A Depression Observed, Part 5 – Prayer of Lament

(You are reading part five of a 12-part series. Visit noeldear.com to read all articles as we post them throughout December 2023.)

I was speechless and quiet; I kept silent, even from speaking good, and my pain intensified. My heart grew hot within me; as I mused, a fire burned. I spoke with my tongue. (Psalm 39:1–3)

In the anguish of his depression and despair, David guarded his tongue, muzzled his mouth, and stood silent before the Lord. However, his attempt to suppress his emotions only kindled them further—a fire burned in his gut. The pain intensified. Finally, David spoke.

Who did David address with his words? The words were not just spoken into the ether. They were not given as an address before an assembly. They were not shared with a trusted royal advisor. David spoke to the Lord. David prayed.

In the previous post, we learned the importance of sharing our story with others. In this post, we will learn how to share with the Lord, even if it is the Lord with whom we are most disappointed.

David's prayer will contain some of the expected language and phrasing we are all familiar with, but his prayer is no ordinary prayer. In the following posts, we will look at all ten verses of this prayer, but I will highlight a few things now.

  • David asserts that his emotional pain is due to the direct torment of the Lord.
  • David complains that the Lord has been too harsh with him.
  • David accuses the Lord of taking away that which was most precious to David.
  • David suggests that the Lord has silently ignored his pleas.
  • And David asks the Lord to just leave him alone!

Why did David pray like this? And how is this kind of prayer supposed to help me along my journey and in my struggle?

Those are good questions, and the answers will require a slight change in our paradigm. We need a fresh look at prayer and worship as they are presented in the Bible. This not-so-new biblical perspective may surprise you.

Ordinarily, we think of prayer and worship in the categories of celebration and supplication. The celebration category includes prayer and worship, where the pray-er focuses on the greatness of God, goodness of God, and blessings of God. The supplication category is all about asking God to meet our needs. For most of us, those two categories make up more than 95% of our prayer and worship. Throw in some occasional prayers of confession, and we are likely up to 99% of content of the prayers of most contemporary believers.

So, how does that work for someone like David (or me or you) who might be going through dark times of depression or some other emotional agony? Celebratory prayers and songs can seem disingenuous when prayed from the pit of despair. And while we should always pray with great faith, that does not mean we should be less than honest in our prayers and pretend our outlook is different from what it is.

Further, while prayers for help and rescue seem more apt and certainly are important, if that is our only form of expression to the Lord, then those kinds of prayers can become as much a barrier as a connector. For instance, from our place of emotional pain, we ask the Lord to change our demeanor and give us peace and joy. Ok, but what if the Lord does not do that or does not do it on our time table or in the way we hoped? Now we have even more grief and pain and no way to express that to the Lord. At this point, most people just stop praying.

Thankfully, the Bible presents another category of prayer and worship. Celebration and intercession are important, but surprisingly, they are not the most common biblical categories. The most common prayer in the Bible is that of lament.

Over half the Psalms are psalms, songs, and prayers of lament. One whole book of the Bible is nothing but lament (Lamentations). Prayers of lament can be found throughout the Old and New Testaments and within every genre of biblical literature.

While these verses may be more challenging to read, they constitute a significant part of the fabric of Scripture. Therefore, it is an easy argument to declare that these verses and the practice of lament should be a substantial part of our spirituality today. If 95% of our prayer and worship is celebration or supplication, we are WAY outside the biblical pattern!

So, what is a lament? A lament is a prayer from a place of pain, frustration, or disappointment anchored, though, in hope. A lament is an honest expression of pain and fear brought to the throne of the one we believe is Lord of all.

We don't have to look far in the Psalms to find prayers of lament...

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I store up anxious concerns within me, agony in my mind every day? How long will my enemy dominate me? (Psalm 13:1–2)

Our hearts have not turned back; our steps have not strayed from your path. But you have crushed us in a haunt of jackals and have covered us with deepest darkness. (Psalm 44:18–19)

There are no signs for us to see. There is no longer a prophet. And none of us knows how long this will last. God, how long will the enemy mock? Will the foe insult your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand? Stretch out your right hand and destroy them! (Psalm 74:9–11)

And, of course, Psalm 39 is clearly a prayer of lament. David speaks honestly to the Lord. David shares his pain, discouragement, confusion, disappointment, and feeble request for relief.

