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A Psalm for sorrows

Finding Biblical balm amid mass shootings and other tragedies

A Psalm for sorrows

A Seattle Pacific University student sits with a Bible in his lap following a June 2014 shooting on the campus in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Another outbreak of mass shootings in recent days, including an attack on a bar in Southern California that ended with 13 dead last week, leaves communities across the country lamenting life in a broken and sinful world.

How do we navigate it?

For the Christian believer, an Old Testament book offers a needed liturgy for suffering: The Psalms give fertile ground for deep sighs and groans before the Maker of heaven and earth. 

Whether suffering is public, like the attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead, or private, like the tragedies that unfold in homes across the country every day, the book of Psalms gives the Christian believer the room to grieve and the ground for hope.

Eleven years ago, I spent a searing evening in a chapel at Virginia Tech University, where a gunman had cut down 32 people the morning before. A campus pastor faced a room of college students who were largely unaccustomed with death and wholly unacquainted with mass shootings. 

What does one say? He read Psalm 88:

“My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave. … You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.”

No trite explanation of evil. 

Even as an outsider, I found it a relief. Here, the psalmist acknowledges the depths of sin and sorrow, and doesn’t come to a neat conclusion. In other Psalms, the writer soars to heights of love and depths of peace—a hopeful part of life in a broken world. But the Psalms always give room to grieve and to groan.

For that reason, theologian John Calvin called the Psalms an “anatomy of all parts of the soul.” 

He continued: “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn … all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

The rest of the Bible fleshes out grief, and shows Jesus come in the flesh as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Jesus groaned and sighed over sin and brokenness before taking both on Himself to save others. 

Later, the Apostle Paul wrote that the creation itself groans under brokenness, and that believers “grown inwardly” as they wait for the resurrection to come. In the same chapter, Paul also says the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with “groanings too deep for words,” helping us and upholding us in our weakness.  

What a comfort: Whatever the grief, we do not groan alone. And we do not groan as those who have no hope.


  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Mon, 11/19/2018 09:21 am

    Awesome, Jamie, thank-you!