What’s your go-to coping activity when you are really, really, really angry?
Climbing in your car, shutting the doors and screaming as loud as you can?
Punching pillows or destroying some old, useless electronics?
Going for a run?
Posting a rant on facebook?
Being short and snippy with your family?
Convincing yourself that you’re not really THAT upset, deciding not to even mention it, and going on about your business as if nothing was wrong?
How about praying?
I admit that when I am really, really, really angry, prayer is not my first inclination. I usually have to employ several of the above mentioned activities before even being able to consider directing my ranting toward God.
The psalmists don’t seem to have that problem. The psalms are full of angry prayers. In spiritual parlance, anger that gets rightly directed is called “lament.” Scholars who have studied the psalms for years have even classified a bunch of them under the heading “psalms of lament.” Out of the 150 psalms in the book, more than a third of them are psalms of lament.
That’s a lot of lamenting.
“Lament” might sound to us in English like “sadness.” A “lamentable” situation is something that might make us feel pity or sympathy. But the dictionary list of synonyms for “lament” is really juicy:
As a noun: wail, moan, weeping, crying, dirge, elegy, requiem.
As a verb: mourn, grieve, sorrow, wail, weep, cry, sob, keen, bemoan, bewail, deplore, RUE.
To lament is not just to feel sad. Lamenting is something more muscular than pity or even sympathy. Lament requires some serious passion, some wherewithal, some stamina.
Lament is not just crying in despair, and it isn’t just yelling in anger.
Lament is actually a spiritual practice: directing our deep emotions and reactions to the pain of the world where we live into a form of prayer that has the capacity to change: it has the potential to change US and the brokenness of the world that we’re called to lament in the first place.
A lament psalm usually comes with a pattern. Usually, a psalm of lament works like this:
- an address to God
- a complaint (articulating what, exactly, is wrong)
- a confession of trust
- a petition (asking for change)
- words of assurance (remembering when God intervened before)
- a vow of praise
Like any strong emotion, being able to channel or funnel it into a time-honored pattern for expressing it can help us process it. When people find themselves grieving, they often turn to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The stages are helpful because they allow us to put a name to what it is we’re feeling AND they assure us that this powerful, overwhelming emotion is natural, normal, a common human condition.
The pattern of a psalm of lament works the same way. It offers a way to put some shape to our anger, a pattern to assure us that every human feels this way, that it is such a common emotion that it’s been encoded, right here in our sacred scripture.
Our culture, however, is a culture of denial. We are not great, in modern-day America, at being honest and expressive about how we are feeling. When someone asks how we are, we say, quickly, “fine!” Or, just as dismissively, “busy!” – throw-away responses intended to evade the question.
Our culture doesn’t have great rituals or patterns for incorporating lament into our common life together. We talked at last week’s retreat about the grief of losing people from this congregation. Many churches lose people from their community through death, and we DO have standard cultural and religious rituals to mark that kind of passing and to talk – a little – about that kind of grief. But in this community, death hasn’t played a huge part. Loss has come through other means. And when someone moves away, or feels called to another church, or leaves for some other, totally understandable – or not – reason, we don’t have very good ways to mark that occasion. We don’t have great patterns or channels for all the emotion to be acknowledged, spoken, shared and processed.
Luckily, just because we live in a culture of denial does not mean that we are without resources. Right here, in the book of Psalms, is a way to begin to hold up our anger and grief, to name it, share it, and walk through it, together.
Since psalms of lament have such a predictable pattern, they lend themselves really easily to Jr. High Sunday School classes. I’ve shared this story before, but I love the finished product so much that I’m going to share it again. In my Jr. High Sunday School class a couple of years ago, we studied these psalms of lament. We learned about the pattern that they take. And then, we wrote our own psalms.
And, OH, they were good. Jr. High kids are GOOD at lament. Maybe it’s because their emotions are so close to the surface, or because they haven’t fully imbibed our culture’s insistence on denying our powerful emotions, but MAN, those psalms of lament: address to God/complaint/confession of trust/petition/assurance and praise were things of beauty.
I spent some time condensing the jr. high’s individual psalms into a collaborative, communal version. Here it is.
You know how they always say that those stages of grief don’t always come in one order? That some people start out with bargaining and then circle back around to denial, or skip the anger stage altogether?
Psalms of lament are like that, too.
Psalm 13 is referred to as the paradigmatic psalm of lament, meaning that in its short 6 verses, it exemplifies the category. But Psalm 13 doesn’t start with a formal address to God. Instead, it launches immediately into complaint:
How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?!
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily?!
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
Whew. This psalmist is really mad. Red-faced, about to blow a gasket kind of mad.
And the psalmist is not denying it.
The psalmist doesn’t even bother with the formal address – just lights into God, the Creator of the Universe, the Divine Being Herself, with sharp-tongued, fire-breathing complaint. No preliminaries, no introduction, just getting straight to the heart of the matter.
