Walking the Path of Lament
I called my ninety-two-year-old grandmother recently to catch up on life. She has suffered from an unusual bleed behind her eyes and abruptly lost most of her vision. The doctors aren’t sure when, or if, her sight will return.
After our conversation meandered through her neighborhood, her memories of World War 2, and the time she broke off an engagement so she could begin dating my grandfather, I asked my grandmother how she was doing with the vision loss. Her first response was understandable grief. She can’t see faces properly, she can’t drive, she can’t watch television, and worst of all–she can’t read. My grandmother has been a student of the Bible for decades, and I knew that the loss of daily Bible readying would be deeply felt.
“It’s just awful,” she said when I first asked her about it. “I’ve prayed and prayed, ‘Lord, don’t take my Scriptures!’ But I still can’t see to read them.”
She didn’t even try to hold back—she was frustrated and sad. But after talking through the grief of losing her vision, the tenor in her voice changed. She began to recount the ways the Lord had been good to her, beginning with the way the Lord saved her from her sins at a young age. I was sitting at my dining room table with the phone pressed close to my ear, listening closely while she shared memory after memory of how God had sustained her over the years. Gratitude for God’s past faithfulness seeped into her words, and her conclusion was full of resolute determination. “Even if He doesn’t return my vision,” she continued, “He’ll still be good to me. ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.’”
Tears dripped down my cheeks and puddled on the dining room table as I listened. My grandmother has lived many hard things: infertility, adoption, early widowhood, loneliness, ill health, and now blindness. How can she lament her circumstances but still hold so fiercely to her Lord? Because I know her well, I know that the decades spent clinging to Scripture have taught her to not only to lament her circumstances but also to remember God’s faithfulness so she can move forward in faith.
The Psalms are Where We Go
During my own seasons of suffering, I’ve learned to lean hard on the Psalms for direction. What a gift God has given us in including these hymns and songs in our Bibles! He has given us the language of lament, sorrow, joy, thanksgiving, confusion, and trust so we can rightly bring our cares before Him. When we don’t know what to say about our life circumstances, the Psalms are where we go to find the language of lament and trust. The Psalms don’t command us to squelch down our emotions or deny that our circumstances are hard. Rather, the Psalms teach us how to express our grief to the Lord over our trials and to submit both to His kind, sovereign hand.
Take Psalm 77, for example. Written by Asaph, the Psalm begins with a lament of his grievous circumstances. “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord’ in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (.Psalm 77:2-4). I remember the day I found out I wouldn’t be able to have children, the day our second adoption began to unravel, the day my dear friend received a horrible diagnosis, the day my mother found out she had a brain tumor—I was so troubled I could not speak. Asaph’s lament is one I’ve known well.
On the heels of lament, Asaph panics. Here again, is a feeling we can all identify with. When the tears dry up, we scramble to put life back together again and panic when we can’t fix it. We wonder if God is against us. Have we done something wrong? Will life always be so hard? Has God forgotten us? “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Psalm 77:7-9) You can almost hear the pitch in Asaph’s voice rising higher and higher with each question. When you read the text aloud, distress hits every syllable. I’ve interrogated the Lord with similar panic. I’ve wondered why God has withheld things I’ve prayed for, why he has allowed diseases I hate, why he hasn’t immediately stepped in to end my suffering.
The opportunity to voice our lament and panic before the Lord is a gift from him. We don’t have to hide our fears from him; he knows our questions long before we articulate them to him. And yet, we would miss the strength of his character if we stopped at the lament portion of Psalm 77. We would miss hope if we stopped at the panicked questions and didn’t consider the comforting answers. This is where my grandmother showed me what it looks like to lament the loss of her vision without losing hope completely. She did what Asaph did in Psalm 77. She paused to remember God’s past faithfulness.
My grandmother’s recollection of God’s past faithfulness is reminiscent of the biblical patterns of remembering. Throughout the Old Testament, God gave laws and instituted feasts and festivals among the Israelites for them to remember the way he delivered them from slavery and rescued them from their enemies. God reminded his people to tell the stories of old to their children so the next generation would know what God had done and would continue to follow him (Deut. 6:20-25). Remembering God’s past faithfulness paved the way for confidence in his future faithfulness. And this is what Asaph does next in Psalm 77: “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:10-12).
Asaph describes God’s faithfulness when he delivered Israel from the shackles of Egypt. He remembers the split sea when the people were cornered by Pharoah’s army in Exodus. He recalls the way the Lord led his people through on the dry ground, how the waters obeyed God’s command, how God’s power was evident even when the people couldn’t see him (Psalm 77:15-20). Again, when you read the psalm aloud, the remembrance of God’s powerful deeds strengthens the voice with confidence and leads the lamenting one to a fierce resolution: God has always been faithful. And he always will be.
How do you get to the point in suffering where you can proclaim that the Lord is kind and good and trustworthy? Asaph demonstrates that you get there by first working through lament, panic, and remembering. Sometimes we expect to be able to skip ahead a few steps and shout about God’s goodness the very moment tragedy strikes. I’ve watched some people arrive at that comforting conclusion sooner than I’ve ever been able to. But I love that Psalm 77 gives us stepping stones to get to our great comfort. The path to faith in God’s future faithfulness is paved with stones of his past mercies. We can look at Christ’s finished work at the cross and know he has heaped every spiritual blessing upon us. Then we can say with fierce determination, “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples” (. Psalm 77:13-14).
My grandmother still can’t see. The loss of her vision is a very real reason to lament and panic about what she can no longer do. But as she recalls the words of the Lord that she has studied for decades and hidden down deep in her heart, she remembers that he has always been faithful. And this leads her to her great comfort, which is that God will never waver in his faithfulness to her. Even if her circumstances are unpredictable, her God will never change or shift like shadows (see. James 1:17).
If your circumstances are hard, if your trials leave you speechless if you wonder how to find certainty that the Lord will keep his promises of steadfast love, go to the Psalms. Step on the stones of lament and panic, and stand long on the past deeds of his faithfulness. Then you’ll be equipped to move forward with resolute hope. He’s always been faithful, and He always will be.
Editors Note: If you enjoyed this article you will love Glenna Marshall’s new book, The Promise Is His Presence: Why God Is Always Enough available now from P&R Publishing and available wherever books are sold.
Glenna Marshall is a pastor’s wife and mother of two energetic sons. She is the author of The Promise Is His Presence and Everyday Faithfulness, and writes regularly at GlennaMarshall.com on biblical literacy, suffering, and the faithfulness of God. She is a member of Grace Bible Fellowship in Sikeston, Missouri.