What is lament, exactly?
Clearly, there is intention behind the practice since there is a whole book dedicated to it, Lamentations.
But how often do we practice this art of lament?
COVID-19 has brought about a wilderness season for many Christians. Suffering was certainly not foreign to us before the pandemic; however, in our relatively peaceful lives, COVID infused isolation, depression, loneliness, and all kinds of challenging trials have reintroduced us to suffering.
We have spent months disconnected from corporate worship, the encouragement of the saints, and the essential ministries and sacraments that the church provides. As time progresses, feelings of discouragement, depression, despair and fear buffet many of us to the point where our strength wanes and our faith tires.
Lament is a form of praise and prayer with the intent of drawing close to God in times of great suffering and pain. It ultimately is a wonderful gift to the children of God, because it presupposes a relationship with God and depends on it! Only those who can approach God in a covenantal relationship are able to lament because lament is pleading with God to act in accordance with His character and promises to us. The mere fact we are able to approach God in lament is a sign of intimacy and hope!
In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop defines lament as, “a prayer of pain that leads to trust,” (pg. 28). Lament is the wailing of the heart before a God who hears, who listens, and who responds to our cries.
There are around 65 Psalms (that is nearly half of the Psalms) that are Psalms of lament. Psalm 3, 13, 22, 42, 44, and 60 are just a few of them. This should tell us something – lament is an important part of the human experience! Just as much as the Christian ought to come before God with songs of thanksgiving and praise, we ought to come before God with lament.
In the Bible, a Psalm of lament typically contains these elements and form:
The author directs their complaint to God.
“O Lord, how many are my foes!” (Psalm 3)
The author describes their suffering.
“My tears have been my food, day and night.” (Psalm 42)
The author depends on God to come to the aid of His people.
“Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself!” (Psalm 44)
The author dwells on God’s faithfulness and goodness.
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love.” (Psalm 13)
Lament is not simply complaining; nor is it spewing trite theological answers. Lament is both expressing our true anguish and pain to our Sovereign King and then finding hope and comfort in the truths of His faithful character and promises.
We have all encountered a time in our lives where, after sharing our grief and pain, a friend chose not to enter into our grief and pain to weep with us, but rather responded with the cold hard truth that lacked the tenderness of sympathy. That is not lament.
Lament is seeing that God enters into our pain, is incarnate with us in our trials, and meets us with His immutable nature. Lament helps us acknowledge our suffering, to not pretend or deny our plight, but then casts our eyes beyond our pain to our eternal hope and reward.
The Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians that, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” (2 Cor. 4:17). The goal of lament is the same as Paul’s goal in sharing this with the Corinthians – encouragement through an eternal perspective. Once we are led by our Shepherd through the dark valley of doubt, fear, and anguish, we might lift our eyes to Christ and His eternal purposes and find help and hope.
What a glorious gift the Lord has given His people!
So, how does the Christian lament?
First, direct your conversation to God
Lament is not directed towards our enemies, towards our suffering, or towards our pain. We direct our conversation to God, who is the One who hears us. It is an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty in all things; that He brings about the circumstances in our life, and He is the One in control. Remember, lament is a gift for God’s children, it is part of the blessing of relationship with Him.
Psalm 12:1, “Save, O Lord”
Psalm 10:1, “Why, O Lord”
Psalm 28:,1 “To You, O Lord, I call.”
So first, speak to God. Make sure your lamentation is directed to Him. Call on Him by name: Lord, Father, My God, My Help, My Defender. You can approach the throne boldly, and appeal to your Heavenly Father through Christ, so take advantage of that!
For example, “Lord, My God, I call out to You. You are the Maker of Heaven and Earth, You are the Creator of all things, You are my Rock and my Shelter, You are my Shepherd King!”
Second, describe your suffering and your pain to him
Yes, the Lord knows your deepest innermost thoughts (Psalm 94:11), but make it a point to tell Him what you are feeling! How angry are you about the pain you are experiencing? How frustrated are You that He seems to be silent? How deeply are you questioning His presence? Tell Him.
Psalm 10:1b, “Why do you hide Yourself in times of trouble?”
