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Complaining to God about everything?
2023 Presbyterian Women's Pastoral Retreat

Aug 2023

We all get angry at times, and it is natural to express our emotions, but do we still have the courage and boldness to express to God? As God's servant, how do we feel about complaining to God?

This was what the Presbyterian Women's Pastoral Retreat focused on this year: Can we complain to God? If we can, then how do we complain?

Thankfully, the commitee invited Rev Dr Maggie Low from Trinity Theological College Singapore to join the two-day and one-night retreat and to give a special talk on the first night. To the surprise of the women pastors, not only were we affirmed that we could complain directly to God about everything, but Rev Dr Maggie also drew from the Psalms and put together an easy-to-learn method to help us express our heart's requests to God in the form of laments, just like the psalmist.

Many of the women pastors presented their first lament to God in less than 15 minutes, and read it aloud, some even in tears. It was a wonderful and unforgetable evening in which 30 women pastors were edified by the Word of God and through the teaching of Rev Dr Maggie.

The retreat not only provided rich spiritual food, but also allowed the women pastors to find long-lost spiritual companions, to confide in each other comfortably, and to renew their strength in the Lord together through mutual intercession. May the Lord continue to be gracious in preserving the physical and spiritual health of all the women pastors at the retreat, and remember the retreat organisers who served silently, so that the Lord's love and grace will continue to flow through the retreat and throughout the communities that the pastors serve!


  1. The lecturer provided the text "PSALMS FOR TOUGH TIMES" extracted from the lecturer's video for pre-reading by the women pastors who participated in the camp before the camp.
  2. The Presbyterian Church has also obtained permission from Trinity Theological College to post on the website of the PCS the translation and transcription of the English text from the video of Dr Maggie's special online lectures, which was used in the Women's Pastoral Retreat held by the Women's Council of the PCS on 27 and 28 June 2023, which is now available in Chinese and English.

Pr Gu Hai Rong
Translated by: Elder Angelia Wong
Synod Women's Council
July 21, 2023


Lesson 2 – Lament Psalm

Welcome to the 2nd lesson on the course, "Psalms for Tough Times". The 1st lesson was on Hebrew Poetry and we're going to keep practicing that for this lesson.

For this lesson and the next 2 lessons, we will be looking at a particular type of psalm in more depth. We will be looking at lament psalms, then praise psalms, and trust psalms. There are other types of psalms you can go through: wisdom psalms, royal psalms and so on but these three are the most relevant for going through tough times.

So today will be the lesson on lament psalm and before going into the analysis, let's read something to show the power of the psalms. This is from a book, Encountering the Book of Psalms, writen by Hassell Bullock that is for anyone who wants to study the psalms more in depth. He has an extract from a book, War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk, and this is about the Holocaust during World War 2, which describes how Berel Jastrow, a Jewish inmate of the death camp was forced to do the morbid work of removing decaying Jewish bodies from the death pit to be burned. In order to keep his sanity in his fragmentary life, he recited the psalms:

  While he does this work, Berel Jastrow recites the psalms for the dead... He goes about this gruesome task with love, murmuring psalms...the psalms will comfort their souls. He heaves up body after body – they are light, these long-dead Jews, one seizes a body by the waist and twitches it readily into the air, into the waiting hands above - and goes on murmuring psalms. This is how Berel Jastrow holds on to his sanity.

If we are going through tough times, there is nothing that can compares to the Jews going through in World War 2. How did they get through those horrific times. The psalms help them hold on to their sanity, and they can help us today no mater what we are going through to hold on to our sanity as well.

So, let's begin with the lament psalms and these are the four parts we are going to cover in our lesson today:

  1. Frequency in the Psalter
  2. Form of the Lament Psalms
  3. Focus on Psalm 13
  4. Formulate a Lament Psalm

i. Frequency in the Psalter

There are 5 books in the Psalter. Below is a table indicating the number of praise psalms in each of those chapter and number of lament psalms in comparison.

5 Books of Psalter Praise Laments
I. 1 - 41
II. 42 - 72
III. 73 - 89
IV. 90 – 106
V. 107 – 150

There are fewer praise psalms at the beginning and a whole lot more at the end. For the lament psalms, it is the other way round. A whole lot more at the beginning, and then it gets lesser towards the end.

