How you begin a collection of poems or songs matters; the opening sets the tone. As we’ve seen, the Psalms open with a poem that establishes a fundamental vision of two ways to live: following the path of righteousness, which leads to blessing and prosperity, or the path of wickedness, which leads to destruction. We’ve looked at other examples of what Walter Brueggemann would call “psalms of orientation,” or psalms that help establish a faithful way of knowing God as well as understanding and living in the world. Psalm 23, for example, teaches us in our weakness and vulnerability to trust our divine Shepherd. Psalm 8 directs us to shift our gaze from the marvel of creation to the majesty of its Creator.
Notice, though, what happens when we begin with Psalm 1 and keep reading. Psalm 2 celebrates the coronation of the anointed king. Then, before we get to the ode to the wonders of creation in Psalm 8, Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 all address the psalmist’s need for help. Overwhelmed by enemies, persecutors, and even illness, the psalmist prays to God for rescue and deliverance.
Lament and disorientation, in other words, are not occasional to the Psalms, snuck in here and there for the sake of keeping the collection well-rounded. Such complaints are right up front, prominently displayed for all to read and recite, sing and pray.
Such is the deep honesty of the Psalms. Taken out of the context of the Psalter as a whole, Psalm 1 could be read idealistically, as if it supported a simple prosperity gospel. But Psalms 3 through 7, and many, many others, will have none of it. Sometimes, the faithful suffer. It may be for their own sin, but often it’s through no fault of their own, and they are left crying out to God for help, waiting for what seems like an eternity for an answer. Thus, the Psalms do not teach how to avoid suffering through faith. On the contrary, they teach how to be faithful in suffering.
And part of that faithfulness is in putting that suffering into words and bringing the words before God.
To put the matter differently: psalms of orientation teach us how things should be in a universe created by a loving God. But psalms of disorientation express what it’s like to look out at the world around us and realize that things are not as they should be — not even close. We need only to think of all the headlines of the past year to know this to be true: global pandemic, political unrest, racial violence, and all the collateral effects of each in our families, churches, and relationships.
Nor can we afford the naivete of hoping things will eventually be “just fine” again; they weren’t fine to begin with, and never were. We live in a world marked by sin, brokenness, and injustice. To use Cornelius Plantinga’s phrase, sin is “not the way it’s supposed to be.” The world and its inhabitants are out of sync with God’s creation purposes. To be oriented by the knowledge of God’s purposes and character is to be disoriented by the reality of this broken world — and it is out of that disorientation that lament arises.
. . .
This is where we have to be careful in recognizing the role of lament in the life of faith. I have said before that the psalms of lament or complaint give us permission to say what we are often leery of saying in front of other believers: that things are not “fine”; that God feels distant or even absent; that we wrestle with bitterness, anger, and thoughts of vengeance; that we’re tempted to bag the whole sorry mess and walk away.
In its most general form, lament cries out to God, “My situation is terrible and I want you to do something about it!” But the question here is whether what we want is what God wants. Out of what orientation does the disorientation arise? For example, were we schooled in some version of the prosperity gospel, believing at some level that Christians are supposed to have a trouble-free life if they just do all the right things? If so, we should not expect God to answer such lament by eliminating pain, challenge, and adversity from our lives.
God’s desire for his creation, for his people, is shalom — usually translated as “peace” — which includes wholeness and justice. The Psalms do not authorize any and all complaint. That’s not to say that God will turn a deaf ear unless we get the words right. But in the lament psalms as a whole, beneath the grittiness of the words, lies a vision of how things should be, how God would want them to be. Our prayers of lament, in other words, should at root be prayers for the restoration of shalom.
The psalmist may sometimes complain in selfish ways. How the psalmist wants things to be may not align with God’s will for the psalmist or the world. But that’s okay. I imagine that if God were to send some prophetic correction his way, the psalmist would readily (or perhaps grudgingly) accept it.
May the same be true of our complaints.