You may have heard the adage “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This saying reminds us that “we are most receptive to counsel from those we know are with us and for us.”1
Discouraged people need to connect with you and with God
But developing a good working relationship with a discouraged person should go further than just the horizontal relationship between a “counselor” and “counselee.” As important as that is, overshadowing the counselee’s relationship with you is the counselee’s relationship with the Lord. Consequently, you can work hard at showing concern for the person, and you can have the goal of helping the person grow closer to the Lord, but the discouraged person might not be convinced that God really cares. For example, consider scenarios such as these:
A bereaved parent whose seven-year-old son drowned at camp a couple of months ago
A husband whose estranged wife left him because of false accusations against him
A teenager whose father sexually abuses her but no one believes her
Any one of these individuals—and a host of others—might come to your office with the nagging suspicion that God does not care. This suspicion will short-circuit the counseling process, even if they are assured of your personal concern for them. So, your goal must be not only building rapport with counselees personally, but also working to reconnect them with God.
The lament psalms resonate with discouraged people
Lament psalms are the psalms in which the writers express anguish, grief, and confusion because of some difficult trial. The cause of the anguish and confusion for the psalmist is usually called the “complaint” by Old Testament scholars. In addition to the complaint, lament psalms usually also have petitions for God’s help, expressions of confidence in God, and often concluding notes of praise or thanksgiving for what God has done or will do.2 You can see these elements in Psalm 13. Though lament psalms usually have both complaints and affirmations of trust in God, these two features may not be equally represented. In fact, Psalm 88 has received the reputation of being the darkest and saddest of the psalms, since it is almost entirely composed of the complaint.
Counselees who are very discouraged often start counseling with a “Psalm 88 perspective”: a perspective that causes them to see more darkness than light in their lives. These people might start counseling with you, expecting that they will be hammered with the Bible—after all, doesn’t the Bible say “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18 NRSV) and “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4 NRSV)? Yes—and at some point, all discouraged counselees do need to grapple with how these verses apply to their lives.
But if discouraged counselees hear these verses from Paul early in a conversation with you, they will probably shut down. And, in fact, the Scriptures tell us that such a reaction is likely. Proverbs 25:20 (ESV) gives us two vivid images for how insensitivity to others’ distress only results in irritation: “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” Judicious use of the lament psalms early in counseling can keep you from coming across as minimizing or dismissing the intensity of these people’s struggles.
Now let me suggest a more detailed framework for using lament psalms in building involvement with counselees:
An exercise using lament psalms: “Wrestling with God”
Suppose you have the opportunity to counsel a believer I’ll call “Tom.” Tom has accepted the primary responsibility of caring for his eighty-year-old mother, who is going blind in one eye. On top of that challenge, he also has found himself dealing with an unemployed brother who tries to manipulate their mother for money and a sister who never seems to have the time to help with the care of their mother. In addition, Tom was recently rear-ended at an intersection, which has resulted in occasional lower back spasms that incapacitate him. He is finding it difficult to cope and finds himself increasingly prone to anxious and pessimistic thinking. He wonders where God is in all this.
To help Tom, you might start by encouraging him to unload his heart to God, honestly revealing to God the pain, frustration, and disappointment he has to deal with. But I would say you should offer more guidance than simply “Spill your guts in prayer.” You might employ an exercise using biblical laments that I call “wrestling with God.” This exercise is based on the assumption that the Lord has preserved the laments in Scripture not only to communicate His understanding of our trials but also as tools to restructure our thinking about life and about Him. Here are the steps in the exercise—after you’ve gathered initial data about his trials.
Step #1: Ask Tom to write (or record) his own lament to God.
“Tom, if you were to honestly tell God how you feel, given the circumstances in your life now, what would you say? How would you express the hurt? How would you tell God about the frustration? The disappointment? The confusion? Tom, are there questions that burn in your heart—the type of questions that if unanswered might even consume your will to live?”
Tom might not be comfortable with the idea of sharing such thoughts with God, especially if he thinks the Christian life should not be characterized by negative emotional reactions. You might have to assure him that some of the biblical writers did exactly what you’re asking him to do.
Step #2: Read one or two of the Bible’s preserved laments with Tom.
I have provided a selection of lament psalms at the end of this article that might get you started. You will see that the chart includes information on the likely circumstances the psalmist was going through that inspired the composing of the psalm. Try to match the circumstances behind the psalm or at least the writer’s perspective in the psalm to Tom’s circumstances or perspective as much as possible. The closer the match between the the psalmist’s trial and Tom’s trials, the more relevant this exercise will seem to him.
For each of the psalms you study together, answer these questions:
(1) What problems does the writer describe or hint at in the passage?
(2) What difficult, negative emotions does the writer experience?
(3) What questions for God does the writer have?
(4) What resolution, if any, is presented or hinted at in the passage? (That is, is there a progression of thought from problem to resolution that you detect in the passage?)