What does that mean? That means that in order to get to praise, you have to start with lament. You have to pour out all your struggles to God before you can truly learn to praise Him. People usually thinks that a good Christian have to be happy all the time, praise the Lord all the time, put on a smiling face. But is that real spirituality or pseudo spirituality? It's like you have to put on a mask to appear to be a good Christian. But real spirituality is when you can be honest with God and bring to Him your struggles because it is when you are honest to God that you can truly meet with God, and then you can end up with praise.

If we count the total number of praise psalm, there are 30 praise psalms which make up 20% of the Psalter, and surprisingly there are a lot more lament psalms. Forty-two lament psalms make up almost one third of the Psalter. We usually think that the book of psalms is all about praising God, and there are, but actually what you find most common in the Psalter are the lament psalms just being honest, just telling God about your struggles and your questions.

It is just like Job. If Job had ended – after all his troubles losing all his properties and his children – if he ended by saying, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh, blessed be the name of the Lord", then we would end at Chapter 2, and the book of Job will only have 2 chapters. But because Job went on in Chapter 3 to pour out his questions to God, to pour out his struggles to God that we get these wonderful chapters at the end from Chapter 38 onwards where there is a cosmic revelation of God, a life changing encounter with God. And that is why the lament psalm is a way of helping you to bring your struggles to God and to meet with Him especially in tough times. So that's the frequency in the Psalter.

ii. Form of the Lament Psalms

Now let's take a more in-depth look, which is the form of the lament psalm. Each type of psalm has a particular form. It's like different literature, there are certain rules to follow. One good example is a Japanese Haiku, which is a Japanese type of poetry. A Japanese Haiku is made up of 3 lines, in the first line you have 5 syllables, 2nd line 7 syllables and the 3rd line 5 syllables. You could adapt it to other languages, English for example. You try to follow this rule by having 5 English syllable in the 1st line, 7 in the 2nd and 5 in the 3rd – that is a Haiku. Similarly, when you want to recognize different types of psalms, we also look for certain structure.

We begin first of all with COMPLAINTS, and there are 3 things the psalmist could complain about. He could complain about God, and usually this is implied by the questions, "How long, O God, will you let me to suffer; How long will you ignore me?" They are directed at God because it is implying that God has forgoten, God doesn't care. The 2nd type of complain is about the self – the psalmist himself. He can talk about "look at how I am suffering". And the 3rd complain is about enemies: look at how unfair they are, look at how vicious they are. So that is the first part, COMPLAINTS.

The 2nd part of the lament psalm is to look out for CALL for help, and when you see this call for help, look for the basis of that call. There can be 2 bases: i) the person of God himself; for example, God help me because you are powerful; ii) the problem; for example, God help me because You know I am going to die.

The 3rd and 4th part of the lament psalm is either CONFESSION of sin OR CONTENTION of innocence. Confession of sin is when the psalmist realises that he got into trouble because of his own sin, and so he repents of his sin, and ask God to restore him. Or sometimes, the trouble may not be due to his sin. The psalmist may be completely innocent, but he is just being taken advantage of by his enemies, so there will be a contention of innocence. He could say, "God I am faithful to You, and yet other people atack me." That's contention of innocence.

The 5th thing to look out for is related to contention of innocence and that is CURSE of enemies. What we mean by curse in the biblical context is not about putting a spell or taking personal revenge against someone that you don't like. When we ask God to curse the enemy, we are actually asking for justice: "God, punish the evildoer! God, You defend me against my enemies, You show them that I am innocent!" That is what we mean by curse: judgement on the enemies, and judgement that is executed by God and not by oneself.

Now we come to one of the most important parts of the lament psalm, the 6th element, CONFIDENCE in God. This confidence in God could be express on the basis of the person of God. It can be, "God, I know you will help me because You are always faithful." Or, the confidence in God can simply be an act of faith; it can be "though I am wear, yet I will trust in You."

And then finally, because of this expression of confidence, it will end with CELEBRATION, and this is usually express as a vow of thanksgiving, for example, "I will praise You because I know you will rescue me."

These are the 7 elements to look out for. It doesn't mean that in every lament psalm, you will find all 7. You may find some and not all, and it doesn't always have to be in this order. It can be in different order because the psalmist is creative, but usually they will start with complaint. Now let's talk more about what is a complaint.

We usually think that Christians shouldn't be complaining. So, what we mean by complain in the psalms is simply an honest expression to God about your struggles, about your pains. It is telling God about the needs that you have. It is not grumbling to God about not getting what you want – that is not a complain, that is a grumble. You can tell God that you are upset because you lost a job, that is complaining. But to tell God you did not strike lotery, for example, that is not a real complain because that is just not getting what you want.

