Christians are urged to maintain a positive spirit even in the face of trouble. The Psalms urge that we praise the Lord in a multitude of circumstances. Paul’s letters are interlaced with calls to rejoice—even when he was suffering imprisonment. Praising God in hard times is an important spiritual discipline that strengthens our walk with the Lord.
But is it possible that, sometimes, even solid Christians find themselves in a place where rejoicing seems impossible?
As I write, more than 75,000 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus in the United States. Worldwide, the number of deaths exceeds 250,000. By the time these words are published, those numbers will have been eclipsed, and they’re not just statistics. Each of those data points represents a cluster of grieving family and friends.
I do believe that the urging to rejoice in all circumstances is a worthy goal. But it should be my own goal, not a goal with which I attempt to burden someone else in a time of grief. Aspirational goals, while worthy, may not be achievable every day in my own life either.
The book of Psalms, as packed with praise as it is, includes at least 65 psalms of lament. These laments express anger, protest, doubt, and despair, but they’re not the complaints of heretics or unbelievers.
Here is reality: In times of intense suffering, a lament can be an important path toward intimacy with God. Consider this portion of a lamenting psalm:
“Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Ps. 44:23-26, ESV).1
Theologian D. A. Carson observes, “There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but to a faith so robust it wrestles with God.”2
Indeed, arguing, complaining, weeping before God may sometimes be our very best worship because it’s all we have to offer.
The bleakest of the psalms is Psalm 88, which concludes, “Darkness is my closest friend” (verse 18). But the cry of this psalm does not come from the lips of an unbeliever. It begins, “O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you” (ESV).
I think it’s likely that as Jesus hung on the cross, He was reciting from memory the lament that we know as Psalm 22, some of which he murmured aloud as His life ebbed away. Surely, when times are bad, we can claim His example as our own experience.