We all do it. Someone says to us, “How are you?” and we say, “I’m fine.” Sometimes we actually are fine. But often we are far from fine. We’re worried about what the latest round of medical tests will show. We’re anxious about a loved one. Our hearts are grief-stricken over a loss—recent or not so recent. We’re not sure how we can meet the bills this month. We’re angry over what we hear in the news. We didn’t sleep well last night, we had an argument with a friend, the car is making an expensive-sounding noise, and the dog is acting weird. We are anything but “fine.”
Last week we reflected on the Psalms’ prayers of gratitude for a secure and predictable world. They’re the prayers of people whose lives are going along smoothly, in concert with a world that seems to be just as serene. But this week, we hear the prayers of those whose world has shifted beneath them. Their prayers of contentment become prayers of lament—brutally honest conversations with God, where the psalmists lay bare their pain and anguish. The psalmists tell God that they are not “fine,” and they demand that God do something about it.
The psalm we read as our Call to Worship is subtitled (in part) “a psalm of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.” This psalm was probably written during or after the exile in Babylon, but the psalmist has gone back to a story about King David—a story of when David was surrounded by fearsome enemies and his life was in danger. The Philistines had gone to war with Israel, and David had joined in the fighting. One of the Philistines, a giant named Ishbibenob, had been fitted out with new weapons and had made it known that he intended to kill David. Fortunately, David’s men had his back. One killed Ishbibenob, and the rest agreed that for the good of Israel, David should not continue going into battle. Comparing his own feelings to how he imagines David must have felt, the psalmist and wrote this prayer of lament.
One thing these kinds of prayer psalms have in common is that they spell out exactly what the problem is—what’s called “the complaint.” This is the prayer of someone who’s feeling under attack by enemies who are bigger and stronger and really scary, and he’s not pussy-footing around that fact. He uses language that clearly communicates what he’s feeling—trampled, oppressed, fought against, constantly under watch, the target of endless evil thoughts and intentions, his death sought after. He is understandably afraid.
The second thing this prayer shares with others like it is the “petition”—what the psalmist wants God to do for him. In this case, the psalmist, in the character of David, wants to be rescued. He wants his foes repaid for their crime against him. He wants justice. He wants them “cast down,” subdued. Just as he was bold to name his troubles, he is now bold to name his desires.
Who among us hasn’t felt the same way at some time in our lives? We may never have faced a human giant with an enormous spear, but we’ve certainly faced things in our lives that felt too big for us. We face things that have tremendous power to hurt us—physical illness, emotional turmoil, financial insecurity, social vulnerability, the weight of too many responsibilities and too few resources to meet them. And when we find ourselves in that place, we want relief and we want it right away.
But, when you face your modern-day giants and the feelings they cause, how do you pray about them? Do you express your feelings honestly, or do you mask them, make light of them, choose not to speak of them?
We may feel the need to downplay our feelings and our desires in prayer. After all, we know that in so many ways we are blessed. We all know someone who’s worse off than we are. We don’t want to seem ungrateful for what we do have, so we shy away from mentioning what we don’t have. We do the same thing with our requests for help. After all, who are we to make demands and tell God what to do? We try to keep the lamenting to a minimum, and so, when God asks, “How are you?” we say “I’m fine.”
The problem is, saying “I’m fine” when we’re not doesn’t fool God. It actually doesn’t even fool people. Researchers at the University of Oregon found that when we suppress our emotions around other people, as we do when we say “I’m fine” when we’re not, we’re more likely to be perceived as unpleasant, distant, less out-going, and less likable. People may not know exactly what’s wrong, but they can tell something’s off.
That doesn’t mean that we necessarily should be dumping all our life’s baggage on the cashier in the check-out line at the grocery store. But if people around us can tell we’re not being authentic about what we’re feeling, certainly God can tell it, too. God already knows the truth of what we’re feeling, so pretending otherwise is just lying to God.
The psalms of lament give us permission to be honest with God. They give us permission to unload all our hurts, our fears, and our worries to God in prayer. We can tell God what our hearts desire, as the psalmists did.
The prayer we read today is actually a pretty mild one. In others, we hear even more grief, more pain, even feelings of abandonment. Psalm 6: “My soul is struck with terror, while you, O Lord, how long? I am weary with my moanings; every night I flood my bed with tears.” Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long must I bear pain in my soul?” Psalm 55: “It’s not enemies who taunt me; it is my companion, my familiar friend.” Psalm 102: “My bones burn like a furnace, I am too wasted to eat my bread, my bones cling to my skin.”
Jesus, who so often relied on the psalms himself, poured out his heart to God in a prayer of lament. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he was distressed and agitated and so deeply grieved he felt he would die. Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus framed his fears and grief in his prayer, but he tells us what Jesus’ petition was: that the hour would pass from him, and that the cup be removed. Later, there was his prayer from the cross, taken directly from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Jesus’ prayers, as in the prayers of the psalms, we are given permission to be completely honest with God about what we are feeling and the relief we desire.
But, the psalms of lament share more than expressions of pain and petition. They also express trust in God. Trust that God is present. Trust that God cares about what we are going through. Trust that God will give us what we need to get through the bad times—strength, courage, and confidence that human suffering won’t have the last word.
Our psalm prayer today includes what I think is one of the most beautiful expressions of this confidence in God’s care: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.” These words have inspired a number of popular legends about tear bottles. It’s said that ancient people filled small glass vials with tears and placed them in burial tombs as symbols of love and respect. Victorian mourners supposedly collected their tears in ornate bottles and ended their time of mourning when the tears in the bottle evaporated. During the Civil War, the legends go, a wife would cry into a bottle, saving her tears until her husband came home, to show how much she had missed him.
Research has shown that none of these legends is actually true. But they give us a wonderful image of how much God loves us and cares about what we’re going through. Our psalm prayer speaks, not of us collecting our own tears, but of God collecting our tears. Think of how close someone would have to get to you, to collect your tears in a bottle. To hold a bottle where your tears could drop into it would almost require that they touch you. Maybe they’d even have to put an arm around your shoulders, to steady you while you cried. This is what we can expect when we share our tears with God—when we don’t try to be strong, when we don’t hide our true feelings. God is close to us—close enough to hold us as we cry.
God’s bottle is mentioned in one other place in Scripture. Psalm 33 says, “God gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle.” Let that image take hold of you—that God is as careful with your tears as with all the waters of the sea. Every one of your tears is as important to God as an entire ocean.
God has done even more for us than gather our tears in a bottle. God gave us the Son, who gathered the world’s sins and hurts and tears into himself on the cross. He never let a single one fall to the ground through angry words or casting blame or calling down angels to avenge himself. Instead he held them in his own body, offering instead acceptance and forgiveness and love. As he collected our tears and all the sin that causes them, he freed us from sin’s power over us, and he freed us from the fear of death it causes.
The psalmist didn’t know how God would act through Jesus, but he did know the feeling of freedom offered by trust in a loving God. “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me? . . . . You have delivered my soul from death.” This is the freedom that God has given us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the grace that allows us to confidently sing, as we will in a few moments, “It is well with my soul.”
Those researchers who studied what happens when we mask our feelings suggest that we be more honest when someone asks, “How are you?” If we’re really not fine, we don’t need to give a blow-by-blow run-down, but we can simply say something like, “I’ve been better.” Honesty in our responses, they say, improves our relationships with other people. Honesty in our prayers deepens our relationship with God. The prayers of the psalms show us that we can pour out all our feelings to God—the cheers, fears, and tears. As we do, we experience the love and comfort and power that keep our feet from falling, and we are able to walk before God in the light of life. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young