Learning to Lament (Sermon)
This week we watched an old romantic comedy together as a family. At one point in the movie, we paused it and someone said, “Wow, there’s still an hour left. I thought it was almost over.” Someone else responded, “No, they haven’t had the misunderstanding, the break-up, and the fight yet.” Then we started to guess what the crisis would be that caused the inevitable conflict. Every romantic comedy seems to follow the same pattern. Misunderstanding, strained relationships, pain and loneliness, frustration—this is probably the only part of the movie that’s true to life.
The Dread Pirate Roberts famously said, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” He may be overstating things a bit—life is more than pain—but he’s right that life includes pain. Pain is inevitable; it’s undeniable. Just as every year has summer and winter, every life has seasons of pleasure and seasons of pain, seasons of growth and seasons of death, seasons of sunshine and seasons of darkness, seasons of warmth and seasons of cold.
We generally understand how to respond to the good seasons of life. We know how to give thanks and to celebrate. But how do we handle the dark and difficult seasons? What are we supposed to say and do when life is filled with disappointment, fear, and pain?
The Psalms give us a vocabulary for pain called lament. One author defined lament like this: “Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.”[i] Lament is the language of longing and loss. How do you talk to a good God when life isn’t good? What do you say when you don’t know what to say? When all you want to do is scream? The Psalms help us understand how to lament the dark and stormy days. One-third of the psalms can be categorized as lament.[ii] God wants us to know what to do when the sun refuses to shine, when the storm clouds just won’t lift.
Psalm 3 is the first of the lament psalms. It’s placement in the book of Psalms teaches us an important lesson. In the first two psalms we learned how to live a blessed life. If we will meditate on God’s Word and submit to God’s Son, we will enjoy God’s blessings. We would expect Psalm 3 to open with someone living the good life, but instead it opens with a cry of despair, the haunting sounds of distress. What happened to the blessed life? Here’s what we see in the placement of Psalm 3. The life of blessing leads through seasons of lament. Just as winter comes each year, so does difficulty. God’s blessing does not eliminate pain and suffering, so we need to learn how to walk through seasons of lament.
In this first psalm of lament, we discover four steps to lament. Four steps to navigate life’s difficult seasons.
Step #1: Turn to God When You’re Overwhelmed (1a)
The very first word in this psalm is “LORD.” In the midst of a heartbreaking season filled with pain and difficulty, David turns to the Lord and cries out to Him.
The heading of the Psalm explains what David is experiencing when he writes this psalm. It says, “A psalm of David when he flees from his son Absalom.” These events are recorded in 2 Samuel 15-17. For four years, David’s son, Absalom, stationed himself outside of Jerusalem to greet travelers on their way to the city to get a legal ruling from the king. He told them the king wouldn’t be able to hear their case, but he could instead. His scheming “stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 15:6).
When he had enough men on his side, he asked his father for permission to go to Hebron to fulfill a vow he had made to the Lord there. He sent secret messengers ahead of him to rally the men of Israel to Hebron where Absalom would be made king. When the news reached David, he and his royal court fled out of Jerusalem and into the wilderness before Absalom’s army could arrive.
Can you imagine being betrayed by your own son, fleeing from your home, wondering if you and your family would be caught and killed? Where does David turn when he’s overwhelmed? When his heart is heavy? When his world is falling apart? Where are you tempted to turn?
A lot of us turn first to family and friends. Our immediate thought is, “I need to tell my husband/wife about this.” “I need to call ________ and let them know what happened.” It’s easy for us who have believing spouses and parents to make them our first call.
Sometimes we don’t turn to someone else, but instead try to figure it out on our own. We rehash the circumstances over and over—in the shower, when we’re in bed trying to sleep, when we’re in the car driving somewhere. Our brains won’t shut down. We spin our problem around in our mind like a Rubik’s cube, trying to figure out a solution.
It seems that some people turn first to social media to broadcast their problems to the public. Every day is Festivus, and it’s time to air their grievances.
But the first step in lament is turning to God. David cries out to the LORD. He doesn’t use the generic word for God, but God’s covenant name, the name God used to reveal Himself to Moses, the name which signifies rescue and redemption. When David cries out to the LORD, he is appealing to the God who has promised to be present with His people, the God who promised to care for His own, the God who promised to fight His people’s battles and care for them like a shepherd cares for His sheep.
When you’re overwhelmed, turn to God. The worst thing you can do is ignore God and try to figure it out on your own. As one pastor wrote, “Giving God the silent treatment is the ultimate manifestation of unbelief.”[iii] We don’t have to figure out what to say to God or even how to say it, but we need to turn to Him. Maybe “Lord” is the only word we can vocalize, but it’s enough. Brothers and sisters, when life is spinning out of control, when you’re feeling crushed by anxiety and despair, when you’re hanging on by a single thread, turn to God.
Step #2: Tell God All of Your Concerns (1b-2)
David turns to God, and he outlines all that’s weighing on his heart and mind. He has a growing number of enemies, and they’re attacking him with weapons and with words.
