Chronic illness, marital or family strife, challenging work environments, unemployment, gossip about us, violence from others, persecution, and death––if we live long enough we will likely experience one or more of these sufferings. Because we are human and we live in an affluent, technologically and medically advanced society, we may try to overcome such suffering on our own or simply deny it. Instead, Christians should pray honest prayers of hopeful suffering, which the Bible calls “lament.” From the Psalms, we can learn how to pray so that we might suffer well for the glory of God.
The Psalms teach us how to suffer well because they speak of reality. Those who suffered wrote them. King David, the king of Israel in the 10th century BC, wrote many of the Psalms during or after acute suffering. For example, Psalms 51–72 likely were all written during his lifetime and they concern real events from his life (see 2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2). These events include David’s personal anguish and family suffering after his adultery with Bathsheba, which he tried to cover up by murdering her husband Uriah (Psalm 51), and the eventual ascension of his son, Solomon, to the throne (Psalm 72). In between Psalms 51 and 72, we read numerous psalms of David’s suffering, often at the hands of enemies who once were friends.
In Psalm 69, for example, David experiences a flood of desperation and pain because “those who hate me without cause” are “greater in number than the hairs of my head” (v. 4). He confesses his desperation just as he confesses his faults to God (v. 5). He then makes clear why he suffers: “It is for your sake that I have borne reproach . . . and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (vv. 7, 9). David’s enemies hated him and persecuted him because they hated the LORD God. David felt such intense suffering that he prayed God would judge his persecutors (vv. 21–29). Throughout David’s desperate cries and his curses against his enemies, David turns his thoughts to God: “But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness” (v. 13). Psalm 69 teaches us that in order to suffer well we must cry out to God. When he walked in faith and obedience, David did not try to overcome or deny his suffering. Instead, he voiced his suffering and pain to God. His prayer of lament, then, was a prayer of faith.
Like King David, Jesus of Nazareth learned how to suffer well as he read and prayed psalms written by David. Just as David suffered at the hands of enemies from his own countrymen, Jesus suffers. In John’s Gospel, Jesus quotes several lament psalms to express his trust in God the Father as he suffers. For example, he quotes Psalm 41 to explain Judas’s betrayal: “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me” (John 13:18; Psalm 41:9).
He later quotes Psalm 69:4 to teach his disciples how and why his enemies will also hate them: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. . . . The word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled, ‘they hated me without cause’” (John 15:20, 25). Jesus even prayed Psalm 22:1, another lament, as he died on the cross at his enemies’ hands but in God the Father’s will (see Matthew 27:46; also, John 19:24-25 fulfills Psalm 22:18).
The Psalms taught Jesus Christ, the Son of God, how to suffer well. Therefore, they can and should teach us how to suffer well. If Jesus suffered on the cross for us and for our salvation, and he endured that suffering to God’s glory by praying Psalms 22, 41, and 69, we do well to pray the same psalms in our suffering. Rather than trying to overcome or deny our suffering, we should lament our grief, our loss, and our pain. God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, know our suffering far better than we could imagine. The Son of God died on the cross and rose from the grave to redeem our suffering by rescuing us from our sins. One day he will come again to conquer all human suffering once and for all. When we pray the psalms, we pray prayers in this confident faith.
Dr. Grant Taylor joined Beeson Divinity School as associate dean for academic affairs in 2015. He also serves as assistant professor of divinity, teaching New Testament and Greek exegesis courses.