By W. David O. Taylor
In times of loss, challenge and conflict it is essential to have both the psalms of lament and the psalms of joy in your heart.
During my years as a pastor in Austin, there was a young man whom I will never forget. His name was Tim. At the time, he was an MBA student at the University of Texas and had joined our congregation during his sojourn in college. As I remember him, Tim was the perfect image of the conservative business student: khaki pants, button down dress shirt (either white or blue), soft spoken, polite, gentle, measured, a clean haircut and smart as a whip.
But Tim was also a complete surprise of a human being. While our church was theologically charismatic, we were practically a moderate charismatic bunch. Hand raising and the occasional holler of praise to God would not be uncommon. We were not, however, the typical nonstop tongues-speaking, miracle-generating, Spirit-slaying, pentecostal-two-step hopping congregation. People rarely, if ever, danced extravagantly. Tim did.
At a certain point during our extended time of congregational song, Tim, standing usually at the end of a pew, would launch out into what can only be described as part hopscotch, part hand windmill-movement, part Maria von Trapp-singing-her-heart-out-at-the-hills-that-were-alive-with-the-sound-of-music. It was an utterly un-self-conscious and pure-hearted expression.
I would often watch Tim with a combination of delight and envy. I thought to myself, “That’s how praise goes, uninhibited by others’ judgment; that’s its free and full-hearted spirit.” I never once joined him, much to my regret today. But I did eventually ask him why he danced. His answer humbled me. He danced, he said, out of obedience. Dancing this way did not come “naturally” to him. It was instead his sacrifice of praise to God.
“In singing praise,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “all claims for the self are given up as the self is ceded over to God.” This is why in the psalms the sea “roars,” the field “exults,” and the trees “sing” (Ps 96:11-12). Such is the nature of self-abandonment, as the unqualified response of our lives to God. Tim understood this fact well. And it is why, with the psalmist, that he laughed often, because the goodness of God overwhelmed him.
The entire Psalter is called the Tehillim, the “Book of Praises,” for a reason. For it is here that we see what praise looks like, what praise sounds like and what praise says to God. It says what creatures need to say to God. It embraces the praise of saints and sinners. It starts in praise and it yearns towards praise.
Three observations are worth noting about the psalms of praise.
First, joy is what the whole creation does.
All throughout the psalter, creation raises its joyful praise to God. The rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing for joy (Ps 98:8). Both sunrise and sundown ring out with songs of joy (Ps 65:8). The pastures and the meadows and the valleys shout for joy (Ps 65:12-13), the trees sing and the fields make merry (Ps 96:10-13).
In the Psalter it is not just heavenly and earthly bodies that rejoice in God, however; it is also human bodies that rejoice in God: the mouth, the throat, the lungs, the hands, and the feet. All throughout we find the language of “shouting,” “bursting,” “reveling,” “resounding,” “clapping,” “thundering,” “crying,” “exulting” and “dancing.”
From the perspective of the Psalter, both hearts and bodies get to leap for joy. At times our bodies may need to lead the heart and mind in acts of joyful praise. At other times our bodies will need the heart and mind to lead it.
Second, in the psalms, joy is not just a tonic for the embattled soul, joy is also a response to the experience of God’s rescue.
When God offers the psalmist refuge in the storm, the response is joy (Ps 5:11). When God gives victory in the face of defeat, the psalmist shouts for joy (Ps 20:5). When God forgives sin, joys wells up in the heart (Ps 51:8). When God consoles the anxious heart, joy slowly but surely takes its place (Ps 94:19)
The movement in Psalm 126:4-6 is significant:
Sowing ; reaping
Weeping ; shouting for joy
Going away ; coming home
This is where God always seeks to take us: from hard labor to the fruit of our labor, from sorrow to gladness, from exile to home. And for the psalmist, there is always a sense in which joy retains a poignant residue of sorrow, of a kind of happy-sadness that marks our earthly pilgrimage.
Third, throughout the Psalter joy precedes sorrow and follows sorrow, and as often as not, joy exists alongside sorrow.
While a song of praise may erupt from a spontaneous outburst of affection for God, our songs of praise may also require a decision. In Psalm 107, despite the immediate experience of grief and loss (vv. 4-28), the psalmist offers to God a sacrifice of praise in the presence of God’s people (v. 32). In verse 22 he says, “let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.” The psalmist frequently praises God despite his feelings.
In the psalms of joy, praise arises out of contexts of suffering and it does not ignore that suffering. It declares itself in hope, not in a denial of reality. This is why, as the psalms see it, joy always makes space for sorrow, while happiness, as it is usually understood in our society, cannot. This is why our acts of praise often involve a sacrifice of praise, with our eyes set on the fulfillment of praise.