Do you see a problem in the fact that the majority of the psalms, songs, and prayers in the Bible are various forms of lament, yet in many of our church worship services and private devotions, 95% of our songs, prayers, and testimonies are forms of celebration or supplication? You better believe that is a problem! As important as it is to celebrate God's greatness, goodness, and provision, and as vital as it is to call on God to meet our needs, we have left little or no room and provided few examples for someone like David, or Jeremiah, or Elijah, or Moses, or Job, or at times me or you to pray and worship.

Many of us are familiar with the often-taught prayer acrostic: ACTS. The "A" stands for adoration. The "C" stands for confession. "T" stands for thanksgiving. And "S" for supplication. We've been taught this acrostic as an ideal pattern for regular prayer, and it can be a helpful model. The problem, though, is that not only is prayer never described like that in Scripture, the four prayer emphases of that acrostic completely ignore one of the most common categories of biblical prayer, lament. The ACTS prayer model has not served the people of God well.

Consequently, the typical pattern with most Christians who struggle with depression is that they pray less and less every day. Or even if they don't pray less, they pray with less meaning and intensity. Their prayer wanes because they cannot find a connection between their prayer and their experience. They only know how to do four things in their prayer time: praise, thank, confess, and ask (or adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication). So, with no mode of expression available to them, they pray less. Like David at the beginning of Psalm 39, they stand silent before the Lord, and their pain intensifies.

I was silent . . . and my pain intensified. (Psalm 39:2)

Though the Bible is replete with examples and guidance on this subject, most Christians simply have no category of prayer that allows them to take the burden of their mental anguish to the Lord. Consequently, Christians typically do a lousy job of finding the Lord's strength and encouragement in the times they most need it.

So, when David's emotional pain reached the level that he could no longer contain it, he prayed the prayer of lament we find in the last ten verses of Psalm 39.

As I have been walking this Psalm 39 journey with David, I've learned and am learning to pray this prayer of lament. This kind of prayer is not some magic formula. Remember, I've not promised any instant fixes. But this prayer is a part of the journey. This prayer is an integral part of the journey.

Two key lessons help us learn to embrace the spiritual discipline of lament. We must first understand that lament is not just complaining or venting. Complaining and venting can quickly turn into a pity party and spiral our condition to a much worse place. Rather than complaining about our hardships or venting our anger, prayers of lament are about taking an honest expression of our pain and laying it before the throne of God with full faith and assurance that whether we can presently see it or not, the sovereign Lord loves us.

Our lament might sound like this:

Lord, I'm hurting, and I do not sense your peace or presence in my life. You have promised never to leave me, but I can't find you. I have lost joy, motivation, energy, and hope. How long, Lord, must you be distant from me? I need you! Only you can restore me. You are my only hope.

That prayer honestly expresses pain and even disappointment. Yet, it also expresses a firm faith in the strength and love of God.

Lesson two instructs us not to expect lamenting to come naturally or easily. This is a learned skill. It requires practice and experience. And, in many cases, our pastors (like me) and worship leaders have not taught us this kind of expression well.

Honestly, at present, I cannot pray prayers of lament very skillfully. I am trying but struggling. While I've understood the theological concept of lament for years and read all of the laments in Scripture, until recently, lament has not been a regular feature of my prayer and worship.

What I can do is read David's prayers of lament aloud with my heart and mind focused on the Lord. That is precisely what I have been doing with Psalm 39. I'm likely a worse case than you, but I just read this prayer aloud to the Lord, and tears stream down my face. Some days I read Psalm 39 to the Lord and then follow by quoting the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28–30, and I beg the Lord for peace and rest.

Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)

In that act of worship, I express my pain to my Lord, and I declare my faith in him as my only hope for peace. Those times of grieving and lamenting before the Lord have become my life's most therapeutic and refreshing experiences.

What have I learned about this journey thus far in Psalm 39? Shame and silence have only deepened my distress, but the Lord has given me the example and the words of lament in the Psalms so that I might have the precedent, the blueprint, and the vocabulary to approach the throne of grace with boldness and receive mercy and find grace to help me in my time of need (Hebrews 4:16).


Pastor Noel