How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2, ESV)
After returning from an extended trip with students last week, my animated film, fan wife celebrated my return by taking me with her to Disney Pixar’s latest release, Inside Out. While I expected to observe another predictable, feel-good, make-life-simple story line, I was shocked to discover something that reminded me more of the Psalms of Lament.
Many well-meaning evangelicals have tried to sell the Gospel as if it will produce a problem-free life.
We find ourselves turning to the scriptures digging for those promises we can claim like, “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete,” (John 16:24b, NIV) and “’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV) The positivism of sanitized American Christianity struggles to grasp why the very spiritual King David wrote such negative words in his Psalms (granted there are many positive words, too). Many of those Psalms that start with lamenting end with praise like Psalm 13, quoted above, which concludes with, “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” (Verse 6) Yet, these can seem like disconnected verses, not an emotional healing process at work.
Pixar entered the film world with shorts but quickly took the leading role with powerful, message-laden films like Toy Story and Bugs Life, and they have nailed much of the power David’s laments with Inside Out. The story characterizes five core emotions that govern life for the main character, Riley. Joy dominates her life until an unplanned move from rural Minnesota to inner city San Francisco robs her of most things she had valued. Joy always attempts to prevent Sadness from touching Riley’s core memories pictured in the form of colored balls, but on the first day at the new school Sadness touches one anyway, turning it from the color of joy to sadness.
The ball soon leaves Riley’s emotional control center and both Joy and Sadness leave on an expedition to recover it that turns very complicated but ultimately returns them to the control room after Riley dissolves into an emotional wreck. The emotions are soon shocked to discover that Riley cannot return to normal or enjoy her new life until she embraces Sadness. As Riley reflects on one of the most important core memories, she discoveries it is made especially beautiful because it is preceded by sadness. Surrounded and celebrated by those who love and support her even after a failure, a healing comes. The healing itself brings a deeper joy than unmitigated happiness ever could.
In the movie Riley discovered what King David discovered three millennia ago that so much of us have forgotten. Life is not supposed to be an unending joy ride. Being faithful Christians does not mean we do not experience pain and difficulty. There is a place for lamenting and mourning in our lives, but it is not the end. In fact, lamenting is often an essential part of a journey that leads to emotional and spiritual health.
This is where the movie is limited but the Psalms are not.
David makes the transition from despair to praise in Psalm 13 with a few key steps that are essential to effective lamenting.
First, he goes to God. Every verse of the Psalm except the last is voiced directly to God. Although David often verbalizes disappointment with God’s actions on his behalf, he never cuts of the relationship.
The second principle is related. David verbalizes his disappointment. Some strands of American Christianity accuse those who complain as lacking in faith. Complaining to get pity from people or as an excuse for responsibility are not the answer. David does not complain to other people, but, as he verbalizes his mourning to God directly, he can process what is hurting, what he misses, and what he has lost. This opens the door for healing.
The third step David takes is to pray specifically. He prays, “Look on me and answer,” in verse 3. As we consider what we have lost, we can ask God for what we need to help us move forward. In David’s case that was light to the eyes – a change of perspective that yielded a change of emotion.
The fourth step we can take is trusting in God. David commits to this in verse 5. It can be hard to trust while the circumstances are still dark. Yet, that is the truest test of faith. Trusting in tough times yields stronger faith, peace to endure the storm, and greater joy when the clouds pass.
Finally, David praises. In verse 6 he states the reason, “The Lord has been good to me.” When the lamenting process includes full reflection along with intercession and commitment to God, we can see the many good things, even the good in the midst of the struggles. In the case of mourning, taking the opportunities to enjoy what was lost can bring gratitude even in their absence. Praising God is always the best response.
What have you lost? How do you suffer now? This does not mean that God does not care or is absent. It also does not mean you are doomed to depression. Take Riley’s route; better yet, take David’s route.
Lament the loss and pain with God himself and do not be afraid to ask for a better future, trust him even before it comes to pass, and praise him for what he has already done for you. Your sadness can turn to joy.