and that the gospel writers draw attention to how Jesus fulfils them in his death.
As I’ve used the lament Psalms in my praying, I’ve noticed that there are elements which keep coming up. Firstly, they describe the distressing situation clearly and honestly… with emotion. Secondly, they often express truths about who God is. Images such as, ‘my refuge’ and ‘my shield’ pepper the laments. My favourite is ‘my rock’—not as in a stone you can pick up and chuck. ‘Rock’ as in Uluru—timeless, stable and immovable. Often the Psalmist will exhort his own soul to remember and trust these things about God. Finally, they include direct requests for God to act. There is no hope-less fatalism here.
When we, or those we love, are in dark times, it is sometimes hard to know what to say in our prayers, other than ‘please make it stop!’ What’s more, it’s harder than normal to settle in to prayer because we feel anxious and upset. I’ve found using the words of the lament Psalms themselves helpful. Lines like:
“Save me Oh God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold” (Psalm 69.1-2), capture felt experience so well!
If you find it hard to pray someone else’s words, you can use some of the repeated patterns in the lament Psalms to shape your prayers. Here are some simple steps to get started:
Stop, slow down and just sit for at least two minutes, taking some deep breaths. Ask for Jesus’ personal presence by his Spirit to comfort and lead you.
Start to notice what’s going on for you at present. It may be helpful to write some things down as you notice them. Put your worries and wailings into words. Notice your emotions, how your body is reacting, the things you’ve been doing and the things your mind has been dwelling on. Put them into words.
Start telling God about what you’ve found. Just speak to him about it, lay it out before him. It may be messy and raw. It may involve tears, questions and desperate cries. The idea is to bring your real self to God by putting what’s going on for you into words.
Remember who the real God is—particularly the God you know in the gospel of Jesus and the concrete ways he has been faithful to you in the past. Often scripture will come to mind.
As you talk to God about your situation and remember who he is, ask him to act. Put into words what you would really love to see happen. Ask for his specific help. This may the point at which you confess any sin you’ve noticed (name it specifically) and joyfully receive his forgiveness.
Talk to God about what you hope for on the other side of this. Thank him for the ultimate hope we have in Christ, seeing clearly rather than dimly, seeing him face to face, no more tears, evil, death, or sin, ourselves perfected.
The point of all this is to deepen your relationship with your heavenly Father by bringing your real self to him. It is a relationship which he has established by his pure grace in Christ. It is a relationship in which you are fully known and unfailingly loved by him. We can turn towards him in those times when we feel like we are just hauling ourselves through the days.
Graeme is the Discipleship Minister at City on a Hill Melbourne. His passion is equipping Christians to be firmly established as disciples of Jesus—able to help others become and grow as disciples too. He and his wife Nicky have been married for nearly four decades and they are the parents of two married sons. Alongside immediate family, going to the movies and golf, the loves of his life at present are his two granddaughters.