The human heart has depths that are often difficult to fully understand. We experience so many things that we don’t always have the words to express. When we experience trauma, deep injustice, and sorrow, the best we can do is to cry out to God for help. There may even be times when we feel like God is to blame for what we’ve gone through, and all we can do is bring it before and implore him to do something.
What is lament?
Lament is a spiritual practice in which we bring our pain, sorrow, confusion, grief, and anger before God. People lament in many ways, including verbalized prayer, a written poem, or through music. Lament is what we do when we are feeling powerless. We appeal to the only one who has the power to act in our situation: God.
In this way, lament is a unique practice for believers because it isn’t just crying out into the void – it is a direct appeal to the God who sees and hears to intervene in our lives and address our pain. Lament calls us to look to God in trust that he will answer because of who he is – he has been faithful in the past, and so we come to him in our time of distress because we know he is faithful. A lament is an appeal that we make to God because we trust that he is good and faithful.
Lament presupposes a relationship with God. In lament, we come to God with the conviction that not only does he care about us, but he also has the power to do something about our situation. Some examples of lament will follow shortly, but one aspect that emerges quite clearly is that even when people fear God is absent or uncaring, they are confident that the reality lies beyond appearances, and so they continue to appeal to God on that basis.
When you know God and have a relationship with him, you know enough about him to know that he is listening even when it seems that he is not. And when we recognize God’s mercy and grace, we know that we can be honest with him, and he won’t abandon us. The examples of lament in the Bible show the expression of a variety of emotions, and they are all laid out with integrity.
Another aspect of lament is that it isn’t exclusively about us. Yes, we lament when we go through things, but we can also lament, praying to God and calling him to act when we see and hear things happening to others. In this way, lament allows us to enter the pain of others. Other people go through things that we don’t go through in our lives, and they can be distressing.
The persecution of believers, or when a corporation that poisoned a community’s water supply gets off scot-free, or when a friend gets sick – lament over all these things allows us to stand alongside or with others as they go through pain. Lament thus makes us look outward to the pain and situations of others.
Lament has fallen on hard times
Lamentation is a practice that’s been lost for many believers because they rarely see it practiced. Many communities of faith shy away from the Psalms of lament we come across in the Bible – they simply don’t know what to do with the raw emotions and self-expression that appears there. Not only that, but when joy is the dominant key in which everything in the community is done (and admittedly, joy is a good thing) to the exclusion of hearing the pain and living in the tension of not having any answers, it leaves no room for lament in corporate and personal worship.
We don’t like not having answers, and so instead of lament, we can slide off into pat, easy truisms that don’t wrestle with the messiness of life. We want to have answers for everything, to be in control to avoid the hard patches, and that partly explains why lament isn’t a thing for many believers. One pastor and theologian, Soong-Chan Rah, authored a book called Prophetic Lament in which he details some of these things.
Examples of lament
Laments often have a few characteristics in common. They are addressed to God, often asking him to act on a particular situation that isn’t right. They set out what’s going on in clear, and sometimes, even abrasive language.
The person lamenting doesn’t sugarcoat what they’re feeling, even when those feelings are about God himself. In the end, laments are also often expressions of hope. Because of who God is, surely, he will intervene, the situation will be addressed, and it will be a cause for praise.
These are some of the main elements of a lament, and they direct us toward God in trust that in his goodness he will act. A sizable number of the prayers in the Old Testament book of Psalms are laments, and they can give us a helpful pattern and language with which to lament, but there is nothing wrong with penning your own laments and expressing them as songs or poems.
Have you ever felt abandoned by God while you were undergoing distress? Perhaps there are people in your life that desire to see you fail, and it seems as though God is silent, and those people will get their way. One example of a prayer of lament that addresses such a situation is Psalm 13, which reads:
O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the Lord
because he is good to me.
David went through a lot in his life, including being betrayed by close associates, hunted down by the former king, and he was also under threat from his son, Absalom. This lament reflects all of that and it is directed to God. While things seem dire, the last verse expresses hope that because of God’s character, rescue will come, and he will have cause to rejoice again.
One last example relates to being falsely accused. When you’re backed into a corner and everything seems against you, what can you do, and to whom can you cry out? The Psalm says that God has tossed them aside, but even then, they continue to put their hope in God.
While labeling others is a risky endeavor, the person lamenting here doesn’t shy away from expressing how they feel about the people arrayed against them – they are “ungodly people” and “unjust liars.” This and other salty language can be found throughout the other Psalms of lament. It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s how we feel at times. Psalm 43 reads:
Declare me innocent, O God!
Defend me against these ungodly people.
Rescue me from these unjust liars.
For you are God, my only safe haven.
Why have you tossed me aside?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?
Send out your light and your truth;
let them guide me.
Let them lead me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you live.
There I will go to the altar of God,
to God—the source of all my joy.
I will praise you with my harp,
O God, my God!
Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!
Being able to lament is about doing more than simply venting. It’s opening our hearts to the Lord and inviting him to deal with the situation we and others may be facing that is causing distress. Far from being a creature of doubt, lament is an expression of faith in God – after all, if one didn’t trust that God is good, that he hears, that he cares, and that he can act in our lives, why would one pray such a prayer?
You may be facing tough circumstances in your life, or you may know of situations around you that are dire. Because they are beyond your wisdom it seems like an intractable situation that can’t be fixed. As with all things, take it to the Lord in prayer through lament. The Lord hears, and in his wisdom and goodness, he will respond.
“Woman at Dusk”, Courtesy of Chad Madden, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting by the Pond”, Courtesy of Duminda Perera, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Man at Red Rock Canyon”, Courtesy of Kitera Dent, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Pensive”, Courtesy of Anthony Tran, Unsplash.com, CC0 License