Psalm 71:1-6 – How to Cope with Change and Loss

I run to you, Lord,
for protection.
    Don’t disappoint me.
You do what is right,
    so come to my rescue.
    Listen to my prayer
    and keep me safe.
Be my mighty rock,
    the place
where I can always run
    for protection.
Save me by your command!
    You are my mighty rock
    and my fortress.

Come and save me, Lord God,
    from vicious and cruel
    and brutal enemies!
I depend on you,
    and I have trusted you
    since I was young.
I have relied on you
    from the day I was born.
You brought me safely
through birth,
    and I always praise you. (Contemporary English Version)

No one gets off this planet without experiencing several events of change and loss, resulting in grief and the need to lament. Because of this reality, you would think we all acknowledge this great need of lamenting our significant losses. Yet, we don’t.

Many Christians avoid grief work. The following are just a few of the statements I’ve heard over the decades from parishioners when they experience loss:

  • “Christ is resurrected and alive. There’s victory in Jesus. No need to grieve like unbelievers.”
  • “My loved one is in heaven. No more suffering or pain. It would be selfish of me to be sad.”
  • “It’s a sin to be depressed.”
  • “I can’t let myself cry and fall apart. I need to be strong for my family.”

Those statements are very far from what we find in the biblical psalms and throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture. Consider these realities in the Bible:

  • 62 out of the 150 Psalms in the Old Testament are laments; some are communal, many are individual expressions of grief.
  • God laments. And God grieves with us. (Genesis 6:5-6; Isaiah 53:4; John 11:1-44)
  • An extended time and process of grieving was practiced by biblical characters when loss occurred. It was a normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that loss. (e.g., Genesis 50:1-3)
  • Lament is an intentional process of letting go of relationships and dreams and discovering how to live into a new identity after the loss or change. There’s even an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting: Lamentations.
  • Everyone’s grief is personal; there is no one size fits all.
  • Avoiding grief, mourning, lament, and loss is totally foreign to the Bible.

Psalms of lament have a characteristic structure, distinct from psalms of praise, trust, or wisdom, like today’s psalm:

  1. Address to God: The address is usually a brief cry for help; and is occasionally expanded to include a statement of praise or a recollection of God’s intervention in the past (Psalm 71:1-3).
  2. Complaint: God is informed about the problem or experience through a range and depth of emotional, relational, and spiritual reactions to change (Psalm 71:4).
  3. Confession of Trust: The psalmist remains confident in God despite the circumstances and begins to see his or her problems differently (Psalm 71:5-8).
  4. Petition: Filled with confidence in God, the psalmist appeals to God for deliverance and intervention.  Petitioning is not bargaining with God or a refusal to accept loss; it is a legitimate seeking of help (Psalm 71:9-13).
  5. Words of Assurance: The psalmist expresses certainty that the petition will be heard by God (Psalm 71:14a).
  6. Vow of Praise: The lament concludes with the psalmist’s vow to testify to what God will do or has done through praise (Psalm 71:14b-24).

The biblical psalms do two wonderful services for us as God’s people: First, a constant stream of reading, quoting, memorizing, and meditating on them actually shapes our faith into a full-orbed, mature, and robust belief. Second, the psalms provide us with a healthy means of expressing the complete range of our human experience. 

So, then, the psalms both reflect our feelings, and, at the same time, form those feelings to know God better, cope with situations, and relate appropriately with others. 

The fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, had it right about the psalms when he said: 

“Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book [the Psalms] you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.”

St. Athanasius (297-373 C.E.), Bishop of Alexandria

Today’s psalm of lament is the expression of a person getting along in years and discovering all the limitations and weaknesses that go along with aging. It is a plea for help. Whereas in younger days the psalmist had the vigor to engage problems and enemies, now he has the realization that he must increasingly depend upon God (and others).  

Far too many people hitting the aging process do not deal with it well. The change to their bodies, even their minds, is so unwelcome that they do not cope quickly, or, sometimes, at all. They believe it silly to lament such a natural occurrence, even though those physical changes dog them day after day.

Based upon the psalms, I insist that lament is a powerful and necessary form of coming to grips with change. God has not promised us life-long health and constant energy. Rather, the Lord has promised to be with us as our refuge and help through all the vicissitudes of changing health and altered situations. 

Let praying the psalms, then, be a regimen as familiar and daily as your using your pill planner and taking your meds.

Ever-watchful God, you are a rock of refuge, a never changing reality in a world of constant change. You are my hope, Lord, and my faith has been in you all my life. I lament all the difficult changes I encounter. I can never go back to the way things were. So, please open to me a new reality where fresh hope and life can be found, through Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.

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