Lament: A 'How To' Guide
Most of us arrive on this earth with a fierce cry of protest. In fact, if we don’t cry at birth, we’re immediately encouraged to—the cry of a newborn is synonymous with life itself. There’s relief in it because failure to cry out means something is very wrong.
We hold our breath in hope, waiting. When a baby’s lungs fill with air and expand and deflate into a wail, we stop holding our breath. We sigh and smile with confidence. Everything is going to be okay.
As we leave the comfort and familiarity of the womb, that first cry is an instinctive lament. Right from birth we know how to respond to the inherent shock and trauma of being alive—of being human. But somewhere along the way, we forget how natural it is. We forget that lament is a normal, necessary, helpful and healthy response to life.
In his 2019 article ‘Dare to Hope in God: How to Lament Well’, Pastor Mark Vroegop reminds us that all of creation expresses sorrow:
‘The Apostle Paul says that the entire creation groans (Romans 8:22). Along with the fall of Adam and Eve, the created world was infected with the broken effects of sin. Death is the ultimate reminder that something is not right with the world. But there are other examples: cancer, addictions, failed marriages, relational conflict, loneliness and abuse. We don’t stop crying after birth. It continues because the world is broken.’
Travelling through a broken world
As Christians, we know the truth of this, but we’re not always comfortable with it. Often, we want to rush quickly on from it and get to the next great truth—redemption and healing. But when we rush past pain, grief and anger without allowing these feelings and emotions to do the deep work they are designed to do, we short-change our own healing, and our experience of redemption may feel less than it ought. We can find ourselves going around in circles. Vroegop continues:
‘While tears and sorrow are part of our humanity, there is an often-neglected prayer language in the Bible for our travels through a broken world: lament. Lament is not the same as crying, however. It’s different. And it’s uniquely Christian. The Bible is filled with this song of sorrow. Over a third of the Psalms are laments. The book of Lamentations weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus lamented in the final hours of his life.’
The potential for lament lives within us as followers of Christ because we have been graced with the knowledge that God is good. And so, when circumstances are not good there is a painful rub because we know instinctively that this is not how it is supposed to be! Vroegop beautifully explains we lament because:
‘Christians know God’s promises in the Scriptures. We believe in God’s power to deliver. We know the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive. And yet we still experience pain and sorrow. Lament is the language for living between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty. It is a prayer form for people who are waiting for the day Jesus will return and make everything right. Christians don’t just mourn; we long for God to end the pain.’
We cry out to God because while we may be hurting and despairing, we know he is the only one who can provide answers. What we find when we lament is that the very process of lament itself enables us to understand once again that God does more than provide answers, he becomes the answer. Without lament that discovery can remain elusive.
Embracing the art of lament
Vroegop strongly suggests that not only should we embrace the art and practice of lament, but also grapple with the necessity of it for our faith and theological worldview:
‘Lament interprets the world through a biblical lens. Christians lament because we know the long arc of God’s plan: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We know the cause of all lament: sin. And we read in Revelation about the ending of all laments. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Therefore, Christians not only mourn the brokenness of the world, but we also long for the day when all weeping will cease.’
Not surprisingly then, Vroegop believes that all Christians should be competent lamenters. Much loved biblical scholar NT Wright agrees, and in a recent response to Covid-19 reminded Christians not only of the gift of lament, but the necessity of it as a witness to our hope in Christ. Wright says:
‘It is not part of the Christian vocation to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.’
We are living in difficult and unprecedented days—we’ve heard this phraseology countless times throughout 2020. But as we read the 40 ‘Psalms of Lament’ we realise that there is a universal sameness to the human experience and the array of emotional responses to the challenges of ordinary life. There is comfort in this because, as Vroegop suggests, ‘...lament is more than something that comes out of you. It is a part of the process happening in you.’ And we can discern patterns in the Psalms that not only give us permission to lament but reveal a framework for authentic lament.
Four Elements of Lament—A ‘How To’ Guide
Vroegop explains that most laments feature four essential elements, as Psalm 13 illustrates.
- Turn to God—Often a lament begins with an address to God: ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ (verse 1). The point is that the person in pain chooses to talk to God about what is happening.
- Bring your complaint—Every lament features some kind of complaint: ‘How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?’ (verse 2). More than a sinful rehearsing of our anger, biblical lament humbly and honestly identifies the pain, questions and frustrations raging in our souls.
- Ask boldly for help—Seeking God’s help while in pain is an act of faith: ‘Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken’ (verses 3–4). Unremitting sorrow can create a deadly silence as we give into despair (‘there is no hope’) or denial (‘everything’s fine’). But lament invites us to dare to hope in God’s promises as we ask for help.
- Choose to Trust—This is the destination for all our laments. All roads lead here: ‘But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me’ (verses 5–6). More than the stages of grief, this prayer language moves us to renew our commitment to trust in God as we navigate the brokenness of life.
Tried-and-true biblical lament exemplified in the Psalms debunks the lie that it is irreverent or shameful to bring our anger and rage and pain to God. Such lies can lead to a ‘deadly prayerlessness’, says Vroegop. But, ‘...lament cracks the door open to talk to God again—even if it’s messy.’ It’s time to learn the art of lament, because if not today, then one day you will have to anyway.