Learning to Lament With the Psalms | Sojourners

Learning to Lament With the Psalms

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Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught because of what my enemy is saying,
because of the threats of the wicked; for they bring down suffering on me
. — Psalm 55:1-3

A painful truth about domestic violence is that ending a violent relationship can require navigating a minefield of emotional loss and loneliness. Many violent relationships endure multiple breakups and reunions. Leaving is not a simple choice. Rarely are relationships one-dimensional. There are shared history, shared dreams, and shared pain. While it is true that many abusers hold their victims captive through threats of violence, reputation destruction, financial ruin or physical danger, many victims also stay because loving your intimate enemy is a very painful path with few attractive alternative choices other than remaining in the relationship.

My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. — Psalm 55:4-5

The poetic prayers, songs, and laments of the book of Psalms were recorded to teach worshipers how to praise God, as well as to lament and grieve. When undergoing times of agony or when words are not enough, the Psalms can express the painful emotions for us, as processing emotion helps us to move forward with difficult choices.

Much of the Psalms were attributed to David, including the prayer of Psalm 55—a lament about suffering violence at the hands of a loved one. Many victims of abuse find themselves alone and abandoned by family and friends who become impatient and exasperated by their ongoing struggle with loving their abuser. Praying through a Psalm may be an emotional refuge during such a painful time.

Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words, for I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they prowl about on its walls; malice and abuse are within it. — Psalm 55:9-10

David was a man of many titles; the warrior, the dreamer, the king, the poet, the adulterer, the failed husband, the failed father. The Old Testament records of David’s life make no attempt to cover up the broken, painful, and hypocritical truths of his life. Yet he somehow remained known as a “man after God’s heart.”  

Some women and men who have been abused are embarrassed and ashamed like David, as life offers far less than it once promised. In time, the cruelty of the abuser or the legal processes of separation result in their most guarded secrets exposed and their fears trivialized and mocked. Their reputation may be damaged or destroyed. Yet, in this time of loss and pain, to whom can they turn? The one whom they thought they could endure life’s trials with has become their intimate enemy. Often their family and friends are not patient with their grief, overcome by their own anger or disgust at the abuser.

If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship. — Psalm 55:12-14a

Like David, they may find that crying out to the God who loves them may help them restore hope.

As for me, I call to God, and the Lord saves me. Evening, morning, and noon I cry out in distress, and God hears my voice. — Psalm 55:16-17

The Psalms often cry out for justice, for retribution, and for restoration of the broken hearted. They remind us that God sees the heart of the other and is not blind to the injustice.

My companion attacks his friends; he violates his covenant.
His talk is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart;
his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords. — Psalm 55:20-21

They remind us that in times of fear we are not alone, and injustice will not last forever. Victims can become survivors. They need not endure repeated abuse. Their life does not have to remain in the cycle of violence. Weeping and mourning can become dancing again.

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. 
But you, God, will bring down the wicked
 into the pit of decay; the bloodthirsty and deceitful will not live out half their days.
But as for me, I trust in you. — Psalm 55:22-23

For those who have never experienced the violence of abuse, the Psalms and the words and emotions of survivors of abuse are instructive for our growth and education. The wounds of an intimate loved one turned enemy are unlike any other wounds. Survivors need our empathy and patience, and they need time to rebuild their dreams and establish trust. When we cannot relate, we can still lament. We can open our eyes to injustice and open our hearts to the painful emotions. We can care and love without judgment. We can see them as we see David, as the woman or man after God’s heart that they still are despite the loss and the pain of domestic violence.

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