(5) On what basis does the writer support the resolution?
With Tom, you might reflect on a lamenting psalmist’s perceptions of:
Feeling betrayed, abandoned, and lonely
Experiencing God’s displeasure
Feeling beaten down with no way out
The point on meditating aloud on lament psalms with Tom is not to magnify the pessimistic thinking, but to highlight that God Himself saw to it that such struggles were recorded in His holy Word. In other words, in the Bible there is an affirmation that the life of faith is not necessarily a life immune from battles that challenge one’s faith. After leading Tom in seeing such progressions of thought in a couple of lament psalms, you might ask him to look at another lament psalm and try to answer these questions on his own.
Step #3: Ask Tom to rewrite his lament, given what he has learned from the biblical laments.
At this point Tom should be challenged to compare his thought processes to those of the biblical lament writers. In particular, “To what extent, Tom, does your thinking about God correspond to the way the biblical writers think about God?”
I see the following benefits for Tom wrestling with God through the lament psalms:
(1) Tom would see from the laments that it’s not unusual for God’s people to have difficulties in life—and it’s not taboo to tell God about the emotional upheaval those difficulties produce.
(2) Yet, God also uses the laments preserved in Scripture to help His people grow through their emotional upheaval if they are willing to examine how the biblical writers thought about their struggles in relation to God. That’s the key: fighting to see how the trials “fit” within God’s promises and His will rather than succumbing to the temptation to dismiss God from life. That’s why I call this exercise with the lament psalms “wrestling with God.” Like Jacob in Genesis 32, I want discouraged and confused counselees to strive with God … until they are blessed by him (Gen. 32:26–29).
Some cautions when using biblical laments
1. A caution regarding the time frame of the psalmists’ experiences
Earlier, I mentioned that many lament psalms have a progression of thought from problem to resolution. However, it is important to keep in mind that we don’t know how long it took for a psalmist to go from a focus on his agony to a focus on God’s goodness and promises. We need to be careful that counselees do not go away from a study of the biblical laments thinking that a switch in perspective will happen as quickly as it takes to read the psalm!
2. A caution regarding the distinction between “proper laments” and “improper complaints”
The presence of “complaints” in so many of the psalms raises a question about how these sections of Scripture square with others in which complaining, grumbling, etc., are clearly unacceptable. Numbers 11, 1 Corinthians 10:9–10, and Philippians 2:14–16 are passages that seem to counter the legitimacy of the lament psalms. Therefore, we need to distinguish between proper laments (as in the psalms) and improper complaining (as in these other passages).
Proper laments are offered in recognition of God’s character and plan. They are a voiced recognition that circumstances on earth do not seem to conform to what God has said about Himself and His purposes. Consequently, the proper lament is one that calls on God to show Himself faithful, because it is not clear at this time.
Improper complaining/grumbling is not concerned about God glorifying Himself. Improper complaining is all about a self-righteous lamenter voicing his dissatisfaction with the bum deal he thinks God has given him. In other words, improper complaining/grumbling is all about the sinner, whereas a proper lament is really all about God. If you can foster in your counselees the mind-set we read in the lament psalms, they will be in a prime position to connect with Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: Using lament psalms to point to Jesus
Earlier I suggested the lament psalms could be used to build rapport with discouraged people, because:
(1) The laments show them that difficult struggles are common for God’s people in a fallen world.
(2) The laments show them that God is concerned about the difficult struggles they face, even if His response is not immediately clear to them.
(3) The laments show them how seeing God’s presence in the midst of their trials begins the process of life transformation.
But in a much clearer way than any of the psalmists could have understood, we can view trials in relationship to Jesus, in whom all the promises of God are “Yes” and “Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20). The psalmists realized that they needed to focus their attention on the future, because of how God had proven His faithfulness in the past. But they could not have imagined how God ultimately would vindicate their trust. However, through the apostles’ writings we know how He did it:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.… In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Pet. 1:3–7)
Selected psalms for use with discouraged people
|Psalm||The Source(s) of Distress|
|13||Death; human adversaries|
|22||Apparent silence of God; scorn from others|
|31||Disease; scorn and threats from others|
|39||Coming face-to-face with one’s mortality—at least because of age, perhaps because of illness|
|41||Serious illness; scorn from adversaries; betrayal by a friend|
|42-43||Being prevented from worship; feeling cut off from God|
|88||Unspecified long-standing and life-threatening situation; scorn from others; perceived alienation from God|
|102||Depression (note the social isolation, sleeplessness, disinterest in eating, lack of motivation); fever|
|141||Following the crowd in sin, but now seeing the folly in it|
- Wayne Mack, “Developing a Helping Relationship with Counselees,” in Introduction to Biblical Counseling, ed. John MacArthur and Wayne Mack (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), 175.
- Ernest C. Lucas, Exploring the Old Testament, Volume 3: A Guide to the Psalms and Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 3.