Printer-friendly version

Why Must I Go About Mourning?

The Psalms of Lament for a People in Grief
Reclaiming the psalms of lament gives the church a vocabulary for times of suffering
Breaking the silence

Language can often be taken for granted by those who are relatively stable, physically as well as psychologically. But when trauma, disaster, abuse, or violence happens, they are likely to become unable to speak. The story of Anna Mburano is exceptional, for she, at least, was able to protest against her rape by those she called her grandsons. In other cases, the victims of suffering become unable to utter a word. What the psalms of lament can do in that context is to provide the believer with words that she can use in protest. These words can start to provide healing from the inability to speak, and they provide language to protest what has happened.

Turning anger toward God

One of the interesting features of the psalms of lament is that the majority of them speak to God, and only rarely  to the human offenders. The psalms of lament can shape the imagination of the believers in a way that their anger and frustration do not become causes for further violence and suffering. They offer the victims of offenses the opportunity to consider their hurt beyond confrontation with the offender. Without ignoring the offender as the cause of pain and suffering, the victim realizes that it is to God that he should direct the plea. In the psalms of lament, the psalmist accuses God instead of accusing human beings alone. Enemies do not just happen to be there! God is accused of having something to do with the presence of enemies in the life of the victim. Therefore, it is God’s obligation to change things from bad to good.

Speaking to God in God’s word

In Verbum Domini, former pope Benedict XVI says that in the book of Psalms, “God gives us words to speak to him, to place our lives before him, and thus to make life itself a path to God” (# 24). This means that even when the pray-er accuses God of betraying her, the pray-er is on the right path, for it is God himself who gives her the word to speak to him. Unlike personal prayers where one is often hampered by an inability to speak to God from the depth of one’s frustration, the psalms of lament provide the believer with words to use and guidance in using them. The psalms of lament tell the believer, “it is OK to yell at God and to express your anger to God, and here is how you can do it.”

Letting others hear our pain

Sometimes when we pray the psalms of lament, we realize that, instead of being victims, we have actually been offenders.  These psalms give us the opportunity to hear the cries of victims, which might prod our conscience and convict our hearts. Praying and studying a psalm in which the ugliness of human evil is spelled out without compromise can challenge both individuals and communities to think more critically about themselves, their actions, and their relationships with one another.

A friend once told me, “I know you like the psalms of lament ...” I confess that I do not like the psalms of lament in the sense that I enjoy praying them. Like many people, I do not like to cry or to hear someone else cry. The psalms of lament speak about suffering, ugliness, and pain, and so we do not have to like them. Nonetheless, the psalms of lament are the prayer of God’s people; they are what God gives us to use when we are hurting. They remind us that there is something wrong in the hatred, the violence, and the evil that encompass most of our world, so that condoning such acts or remaining silent about them makes us unfaithful to God.

These psalms open for us new possibilities. Almost all the psalms of lament (except Psalms 39 and 88) end with hope and trust in God. We can be assured that, after our cries, there is possibility of breaking into song. Lamenting is not driving into a dead end; it is the expression of our desire to begin anew, to build a new community where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).



“How long, Lord, Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
Psalm 13:1

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”
Psalm 22:1

“Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand.”
Psalm 39:10

“Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again before I depart and am no more.”
Psalm 39:13

“You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.”
Psalm 88:8–9