The Russian invasion of Ukraine is deeply disturbing. I love Ukraine. I love its people and its culture. In fact, my two-weeks in Ukraine changed my life. And now to watch Ukrainian cities being destroyed, its people butchered and its land turned into a wasteland is unbearable. In fact, it is pure evil. So, here’s the question: what can we do about it?
When we lived in Miami, we didn’t live in the nicest of apartment buildings. In fact, it was necessary, when you took out the trash, to throw rocks at the dumpster before you got too close so that whatever critters were inside could bolt before you opened the lid. And call me crazy, but I could live happily ever after without having another dumpster rat snarl or hiss at me. Now, that thought alone was pretty terrifying, but I never really considered what else might be out there until, one day, two young kids decided to go fishing in the canal right behind our dumpster. Now, canals are everywhere in Florida. They are designed to carry excess water out of the city and into the Everglades. But sometimes the Everglades decide they would like to come into town. So here these boys were, fishing right behind our apartment, when one of them hooked something on the bottom. He stepped into the canal to get better leverage. When he finally stopped, he was up to his thighs. Suddenly, an alligator came out of nowhere and clamped down on his leg. The boy screamed, and then he was gone. The alligator had pulled him under the water. The other boy immediately went for help’ and within minutes, the police were there with rifles, scanning the water for targets. And they weren’t alone. Wild life experts came with tools to capture or kill any gators they may find. And for five hours they searched diligently before the other kid admitted it was all a hoax. He was fishing alone; and because fishing in a canal is brain-numbingly boring, he decided to play a hoax. He made up the whole story. Trust me: No boys were hurt in the making of this blog. But here’s the thing: I had never once considered that there were angry, angry gators in that canal. For all I know, there might have been hungry, hungry hippos in there, as well! But here I was worrying about tiny rats when nine-foot alligators were lurking just a few feet away, waiting for me just to step into the water. Bottom line: I never took out the trash again.
What do you do if you have an alligator problem? It kind of depends upon where you are. In Florida, you call the Alligator Nuisance Hotline; but in the church, you are to do one of two things. Either, you put a smile on your face and shut up because the church believes that good Christians should never have problems or you can whine and complain. Two choices: You can either do the godly thing and say nothing about your problems and deny, deny, deny or you can go on and on and on about how miserable and unfair life is and go on a rant about how God is cruel. In short, you have all these happy churches which deny their problems, and you have these grumpy churches where everyone just vomits over each other in their attempt to rail against God. Neither path is close to healthy.
But here’s the good news. There is a better way. It’s called the lament. In the lament, we turn to God and honestly describe our pain, but we don’t stop there. Instead, after we have lifted up our complaint, we express our unwavering faith in the goodness of God. In a nutshell, the lament is brutally honest, deeply emotional, highly engaged and profoundly confident in the goodness of God. You can see all of this in Psalm 13:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Let’s be honest: we don’t often hear prayers that contain both a brutal complaint and an unwavering trust. And the reason is clear: we find them inauthentic. See, you can deny your situation and gut it out by faith or you can abandon your faith while you bemoan and bewail your situation. What you can’t do is both. But the Psalmist would disagree and disagree strongly. That’s simple to prove. Out of the 150 total Psalms, scholars argue that 67 of them are psalms of lament. And yet, if we were asked to describe the book of Psalms, our knee-jerk reaction would be to say the Psalms are songs of praise (and we would never suggest they were mostly songs of lament or complaint). And isn’t it strange that all these songs of anguish and protest and mourning and praise were gathered together into a single collection so that Israel could have all the words they needed in worship. In other words, God has given us numerous psalms of lament because he feels that in this broken world, lament ought to be a normal and regular part of our worship service. But the church today doesn’t want to go there. It’s too scary, too difficult, and too uncontrollable. But the Bible wants us to be real, to be authentic, and to come honestly before God with our sorrow and with our fears. And the Bible wants us to wrestle with God, holding nothing back, but to do so in faith. And let me be clear: that is hard to do. It is far easier to be all smiles and denials or to be all miserable and despicable all the time. After all, it is easy to stand back and accuse God of evil and to question his plan. And it is easy to turn our backs on God (especially since it feels like he first turned his back on us). But the psalms call us to move in a different direction and to do the hard, hard work of a lament. Bottom line: I think the Bible is far more honest and realistic than we are! And you can see that in Psalm 13.
The psalmist opens the psalm with four poignant emotional questions back-to-back-to-back-to-back: “How long, O Lord?” And then he adds even more fuel to the fire by asking a question that borders on an accusation (“Will you forget me forever?”). And then he follows that up with a demand for a reply (“Look on me and answer, Lord my God.”). But he is still not done. He gives an urgent plea and two reasons why God should answer his prayer (“Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.”). In all four verses, the Psalmist’s anguish is tangible. He feels abandoned by God, forgotten by him and rejected; and he demands that God act on his behalf. But throughout all this, the psalmist never gives up on God. In the lament, God’s people show incredible faith, for in the lament, every trace of God seems to have vanished, but nevertheless, the psalmist cries out to him like he right there. And while there is absolutely no sign of God’s goodness, the psalmist still believes that God is good.
That’s what I love about these psalms. They express authentic faith in the midst of authentic pain without minimizing either. And even in the darkness, the psalmist still calls God, his God (verse 3). And just when everything seems to be absolutely hopeless, it is then that the psalmist breaks out into praise. In short, no matter how bleak things are, the psalmist still turns to God. And that is the defining characteristic of a lament. The first two words of verse 5 say it all. In Hebrew, they occupy a place of special emphasis in the forefront of the sentence. The psalmist says, “My circumstances are horrific, my pain is overwhelming, my world is coming apart at the seams, BUT I will trust in you.”
But we are not done. Verses 5-6 tell the true story of the Psalm. The psalmist writes: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” And yet, for me, that’s where the tires fall off. How can he say God has been good to him? Just the opposite is true, but the psalmist realizes something I often forget. The psalmist knows that heartache and misery and pain and suffering with God is a sign of God’s goodness.
Here’s the point: we are not to deny our problems and pain, but to wrestle with God in the midst of them. And we are to wrestle with God, but to do so in faith. believing in God’s goodness. Why?
Because God knows that the one thing we need in the midst of heartache is to find him and to hold on to him. And that is why God calls us to authenticity: to express honestly both our anguish and our faith, making sure that our pain never overshadows our faith. Bottom line: our despair must never deaden our faith, but our faith must never deny our feelings. And while this balance is hard to maintain, God has given us something to help us. He has given us the Psalms and so we cry out to God:
How long, Lord? Will you forget justice and peace forever?
How long will you hide your face from the people of Ukraine?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart because you refuse to answer our prayers?
How long will evil triumph over your world and mock your holy name?
Look on us and answer, our Lord and our God.
Do not remain silent.
Hear our cries and move in response to our prayers.
Give light to our eyes, or we will sleep in despair.
And our enemies will say, ‘There is no God.’ ‘There is no goodness in heaven.’
And they will point to your refusal to act and will be convinced that you do not care about your world or its people.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to us.
Come, Lord Jesus, bring justice and peace and an end to evil for in you the fatherless find compassion.