When I Don’t Know How to Pray: Praying Through the Lament Psalms

By | February 15, 2021

In our teen Sunday School class, my husband has been teaching on how to read and understand the various types of Psalms. The past two weeks we have looked at the lament psalms. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb lament in three ways: 1) to mourn aloud; 2) to express sorrow, mourning, or regret for, often demonstratively; and 3) to regret strongly.  As a noun, the dictionary defines it as 1) a crying out in grief; 2) a dirge, elegy; and 3) complaint.

We have all experienced grief, regret, or complaints to some extent. We talked in our class about how we sometimes view difficulties or try to encourage someone else in the midst of difficulty. For example, one might try to encourage another to “look on the bright side” of a difficulty. Or one might focus only on how one should view a trial (i.e., as a means of endurance and growth resulting in joy as taught in James 1). While these encouragements can be helpful and should be brought to our or another’s attention  eventually, the psalmists example a different initial approach in their prayers.

My husband explained that laments often contain the following elements:

  • Appeal to God
  • Lament (complaint/mourning)
  • Prayer request
  • Expression of trust in God
  • Vow to praise God

These elements may or may not all be present in every lament psalm, and they may be in any order.

The lament psalms are helpful to see how different people responded to difficult circumstances. They did not try to present their situations in the best possible light; they laid it out in all its painful details. They often requested that the situation be taken away or resolved. They mourned, but they also looked to God. They trusted him in spite of the circumstances, and they vowed to continue to praise him even when not knowing how God would respond to their requests.

Psalm 13 is a perfect example of a lament psalm. Verses 1-2a are examples of the appeal to God. 2b record his specific lament/complaint. Verses 3-4 are his request to God. Verse 5 expresses his trust in God, and verse 6 his vow to continue to praise God. Even if a specific prayer was not answered in the way requested, at the very least they could praise God for his salvation, something never taken away.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (ESV)

We concluded by practicing how we could use these prayers as a template for our own prayers during our own specific difficulties. So, let’s use the example of a severe illness and insert this specific situation into the prayer (in brackets and bold print).

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall [my illness continue]?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    [take away my illness],

[strengthen my body

and keep those around me healthy]

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

I thought this would be such a helpful exercise for someone really struggling deeply. Sometimes in these moments it is hard to think clearly, and simply following a lament prayer as a template for one’s own prayers would be beneficial. It can also guide how we help others by not minimizing the horribleness of a situation. Instead, we can recognize and verbalize how difficult another’s trial is, then move on to pray with them and help them as the situation requires.

 

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