Why should we bring our complains to God. Is it ok, is it right to tell Him about your frustrations? Let me establish that emotions are neither right nor wrong. They are amoral, that is, neither right nor wrong. It is what you do about your emotions that counts. Ephesians 4:26 says "Be angry, but sin not." So, there is an emotion of anger, which is completely neutral, but "sin not" is what you must do with your anger. We know that God made us with emotion, God Himself has emotion: God rejoices; God grieves. So, to be a person is to have emotions. The question is what do you do with your emotion?

A lot of people may suppress their emotion. You are angry, you suppress it because you think a Christian should not be angry. But if you suppress your emotion, you probably end up doing 2 things as a consequence: (1) you will explode, or (2) you will implode. Imagine if your boss gives you a hard time and scolds you. You go home, you will explode at your wife, and you give her a hard time. Your wife gets so upset, she will explode at the children, and give the children a hard time. The children get so upset, and who do they have to explode at? Maybe the cat or the dog, if you have any. That's the problem, you explode because you couldn't explode at your boss, so you explode at everyone else. Or the other thing that could happen when you suppress your emotion is that you implode internally to yourself, and that usually end up as depression, and you have thoughts like nobody understand me, I am going through a hard time, and that can lead to depression.

What should we do with our emotion? The psalms show us the way, and that is to express your emotions to God. It is only when you express them and speak them out that you can eventually resolve them before God, just like what was said about Job. God let Job ventilate and go on and on about his unhappiness until Chapter 38, then God finally answered him. And what is interesting is that in chapter 42:7, God said this to Job's 3 friends. God said, "You did not speak rightly to me like my servant Job had." In most English translation, you probably get, "You did not speak rightly about me," but in Hebrew the word actually is "to me". Think about it, who is the only one who kept talking to God? Not his 3 friends, but Job himself alone. He kept talking to God, and what was he saying to God? He wasn't praising God, he wasn't just being happy with God. He was wailing at God, he had his fist in God's face as it were and said, "How could you do this to me? You are so unjust and unfair! You are like a tyrant!" And yet at the end of it all, God said Job was the one who spoke rightly to Him. God wants you to be honest because that shows faith. Despite all Job's suffering, even though he said God is unfair, he asks God for justice, he asks God to resolve this for him – that's faith. Even Jesus did the same thing: when he was on the cross, he quoted Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" He was complaining about God, and he called that out to God.

I know a friend some time ago, and he was going through a really bad time. First of all, he lost his girlfriend, and soon after that, if that was not bad enough, he lost his job. And if that was not bad enough, his mum was diagnosed with cancer. After that his father was diagnosed with cancer. How do you go through a time like that? I met up with him to see how he was getting on; I was his pastor then. He shared with me about his struggle, and I asked him, "Have you talked to God? Have you told Him how you feel? That you don't understand what is going on, and what is God doing in your life?" This young man said to me, "No, I have not talked to God, and I don't want to talk to God. Don't tell me to talk to God." I said "Why?" and he replied, "If I talk to God, I am going to get so angry with God, and I'll say something that is disrespectful, and then I will probably regret it because I don't know what God will do to me." This is what the Chinese like to say, "天打雷劈" – if you say something wrong to God, you will get struck by lightning. So, I had to tell him about the example of Job, how he just poured out all his frustrations about God to God. The young man listened. I will tell you about the ending of the story at the end of this lesson. The point is, it is beter to talk to God than to turn our back to God and refuse to talk to Him. Then that will cut off your relationship with God. But when you turn to God and pour out all your questions, all your anger to God, it is paradoxically an act of faith, because you still believe that God will hear; you still believe that God will answer and He will answer at the right time and you will meet with God. Whatever you are going through – anger, depression, frustration – pour that out to God, and you will meet Him. This is the importance of the lament psalm.

Litle wonder that this is the most frequent psalm that you will read. This is the reality of life that we live in an imperfect world. We are going to get hurt, but we can have the hope of bringing our hurts to God. Martin Luther said that, "Hope despairs." Hope can despair, but for Christians, despair also hopes because we have our hope in God. And if you look at the lament psalm, there is always a turning point. If you go through the whole lament psalm, you will always come to this part about confidence in God. There is always this turning to God, this looking to God, this act of faith, and that is why it is important to read through the entire psalm on its own because it takes you on this journey from struggles to faith finally in God. That is the element you will find in every lament psalm except for Psalm 88 where things are so bad that there is no statement of confidence in God. But that is also a reflection of reality in life. Sometimes, you really don't see any hope, sometimes the darkness seems to go on for so long, and you can't find confidence in God. But that is only 1 psalm out of 42, so keep reading, and you will turn back to God eventually.

iii. Focus on Psalm 13

We have talked about the form of the lament psalm. Let's focus on Psalm 13 in particular, going through each verse at a time.

