With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.”
To live in this age is to frequently experience trouble. We are troubled within and we are troubled without. Our troubles span the spectrum of trivial to traumatic. And these various kinds of troubles — James calls them trials (James 1:2) — are to be expected. We are not to be surprised by them (1 Peter 4:12).
And to help us faithfully endure these troubles, God gave us a very precious gift: psalms of lament. The Psalms are the prayers and hymns that God chose to teach us how to express ourselves to him in worship. They are God's word and the prayers of men, as Bonhoeffer says. And about one-third of them are laments.
In these laments the writer pours out to God his sorrow (Psalm 137), anger (Psalm 140), fear (Psalm 69), longing (Psalm 85), confusion (Psalm 102), desolation (Psalm 22), repentance (Psalm 51), disappointment (Psalm 74), or depression (Psalm 88) either because of external evil or internal evil or darkness.
One thing this implies is that God expects us to frequently experience pain and therefore frequently express our pain to him. God wants us to pour out our complaints to him and tell him our troubles (Psalm 142:2). He wants us to do it privately, like David did when he wrote Psalm 142 in the cave of Adullam (1 Samuel 22). And he wants us to do it corporately, as when the people of Israel would sing Psalm 142 together. He wants us to tell him exactly what it feels like (“no one cares for my soul,” Psalm 142:4). And he wants us to remember that despite how things look and feel right now, because of his very great promises (2 Peter 1:4), someday these troubles will no longer afflict us (“you will deal bountifully with me,” Psalm 142:7).
The psalms of lament are treasures for the saints. They give inspired voice to our troubled souls. They model for us how to complain to God in a way that honors him. And they are themselves expressions of God’s care and compassion for us because in them we see that we are not as alone as we feel and that God indeed does understand.
And if we have ears to hear, the psalms of lament also guard us from an over-realized eschatology in this age. God does not always intend his saints to experience prosperity. As these psalms remind us, Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation.” So we can complain to him.
But learn from the psalmists how to be a faith-full complainer. Remember our great hope, as Jesus also said, “take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).