About a third of the psalms in the Bible are laments– psalms in which the author lays a complaint before God and asks for his help. If you read Psalms regularly, which is a good idea, you’ll come across lots of heavy content. More than we’re accustomed to expressing in worship, but that’s another post.
A lot of this language can seem foreign to us. I don’t usually feel like all my bones are out of joint. I don’t often flood my bed with tears, and I don’t currently feel like I have more enemies than I can count. But we shouldn’t just read or think on happy things– if we did we’d ignore a lot of the Bible.
Here are a few tips for reading and learning from the psalms when our own situation doesn’t line up with the author’s.
Learn not to put on a happy face.
The psalms are an absolute smackdown of the idea that we have to be happy to worship God, or pretend to be. Every day with Jesus isn’t sweeter than the day before; some days with Jesus are really lousy. Psalm 88 (“darkness is my only companion”) was not written to get the people pepped up, but it was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and it was written for public worship.
God is big enough to handle our lament. He wants us to bring our sorrows to him; he wants us to worship him through tears when that’s all we can do. Reading the psalms will remind us of that.
Think of others.
Even if you’re not feeling so sad you forget to eat your food, chances are someone around you is. Let the language of the psalms help you understand how your grieving friends feel. Let it open your eyes and remind you that there are hurting people in your life who need your words, prayers, and tears to bear them up.
Remember Jesus went through this for you.
Jesus “fulfilled” the psalms, and the rest of Scripture, by taking on himself everything it means to be human, and to be one of God’s people. He knows what it means to feel forsaken by God, because he actually was– so that he could guarantee we never would be.
Every lament we read in the psalms is something that happened to our Savior. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Reading Psalms with that in mind should drive us to a greater appreciation of what he’s done for us.
I started reading a psalm a day in my first year of seminary, and it’s generally been part of my routine since then. At the time I was 24, and had enjoyed by God’s grace a generally happy life. It was hard to identify with the psalms of lament, or with the idea of longing for heaven: life on earth was pretty great.
Life on earth is still pretty great. But deaths of friends and family, infertility, bouts of depression, the vulnerability (and tiredness!) that comes with kids, watching friends hurt, and seeing more of life in general have meant that at 30 it’s a lot easier to see what David was talking about than it was at 24. And I’m still young, with more joy and more suffering to come.
An older friend told me once, “When I was young it was hard to want heaven. The older I get– yeah, it’s not so hard anymore.”
If you’re in a happy season, thank God for it, and stay in the Word– the happy parts and the heavy parts. The day will come when you’ll need the language of lament, and it’s good to have it in your heart ahead of time.