Verse 1: "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?"

Can you identify what element of the lament psalm it is? It is a complaint. You can tell especially by the phrase, "How long?...How long?" It is a complaint about God Himself.

Let's revise the parallelism in Hebrew poetry. The 3 types are: Synonymous (similar ideas), Antithetic (contrasting ideas) or Synthetic (adding ideas).

In verse 1, what kind of parallelism do you see? Synonymous, and the parallel words are "forget" and "hide your face". Even if it is a synonymous parallelism, the second line has a greater emphasis. How does it work? When you say, "forget me", it may be accidental, unintentional. But when you say, "hide your face", then that's deliberate, that's intentional. It is asking God, "Do you really reject me? How could you?"

Verse 2: "How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and every day have sorrow in my heart?

What part of the psalm is it? It's still about complaint, and this time about what? About the self because it is about me, "my thoughts", "my sorrow in my heart".

What kind of parallelism did you see here? Synonymous, and the words are "thoughts" and "sorrow". How does it work that the 2nd line has a greater emphasis? "Thoughts" is like mental worry, and "sorrow" is like anguish, emotional struggle in the heart. A lot of people say they have insomnia, they worry then they can't sleep. When you have issues like that, you can bring them to God too. Jesus himself couldn't sleep all night when he was at the Garden of Gethsemane. What was he doing? He was praying all night with tears and loud cries because of the mental anguish and the emotional pain that he was going through. Whatever you are going through, Jesus went through it and understand it perfectly, even if no one else does.

Third line of Verse 2, "How long will my enemy triumph over me?"

What part of the psalm is that? Complaint about enemy.

What kind of parallelism would this be? The first 2 lines were focused on the psalmist himself, but the 3rd line is on outsiders, "enemy", so that would make it a synthetic parallelism. It's not just your worries, but what can make it worse? Other people can make it worse. You have problems at work, and then your colleagues come and back stab you, or your boss takes credit for your work, or you have friends who gossip about you, or your family is not understanding. All these you can bring to God. We can't forgive until we fully express our anger to God and trust Him for justice. In the New Testament, Jesus says bless your enemy, but the psalms show us that you can bring your anguish to God and trust Him to work justice for you. Then, you can lay down your anger, then you bless your enemy.

I want to tell you about a lady I was counselling at one time. She shared with me that she was abused by a relative when she was young, and her parents refuse to believe her, and she was so wounded, and all these stayed with her to her adulthood. So eventually I asked whether I could pray with her. She said OK but that she can't talk to God. She was a Christian, she believes in God, but she never talked to God about this incident. She couldn't understand why God never helped her, and she got so cut off from God because of this. So I said, "Can I pray for you on your behalf?" And she said, "Sure." I prayed about this incident with her. I just simply voiced her anguish for her with cries like, "God, how could you allow this? God, don't you care? God, why didn't you stop this? God, why didn't my parents understand? Where were you? Why didn't you protect this young girl?" As I went through the prayer, I could see that she was tearing, and atier the prayer, she said thank you for saying what she couldn't say to God all these years. And that was the beginning of her healing. Don't hide your complaints, pour them out to God.

Verse 3: "Look on me and answer, O LORD my God
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

What part of the lament psalm is that? "Look on me and answer" indicates that it is a call for help, and it is based on the person of God. The psalmist said, "O Lord my God". The 2nd line, "Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death" is also a call for help, but this time it is based on the problem, which is death.

What kind of parallelism is used here? You have the parallel words "look" and "give light to my eyes". That's a good similar metaphor because they have to do with sight: first of all, asking God to "see me," and then "let my eyes see light". In Hebrew, to see light with your eyes simply means to be alive because if you were dead, you can't see light. You can only see light as long as you are alive. So there is an added emphasis in this synonymous parallelism, look at me and not just look at me, but give me life. In verse 3, when the psalmist calls for help based on the person of God, he said "O Lord my God" – a personal God: There is an intimate relationship with God. This is the paradox of faith because when he started off by saying, "How long, O God, have you forgotten me?", yet he still clings on to the "Lord my God".

