“I am sorry that he is not here. He is two today. I love him. I never got to see him. I am sorry that he is not with us. I am sad.”
Jera’s grief comforted us deeply as she honored our son and joined us in our heartache. At such a young age, she instinctively did what so many can struggle to do. She lamented.
Her words of sorrow sound much like those of God’s people in the Bible. All throughout Scripture faithful men and women speak honestly to the Lord about their pain, confusion, and doubt. Many of you can probably point to a time when you have helped someone else process their pain biblically. You may not have used the term, but most likely you were helping them lament.
And yet, we see in the Scriptures that these cries were not only occasional, private moments shared by individuals—they were a regular part of corporate worship as well. In fact, laments make up the largest category of Psalms, accounting for over a third of “Israel’s hymnal.” That means that one out of three Psalms was penned in the context of pain.
Singing and praying about suffering was meant to be a regular rhythm for the gathering of God’s people.
However, this rarely occurs at the communal level today. Think about our worship gatherings on Sundays. What is the tone and content of our songs and prayers? A careful observer can’t help but notice a distinct difference between our worship and what we see in the Scriptures. In contrast to the Bible’s regular use of lament, especially in the Psalms, it rarely makes an appearance in our worship. When we do practice corporate lament, we typically do so over sin, not suffering. But present-tense honesty about hardship, probing questions about God’s involvement, and desperate pleas to God have all but faded from corporate worship.
My desire is for the church to reacquaint itself with corporate lament and find that it is not reserved only for six-year-olds and one-on-one meetings. It is a necessary gift given to the maturing body of Christ, allowing us to be both honest and hopeful in the wilderness together.
So what is biblical lament?
Lament is the primary language God gives his people to respond to suffering. Mark Vroegop captures the tension of it, defining it as “the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.” Soong-Chan Rah touches on the corporate reality of lament, describing it as “a liturgical response to the reality of suffering that engages God in the context of pain and trouble.” For a shorthand definition, I simply describe lament as “wrestling honestly with God.”
The prevalence of lament in the Psalter may challenge one’s understanding of what qualifies as worship. Songs of adulation stand side by side with songs of anguish. The ESV Study Bible explains, “the whole range of the psalms—from adoration and thanks to the needy cry for help (even the desolate moan of Psalm 88)—praises God when offered to him in the gathered worship of his people.”
In other words, lament is not something we do in order to worship; lament is worship.
More important than a tight definition is understanding what makes lament unique. Below is my framework for explaining the components of lament. I encourage you to read through a few Psalms and observe these four elements. Psalms 6, 13, and 42-43 are good places to start.
Lamenters take time to slow down and describe their suffering to God, often in the present tense. Though God is all-knowing, and God’s people know he is all-knowing, they still find the need to explain to him both their trouble and how they feel about it.
Not only do they explain their painful situation and emotions, but they also express their displeasure about it. This is where you will hear unsettling questions and complaints about God’s apparent forgetfulness or disappearance. They boldly bring their grievances to the Lord.
Lamenters desperately ask the Lord to act. They go to the only true source for help, imploring him to do something about their suffering. Their requests are urgent and direct, asking God to do things like “wake up,” “remember,” or “deliver.”
Lament anticipates that praising God will happen again. Sometimes it happens in the lament itself; other times, the writer vows to praise the Lord again in the future. Either way, the process of lament is what moves the worshiper’s heart toward praise.
Take a step back and consider these components of lament. How amazing is it that God invites us to relate to him with such honesty? He welcomes us to approach the throne of grace with songs of grief and he calls it worship. May we learn to find hope again and again by voicing our heartache to the Lord together.
I encourage you to use the framework above not only as you read the Scriptures and minister to others, but also as you evaluate your worship gatherings. Where might there be more room for the practice of corporate lament?
In my next post, I explain why it’s worth it to lament regularly when we gather.