How can God allow unthinkable tragedy? This is a question that flies like a banner over the world, yet is tucked away in the dark corner of Christian triteness. Perhaps it is time to learn a language other than the shallow phrases we often throw around. Perhaps it is time to “reach out to God in the lost language of lament.” What is this mysterious language? Does it have a unique vocabulary and syntax? Juxtaposed to the praise of plastic smiles is the life-soaked reality of worship amidst tears.
However, this language is too often misunderstood and improperly defined. Lament is often regarded as complaint, grumbling, whining, or even sin. Each of these accusations against lament fails to reveal an understanding of the true nature of this language as a sincere expression of worship. Complaints don’t transpose to praise; nor are they considerate of God’s glory or presence. Laments, however, do possess such transpositions and considerations. Psalm thirteen exemplifies this form of worship. The Psalmist opens with the question, how long? After a period of brutal honesty in verses one through four, he shifts to praise in verse five. Throughout the lament, the Psalmist is chiefly concerned with the presence of God. But if lament is not complaining or grumbling, what is it? It is worship, unfettered by facade; and its rediscovery is essential. Lament, simply defined as reaching out to God through our brokenness, is an unrealized form of worship due to scriptural neglect, ecclesiological trends, psychological presuppositions, and cultural factors.
Initially, any idea or notion must be analyzed in light of God’s Word. Scripture guides the faith and lives of believers. However, scripture can be misapplied or misinterpreted, specifically in regards to lament. Imagine a weary saint huddled at the altar and at the end of his rope. As he mutters a weeping prayer, the pastor comes to offer consolation, kneels beside him, and quotes Romans 8:28. What if the troubled individual has just come to pray about a horrific crime committed against a child? While the pastor’s intention may have been consolatory and Romans 8:28 is certainly a precious truth, should this circumstance be treated in such a superficial manner? Such a treatment only scratches the surface of the precious gift that God’s Word is to us.
Unashamedly, Christians must evaluate any theological concept according to scripture. With lament embedded in the title, Lamentations is a book in which Jeremiah reaches out to God in the purview of Jerusalem’s destruction. The apex of the book is not despondent, but hopeful (Lamentations 3 ESV). Despite his brutal honesty in sorrow, Jeremiah also gives voice to his faith, “…but this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).
Similarly, the hymnbook of God’s people, Psalms, reveals openness somewhat foreign and possibly forbidden in the culture of typical American evangelicalism. A simple survey through the Psalms leads to the conclusion that hurt can be expressed as praise. In fact, such a survey would reveal that approximately a third of all the Psalms are laments. If this kind of transparent communication to God is overtly found in the word of God, are Christians wise to neglect it?
Christ himself is the ultimate litmus test for lament’s validity. The Christian practice of lament is actually pursuing a person until all our questioning fades into trusting. That person is Christ, quite fluent in the language of lament Himself. Jesus wept (Luke 19:41, John 11:35), agonized (Luke 22:44), prayed for relief (Luke 22:41-42), and questioned the Father (Matthew 27:46). Any definition of worship must be large enough to include the gamut of Jesus’ emotional acts, prayers, and cries. Therefore, our worship language must include lament language.
Second, with lament foundationally established in scripture, the church must consider its own definition and practice of worship. How might our churches respond to Job amidst his suffering? Michael Card has offered a hypothetical response:
Today we would ask Job to leave all these negative emotions at the church door. They are not appropriate to nor do they fit inside the narrow confines of our definition of worship. And so, likewise, those of us who have nothing else to offer but our laments find the door effectively closed in our faces. It cost Job everything to teach us this lesson. It is time we learned it.
Imagine the typical worship experience in a local church. The song leader or praise team is undoubtedly up front and leading the congregation in musical exultation. The first notes ring with crisp enthusiasm and reality soon fades into the background of praise, or at least the appearance of it. Perhaps some eyes are closed, some hands raised, and perhaps some hearts are broken. Should those in the latter category be silenced? As Walter Brueggemann has succinctly stated, “The church has much praise entrusted to it.” This praise is not glib or giddy. Rather, it is “…sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Lament provides the lyrics, language, and liberty to worship God in any conceivable circumstance.
Those potential circumstances also exist outside the four walls of the church. As Job fell down, shaved his head, and worshipped there was no stained glass and no praise chorus; there was pain. Are hospital rooms, accident scenes, or funerals precluded from worship? The church seems to have marketed and monopolized worship in such a way that pain and everyday life are marginalized. Lament is neglected and so are those who can find no acceptable way to reach out to God in their hurt. L. Gregory Jones provides an honest examination of how churches handle those who are facing death. His introductory premise is that we are better equipped to handle funerals than to care for the dying. His conclusion is that we be “people of lament and hope rather than complaint and optimism.” Therein lie the two opposite sides of the ecclesiological spectrum. Lament is often scorned as complaint or displaced by a cursory optimism in the church. However, at the center of this hypothetical spectrum is the painful, honest, liberating, and worshipful process of biblical lament. The church’s trend of chiding and relegating this means of worship is itself a lamentable act.
Furthermore, the psychological implications of lament are noteworthy. Christians need to deal with loss, depression, anxiety, stress, disappointment, and anger in a biblical way. The human condition is fallen, prone to wander, and apt to despair. The typical consensus on grief is that it comes in stages. This theory basically posits that once tragedy hits we will eventually work our way through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. While this notion of stages may be helpful and even accurate in some cases, it is not the universal norm for grieving. The trouble is that like an overfilled file cabinet, it cannot remain closed indefinitely. Is there an easier way to deal with the pain? No. Is there a better way? Yes. Lament gives us the permission to deal with our spiritual or practical neuroses in conversation with God. Such a conversation guides us through the pain, however it may manifest itself, with an infinitely loving companion.