In Singapore, out of all the organ transplants that have been carried out in hospitals, only 2 were donated by strangers who donated their liver or kidney to a complete stranger. Those are amazing people who would do that. But most of the time, if you need an organ transplant, who do you turn to? Siblings. At least they have similar DNA, or your parents, your children, or hopefully, a spouse. They are people who are related to you, and you trust them that they will be more willing to donate part of their organs to you. But God did a whole lot more as your God because he gave you not just part of an organ or even the whole organ – God gave you His own Son, the very life of His own Son. That's the God that you have, that's the God you can rely on – "O Lord my God", and that is why you can bring your struggles to Him.

Verse 4: "my enemy will say, "I have overcome him,"
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

What part of the lament psalm is this? It is still a call for help based on a problem, and the problem is the enemy.

Look at verse 4, and analyse the parallelism here. It is synonymous, and the synonymous words are "enemy" and "foes". Can you see the greater emphasis in the 2nd line. In the 1st line, it is one enemy, and in the 2nd line, it is plural "foes'. No matter how overwhelming your enemies may be, you can bring them all to God.

Verse 5: "But in your unfailing love I trusted;
    my heart will rejoice in your salvation.

What part of the lament psalm is this especially when it begins with "But"? It is expressing Confidence in God based on the person of God himself, because he is talking about God's unfailing love.

What kind of parallelism do you see? It is synonymous parallelism and the 2 related words are "unfailing love" that leads to "salvation". Unfailing love is a very important word in Hebrew. It's the word "khesed", and "khesed" is not just a feeling. "Khesed" is a commitment to do something because the other person needs it. So this unfailing love then results in the 2nd line as actual action, which is "salvation" – God will deliver you. So unfailing love is not just a feeling, although it may involve feeling, and it results in action.

Verse 6: "I will sing to the LORD,
    for he has been good to me.

What part of the lament psalm is that? It is Celebration.

What is the parallelism? Take note of the word "for" because that gives you a reason. So the parallelism is synthetic because there is a cause and effect relationship. Why is it that the psalmist will "sing to the Lord"? Here is the reason, "he has been good to me." The interesting thing to observe is that in the Hebrew, as we have translated into English, is kind of in the past tense. The psalmist didn't say, "I will sing to the Lord for he will be good to me," referring to the future. But he is so confident that he says, "The Lord has been good to me." He just trusts that God will surely do it. It is a statement of faith in the person of God himself.

Let me tell you a bit more about the word "good" here. It is such a general word in English, but in Hebrew, a very interesting word is used. The usual word for good in Hebrew is "tov", but "tov" is not the word used here. The Hebrew word is "gamal". "Gamal" literally means something that is ripe, something that is full. And therefore in some English translation, he will say "for the Lord has dealt bountifully with me." God provides everything that you need, and even beter than you expected.

Let's end the story that was started in the beginning about the young man who lost his girlfriend, lost his job, lost his parents. Atier I met him, he finally poured everything out to God. The ending of the story is like this: He lost his first girlfriend, and then he found a more suitable woman to be his wife. The interesting thing is that he found this more suitable lady in his job that he had lost. God just put him there to meet his wife. He lost his job, and by the grace of God, he found another job which he enjoyed beter. So that's the 2nd way that God was good to him. What about his parents? Ever since he was young, his parents had always been against Christianity. When his mum was diagnosed with cancer, the church rallied around him and around her and provided her with care and support so much so that she saw the love of God. She accepted Christ before she passed away. And because of that, his father, who is even more against Christianity, decided that he too wanted to be a Christian, and he found peace that he had never had before. So even though he lost his parents, he will see them for all eternity. And today, he is a man who can say, "I will sing to the Lord for he has been good (gamal) to me."

This is how the lament psalm can help you to move from struggling to singing.

iv. Formulate your own Lament Psalm

Go through the form of the lament psalm:

        About: a. God (how long?) b. Self c. Enemies
  2. CALL for help
        Basis: a. Person of God b. Problem
  3. CONFESSION of sin OR
  4. CONTENTION of innocence
  5. CURSE of enemies
  6. CONFIDENCE in God
        Basis: a. Person of God b. Act of faith (but, yet)
        - vow for thanksgiving

For each of the element, write a couple of parallel lines: Synonymous (similar ideas), Antithetic (contrasting ideas), or Synthetic (adding ideas). You should have about 6 parallel lines, or 12 lines for your own lament psalm. Just be very honest with God. (Sharing of 2 lament psalms writen by TTC students.)

Transcript by: Elder Angelia Wong
Veted by: Rev Dr Maggie Low
Synod Women's Council
June 19, 2023


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