Psalms 3:1-2 (CSB) Lord, how my foes increase! There are many who attack me. Many say about me, “There is no help for him in God.”
Not only is David reeling from his son’s betrayal, but he’s also worried about those who have aligned themselves with his son. Absalom has raised a large army, and it seems to just keep increasing in size. In the midst of everything else he’s facing, David has to deal with the growing prosperity of his enemies. That’s especially difficult, isn’t it? It’s bad enough when things are going poorly for us, but it’s even worse when those who are hurting us grow more and more successful.
What bothers David the most is what they are saying about him and God. They are saying God won’t save David. He’s no longer on David’s side. This cuts David to the heart. Like the thrust of a dagger, what they say pierces to his very soul. I think there are two reasons this comment affected David so strongly.
One reason is because David understood his own sin. He had sinned terribly, and his sin is what destroyed his family. He had not only committed adultery and murder, but he had failed to deal with his children’s wickedness, including the rape of his daughter by one of his sons. Part of him understood that God had every right to ignore Him, every reason to let Absalom prevail.
The second reason this affected David is because he understood God’s faithfulness. God was faithful to David in spite of David’s repeated unfaithfulness. To hear God’s faithfulness questioned caused David great pain.
What do we do when the questions and doubts arise about God’s faithfulness to us? Be ready. These attacks will come during difficult times. One Old Testament scholar noted this about the Psalms. In the Psalms, “the enemies of God assume that God does not know, does not care, or will not act to relieve the suffering of His beloved ones.”[iv] When the clouds won’t lift, we’ll be tempted to believe God doesn’t care.
One way we fight against this temptation is to honestly share our disappointments and struggles with God. We don’t stay silent. Instead we list our struggles one by one. We’re not making accusations about God’s character or condemning Him for what’s happening, but we are honestly telling him what we’re facing and what we’re feeling about it. If you’re frustrated with the circumstances of your life, God already knows it. Don’t hide it from Him. Talk to Him about it.
Elisha Hoffman was a minister in a rural, poor part of Pennsylvania in the mid-1800’s. When he wasn’t studying, he would visit the fields where many of his people worked. One day he was visiting with a mother overwhelmed with sorrow and grief. He shared verses of Scripture with her, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, he suggested she needed to tell all of her struggles to Jesus. When he said this, her face brightened, and she responded, “Yes! I must tell Jesus.” Then she fell to her knees and poured her heart out to the Lord. Elisha was so moved by what he saw that he returned home and wrote these words:
I must tell Jesus all of my trials;
I cannot bear these burdens alone
In my distress He kindly will help me;
He ever loves and cares for His own.”
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
I cannot bear my burdens alone;
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.[v]
Sometimes we short-circuit lament because we fail to be honest with Jesus about our concerns. We don’t want to admit what we’re struggling with. We don’t want to vocalize the ugliness of our heart, and so we keep it locked down deep inside. This lack of complete disclosure leads to bitterness and unresolved anger. Learning to lament means learning to tell Jesus all of your trials.
Step #3: Trust God to Remain Faithful (3-7)
This psalm turns in verse three with the word “but.” People are saying one thing about God, but what they’re saying is not true. As David speaks to God honestly about his struggles, his perspective is changing from telling to trusting, from complaint to confidence. As he looks to God in faith, David rehearses three ways God is faithful to Him. God’s faithfulness is seen through His tender care, His sustaining grace, and His timely help.
Psalms 3:3-4 (CSB) But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head. I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain.
David walked out of Jerusalem, leaving the mountain where the holy temple would be built, defeated and dishonored. 2 Samuel 15:30a (CSB) David was climbing the slope of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he ascended. His head was covered, and he was walking barefoot.
David may have been alone and unarmed, but he knew God would be his shield. No one could harm him unless God allowed it.
David may have lost his reputation and riches, but no one could take from him what mattered most, his God.
David may have his head down, tears running down his cheeks, but God would take him by the chin and lift His head up.
David trusted God’s tender care for His people. Brothers and sisters, do you believe God cares for you? On this side of Calvary, where God gave His son to free us from sin, we should never wonder if He loves us. Do you believe He loves you deeply, truly, and tenderly? Do you understand that God loves you like a father loves his children, like a mother loves her nursing infant? David trusted God because he understood God’s tender care.
Psalms 3:5-6 (CSB) I lie down and sleep; I wake again because the Lord sustains me. I will not be afraid of thousands of people who have taken their stand against me on every side.
When we think of great feats of faith, we generally think of killing giants, conquering kingdoms, fighting battles, and enduring persecution. But going to sleep when you’re surrounded by suffering takes as much faith as standing in front of a giant. Sleep is an act of faith. When we sleep, we trust our safety and our future to the only One who never sleeps.
Psalms 121:3-4 (CSB) He will not allow your foot to slip; your Protector will not slumber. Indeed, the Protector of Israel does not slumber or sleep.
