Where do you turn when life overwhelms you? Rocky road ice cream? The latest Netflix series? Your favorite sports team? Your social media feed? Living on this side of the veil of tears, the question is not if but when will life overwhelm.
Christians, of course, are not exempted from life’s tumultuous waves. Where do we turn? How do we turn? So often our richest resources in the church are neglected. A good Christian would surely answer “God’s Word” as a place to turn in distress. But where in the Scriptures specifically? Throughout the history of God’s people, the Psalms in particular have been a resource for the hopeless, for the discouraged, for the distressed. One thing they continually do for us—no matter our station and experience in life—is bring us near to God as our only resource.
Psalm 102 is a striking and helpful example of this. When overwhelmed, when at the end of himself, the psalmist turns to God. What I want to focus on in this first post on Psalm 102 is that God is a God to whom we can bring brutal lament. My second post on this psalm will look at how God is a God who can help.
The psalm starts with a note of urgency: Lord, hear! Listen! Do not hide Your face! Incline Your ear! Answer quickly! The psalmist is a desperate man, but, in his distress, he calls out to God: “Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you!” The most important element of this opening is not the psalmist’s distress but that he calls on God in his distress. Distress calls on God.
Now, the specifics of the psalmist’s distress are not given, because the psalmist wants us to focus on his sense of discouragement. The language is striking: the psalmist’s bones burn, his heart is struck down, he forgets to eat, he utters loud groaning, his bones cling to flesh. There is an illness of some sort that is contributing to his distress. There are enemies too. What’s more, he feels as if God has “thrown him out,” shut him out of His presence. If this section of the psalm has a mood, it’s one of discouragement. The psalmist feels abandoned and lonely, like a desert owl in the wilderness, like a lone bird on a rooftop with the only thing around the empty sky.
The first eleven verses of Psalm 102 are pretty bleak . . . but honest. They catch the universal experience of the Christian at one time or another. John Calvin said the Psalms present to us a “complete anatomy of the soul.” He went on to say: “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn . . . all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”1
Centuries before Calvin, Athanasius wrote that “from the Psalms those who want to do so can learn the emotions and dispositions of the soul, finding in them also the therapy and correction suited for each emotion. If the point needs to be made more forcefully, let us say that the entire Holy Scripture is a teacher of virtues and the truths of faith, while the Book of Psalms possesses somehow the perfect image for the soul’s course of life.”2
We see in Psalm 102 the darker side of our soul’s course, prompted by the difficulty of life and the feelings that follow.
Finding the Right Words
But what words do we use in difficult times? So often distress and discouragement cause us to throw up our hands—even in prayer. But what we find with the psalmist is he has resource in his distress to a treasury of words. Amazingly, these words echo and borrow from the words of other psalms: For “let my cry,” see Psalm 18:6; for “do not hide your face,” see Psalm 27:9; for “in the day of my distress,” see Psalm 59:16; for “incline your ear,” see Psalm 31:2; for “in the day when I call,” see Psalm 56:9; for “answer me speedily,” see Psalm 69:17.
When we are troubled and cast down, we might not pray, we might not call on God for many reasons, but often it is because we don’t know the words to pray. The Psalms open our mouths and give us the words. The psalmist here appears to be appropriating language from other psalms. The psalmist’s mind and heart were marinated in the Word, and therefore, in expressing his deepest feelings, he used Scripture naturally because it was part of his interior life.
Is it a part of our life? When we are tempted to be mute before God, do we turn to Scripture, to the Psalms in particular, and let them open our mouths and even supply our words?
It Is OK to Lament
The Psalms indeed present a complete anatomy of the soul, even the darker side illumined by the travails of life. And they tell us it is okay to lament.
Leonard Cohen, who passed away a few years ago, was known for his soulful songwriting, which often slid into outright lament—somehow fitting given a voice once described as deeper than a Siberian coal mine. Back in 1974, he commented on traditions of lament. The first tradition of which he speaks is familiar, because it is the knee-jerk response of our culture, even pockets of the evangelical church, that we are tempted to fall into. Cohen said:
You have a tradition on the one hand that says if things are bad we should not dwell on the sadness. . . . We should play a happy song, a merry tune. Strike up the band and dance the best we can, even if we are suffering from a concussion. And then there’s another tradition, and this is a more Oriental or Middle Eastern tradition, which says that if things are really bad the best thing to do is sit by the grave and wail, and that’s the way you are going to feel better. I think both these efforts are intended to lift the spirit. And my own tradition, which is the Hebraic tradition, suggests that you sit next to the disaster and lament. The notion of the lamentation seems to me to be the way to do it. You don’t avoid the situation—you throw yourself into it, fearlessly.3
Cohen is right, but only partly so. We have in Psalm 102 a model for throwing ourselves fearlessly into the spiritual and emotional void. But if that’s all we ever do, our eyes will only know the ground and eventual darkness.
What does the psalmist do? He’s in a bad spot, he’s being honest with his emotional state, and he’s talking. But, the most important observation is to whom he is talking: God. And as we will see in the next article, the One whom the psalmist addresses makes all the difference.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 11, 2020.