In the end, the psalms of joy offer us an antidote to all the things that would tempt us to become a joyless people. They take our shriveled, hardened hearts and open them out to God again. And they offer us the grace to become a people who, like the mountains and hills, sing together for joy so that we may bear witness to the weeping that comes in the night and to the joy that comes in the morning.
The Psalms of Sadness
On April 17, 2010, my wife and I lost our first baby to a miscarriage. For months afterwards we carried around a gnawing pain—a pain that slowly ate us up from the inside, leaving us profoundly disoriented. On September 11, 2011, our daughter Blythe came into the world. Hope again surged in our hearts. Other children would now come easily, we thought. Our dream of a big family—5 children!—could still be achieved, our advancing years notwithstanding.
Two days shy of Christmas 2014, after months of fertility treatments, we lost our second child to miscarriage. After this our marriage suffered considerably. Our communication repeatedly broke down, even as our capacity to meet each other’s needs dissipated. Small hurts flared up into angry conflict, and each of us resorted to surrogates that we hoped might dull the pain but which only made things worse.
There are days, still today, when the pain feels almost unbearable. Neither of us is getting younger, our parents grow older, our friends’ children reach their college years, and the train, so it feels, passes us by. What we have needed is language to say out loud, what our hearts could only grasp at with inarticulate groans. What we’ve needed is a community to whom we could bear witness our sadness. What we’ve needed is for God to be able to handle our broken hearts and our raging words of protest.
This is what the psalms would provide us. Here were prayers of lament that furnished us with language for the seemingly unspeakable. Here were songs to name the sorrow in the company of the faithful. Here were poems that gave coherent shape to our incoherent feelings in the presence of our Maker, who had seemingly abandoned us to our inconsolable pain.
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” – Ps 25:16
What the lament psalms offered us in our hour of need, they offer also to all who find themselves in need: edited language to give expression to our un-edited emotions.
One of the most striking things about these lament psalms is that they include the interrogation of God.
This, as it turns out, is a divinely approved form of address. The psalmist dares to say, “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!” While Psalm 121:4 confesses that the Lord is the one who neither sleeps nor slumbers, but watches over us, here, in 44:23, the psalmist sounds like Elijah, in 1 Kings 18:27 (in the NIV), who taunts the priests of the god Baal:
Shout louder! Surely he is a god!
Perhaps he is deep in thought—or busy!—or traveling! Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened!
Is this the way one speaks to the Maker of heaven and earth? Is this how you talk to the Holy One? Is this how we ought to address the Sovereign God? According to the psalmist, the answer is, at times, yes.
This is no faith-less cry against the Almighty, however. Nor is it the attack of an atheist. This is the wrestling-out of faith in the presence of the Lord. For the psalmist, there is no “civilized” speech; there is no stiff upper lip or quiet resignation. There is only more intense address before the face of God.
It is not only the psalmist’s life that is at stake; it is also, and more importantly, the Lord’s name that is at stake.
It is God’s reputation that is in question. It is God’s character and capacity to fulfill his promises that are at issue. “Deliver us for your name’s sake,” the psalmist exclaims in 79:9. Brueggemann comments that while such prayers may trouble us, and that while we may resist praying this way often, they are thoroughly biblical: “The speaker is honest enough to know that yearning, and the speaking is faithful enough to submit the yearning to God.”
The psalms offer us yet another gift.
In the face of incoherent experiences, the psalms offer us a coherent poem. This may seem like an odd gift. Who needs a poem when you need justice or a livelihood? Who wants a rhyme when we want a family member back from the dead? But when nothing makes sense, the lament psalms give coherence to the incoherence of our world.
They offer a beginning, a middle, and an end instead of a seemingly meaningless narrative. The present a rhythm of sounds instead of a cacophony of noise. They suggest an orderly world of metaphors instead of a disordered mess of thoughts and feelings. In offering these things, the psalms re-frame our sense of life.
In the end, to ignore these words, or to choose more “polite” words, is to believe that God cannot handle our broken humanity.
It is to believe that God has forgotten how we are made. But God has not forgotten. God has not run out of compassion. In Christ He suffers with us. In Christ he shares our brokenness. He, too, knows what it is like to pray with loud cries (Heb. 5). He, too, grieves and feels distress (Mark 13). He, too, weeps (Luke 19). He, too, has felt abandoned and forsaken (Mark 14-15).
John Calvin sums up well these psalms of lament: here “we have permission given us to lay open before [God] our infirmities, which we would be ashamed to confess before men.” This is an incalculable gift. It is a gift that Phaedra and I have received, as we mourn all the small and big things in our life, alongside a community of those who seek to walk with Jesus, trusting that these psalms are God’s chosen vehicle for making us not just whole and holy, but by the Spirit more deeply compassionate to our suffering neighbor.