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Balancing Lament and Confession

Today, I was reading several Psalms. These are the ancient prayers and reflections of the people of God. Many of them started as private prayers, but they turned into the prayers that the people said together when they gathered for worship. In these prayers, we see great patterns for the way that God’s people should interact with Him. One of the patterns we see is the pattern of lament and confession. Without both lament and confession, spiritual growth is stunted.

Lament

In the Psalms of lament, the psalmists complain to God. Sometimes, their language gets pretty accusatory. They’ll say, “My soul is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long?” (Ps 6:3), or, “Why, O LORd, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourselves in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1).

God’s people lament. They see that the world is not how it should be. They let God know. They honestly lay their anger, their broken hearts, their disappointment, their despair, and their accusations before the throne of the Almighty. He can handle it.

Confession

The Psalmists don’t stop at lamenting. They also make confessions about God. They confess that He is good. They confess that He is holy. They confess that He hears their prayers. Even in the midst of their doubts and confusion, they make clear declarations like, “The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer,” (Ps 6:9), or, “O, LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted” (Ps 10:16).

In the midst of their doubts and struggles (notice, these were the exact same Psalms), God’s people confess what they know to be true about God. He is good. He is righteous. He is holy. He hears prayers. He forgives, provides, listens, responds, heals, and saves.

Interplay of Lament and Confession

It is my conviction that if we are to learn to grow spiritually, we are going to need to learn the interplay between lament and confession. We have to learn how to lament honestly, while maintaining our confession that God is good. Many of people’s struggles in prayer have to do with missing either lament or confession.

Some of God’s people are short on lament. They are the people that you run into at their mother’s funeral and they say things like, “God is good, all the time!” You see them in the supermarket right after their dog got hit by a car, ask them how they’re doing only to hear them respond, “I’m blessed.”

Often these people lack honesty. While these confessions that they’re making may be quite true (who would argue that God isn’t always good), they are not honestly reflecting on the pain in their lives or processing that pain in a healthy way. God’s people know how to grieve and lament. They don’t lie to themselves or others. When they see the brokenness in the world, they truthfully assess it.

There is another problem that inhibits spiritual growth in many people. I think with the postmodern emphasis on ‘authenticity,’ this may be an even more common problem. Some Christians are low on confession. They have no problem lamenting, but they never get silent and low before the Lord, allowing him to speak the truth of their Christian confession into their tragedy.

These Christians are always ‘being honest’ with God. They may cite the Psalms I brought up, saying that they are being like the Psalmists and complaining to God. They are asking, “why?” a lot and getting angry. They respond to tragedies with an anger toward God. They may be afraid to ask God for things because they expect evil from God instead of good. After all, he’s given them a lot of pain lately.

Although they cite these Psalms, they rarely read them through to the end. There are some Psalms that end with a lament. However, these Psalms are very, very few in number. That should tell us something about the majority of our prayers as the people of God.

Look at the Psalms I cited. You can almost sense the psalmist pausing between Psalm 6:7 and 6:8, hearing a fresh word from God that his lament has been heard. You can sense the peace of God transforming the psalmist between Psalm 10:15 and 10:16. Their lament gives birth to confession.

When we pray, we should be honest with God. We should pour out our hearts before Him. We live in a difficult world, and things happen that anger and disappoint us. We should be bringing those painful things before God authentically. We should never have pretense before the Lord, pretending we’re okay when we’re not. We should deal with grief honestly and with integrity.

However, our prayers cannot end there. When we make our complaints, we must sit before the Holy Spirit, allowing him to speak a fresh word to us that leads us to confess His greatness. This is true spirituality. This is how the people of God pray.

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