How the Laments Speak to Our Fears
We had planned the trip for months. I looked forward to seeing God’s wonders on display in the majestic peaks of Northern California. I couldn’t wait to hear the sounds of rushing water and stand beside the towering ancient pines.
After a long hike, we waited for our turn to stand at the rickety metal fence that was the only thing keeping us from falling thousands of feet to the Yosemite Valley below. As soon as I stepped up to the fence, my stomach grew nauseous. Then my head started spinning and all I wanted to do was run the other way. I could barely stay long enough for someone to take our picture.
So Many Fears
We’ve all met fear before. It’s been a ready companion since the day our first parent’s fell into sin and hid from God. We fear all kinds of things, from heights to deadly storms; from debilitating illness to lost jobs; from terror attacks to empty nests; from failure to the unknown future. For some of us, fear is a constant companion, enslaving us, ruling our days and our choices.
Some run and hide, staying as far from what they fear as possible. Others spend their days plotting ways to control what they fear. We search online to find solutions to our fears, only to end up more fearful. In the end, no matter what we do, fear wins the day as it robs us of our joy.
As believers, we know the Bible’s frequent admonitions against fear. We know that God calls us to trust in Him and to depend on Him alone in the face of fear. But the question is, "How?" How do we live in a broken and fallen world where fears surround us on every side? How do we turn to God in the midst of such fears?
Fear and the Psalms of Lament
God is rich in grace; He does not call us to a task without giving us the grace we need to carry it out. He provides this grace through His word which is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). One of the most profitable parts of His word--often overlooked, yet full of instruction for the life of faith--are the Psalms of Lament.
Most of us have turned to the Psalms when we are overwhelmed by the cares of this life--and, for good reason. As Calvin noted, the Psalms are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul. They mirror what is happening in our hearts in vivid prose, describing the deep pains of life in ways that we all understand.
The Psalms were not simply beautiful poems but were the songbook for God’s people. The Israelites sang them in worship the way we sing hymns on Sunday morning. They even sang the laments, the darkest of all the Psalms. Such psalms express the hardest and most painful of all emotions that humans feel: sorrow, rejection, despair, and fear.
While many of us might read through the laments in Scripture and find comfort knowing that the Psalmist felt the same emotions as we do, there is more to the prayers of lament than meet the eye. Most of them have a common structure and movement. They follow a similar trajectory, moving from negative to positive; from sorrow to joy, from fear to trust. When it comes to the fears that grip our hearts, there is much we can learn from the laments.
1. Cry to God for help: The Psalms of Lament begin with the psalmist crying out to God. In Psalm 142, David is being hunted down by his enemies. No doubt he is feeling a number of emotions, one of which is fear. He cries to God, “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” (vs.1-2). He also asks for God’s help and deliverance, “Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me! Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name!” (6-7).
The Psalms of Lament show us that we can turn to God with our fears. We should pause and marvel at the fact that God’s people sang laments. What grace from our loving Father! God knows how fearful this fallen world is and through the laments, He invites us to voice our own fears to Him. As His adopted children, He also calls us to depend on Him and seek His help, wisdom, and deliverance. No other religion proclaims a God who desires for His people to come to Him with their cares. No other religion has a God who collects their tears in a bottle. No other religion calls sinners to boldly approach the throne of grace, to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
2. Remember: Another theme found in the laments is how the Psalmist focuses on who God is and what he has done. Fear is often a matter of forgetfulness. We forget who God is and what accomplished for us in Christ. In Psalm 142, David reminds himself, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (vs. 5).
Other laments go into greater detail, remembering specific things God had done for his people. “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77: 11-12).
On this side of redemptive history, all the Psalms--even the Psalms of lament--have been fulfilled in Christ. When we read them, we should have great joy knowing that Christ is God’s answer to all the cries of our heart. He came to bear our sins, burdens, and sorrows. He came to face our deepest fear: eternal separation from God. He cried His own lament to the Father as the representative of His people (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 26:36-46; Matt. 27:46). Jesus suffered the punishment that we deserved so that we could be rescued and redeemed.
While the various writers of laments often looked back to the ways in which God had delivered His people--particularly at the exodus--we can look back to our own exodus from sin at the cross (Luke 9:31). In turning our hearts to the truth of the Gospel, we replace our fears with the fear of God--i.e. the only fear that Scripture calls us to have.
3. Respond in trust: Nearly all the Psalms of Lament end with a response of trust, praise, and worship. As the Psalmist focused on whom God is and what he had done, his fear was replaced with hope. He responded in trust that God would indeed deliver Him. He worshipped and praised God for His steadfast love and faithfulness. “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!” (Psalm 41:13).
The Psalms of Lament invite us to do the same. As we bring our fears to God, cry out for His help, and dwell on His love for us in Christ, we too can respond in trust and worship. Though our circumstances might not immediately change, we worship because we know wherein our hope lies.
If fear is a frequent companion in your life, read and study the Psalms of Lament. Follow the pattern of the laments in your own prayers and rejoice in what God has done for you in Christ.
Bruce Waltke, James Houston and Erika Moore The Psalms as Christian Lament
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