You don’t have to be a smart to work out that human beings are not happy all the time. Life comes with bitterness and disappointments. There are times of agony and periods of suffering. And followers of Jesus are not exempt from that.
We have not been called to a life on cloud-nine. We are not commanded to smile and ‘feel great’ all the time. We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, mind, strength and soul and to do that even when life hurts. Worship in the times like these is known as lamenting and it brings great joy to the heart of God.
Jesus himself was familiar with lamenting. In John 11:28-40 Jesus wept knowing that one of his close friends had died. He was ‘deeply moved’. The Greek text shows us that the tears Jesus shed for Lazarus were bitter tears of lament fuelled by a passionate hatred towards death.
Jesus was also ‘sorrowful and troubled’ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Be encouraged by the scenes that unfold here in the garden. Jesus knew what was ahead of him. He was to be betrayed and arrested, falsely accused and unjustly tried. He would be beaten and abused, then led off to be publicly executed in shame, then die a gruesome death. Jesus knew what was coming and, in his humanity, fully experienced the reality of sorrow. And yet, he expressed worship in the midst of his sorrow by fully obeying the Father.
We will face times in life when God focused lamenting feels like the only expression of worship we can turn to, and to ignore the realities of distress in our lives is dangerous. But to consider these times of great pain as an opportunity to not worship God is even more perilous. It is never a wrong time to worship God. Even in the darkest times of our lives we can and should worship him. It might look very different to how we express worship when everything is going well. But even in the times of the greatest pain we can choose to worship God as Job did (Job 1:20-21). Job’s suffering was too great for words! But his decision to worship God in that suffering is left as an incredible example for us.
We are able to truly express worship to God, not by putting on a brave face, but instead by acknowledging our pain and being honest about what is in our hearts. Psalm 31 is a good example of this kind of worship in action. It is marked for the chief musician to use in the Tabernacle. It is to be sung to music in a public worship context. It highlights to us the importance of real honesty with God in the way we express worship not only when we are on our own, but also when we gather with the church. It is a song of anguish and a prayer for deliverance. There are cries for protection. There are confessions of loneliness and pleads for God to be merciful. We find acknowledgments of distress. Throw in some confessions of spiritual and physical weakness and here we have a fun blown lament. This worship song expresses a deep need for God to be our rock and refuge in the hardest times of life!
David shows God is not after upbeat, feel-good church get togethers if they do not truly reflect what’s going on in our hearts. God does not want us to pretend that we are doing better than we actually are. It is important to recognise that a church that never allows space for worshipful expressions of lament is not like the congregation which David gathered at the Tabernacle.
The second half of Psalm 31 however, teaches us that our songs of lament must not end the same way that they begin. The psalm starts with anguish but then ends in verse 14-24 by expressing a secure trust that the Lord has goodness and mercy in store. Interestingly, after lamenting the death of Lazarus, Jesus goes onto raise him from the dead. Jesus’ lament does not end the same way as it began.
God wants us to be honest with him. But he also wants us to choose to worship him because he knows that it is in a place of honest worship that we will find the greatest hope and the greatest comfort in our pain. Let’s allow time and space in our own private times, but also when we gather publicly for people to lament as an act of worship.
‘Even when he cannot see the why and the wherefore of God’s dealing, he knows that there is love in and behind them, and so he can rejoice always, even when, humanly speaking, things are going wrong, he knows that the true story of his life, when known, will prove to be, as the hymn says, ‘mercy from first to last’ – and he is content.’ – J.I. Packer
‘A man filled with the Spirit who has met God in a living encounter can worship God in the silence or the storm.’ – A.W. Tozer
‘God understands us so well that he permits, even encourages, us to speak to him with uncensored hearts.’ – Tim Keller