Unfortunately, along with painful circumstances comes the temptation to either rewrite orthodox doctrine or abandon faith. The sovereignty of God or the goodness of God can seem mutually exclusive when facing trials. However, lament guides the relational dialogue between those who are hurt and God. Randall M. Christenson, M.D., testifies to the merit of lament, particularly seen in the Psalms, in dealing with depression:
The authors in their laments in Psalm 31 and Psalm 102 describe intense distress and anguish similar to the symptoms of modern clinical depression. They go on to lift up their eyes to God and in the process are able to move from “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” to “…hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:11). This offers hope and comfort for those today that are depressed and provides insights to those trying to help them.
Sorrow is a common thread in the tapestry of humanity that only honesty can weave together. In the wake of heartbreaking tragedy we must guard ourselves from being too guarded. Such deception is not the language of the Bible where prophets, kings, disciples, and even the Savior openly express the heights of their joy and the depths of their grief. This is the heart of lament, where through brokenness we reach out to God unfettered by shame, pride, or denial. This kind of transparency frees us to laugh heartily, speak openly, and weep bitterly. The beauty is that God accepts it, and honesty eventually turns tears into praise. The psychological benefits of conceding brokenness, engaging with God, and feeling the transposition to praise would be foolish to ignore.
Additionally, there are possible cultural factors, which contribute to downplaying this biblical practice. Two factors at the forefront of relegating lament are the notion that tears denote weakness and the overarching concept of retributive justice. First, consideration must be given to the prevailing callousness of our time. Do tears signify weakness or are they actually the conduit of a deeper strength? The military veteran who silently suppresses his pain is no stronger than the small child who weeps at the loss of his mother. The church member who suppresses their suffering with a plastic smile is no stronger than the poverty stricken woman who wails in longing for hope. Who in each of these examples is open enough to tap into grace, our deepest strength? Second, the concept of retributive justice still measures all of life’s experiences by the old adage “God blesses the righteous and curses the wicked.” But this adage is insufficient in light of Job’s theme and, more importantly, the gospel itself. American culture employs the jeremiad, a sermon that explains suffering as divine payback for sin, and this frames the prevailing understanding of pain. If pain is improperly understood, then it will be improperly handled. So, ironically, pseudo-strength and works-righteousness serve as grievous detours from the true path of dealing with grief.
Moreover, lament must be considered personally rather than merely as a theological, psychological, or cultural hypothesis. God’s people must consider each of these facets of dealing with grief; however, they must also realize the impact on their own lives and the lives of all those they impact. Allow me to briefly engage in such a reflection. Personally, instead of a cascade reaction, grief tends to accumulate until it bursts forth in a spurt of depression. The reality of the pain is present; but because of a hectic schedule, masculine pride, and a church culture that lends itself to burying our true hurt, I file it away with the label “do not open.” I remember the irony of portraying strength and offering comfort despite my own inner turmoil during my grandmother’s eulogy. Though my outward composure betrayed any evidence to the contrary, inside, a tsunami of grief was making landfall on my heart. At the time, I dismissed it by placing it in a sterile folder, filing it away, and locking the cabinet of my pain. Can tsunamis really be filed away?
As I lose loved ones, face insecurities, endure wrongs from others, and wrestle with my weaknesses I find ways to hide the hurt. However, despite my efforts to conceal, it accumulates like a thundercloud until it’s all unleashed. Inevitably, some catalyst (a song, a sermon, a conversation, or a memory) will strike the chord of release and the facade of my composure results in an emotional downpour. Lament would have granted me an opportunity to know the nearness of God that only tears can afford. Perhaps my own transparency will serve as a catalyst for introspection. The potential for praise, revival, spiritual healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and redemption among the body of Christ is too high to neglect personal consideration of the biblical concept of lament.
Those who are hurting must flee to the Scriptures because powerful prayers are available. Flee to the Savior, because this man of sorrows is acquainted with grief and able to empathize in the truest sense of the word. Flee to the Father, because in Him is found loving-kindness beyond belief. But do not flee from hurt, because doing so prevents the painful and healing journey of lament. Overall, the outcome of lament is not an “answer,” but a better question. Psalm 13 hinted at it. While we begin by asking “why,” lament guides us to asking “where”? Where is God in this? He is there. He is tender. So, instead of throwing around clichés, use the language of lament and let “why” become “where.” In the final analysis, lament is scripturally undergirded, ecclesiologically mischaracterized, psychologically underestimated, and culturally relegated. Meditate on God’s word, evaluate the practices of the church, consider the mental benefits, and cast aside the cultural stigmas.
This biblical practice should be embraced personally and corporately. Easy answers, superficial advice, predetermined stages, and formulas will not be forthcoming; however, the presence and grace of God will abound. Life, culture, and even the local church might protest the brutal honesty required to reach out to God. But lament can endure such a protest and faithfully persist that His presence and grace are enough to see us through the deepest possible pain. Ultimately, the issue is settled in Christ because in Him we find the incarnation and resolution of all tears.
 Randall M. Christenson “Parallels between depression and lament.” Journal Of Pastoral Care & Counseling 61, no. 4 (December 1, 2007): 299-308. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost: 306 (accessed October 7, 2013).