Lament enters the complicated space of deep disappointment and lingering hurt. It boldly reaffirms the trustworthiness of God. But first we need to learn how to lament. Let me briefly highlight four elements.
Confusion, exhaustion, and disappointment can cause us to retreat from the one who knows our sorrows. The poisonous mist of bitterness or anger can sweep in, creating a fog of unbelief or a justification for ungodly behavior. Lament talks to God even if it’s messy. This requires faith. Silence is easier but unhealthy. Lament prays through hardship. Consider the gut-level honesty of Psalm 77:
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. (vv. 1—3).
Even though hope feels distant, lamenters reach out to God. This historic prayer language invites us to keep crying out in prayer.
The second step in lament candidly talks to God about what is wrong. Biblical complaint vocalizes circumstances that do not seem to fit with God’s character or his purposes. While the psalmist knows God is in control, there are times when it feels like he’s not. When it seems that injustice rules the day, lament invites us to talk to God about it. Instead of stuffing our struggles, lament gives us permission to verbalize the tension. Psalm 13 wrestles with why God isn’t doing more:
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? (vv. 1—2)
Biblical complaining is not venting your sinful anger. It’s merely telling God about your struggles. And the more honest we can be, the sooner we are able to move to the next element.
Lament seeks more than relief; it yearns for the deliverance that fits with God’s character. Godly lamenters keep asking even when the answer is delayed.
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. (Ps. 13:3—4)
Lament affirms the applicability of God’s promises by asking again and again for divine help. Repeated requests become hopeful reminders of what God can do. Asking boldly serves to strengthen our resolve to not give up. But it also encourages us to embrace the destination of all lament: a renewal of trust.
Confidence in God’s trustworthiness is the destination of all laments. Turning, complaining, and asking lead here.
Laments help us through suffering by directing our hearts to make the choice–often daily– to trust in God’s purposes hidden behind the pain. In this way, a lament is one of the most theologically-informed practices of the Christian life.
Laments lead us through our sorrows so that we can trust God and praise him. This is how Psalm 13 concludes. Notice the pivot on the word “but”and the direct decision to trust, rejoice, and sing:
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. (vv. 5—6)
It’s a powerful ending to a blunt and honest psalm. Every lament is designed to become this kind of pathway toward hopeful godliness.
These four elements (turning, complaining, asking, and trusting) serve as the basic ingredients of lament. Since biblical laments are poems set to music, they don’t always include every element. But this framework provides the structure for talking to God and praying together about the brokenness of the world.
When it comes to the historic scar of racism and a lack of reconciliation, lament can be a helpful language to learn.
A Common Language
In racial reconciliation, a common language unites people. When the hip-hop artist Jay-Z was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, he made a stunning statement:
Hip-hop has done more for racial relations than most cultural icons… This music didn’t only influence kids from urban areas, it influenced people all around the world…If you look at clubs and how integrated they have become–before people partied in separate clubs. There were hip-hop clubs and there were techno clubs. And now people party together and once you have people partying, dancing, and singing along to the same music, then conversations naturally happen after that. And within conversations, we all realize that we’re more alike than we are separate.2
From a secular standpoint, I think Jay-Z is right. Hip-hop created a language that opens doors between people of different ethnicities. And when that happens, reconciliation is more likely. Biblical lament does the same thing.
- This and the following three points draw upon my article “How Lament Is a Path to Praise,”Crosswalk, March 25, 2019, https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/how-lament-is-a-path -to-praise.html. See also Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019).
- Eric Mason, “How Should the Church Engage?,”in The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation, ed. Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker (Nashville: B&H, 2016), 53—54.