Pray in Pain so you can Rejoice in God
This week, pastor Matt Cohen brings us comfort by digging into Psalm 13 to help us to pray through pain so we can rejoice in God. How? . Turn to God 2. Bring your complaint. 3. Ask for specific help. 4. Renew your trust in His loyal love.
Treasury of David by Charles Spurgeon
Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary by Tremper Longman
ESV Study Bible: Psalm 13
Mark Vroegop knows what it means to suffer. Just days before her due date in 2004, Mark and Sarah’s daughter Sylvia was stillborn. The horrific news that Sylvia’s heart had stopped beating sent the Vroegop’s into what they describe as a life-changing journey of grief. Fast forward nearly two decades and through the power of the written word, Mark Vroegop, who I have never met, has taught me as much about walking with God through pain then anyone. What got Mark there? What got him from horrific suffering to a faithful guide for other sufferers? What got him there? Lindsay Ros knows what it means to suffer. Lindsay is our former Citylight Kids Director who recently moved to Lancaster. Just a few weeks ago she shared with our church her life-changing journey of grief that followed from discovering her husband’s repeated adultery a little over a year ago. In her grief, Lindsay’s real-life example has taught me more about faithfully walking with God through suffering than anyone I’ve known personally. What got her there? We live in a fallen world characterized by setbacks, sickness, suffering, and a whole host of circumstances that make us disappointed, anxious, afraid, frustrated, angry, overwhelmed, and downright sad. And yet the Bible says, “rejoice always” in 1 Thess. 5:16 and “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice” in Philippians 4:4. The reality of suffering and the command to rejoice always creates quite the tension, and we rightly wonder, “how do we get there?” Mark Vroegop himself describes the tensions this way: “I find that most Christians strongly believe that a joyful response should characterize their suffering. But they don’t know how to reconcile their deep questions, honest struggles, and nagging doubts with the command to ‘give thanks in all circumstances.’ The gap between their internal struggles and what they believe can feel like the Grand Canyon of a faith crisis.”
Mark Vroegop says that we typically respond to the gap between our internal struggles and the Lord’s command to rejoice always with one of two unhelpful extremes. On the one hand, some of us tend to fake our way through pain. We say that we are fine when that’s not really true. In a misguided effort to be positive or encouraging to others, we tend to hide ourselves and let very few if any people into the inevitable pain that we experience in a fallen world. Some of the best pain fakers I know have plenty of friends and acquaintances. They’re deeply involved in Christian community, but by their own doing, they’re not deeply known by that community. Some of us fake our way through pain by means of distractions. We bury ourselves in work and responsibilities, we veg out and binge on entertainment or exercise, or we dive headfirst into our favorite food. Others of us fake our way through pain simply by pretending we don’t feel much, but our outward coldness or outbursts tend to betray our internal pain. But faking our way through pain never seems to produce in us the kind of depth of joy that we see in a Mark Vroegop or a Lindsay Ros. How do we get there? On the other hand, some of us respond to pain by making our pain our identity. Our pain, rather than God’s love in Christ, becomes our all-consuming reality. It’s either all that we’ll talk or it’s all that we think about, and sometimes it’s both. For some of us, our pain is the only thing people really know about us because slowly but surely our pain has become not what explains us, but what defines us. Now, I need to be clear: you can make your pain your identity without ever actually talking about it. For example, I’ve seen husbands and wives who will almost never talk about their marital pain, but their disdain and distance from one another reveals that they’ve invited their marital pain to be their marital identity. Making your pain your identity doesn’t always mean you’re inappropriately chatty about it. Some of you so identify with your pain that, if you’re honest, you’re not really on speaking terms with God. I’ve seen people so identify with their pain that they’ve left the Christian faith all together. Making our pain our identity also fails to make us the people we really want to be, people who rejoice in the Lord always. So, I ask again, how do we get there? How do we become people who both feel the pain of life in a fallen world and rejoice deeply in the midst of it? How do we get there?
