Walking the Valley of Grief: Write Your Own Psalm of Lament

Can you be angry with God? Can you tell God you are mad, even furious with him? The Psalmists did so, regularly. The biblical book of song-poems we call the Psalms is full of emotion, covering the range of human experience. There’s even a whole category of songs called “psalms of lament” in which the writers express intense anger, fear, and demands upon God. If King David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22) can tell God how he really feels, so can you.

Naming the pain

Life is full of pain, no doubt. Some of it is irritating failures and headaches, too often piled up upon each other. It leaves us angry and weary. Sometimes, the pain is in a devastating, life-altering tragedy, a trauma that leaves us broken and wounded. This kind of deep pain leaves us bleeding and injured for a long time, forever changed. In this kind of pain, we live with disfiguring emotional scars forever, and even having the wound heal into a scar is a mark of progress. Life can hurt, and sometimes a lot.

Expressing anger

Those who trust in the Lord can have some hope in such disorienting times of wreckage, but that doesn’t easily make the pain and trauma go away. Sometimes we struggle where to take our hurt and anger. Often people don't know how to react, so strong emotions can separate us from our community, making it worse. Bottling up emotions and hoping they will stop doesn’t work; unmanaged grief is the source of all kinds of self-destruction. If God is good, what do we do when things aren’t good for us?

Speaking lament

One of the biblical answers is lament. There are passages scattered throughout scripture of people crying out in their pain. There’s even a whole book called Lamentations, which was a response to genocide and exile of a whole nation. The book of Psalms includes several psalms of lament, like Psalm 13, in which David doesn’t hold back when venting his heart to God:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I have revolt in my soul? Sorrow in my heart daily?
How long will my adversary be exalted over me?
Pay attention! Answer me, O LORD, my God! Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep in death, Lest my adversary says ‘I overcame him,’
My adversaries will rejoice when I am shaken, but I, in your loving-kindness I trust, May my heart rejoice in your salvation. May I sing to the LORD because he cares for me (Psalm 13:1-6).

Other psalms of lament include Psalm 25, 31, 44, 69, 86, 89, and 140. Praying these psalms can help us express the pain we are carrying. Even Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 when he suffered on the cross, saying, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Structured Grief

Most psalms of lament follow a similar pattern, which you can see in Psalm 13 above.

First, there is a complaint, in which the psalmist cries out to God with a description of what is happening. David feels forgotten and cut-off from God wondering if God has forgotten him.

Second, there’s a description of pain. David has revolt in his soul and deep sorrow, and an adversary who is exalted over him. The tangible hurts are named and brought before God.

Third, there’s a plea for action. David calls on God to pay attention and enlighten him, proving his enemies wrong. There is a demand for God to right the wrong and bring justice.

Finally, there’s an expression of trust that God will be faithful to his promises. David trusts in God’s steadfast love and looks forward to a heart capable of rejoicing once again. This a move to re-center the heart to trusting in God’s loving character.

Aiming at God

It’s worth noting the relationship David claims regarding God here. Because God created us and cares for us, we have the right to call on him. He promised to be God to his people, and without creator in control, there is no one to complain to.

The Psalms rehearse who God is and what God has done; they both celebrate and demand God’s continued faithfulness. Consider these verses in an angry voice:

“But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Turn to me and have mercy on me; grant your strength to your servant” (Psalm 86:15-16).

Can God take it? Is God big enough to absorb all your rage? How do you think God responds? How do you think God feels about your pain?

Write Your Own

How different is this from the way you speak with God? Where do you think talking to God this way might lead you? Take a few moments to write like the psalmists. Write a few sentences under each of these headings, and compose your own psalm of lament:

  • Complaint: Tell God What is Happening
  • Description: Tell God about your Pain
  • Plea: Tell God What You Want Him to Do
  • Trust: Tell God you trust him, even when life is tough

God is big enough to take whatever you have to say as you wander your valley of grief. May we be able to declare with the psalmist:

“You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you. Hear my prayer, O LORD; listen to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 86: 5-6).

About the author — Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

Steven Koster is a writer, speaker, and producer with Family Fire. Formerly the Director of ReFrame Media, Family Fire's parent organization, Steven currently serves at Grace Church and consults on ministry through The Joshua Lab. He also leads a hospitality ministry at The Parsonage Inn and enjoys family tree research as time allows. Steven and his wife Deb enjoy leading marriage retreats and family seminars to encourage people in their most intimate relationships. The Kosters are the parents of three awesome young adults and reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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