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Crying out to God

Paul Woodbridge explores the Psalms as a means to express sadness.

Some scenarios

How have you felt over the past two years? At times, despondent and wondering what was going on? Where has God been during the Covid pandemic? As we have been prevented from doing all we would like to do both as churches and individuals, how have you responded?

And how do we react when things go wrong in our lives, when unexpected suffering happens, and we’re tempted to ask ‘Why God?’ But isn’t it rather ungodly to be negative in difficult situations? After all, didn’t the apostle Paul say, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!’ (Phil.4:4). And that was when he was in prison, itself an unpleasant experience. 

I became a Christian in July 1965 (together with my parents and sister). As I look back over 57 years as a Christian and think about my life and work, I also think about what has most hindered Christian growth. It’s the whole issue of suffering, especially the type of suffering that seems to have little purpose and causes great sadness and grief both to the sufferer and family and friends, and seems pointless. I have struggled to know how to deal with this.

Let me give you some examples

1. The sudden death of the Principal of Oak Hill College, where I taught for 30 years, Mike Ovey, on 7th Jan 2017 at the age of 58, provoked sad emotions in me and in the whole college, just at a point in the college’s life when Mike was about to embark on new initiatives. What was God up to??

2. The sudden death of a 27 year old student in March 2000, leaving behind a wife who had been struggling with post-natal depression and 2 young children. What was God doing? Where was he in these tragedies?

3. My mother had dementia for the last 5 years of her life. It changed her character and personality, she became angry and bitter, even telling the pastor to ‘bugger off’ when he came to visit her. It was the first time I’d ever heard her use that language!

How does God want us to react to such scenarios?

Can we be angry with God? Can I express my anger in prayer? Can I express my utter frustrations with him, when I cannot see the point in some suffering that I or others are going through? A former colleague at Oak Hill College, Eric Ortlund, begins to suggest a way for us, both individually and corporately.

Imagine you are going to church. The worship band is on stage. You see on the screen all the normal information: Copyright Vineyard Music, 1998; in the key of B flat, written by Brian Doerkson. The worship band starts up, but you notice something strange, because the song says a lot of things to God that sound rude:

'Lord, how could you let that happen? Why did you abandon me? I'm one of your own. Why didn't you protect me? If you had been there, this never would have happened (John 11:21)! And this hurts your cause too, Lord. People are scoffing at you in your absence. Come and visibly intervene for me! But no matter what, I will trust you forever. No matter what, you are my God forever.'

That's the situation we get in the Book of Psalms: a miktam, of David, to the tune of “Doe of the Dawn” - those titles head the hymns we approve and also the laments that strike us as rude. But both equally count as worship in the Bible, even though for many of us, asking lament-type questions sounds like the opposite of worship.

Could I suggest, knowing I'm generalising, that we in North America (and Britain) need to “biblicise” and complicate our worship by making lament a regular feature? To be a real biblical lament, it has to include a confession of trust and unconditional loyalty from the lamenter; without that, it's just complaining. But I also want to emphasise that, unless we lament, we're being unbiblical and unhelpful.

So, what does the word ‘Lament’ mean in the bible?

To Lament: ‘To mourn aloud, to express sorrow, mourning, or regret; to regret strongly’. And God has given us in the Psalms a way, a means, to express to him our sadness, frustration, grief, even anger, at what has happened to us.

Next I will explore some specific Psalms and see how they help us when we or others are suffering.

Paul Woodbridge