Psalm 13:1, “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever?”
Psalm 42:3, “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’”
The Psalmists never once minced words, rather they exposed the feelings and anguish of their hearts before the One who knew already what they felt. They practiced humble vulnerability.
For example, you might say, “Lord, I am exhausted and discouraged by this pain. I feel so alone, so abandoned, and so forgotten. It feels like everyone has forgotten me, and that all of my friendships have failed me. Father, I hate this betrayal, and I hate the despair that I feel. Lord, where are You? Why have You abandoned me? I thought You would never leave me, but it feels like You have!”
Thirdly, depend on Christ for your help and your hope
This is where useless complaining turns into Biblical lament – we don’t simply pour out our sorrows and pain before God and end there. Rather, we then turn to the gospel of Christ to find help and hope in our suffering. We turn a corner, and we begin to preach the gospel of peace and hope to ourselves, and we turn to Jesus and ask Him for comfort, for His perspective, and we ask for Him to act.
Psalm 10:12, “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted.”
Psalm 28:2, “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to You for help.”
Psalm 42:5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.”
As Christians, we can know that Christ has won the battle, He has secured the final victory, and that our eternal hope is secure. It is our eternal purpose, it is our eternal hope and reward in Christ, that is our strength amidst trials and suffering.
Once we have unleashed the torrent of pain and anguish we feel, we now turn to Christ and remind ourselves of the great hope that is ours in Him. The Christian lament calls on Christ and the Holy Spirit for strength, for perspective, for faith, for hope, and for endurance in our suffering. As Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp say in their book How People Change, “Everything God does and everything God calls us to only make sense from the perspective of eternity.” (pg. 38)
For example, you might say, “God, I know that Christ is my reward in this life and the next, so Holy Spirit give me the courage to speak truth and to stand for what is right. Jesus, I believe that You have a purpose for all things, so give me strength in this time to live in righteousness. Lord, I trust that You will right every wrong one day, so help me look to You for justice and not take it in my own hands.”
Fourthly, dwell on God’s faithfulness and His character.
The blessing of covenantal relationship is with God that we have assurance that He never changes, He never grows weary of keeping His promises, and that He is faithful to the end. There is never a point in history that the Lord is not sovereign, and that the Lord is not faithful to accomplish His purposes.
When lament is done right, it almost always ends with us dwelling on the faithful steadfast love of our God, and His character is the balm that calms our pain after we have genuinely confessed it to Him. Our hope is secure because He is!
Psalm 10:17 – “O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart…”
Psalm 28:7 –“The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped…”
Psalm 42:8 – “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me…”
The goal of lament is not only to express our pain, but to correct our thinking and renew our faith. As we walk through the process of lament, we may not find our issues vanish, nor our physical pain release, but we are renewed in our hope and trust in God and His purposes.
As Romans 5:2-5 says, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame….”
Why bother with lament?
Perhaps, after all this, you still wonder – why should I lament? What’s the point?
As a final thought, I think it appropriate that we look to our greatest example, Jesus.
Did you know that Jesus often partook in this practice of Lament?
In Matthew 23:37-38 Jesus laments over Jerusalem and the Jews rejection of His preaching and ministry.
In Matthew 27:46, as Jesus bears the weight of the sin and shame of mankind, He quotes Psalm 22 as He cries out to the Father.
But I want to remind us of one time in particular where Jesus demonstrated lament most vividly, the death of Lazarus. In John 11, Jesus hears of Lazarus’ illness and tells His disciples that He intends to raise Lazarus from the dead (vs. 11-15).
Jesus knows Lazarus is dead.
Jesus knows that He intends to raise him from the dead in front of everyone.
But something fascinating happens.
At Lazarus’ tomb, amidst the mourners and tears of the crowd, Jesus weeps.
In a powerful sign of sympathy, of sorrow over sin and death, and of grief for the pain it has caused His friends, Jesus enters into the suffering and sorrow and takes a moment to lament.
In a mere moment, Jesus will raise Lazarus as a powerful proclamation of the eternal hope of the gospel.
But before hope comes, He laments before His Father.
May we be liberated to do the same.