The answer is lament. We get there by learning to lament. Psalm 13 is a lament. The path that Mark and Lindsay found to deep and abiding joy in Jesus is lament. The way through the tension of being genuine and joyful is lament. The difference between a faith that lasts and a faith that fails is lament. The difference between life and death is lament. And Psalm 13 is a lament. What is a lament? Lament is not the same as crying. To cry is human, but to lament is uniquely Christian because lament is a form of biblical prayer. Lament is talking or writing or singing to God about your pain for the purpose of renewing your trust, confidence, and joy in Him. Vroegop writes, “Lament is the language for living between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty. It is a prayer form for people who are waiting for the day Jesus will return and make everything right.” Lament is the way into the Lord in pain, where we discover that His love is better than a good life. And apparently God knows that we desperately need to learn how to talk to Him about our pain because about one third of all the Psalms are laments. And that brings us to Psalm 13, which is a classic prayer of lament. The big idea of Psalm 13 is: pray in pain so that you can rejoice in God. In his excellent article at Desiring God called Dare to Hope in God, Mark Vroegop points out that like most prayers of lament, Psalm 13 has four moves in it. How do we pray in pain so that we can rejoice in God? 1. Turn to God 2. Bring your complaint. 3. Ask for specific help. 4. Renew your trust in His loyal love.
TURN TO GOD (13:1)
Psalm 13:1a: How long, O LORD? Notice who David is talking to. The Lord! We don’t know anything about the specific situation in David’s life that led him to pen Psalm 13 and pray pain. And that’s perfect. It means that the Holy Spirit inspired David to pen Psalm 13 not so that we could remember an event in his life, but so that afflicted believers in any season or circumstance will know how to respond (Allen P. Ross). And the first response is: turn to God.
Citylight, the way to get there is lament, prayer in pain so that you can rejoice in God, and that prayer begins with turning to God. It doesn’t matter if the pain you’re experiencing is emotional or physical. It doesn’t matter if you’re confused, angry, annoyed, sad, stuck, overwhelmed, disappointed, or are experiencing something words cannot quite describe. It doesn’t matter if your pain is lighter or heavier than others. When life is difficult and you’re in pain or life is fine and you’re in pain, whether it feels natural or like a fight, turn to God.
I’m going to be totally honest with you. This first step is the most difficult for me. Some of you pray most naturally and fervently when you’re in pain. Not me. When I feel really disappointed, when I feel really stuck, when I’m really angry, when I’m particularly afraid or confused about the future, when I feel like a failure and a disappointment again, and the dark clouds role in, turning to the Lord is often far from my mind because I’m so wrapped up in myself, emotionally worked up, and busy with what I think are more practical solutions to the pain. And that’s the alternative to turning to God in your pain. The alternative is Psalm 13:2: How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day long. The alternative to turning God is the misery and sorrow of taking counsel in our own souls. One way or another, in this fallen world, we are going to cry. The question is in what direction. As Lord says in Hosea 7:14 says, “They do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds.” Wailing upon our beds and taking counsel in our own soul when we are in pain leads to sorrow all the day long. But if we will turn to God in pain, then we are on the path to renewed trust, confidence, and joy in the Lord. The first move in lament is turning to God.
BRING YOUR COMPLAINT (vv. 1-2)
You can feel the intensity of David’s complaint in the question that he repeats four times in the first two verses of Psalm 13: how long, O LORD?! The second move in praying in your pain is bringing your complaint. Interestingly, the prophet Isaiah seems to rebuke Israel for raising the exact same questions the Psalm 13:1-2 models for us. Isaiah 40:27: Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? So, what is the difference between a faithful lament, which includes bringing your complaint to the Lord, and what Israel was indicted for saying in Isaiah 40? The difference is the difference between honest praying and sinful venting. As Mark Vroegop says, “More than a sinful rehearsing of our anger, biblical lament humbly and honestly identifies the pain, questions, and frustrations raging in our souls.” That’s what David models of us in Psalm 13:1-2…
Psalm 13:1a: How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? Of course, the Lord doesn’t literally forget his children. In the Old Testament, to remember is to act positively toward someone; to forget is the opposite: to withhold help and comfort (Longman III). Complaint is honestly identifies the pain of feeling forgotten by God. Psalm 13:1b: How long will you hide your face from me? The hiding of God’s face is an anthropomorphic expression for alienation and curse. The shining of God’s face signifies blessing (VanGemeren). Complaint honestly identifies the pain of feeling outside of God’s care. Psalm 13:2a: How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? Complaint honestly identifies the loneliness and sadness that come from feeling far from God. Psalm 13:2b: How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? One OT scholar explains this line this way: “When the Lord has forgotten his covenantal child, an opponent becomes a greater threat to that child’s well-being. The smallest problem takes on greater significance. The psalmist is disturbed in his deepest being by God’s lack of interest, by the adversaries (adversities), and by his own feelings.” In his pain, David turns to the Lord and brings his complaint in the form of four honest questions.
