This year, the Pew Research Center released new findings that indicated church-goers tend to be happier people. “Regular participation in a religious community clearly is linked with higher levels of happiness and civic engagement ” the study stated. But what about all of the people in church who aren’t happy? Let’s be honest, life isn’t always a box of chocolates, and the Christian life can be filled with devastation. You might be going through a season of celebration, but you very well could be going through a season of sorrow. Being a Christian doesn’t mean always pretending to be happy, in fact, sometimes the most godly thing you can do is lament. God welcomes your tears when you do.
What Is Lament?
A lamentation is a cry of grief, often accompanied by the question, “Why is this happening, God?” Believe it or not, God’s people have done quite a bit of lamenting since the beginning of time. In fact, did you know that the majority of the psalms in the Bible are psalms of lament? How telling that in the biblical song-book, the worshipper's song was often played in a minor chord. There’s an important lesson to be learned here: sorrow is an ordinary rhythm of the Christian life. Away with the notion that Christians must exhibit a sort of plastic happiness, jolly no matter the circumstance. You get that sense when you walk into many churches. Every song is upbeat, the sermon, or talk, positive and maybe even a little comedic. Is there space around the table for the downcast? The Psalms of lament teach us that there isn’t just space, but a prominent seat!
Lament in the Bible
There is basically a two-fold structure to the lament psalms in the Old Testament. First, you have the plea, which generally comprises the majority of the psalm. Here, the psalmist is making his case and outlining his trouble. Often this is done through complaint or confession (and sometimes both). The worshipper is complaining about certain circumstances, and confessing his own sin. Note that there’s such a thing as a biblical complaint before God. This comes as a shock to many, but sometimes the “why” question is an act of faith and worship. The psalmist might at times complain because his current situation seems to betray God’s faithfulness. He’s holding out hope, but wondering why God seems so distant. Perhaps you know the feeling…
Laments often move from plea to praise. There is, even in the midst of the darkness, frequently a ray of light towards the end of the lament. This isn’t always the case. Some laments like psalm 88 end with nothing but darkness. They teach us that sometimes, even God’s people can have a sense of hopelessness; an honest prayer to God even when it feels like grasping for support in the pitch black can be an act of faith.
Perhaps you can see this general structure for yourself in Psalm 13:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
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.
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.
There it is, a plea to praise! There’s a hint of hope, even through the feelings of continual sorrow. And where is the psalmist’s confidence? In God’s steadfast love. You see, the psalms of lament teach us that even though we may feel abandoned, God’s love remains constant. We are never truly alone as God’s children. Not just because God hears us, but because he entered into our lamentation through the incarnation. Jesus bore our suffering and had no problem taking the psalms of lament upon his lips (Mt. 27:46). We can enter no dark room which Christ has not first countenanced, and even there his steadfast love keeps us.
Are you in a season of lamenting? God welcomes your tears and even your questions. Spend some time praying through the psalms of lament taking note of the pleas, and the praises. Make them your own! If you’re looking for a place to start, check out Psalms 17; 22; 38; 51; and 70.
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