Formations 06.22.2014: Taking Time for the Pain

Psalm 31:1-2, 9-24

August Rodin, Sorrow, c. 1881–82

August Rodin, Sorrow, c. 1881–82

Scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University believe a pill that wipes out bad memories could eventually become reality. In a recent study, experiments found that mice that were given fingolimid, a drug used to treat multiple sclerosis, completely forgot about previous experiences that had brought them physical pain.

The study suggests that, some day in the future, there may be a drug that could erase memories of traumatic events, helping patients overcome phobias, eating disorders, and even sexual hang-ups.

Dr. Sarah Spiegel spoke for the research team in saying, “Fingolimod deserves consideration as an adjuvant therapy for post traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.”

Others, however, raise ethical concerns about such a drug. What of the risk of damaging psychological consequences, preventing those who take it from learning from their mistakes? What of the risk that it could erase the very essence of what makes us human?

The psalms of lament invite us to ponder the role that pain plays in shaping who we are, both as human beings and as people of faith. I suspect the psalmist would caution us that removing the memories of our painful experiences would also risk removing the lessons we learned through going through them. The Andraé Crouch’s song “Through It All” speaks to this truth when it says, “For if I’d never had a problem, I wouldn’t know God could solve them, I’d never know what faith in God could do.”

Such learning can come through our experiences of pain. But what about while the pain is ongoing? Unlike psalms of thanksgiving, in which the psalmist looks back on God’s divine intervention in the past, a lament is sung while darkness still seems to threaten to triumph. Psalm 31 holds on to hope that God will deliver in the end, but it is also brutally honest about the depths of the psalmist’s current suffering. He feels overwhelmed by all his enemies; all he can do is commit himself to God’s mercy.

Years ago, there was an advertisement for an over-the-counter pain reliever with a catchy jingle that said, “I haven’t got time for the pain.” I vividly remember a preacher commenting that Christian discipleship demands that we take time for the pain—admit it, share it, and seek the help of God and others in passing through it. It is in the pain that we learn and grow.

“Could Pill Wipe Out Our Bad Memories? Drug Used to Treat Multiple Sclerosis Found to Help Us Forget Experiences that Caused Pain,” The Daily Mail, 25 May 2014


• What have you learned about God’s nature and power through times of pain and sorrow?
• Can these lessons be learned apart from pain? If no one ever had a painful experience, from whom could we learn them? (Or would these lessons be necessary at all?)
• Do we “take time for the pain” in our Christian circles, or do we pretend that pain is not a factor in our lives?
• How has popular Christian piety trivialized or, worse, cast judgment on people’s experiences of suffering?
• How does the honesty in this psalm make you feel? Can you imagine yourself praying in similar words? Why or why not?
• How does the psalmist’s faith in God shape the way he prays?
• What should believers expect from God in times of trouble?
• How can this psalm inform our prayer lives when we feel we are at the end of our rope?

Reference Shelf

The Prayer of Lament

The lament is a prayer by a community or an individual in need. It often begins with a cry for help or attention (74), then follows a description of the quandary and a repetition of the prayers spoken. In conclusion there is a promise to pay one’s vows before the congregation if one is delivered, and sometimes there is an exhortation to others also to trust in Yahweh.

Reidar B. Bjornard, “Psalms, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 723.

The Lament Psalms

The laments have a fairly typical structure, an awareness of which can help readers move through the text.

Invocation—the prayer is addressed to God…
Complaint—describes the crisis at hand and is sometimes called the lament section of the prayer…
Petition—the speaker cries out for help. In so doing, the speaker often gives reasons why God should help in the current crisis…
Conclusion—These psalms usually conclude in a hopeful way, perhaps with an expression of confidence or certainty that God will hear the prayer or a promise of praise. Some of the laments conclude with praise itself…

I caution readers not to take such structures as straightjackets that every lament follows. Rather, they are helpful heuristic devices to facilitate reading. Lament psalms were used in a variety of services in ancient Israel’s worship during times when people were in crisis and sought divine help.

W. H. Bellinger Jr., The Testimony of Poets and Sages: The Psalms and Wisdom Literature, All the Bible (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1998), 31–32.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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