Can you relate to this? Have you ever felt distant from or forgotten by the Lord? Friends, if we are going to honestly reckon with the pain of life in a fallen world while also rejoicing in all circumstances, then we need to turn to God in our pain and humbly and honestly bring our questions, our pains, our disappointments, and frustrations that are raging or simmering in our souls. Prayer in pain that leads to joy in God begins with turning to God and then moves to bringing our honest, humble, and specific complaints before Him. This brings us to the third move, the move that helps us begin to emerge from our pain…
ASK FOR SPECIFIC HELP (vv. 3-4)
Psalm 13:3-4: Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. Notice the connection between David’s complaint and his request for specific help. David feels as though God has forgotten him. So, he boldly asks God to consider him with favor and answer him once again. David feels like the Lord has hidden his face from him, so he asks the Lord to light up his eyes. One OT scholar comments, “…the psalmist believes that only by God’s favor will he receive “light” for his eyes. This idiom expresses the effect of God’s blessings. People relieved from troubles and blessed with God’s protection, peace, and favor show their inner spiritual condition in their outward appearance. Their eyes sparkle with God’s grace.” David asks the Lord for specific help and tells the Lord why it’s a good idea.
Friends, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, you have a Heavenly Father who is as compassionate as He is capable. Your Father loves you and Jesus’s repeated invitation to us in the Gospels is “ask!” In your pain, turn to God, humbly and honestly bring your complaint, but don’t stop there. You have a Heavenly Father who is as perfectly compassionate and absolutely capable. Ask for specific help. Ask him to bring specific relief, to change specific situations, and tell Him why it’s for his glory!
This past week, my Soren was in baseball camp and had a rough first day. He didn’t have his own bat. So, when I was putting him to bed on Monday night, he turned to me, brought his honest complaint about the bat, and then specifically asked me to go to the store after he fell asleep and buy him a new bat because he believed it would help him have a better day at camp. I loved his honesty, heard his complaint, and went straight to target and bought him a new bat. Friends, your heavenly Father is far more compassionate and capable than I am. Ask for specific help. Now, prayers of lament do not typically conclude with a problem solved, rather, they lead to the final move…
RENEW YOUR TRUST HIS LOYAL LOVE (vv. 5-6)
Psalm 13:5-6: But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me. Despite his difficult circumstances and negative emotions, David says, “But since I trust in your unfailing love, may my heart rejoice in your salvation, may I sing to the Lord, ‘He has been good to me’” (VanGemeren). Notice David’s language, “I shall rejoice” and “I will sing.” The turning to God, the humble complaining, the specific requesting, it leads us to grab ourselves by scruff of the neck and say, “I will trust, I will rejoice, I will sing because he has deal bountifully.” How bountifully has the Lord dealt with you? The Lord himself took on flesh, stepped into this fallen world with us, experienced the full weight of it, and uttered the deepest of all laments for us on the cross so that we can know the His loyal love forever. When the Lord Jesus Christ went to the cross, the physical pain was utterly excruciating. But the physical pain was not the worst part. The worst part of the crucifixion for our Lord was that he experienced being God forsaken for us so that we would not be God forsaken forever. And when the Lord Jesus Christ experienced the horror of being forsaken by his Father for our sake on the cross, he cried out a lament. He cried out the words of Psalm 22:1, Psalm of Lament: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me. You can trust the loyal love of God because he placed all your sin that should separate you from Him forever upon his Son so that you can be his adopted sons and daughters by grace. The gospel of grace is what leads us to turn to God in our pain, bring our complaint, boldly ask for help, and choose to trust his loyal love again and again until the day when there will be no more lament, forever. The gospel of grace makes it safe for us to pray in pain so that we can rejoice in God again. So, here is the one thing I want to encourage all of us to do this week. Write or speak a lament. Because God is now your Father by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, turn to him in your pain (heavy or light), bring your honest complaint, ask for specific help, and renew your trust in His loyal love in Christ. That’s how we get there.