The Psalms show us how to faithfully protest to God.
J. Todd Billings| December 28, 2018
After I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, I returned to the Book of Psalms anew. I started to pray with psalms that I had merely read before or had skipped altogether. While I was receiving intense chemo, a seminary student told me he was praying Psalm 102 for me.
In my distress I groan aloud
and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins. (v. 5–6)
My heart skipped a beat. As I read on, I found that the psalm contained a complaint and a petition that I felt deeply but did not know how to express:
In the course of my life he broke my strength;
he cut short my days.
So I said:
“Do not take me away, my God,
in the midst of my days;
your years go on through all generations.”
Please, Lord, my children are one and three. Please don’t cut me off “in the midst of my days.” Your years, oh God, “go on through all generations.” You have plenty.
In this experience, I came face to face with an inconsistency built into my evangelical upbringing. We were a Bible-centered church, memorizing and singing verses from the Psalms along with our other more contemporary songs of praise. Yet, as I began to notice in high school, we picked a narrow band of sentiments: Praise and thanksgiving? Yes. Sadness turned to joy? Yes. Confession to God? Yes. Yet as I read the Book of Psalms, many (if not most) of the Psalms didn’t fit into these molds.
What about psalms that seemed to protest to God, to express anger and fear? I had been taught the Psalms were God’s Word given for our own prayer. But I had no way to incorporate the most widespread type of psalm (about 40 percent of the book)—the psalms of lament. When the psalms’ melody was in minor, even dissonant keys, I just didn’t sing along.
I was not alone in my inexperience with psalms of lament. Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve spoken with numerous Christian audiences who shared my unfamiliarity with lament psalms. Whether a college student who grew up in a Christian home or a 65-year-old accountant with decades of lay leadership experience in the church, the refrain was the same: It had never occurred to them that they could pray psalms that did not fit the praise/confession/thanksgiving mold. They had high views of Scripture, but in fact, they cherry-picked the Psalms, just as I had cherry-picked my preferred verses, skipping over the difficult parts. This was not, they found, a high view of Scripture after all.
Should our prayers be as wide and deep as the Psalms? I believe our answer—in theory and practice—should be an unequivocal yes. But in order to travel this road, we need to consider two key issues: whether it is acceptable to bring before God the negative sentiments we’ve been avoiding, and secondly, whether it is acceptable for us to be angry with God himself.
The Muscles of Whole-Life Discipleship
Recently, I visited a physical therapist because of sharp pain in my back. After an exam, she pointed to a poster on the wall displaying muscular anatomy. “These muscles in your back are working way too hard,” she said. “When you sit at the computer, when you lift things, you’ve been using these same muscles. They’re tight and fatigued and it’s painful—not because they are weak, but because they are overused.”
I asked her how I could give them some relief and address the problem this pain was signaling. “We need to strengthen these other muscles,” she said. Overusing some muscles led other muscles to weaken, and the result was bodily dysfunction. Rather than feeling strong, even my stronger muscles felt painful and tight because they were unsupported by other essential muscles in the anatomy.
The Psalms, like the chart on the wall in the medical office, give us a lesson in anatomy. In introducing the Psalms, John Calvin says they are “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.” For “there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”
Creatures with many kinds of emotions need a prayer book with the same wide range. Thus, the prayer book of the Psalms includes laments expressing anger, hopelessness, and other intractable parts of creaturely anatomy. If we skip over the “negative” psalms for the “happy” ones, we’re missing out on a gift the Spirit of God desires for us. For, as Calvin reminds us, in the Psalms, “the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
I’ve noticed that many Christian radio stations play “positive Christian hits” interspersed with “encouraging words from the Bible.” Likewise, many church sanctuaries only resound with a narrow range of emotions, not the full scope of the psalmist’s repertoire. Joy and encouragement are wonderful, but what of the other emotions in the psalms: hopelessness, anger, confusion, loneliness?
“All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears,” the psalmist says, “My eyes grow weak with sorrow” (Ps. 6:6–7). He apparently didn’t receive the memo about “positive and encouraging” words. Yet while this psalm expresses a vulnerable hopelessness that might seem out of place to us, it brings these deeply human emotions before the Lord.
We can and should celebrate God’s faithfulness in joy and thanksgiving, but if we want to use those muscles in our anatomy well, we need to exercise our other muscles, bringing responses like disappointment, pain, and grief before the covenant Lord in prayer. Joy and thanksgiving can become exhausted, even cynical, when we disregard the more “negative” emotions in the Christian life. Indeed, more than a few have turned away from the faith altogether because they felt it had no place for their feelings of hopelessness, anger, and fear.
Faithful and Unfaithful Anger at God
The resistance to lament in many evangelical circles is rooted in a deep worry: Is it ever acceptable, even faithful, to direct our anger at God? Like many others, I was taught implicitly that bringing protest to God is wrong by carefully avoiding praying or singing those types of psalms. Presumably, we skip over a third of the psalms because they are unacceptable models for prayer. But I’ve also heard pastors from a wide range of church traditions explicitly teach that it’s sinful to be angry with God.
