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Why Lament Is Important in Worship

In today’s social media-obsessed culture, images of attractive smiling couples, lifestyle bloggers, and stunning vacation resorts grace our glowing screens each day. The routine bombardment of these images implicitly and powerfully conveys what ought to be normative in life.

Beauty, health, and happiness mark out today’s culture. The last thing these images speak to are the countless stories of brokenness, suffering, and ultimately death that we all inevitably face. How does the contemporary church combat the veneer of optimism that this culture relentlessly bombards us with?

In his book Worship Seeking Understanding, John Witvliet fittingly concludes his book on worship with the chapter “How Common Worship Forms Us for Our Encounter with Death.”[1] He says, “Gathering with other believers for common worship is a central source for cultivating and nurturing the practice of dying well” (Ibid., 274.).

Nowhere else is suffering and death so palpably encountered and even participated in but through the corporate worship of the church. Through anamnesis (i.e. active remembrance) of Christ’s death and resurrection at the Lord’s Table, the  death to self in baptism, and the acknowledgement of our brokenness in our time of confession & assurance, the church faces the reality of sin, suffering, and death head-on knowing full well that the story does not end there.

The contemporary evangelical churches and their worship are unfortunately guilty of mimicking and adopting the cultural message of an optimistic façade, which screams of inauthenticity and irrelevance in a world of broken and hurt people. While the gospel story ends in an ultimate hope, we must not be hasty and skip the hurt and the brokenness that accompanied it. Lament therefore is a proper and even necessary expression of corporate worship. Here are three considerations as to why lament is important in the church’s worship.

Lament is Littered Throughout Psalms

The Psalms have been used as the church’s hymnal for centuries. To gain a little appreciation for how highly the early church viewed the Psalms, consider that the Psalms is the most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. Jesus himself quotes the Psalms the most frequent out of all the Old Testament books. The singing and praying of the Psalms was a mainstay in Christian liturgical worship since at least in the early third century AD (if not earlier)[2] and with the exception of few mainline worshiping traditions today, it has completely vanished among evangelicals today. Along with the disappearance of psalm-singing is the singing of the numerous laments, which are approximately a third of Psalter. Consider just a small sample of the lyrical laments taken from these inspired songs:

“I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.”
Psalm 6:6

My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
and am reduced to skin and bones.
Psalm 102:4-5

My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
Psalm 42: 3, 9

Perhaps the pinnacle of laments uttered by Jesus himself at the cross of Calvary was a reference to Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Themes and references of “anguish” or “distress” are littered amongst the psalms. Yet how many of the modern day songs parallel the ardent angst and torment that the psalmists exhibit?

The Psalms not only provide us with words to lament, they provide us with words of hope and assurance that God is faithful to his people and worthy of our praise. Our laments are not merely hopeless cries of despair; rather the Psalms acknowledge that salvation comes from the Lord and that He is faithful to his people even when they are not. The laments of the Psalms start off in anguish but more often than not, end in trust, petition and praise.

Lament Tells a Crucial Component of the Gospel Story

Telling the Gospel story entails honestly dealing with our sins, laments, and our sorrows. While on one hand we recognize that Christ has conquered the powers of darkness through his work on the cross, we also recognize that the “whole creation has been groaning together” (Rom. 8:22) from the fall to the present day. This “groaning” is an important realization that we are still a work in progress, that we are called to live out our baptisms in dying to sin and rising in Christ daily.

One of the ways the church has expressed her lament is through a time of corporate confession. Confession is not merely a time of accounting for our individual sins, but a time of corporate “groaning that recognizes individuals, the church, and the world as broken, and in total need of grace. Before the church can appreciate the saving power of the cross, we need to seriously lament the sinfulness and brokenness that plague us. While the topic of sin, brokenness, and lament may not be exactly “seekers-friendly,” if we are to proclaim the Gospel in our worship we need to find the time to lament.

Lament Interacts with Reality

Augustine once said, “it’s better, though, that the human heart should feel grief and be cured of it, than by not feeling any grief to become inhuman” (Sermon, 173, 2) Augustine perceptively observes the irony of grieving: allowance for grief leads to healing from grief. Grieving is part of what makes us “human.” The undeniable fact is every Sunday there are people in the congregation who are grieving in one way or another. Whether it is something big like a recent loss of a loved one, broken relationships, diagnosis of a terminal sickness or something perhaps more trivial like not being satisfied at one’s job situation, believers all have their inner burdens that they bring with them each week.

In a culture where it is getting harder and harder to decipher what reality is, the church , which claims to know the ultimate reality,should be the first place for people to look for authenticity, espeically in worship. We need to be equipped with songs and prayers of lament saturated in biblical  language that acknowledge the reality of the human condition. It is simply not enough to have our worship services as merely a feel-good, happy, and optimastic  pep rally when what people actually need is vocabulary and space rooted in the story of God to express their grievances and hope.

Conclusion

As Christians consider the Lord’s Day implicats God’s victorious triumph over sin and darkness, Sundays ought to be days of joyous celebration, by remembering  what God has accomplished in Christ through the Spirit. Moreover, lament has its crucial place in worship as we look to tell the gospel story holistically  and deal honestly with our people’s brokenness, as all are guided by the biblical pattern of lament and praise.


[1] John Witvliet, Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 269, Kindle.

[2] Christopher Page, The Christian West and its Singers: The First Thousand Years, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 67.

 

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