by David R. McCabe, Ph.D.

Words matter, and we can tell a lot about what’s going on in the purview of our lives when we pay attention to the words that are demanding our attention.
“Flatten the curve.”
“Slow the spread.”
“Not enough PPE (=personal protective equipment).”
Medical workers are saying, “We came to work for you. Please stay home for us.”

We need words to giving meaning and some sense of order to such terrifying situations. We are staring down a monster in COVID-19. It is nowhere and it is everywhere. It separates us from our loved ones and threatens to make us a carrier of the menace to those who raised and nurtured us.

We need better words—a therapeutic and comforting language.

We find this soothing language in the Psalms of Lament. Hear the psalmist give voice to deep fear:

“My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

(Psalm 42:3, 9–10 NRSV)

Does this describe you? Are you sustained only by the bitterness of tears? Do you wonder if the God in whom you have always placed your hope has finally abandoned people to this invisible enemy? Do doubts nag at the base of your skull, tightening your straining neck?

And yet, this admission may seem like an expression of faithlessness to many believers. “Who would dare to suggest that God has abandoned us?” As a result, these fears linger like fluid in the lungs of our faith, compressing our chest and stealing the breath of life from our hope for better days.

The Psalms of Lament show us that crying out and complaining to God is part of what it means to be in a real relationship with God. The lament psalms provide for us the words we need to see our way out of the darkness and give voice to the stinging pain of our suffering.

Even Jesus recalled the heart-wrenching words of the psalmist in his darkest hour:
“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?!”
(Mark 15:34, quoting Psalm 22:1)

The lament psalms give us both permission and substance for our deepthroated complaints. But, they do more! They also lead us through the “therapy of lament,” and walk us through the stages from lament to hopeful thanksgiving. Almost without fail, the lament psalms press through the swampy sludge of suffering that weighs us down on to vistas of God’s deliverance and assured faithfulness. We have to trek through an entire Psalm, “pulled up” at its pivot, and embrace the gathering of the community who celebrate God’s healing and rescue.

This is true with Psalm 42 quoted above. Its final stanza responds to the taunting which comes from the enemies with assurance:

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.”
(Psalm 42:11 NRSV)

The Psalm that cradles Jesus’ lips as he is suspended on the Roman cross likewise looks forward to vindication and celebration. It pivots with a request for God to act:
“But you, O LORD, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!”
(Psalm 22:19 NRSV)

This leads to the proclamation of testimony:
“I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!”
(Psalm 22:22–23 NRSV)

Furthermore, just as it was in the sequence of Jesus’ passion and suffering (see Mark 15:39), God’s work “behind the scenes” and “right in front of our eyes”—though we often miss it!—leads to the praise of the nations for our great God and Savior:

“All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.”

(Psalm 22:27–31 NRSV)

Therefore, it is a time for us as the people of God to be reminded that God is listening, and that God has given us ‘a medicine for the soul’ in the lament psalms. Let us recover this lost art of giving voice to our anxiety through this scriptural ointment of ancient despondent words that express so well what we are all thinking in these frightening and uncertain times. Let us find our way through this isolating “valley of the shadow of death” (cf. Psalm 23:4) to the Shepherd who awaits us on the other side with a feast and healing comfort.

(As you pray, begin to pray through some of the Psalms of Lament: Psalms 6, 13, 22, 30, 31, 32, 35, 39, 51, 69, 71, 91, 102, 103, 130. See how God will meet you as you wander through agony to comfort and reassurance. God is faithful. God does not fear hearing how you really feel!)

David McCabe, Ph.D., is Missionary Church Endowed Professor of Biblical Theology, Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Bethel University.