For example, John Piper grants that it can be faithful to bring our anger at others into the presence of God, but he claims that directing anger toward God is always a “sinful emotion.” Why? Because anger should only be directed toward those who are sinful, fallible: “Anger at a person always implies strong disapproval. If you are angry at me, you think I have done something I should not have done.”
Yet in contrast, God’s ways are perfect—even if God chooses to permit Satan to “hurt us and our children,” as in the case of Job. Thus, Piper argues that being angry at God is never right. “It is wrong—always wrong—to disapprove of God for what he does and permits.”
In biblical terms, Piper is half right—for there are two major trajectories of anger at God in Scripture.
In one, anger toward God leads to an exit—cutting ourselves off from fellowship, serving other gods. The Books of Exodus and Numbers give numerous instances of the “grumbling” of the Israelites after their deliverance from Egypt on the long journey to the land the Lord had promised. They turned away from God’s promise to them as covenant people. In their impatience and anger, they berated Moses and even turned their devotion to a golden calf of their own devising. Clearly, if we are angry at God in a way that leaves us wallowing in self-pity or serving gods other than the Lord, we need to repent of this failure to love the Lord our God.
But Piper’s approach misses the second major biblical trajectory, which gives us a path for faithfully expressing complaint, anger, and even protest to God. In this approach, God’s people do not turn away from their covenant Lord but toward him. Indeed, every time that psalmists express anger toward God, they do so in prayer, in fellowship with the Lord, even if they also express a provisional disapproval of God’s action.
The psalmists do not exit the space of covenantal fellowship—they do not write off God as malevolent, even as they complain: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1).
Rather than stomp away like a jilted lover, psalms like this bring anger at God to God—focusing not upon our own ideas of how a deity should serve our interests but upon the covenant marriage promises we received from the Lord. Again and again, God says he will always remember his people and he will shine his face upon his people. Yet those promises don’t appear to be coming to fruition in the midst of the psalmists’ calamity.
So, with the psalmists, we are invited to throw God’s promises back at him. Does God not help those who cry out to him? The life of faith seems to call this into question:
I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me? (Ps. 88:13–14)
The psalmist expresses anger at God not because of a lack of faith but because of a deep faith in God’s promises.
This should not surprise us. Imagine your relationship with a spouse or a close friend. If you are angry with that person, should you go out and vent about your feelings to another friend? If the relationship is healthy, hopefully not. It takes a deep and durable trust to complain directly and openly to the person with whom you are angry. Likewise, although God is always Lord in covenantal fellowship, he desires that we stay in the room, hope in his promises, and complain directly to him—even in protest. This not only takes guts, but even more—it requires trust.
In recent years, some have championed expressing anger at God because it’s “authentic.” Doubt of the Christian faith is framed as a virtue to be conspicuously signaled on social media and in other forums. This “authentic” complaint is often more like venting than the bringing of the whole self into the presence of God. And yet, in contrast, many Christians assume that expressing anger at God or posing sharp questions to him is always a sign of unfaithfulness.
Neither is a fully biblical path. On the cross, Jesus joined the psalmist in praying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When he asked, “Why have you forsaken me?” he presented a pointed question in prayer, yet this was also an act of profound, covenental trust.
Jesus was not controlled by fear that this question of protest would offend the majesty of God. Nor did Jesus use these words simply because he was “venting” to get something off his chest. Instead, Jesus himself prayed God’s Word back to the Father—lamenting in trust, even in the midst of desolation.
As ones who are in Christ, we are freed to do the same. When we feel abandoned by God, we can and should still call out “my God, my God” to the One who has promised never to forsake us. We do not pray by ourselves, but we “groan inwardly” by the Spirit as adopted children of the Father (Rom. 8:23). The Spirit laments in us as we call out to the Father, hoping and praying and aching for Christ’s kingdom to come in fullness.
Imagine going with your child to a doctor’s appointment and insisting that the physician ignore a third of the child’s body. They are to act like it does not exist. That is no recipe for health, for growth into maturity. Yet often we do something similar with Scripture and our own emotional lives. Unlike Jesus in his earthly ministry, many of us act as if we can ignore a third of the psalms, discounting a large swath of valid expressions of faithful prayer. We content ourselves with stunted-growth discipleship.
There is a better way, a good medicine to receive: that in addition to our confession, thanks, and praise, our covenant Lord calls us to bring our hopelessness, anger, fear, and bitterness before him. In his love, the Lord calls us to trust him enough to wrestle with his promises. In order to grow up into our identity in Christ, we need to join the psalmists in rejoicing, lamenting, and crying out to the Lord in a myriad of ways.
J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary. His latest book is Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table (Eerdmans).