Could your struggle to sleep stem from a failure to trust God to care for you? Do you lie awake at night wrestling through all your problems and troubles because you won’t hand them over to God and let Him deal with them?
I want you to ponder a couple questions: Why do you wake up each morning? During the night did you keep your heart pumping and your lungs expanding? Did your iron will keep your veins from bursting or your blood from clotting? No. Every morning is a testimony to God’s sustaining grace.
If you’re 18 years old, that’s 6,570 testimonies of God’s faithfulness to you.
If you’re 40 years old, that’s 14,600 testimonies of God’s faithfulness to you.
If you’re 65 years old, that’s 23,725 testimonies of God’s faithfulness to you.
Sleep is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.
Psalms 127:2 (CSB) In vain you get up early and stay up late, working hard to have enough food—yes, he gives sleep to the one he loves.
Sleep assures us that everything does not rest on our shoulders. It reminds us of what’s most important. It encourages us to trust God for each new day.
When David closed his eyes to sleep the night he escaped from Jerusalem, he did so trusting God with his life. During the night, he was helpless, exposed, and unprotected. When he woke up, alive, the next morning, he was reminded of God’s sustaining grace.
Psalms 3:7 (CSB) Rise up, Lord! Save me, my God! You strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
“Rise up, Lord!” is a battlecry (Num. 10:35). David is asking God to intervene in this situation, just as He has so many times in the past. He’s confident God will protect Him and rescue Him. God will make his enemies toothless. He will break their jaws so they cannot devour David.
Notice the order here—it’s important. David trusted God before God delivered Him. We trust God when we don’t yet see when or how God is going to work. Trust leads to salvation. We trust God in the dark of midnight, not just at the break of dawn.
Lament begins with turning to God, then telling God our struggles, and trusting God to remain faithful. This brings us to the fourth and final step of lament.
Step #4: Thank God for His Salvation (8)
Even before God acted, David responded with gratitude. He knew God’s character and was confident God would act in love toward him. God always saves His people. It may not arrive on our schedule, but it will arrive as certain as the sunrise. God always ultimately saves His people. He may save us from death, or He may save us through death. But He always saves.
Psalms 3:8 (CSB) Salvation belongs to the Lord; may your blessing be on your people
God doesn’t guarantee the timing or the means, but He guarantees the end. If you’re a Christian, that means He saved you, He saves you, and He will save you. Salvation belongs to Him, and He always wields it for our good. We can sing lyrics like we did earlier because we know that salvation belongs to the Lord. Do you remember what we sang? Do you believe it? Even in the midst of trouble and trials?
My hope is hidden in the Lord
He flow'rs each promise of His Word
When winter fades I know spring will come
The Lord is my salvation
In times of waiting, times of need
When I know loss, when I am weak
I know His grace will renew these days
The Lord is my salvation
And when I reach my final day
He will not leave me in the grave
But I will rise, He will call me home
The Lord is my salvation
Like David, we know that winter will fade and spring will come because God has made it so. Mourning will be replaced with dancing. Weeping with celebration. Those who sorrow will be comforted, even the dead will rise again. Because of this, we praise God for His salvation from seasons of suffering, even if the suffering has yet to end.
As we think about lament, about giving voice to our longing and loss, we don’t just find comfort and hope in David’s experiences, but in the fact that Jesus learned to lament. Our Lord, our Savior, left heaven and entered humanity. He hurt. He wept. He felt sorrow and anguish. He was the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3). What did Jesus do in dark seasons? He responded to sorrow and suffering with lament.
Hebrews 5:7-10a (CSB) During his earthly life, he offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. After he was perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, and he was declared by God a high priest.
Jesus turned to His Father when overwhelmed by sorrow, told Him about His struggles, and trusted Him to remain faithful. And now Jesus is a priest who understands our suffering and intercedes for us. He knows what it’s like to feel the weight of the world on His shoulders. He understands how much it hurts when you’re betrayed by a family member or close friend. He has weeped because life was unfair and those He cared about faced injustice. Jesus knows.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus knows. Turn to Him when life is just too hard. Tell Him about your struggles. Trust Him to be faithful. Thank Him for what He has done and will do.
Jesus also knows what it means to reach the far side of lament. He rose from the grave. He won. Because He sits on the throne, lament will not always be needed. One day, our songs of lament will be retired, never to be sung again.
Until that day, when sorrow comes, I must tell Jesus. When suffering comes, you must tell Jesus. When life is overwhelming and fear, anxiety, or despair threatens to crush us, we must tell Jesus. We cannot bear these burdens alone…and we don’t need to. Jesus invites all who are weary and burdened to come to Him for rest. For rest, for sleep, having laid their burdens down at His feet. Don’t keep struggling alone. Tell Jesus.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2020.
[i] Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 26.
[ii] Ibid., 29.
[iii] Ibid., 32.
[iv] W. Robert Godfrey, Learning to Love the Psalms (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2017), 54.
[v] Lindsay Terry, “Story Behind the Song: ‘I Must Tell Jesus’” The St. Augustine Record, July 30, 2015