Personal Grief and the Book of Psalms

by Derek Brown

One reason why the book of Psalms is a favorite section of Scripture for many Christians is because of how its words resonate so deeply with our experience of the Christian life. This is not accidental. God has given the Psalms as a gift to enable his people to find a voice to express their joy (Ps 43:4), their passion for God (Ps 42:1), their worship (Ps 117:1-2), their thanksgiving (Ps 107:1) their confession of sin (Ps 51:1ff), and, just as often, their grief.

A Book Full of Lament
If you begin walking through the Psalms sequentially from the first entry, it won’t be long before you encounter graphic expressions of serious lament. “O LORD, how many are my foes!” David cries out in the first verse to Psalm 3. Psalms 4-7 are similar, as David pleads with God for his immediate deliverance from his enemies. In Psalm 10, David confesses that God seems distant, even uninterested in his plight and the plight of the weak and vulnerable. Psalm 13 finds David again wondering openly about God’s apparent indifference (v. 1-2). In Psalm 17, David opens by declaring, “Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry!” 

Psalm 22 is famous for its raw expressions of spiritual turmoil and David’s sense of utter desertion by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (v.1) These are the words the Lord Jesus took upon his lips as he bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners (see Matt 27:46). 

David pleads for God to be gracious to him because he is “lonely and afflicted” (Ps 25:16) and pleads with God to rescue him from the wicked (Ps 28:1-3). Asaph joins David in desperately seeking God’s mercy: “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me.” Asaph’s struggles were deep and serious: “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Ps 77:4). He wonders aloud if God had “forgotten to be gracious” (Ps 77:9).

More Than Lament
But the psalmist’s laments are not only the cries of one who is living in a fallen world. All people, believers and unbelievers, experience grief in this life because sin has infected our universe and wreaked untold havoc on every facet of our existence. The fall touches everyone, no matter how religious or irreligious. 

The psalmist’s laments are the cries of a believer who knows God, has tasted of God’s nearness and goodness, and who now looks to God as the only source of deliverance. Indeed, it is the psalmist’s previous experiences of God’s presence that seems in intensify the pain of his present distress. “When I remember God, I moan” (Ps 77:3), Asaph confesses. One of the sons of Korah indicates in Psalm 42 that his previous enjoyment of God is exactly what is causing him such trouble in the present as God seems far off. 

The psalms provide us with a glimpse into the spiritual life of a genuine believer who is wrestling with physical and supernatural enemies, mind-numbing circumstances, betrayal, spiritual dryness and desertion, the fallout from personal sin and foolishness, distress over present injustices that the wicked continually perpetrate upon the weak and poor, the burden of persecution, and a host of other troubles. In the Psalms, we can find a voice to express our pain to God in the pattern of divinely-inspired laments. What a gift. 

A Way out of Lament 
But the Psalms don’t remain mired in lament. Often after the psalmist has poured out his heart in unabashed grief to God, he concludes his psalm by rejoicing over God’s deliverance. “Depart from me, all you workers of evil,” David says in the sixth Psalm, “for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping” (Ps 6:8). Even if deliverance isn’t explicitly mentioned, the psalmist will turn us toward the expectation of future deliverance and joy for God’s people (e.g., Ps 5:11-12).

In this way, the psalms provide us not only a voice to express our grief but also a way to draw our troubled soul out of it. Asaph, for example, after he asked whether God had forgotten his people turns immediately to “remember the deeds of the LORD” (Ps 77:11a) This turn was intentional: “…yes, I will remember the wonders of old” (Ps 77:11b). As Asaph reflected on God’s power and goodness to Israel, he was relieved of some of his burdens and began to praise God again (vv. 11-15). 

Conclusion
On a night a few months ago, after a long and challenging day, as we were getting ready for bed, Amy started reminding both of us of God’s sovereignty, his goodness, and his divine right as our Creator and Savior to bring into our lives whatever he deems will bring him the most glory and will be best for us. These words, however, had come after a time of lament we both had shared on the couch in the living room a few minutes earlier. The grief was honest and real, but the encouragement of Amy’s focus on biblical truth was just what our souls needed. 

It is the psalmists’ regular practice to mingle their grief with strong declarations of God’s character, his past works of power, and his promises of final deliverance and vindication of his people. The Psalms, then, provide us with a God-given pattern for honestly and openly expressing our grief while also furnishing us the resources to find our way out of it. 

While there may be times when we need to wait for season until we experience deliverance or spiritual refreshment (see Ps 42:11, Ps 43:5), God counsels us, through the book of Psalms, to pour out our hearts to him in all our grief and to apply the soothing ointment of truth to these fresh wounds. As we do, we will experience a renewed joy and trust in the Lord, and we will grow in the seasoned wisdom that only comes through lament.    

  

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