The Vocabulary of Prayer

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The Reformed Christian tradition is known for psalm singing. Many Reformed churches insist that we should exclusively sing psalms in corporate worship. While I do not share that persuasion, I do think that it would be a great thing to sing more psalms when the church gathers.

There are some psalms we love to sing. Psalm 23 is a favourite. We sing Psalm 46 with gusto. But there are other psalms that seem less singable to 21st-century Christian ears. Psalm 88 is a case in point.

Psalm 88 is the dreariest of all the psalms. It is a psalm of lament in which there is no hint of hope. The writer begins by laying out his “troubles” before God (vv. 1–3) and things spiral more and more out of control from there. By the end of the psalm, he laments that darkness is his only friend (v. 18, CSB). Read the psalm and you’ll quickly realise why it doesn’t find a place in many corporate worship services.

We do, however, learn from this psalm something of the vocabulary of prayer. Faced with overwhelming trial, the psalmist had no answers, but at least he was asking the right questions. More to the point, he was at least asking questions of the right person.

Commenting on the story of Job, Elaine Phillips has observed that the problem with Job’s friends was bigger than their wrong answers to Job’s affliction. Job was also wrong in his assessment of events, but God was more pleased with him than with his friends. Phillips suggests that one reason for this is that, while Job’s friends spoke to him and to each other, Job spoke to God. This suggests that, “in addition to their limited view of the situation, they completely lacked the relationship that infused Job’s every utterance.” It was more important for Job to engage with God than it was for Job to be right.

This is the important lesson we learn about the theology of lament. As human beings, we long to have answers to all our questions. We struggle with the reality that there may be some questions to which we will never receive a satisfactory answer. As Tucker and Grant have observed, “the very act of offering a prayer in a time of great despair and disillusionment with God is, in itself, arguably the greatest act of faith.”

Think about it. Is it not true that our initial response to the story of Job is to ask who was right? Did Job have the right answers? Did his friends? Who was right? Who was wrong? Psalm 88 reminds us that there are more important things than being right. Though Job had complained and even accused God of wrongdoing, God ultimately said to Eliphaz, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). In what sense had Job “spoken … right”? Surely in the sense that he took his uncertainties directly to God.

As you head into a new week, you may well find yourself wrestling with uncertainty. Perhaps you are fighting to understand what God is doing in your life and why he is allowing certain things to happen to you. Perhaps you are tempted to complain and even to accuse God of wrongdoing. The best thing you can do, even when you can find no reason to praise, is to take your burden directly to the Lord in prayer. Psalm 88 teaches us that the activity of prayer and the direction of prayer is as important, if not more important, than the vocabulary of prayer. Lament is part of prayer—particularly when it is directed, in faith, to the God of all comfort.

Do you find yourself in a moment of overwhelming darkness? Does it appear that there is no light at the end of the tunnel? Be encouraged from Psalm 88 to take your darkness to God in prayer.