Think about that.
Of all the people you’ve been angry with, which ones would you be comfortable enough to dive straight into your complaint? No throat-clearing, no heads up that this is going to be a difficult conversation, not even that ominous suggestion that “we need to talk.” Of all the people you know, which ones could you dive straight into the argument with?
I suspect that the people you’re thinking about are the ones you’re closest to, the people you share life with in some way, the ones with whom you’re in such constant conversation that they would already know that things were out of whack, that something needed to change, that an argument was coming down the pike.
The psalmist doesn’t need to introduce herself or even clear her throat. She doesn’t need to preface her complaint or even invite God into the discussion, because God and the psalmist are already in constant conversation. Their relationship is one that allows for complaint to arise spontaneously, to get blurted out without context, to come as naturally as it is felt.
Lament is a spiritual practice that happens in the context of an ongoing conversation with God.
The psalmist is not satisfied with how the conversation has been going. God, it seems, has not been holding up his end of the deal.
“Look at me!” the psalmist yells.
“Answer me, Lord my God!”
I’m here, in pain, and you are my creator, redeemer, constant companion, the one with whom I have this unending conversation, but it feels like you won’t even LOOK at me!
“Restore sight to my eyes! Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say ‘I won!’ My foes will rejoice over my downfall.”
Can you hear the challenge in the psalmist’s lament? Come on, God, she’s crying: don’t you know that things are really going to pot here? It’s time you showed up. I need you HERE, NOW. If you don’t come around SOON, all those mocking enemies are going to lord it over us from here til kingdom come.
“But,” the psalmist says, “I have trusted in your faithful love. My heart will rejoice I your salvation. Yes, I will sing to the Lord because he has been good to me.”
It almost sounds, the praise there at the end, like some sort of resignation, doesn’t it? Like a reluctant toddler, tacking the requisite praise onto the end of his tantrum after his mom has demanded he do so.
Which actually might be the case, kind of.
The psalmist is expressing her deep, deep anger.
She is directing it at GOD, with whom she has a longstanding and intimate relationship.
And she is using this time-honored form, the psalm of lament, to do it. The form requires some structure, and that structure includes praise.
You know how, when you do a workout or a piano exercise or a math worksheet, you have to do even the hard parts that you detest, resist, and DO NOT WANT to do in order to finish the activity?
Maybe that’s how the psalmist is working, too.
She’s angry. She knows she can direct that anger at God, because their relationship is strong and deep enough to handle even all those destructive thoughts that might destroy any other, human relationship.
But she needs a pattern, a ritual, a way to express it all. So she turns to the psalm of lament. She shares her complaint, her confession of trust, her petition and then, because it is part and parcel of the exercise, her praise.
Scholars have long speculated how it could be possible that these psalms of lament can include both such vitriolic anger AND such clear praise, both directed at God. Some say that the psalmist’s hearts really did change on a dime like that – from anger to gratitude in just a few stanzas. Some say that during the composition of the poem, God has actually intervened and changed the situation that was causing such pain and anger, leading the psalmist to turn to praise. Other scholars believe that the psalm was part of a worship ritual, and that part of it got left out – a part in the middle where a priest would have interrupted and reminded the complaintant of God’s power and plan to save them, something called a ‘salvation oracle.’
I think the confusion might be cleared up with a much more simple explanation. What if the psalmist is relying on an age-old, time-tested pattern for expressing deep emotion, and that pattern requires the angry poet to remember God’s grace? What if, like those stages of grief, the pattern of the lament psalm is a way for us to acknowledge, express, and move through our own deep emotion?
The theologian Kathleen O’Connor says that
To lament is to name what is wrong, what is out of order in God’s world, what keeps human beings from thriving in all their creative potential. Simple acts of lament expose these conditions, name them, open them to grief and anger, and make them visible for remedy.
In its complaint and anger and grief, lamentation protests conditions that prevent human thriving and this resistance may finally prepare the way for healing.
There is a lot out of order in God’s world these days. I think a lot of us are discovering depths of emotion that we might not have been previously aware we were capable of. I think the anger, disappointment and confusion runs really deep.
And I also think that we will not be able to move through any of that, that we will not be able to effect change in sustainable ways or work together in solidarity or even be honest about why we are doing what we are doing if we do not remember this important spiritual practice of lament. Naming what’s wrong, acknowledging our anger and pain and grief, and expressing it in honest ways seem like an important first step.
And, because we are part of this ancient tradition of people living in relationship with the God of Creation, we are gifted with resources, patterns, rituals and processes for doing exactly that. We have this great gift of the psalms, the record of our ancestors’ frank conversations with God.
So: if you were to write your own psalm of lament, what would your complaint be? What would be your petition? Would you yell and scream, or would you cry? And how would you manage to end it on a note of praise?