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June 13, 2022

Biblical Lament: What It Is and How to Do It

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How do you start reading the Bible?

God was kind to give us the Psalms, wasn’t He? These prayers and songs give us words when we are fatigued, confused, or numb.

But, if we’re honest, some of the Psalms flow more easily than others from our mouths. It isn’t hard to pray, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). Yet we hesitate to pray, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).

What is Lament?

A lament is a prayer expressing sorrow, pain, or confusion. Lament should be the chief way Christians process grief in God’s presence.

Because many Christians have grown up in churches which always look on the bright side, lament can be jarring. And for believers whose lives are relatively free from tragedy, lament may seem unnecessary. It sure sounds like a downer.

But the world is broken. We are broken. We see and experience sadness and sickness and agony every day. On the news, we see wars in foreign lands, stories of poverty and neglect, and a gunman killing 21 people at a school in Texas. Of course, the brokenness is close to home, too: our children die in the womb; our brothers suffer with cancer; our neighbors lose their house in a fire; our friends turn away from church; our words cause deep wounds in our coworkers.

What is a Christian to do with all this sorrow? We must take it to the Lord!

Almost a third of the Psalms and the entire book of Lamentations are concerned with lament. Like every other emotion, God wants us to hear about our pain. God wants us to lament.

Lament Shapes Us

Lament is not a God-approved vehicle for grumbling. We bring our complaints to God, yes, but we leave with great hope. (More on this below.) Like all types of prayer, God uses lament to form His people into His image. Here are a few ways God shapes us as we lament:

  • We recognize God’s wisdom and our finiteness. Sorrow is disorienting. No one emerges from a season of grief feeling capable and wise. Looking to God in our pain reminds us of our limits and of God’s expansive knowledge and power.
  • We learn to trust God. Lament is a direct expression of trust in God. But the more we trust God with our sadness, the more likely we are to trust Him with everything.
  • We understand more of God’s grace and love. In our darkest nights, we cry out to the Lord and bring nothing to Him but our needs. As God meets and helps us, we see that His faithfulness is not based on our behavior or our love for Him. He is gracious and loving, and should we ever doubt, we have the cross of Jesus as a reminder.
  • We become better neighbors. When we bring our grief to the Lord, we become more aware of the grief of others. We are more likely to listen to our neighbors with kindness and love when they experience the brokenness of our world.
  • We walk in Jesus’s steps. The laments of Jesus in the Gospels provide additional Scriptural warrant for lament. In His ministry, and especially in His sufferings, Jesus had great reason for grief, and He brought that sorrow to His Father. Among other places, see Matthew 23:37–39, Luke 19:41–44, Mark 14:32–42, Matthew 27:46 (quoting Psalm 22:1), and Hebrews 5:7. We follow Jesus as we lament.

Practicing Lament

The best way to get familiar with lament is to read laments in the Bible and pray them yourself.

There are four ingredients that show up in most biblical laments, though not every lament contains all these elements.[1]

  • Keep turning to the Lord. Our natural reaction to grief may be to deny it, to ignore it, or to seek to numb it. But a Christian should be committed to repeatedly turning to the Lord in both joy and sorrow. “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” (Psalm 4:1).
  • Bring your complaints. Complaints form the heart of a lament; they are the reason we are sad before the Lord. But reading them in Scripture can make us squirm. Am I really allowed to talk to God like that? It seems disrespectful. Brothers and sisters: We are not only allowed to talk to God this way, that is what He wants! To be sure, there are ungodly ways to complain to the Lord. One mark of the difference between lamenting (godly complaint) and grumbling (ungodly complaint) is whether or not we are dwelling on what we deserve. Godly complaint identifies conditions or events in the world or in our lives and brings them to God, saying, “Lord, look at what we are experiencing!” This sharp, acute cry is all over the Psalms and Lamentations. “O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?” (Psalm 94:3).
  • Ask boldly. After we have brought our complaints to God, we ask Him to act. Our bold requests are anchored in God’s character. We beg Him to intervene because He is just, because He is loving, because He is faithful, because He keeps His promises. Healthy lament always moves to intercession instead of getting stuck in complaint. Because of Jesus, we have confidence that we can pray boldly before His throne (Hebrews 4:16). “Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him! Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword, from men by your hand, O Lord, from men of the world whose portion is in this life” (Psalm 17:13-14a).
  • Choose to trust. The destination of lament is a heart that clings to the Lord of steadfast love. After we complain and ask God to intervene, we turn to hope. If we know the promises of God, and if He always keeps His promises, we can trust Him. “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God’” (Psalm 31:14).

Practical Steps

Here are some practical steps any Christian can take to grow in lament.

  1. Read Psalms of lament. It’s not too hard to find lists of lament Psalms.[2] I suggest reading several of these Psalms and letting a few of them sink into your bones through memorization. Here are twelve Psalms of lament to get you started: 3, 10, 13, 17, 31, 42, 43, 60, 79, 80, 94, and 102.)
  2. Read Lamentations. This often-avoided book of the Bible is (perhaps obviously) full of lament. Read it several times, slowly, to reap the benefits. We learn some things in Lamentations that we may not learn if we only read the Psalms—namely, that lament should often be corporate, not just individual, and that we can and should lament even when we are responsible for the pain and sorrow we experience.
  3. Write your own laments. This would be a great activity for a small gathering of Christians. Take the four ingredients of lament along with some personal or group occasion of sorrow, and write some honest prayers. You may use some of the lament Psalms as prompts, or you may end up making those words your own.

Looking to Jesus

As we lament, we must remember Jesus. He is not only a model of lament, He is the center of all our lamenting.

Our greatest hope in every lament is that one day lament will be no more. This is no exaggeration—in the new Jerusalem, we read that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

What Jesus secured for His people through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension is the complete reversal of the Genesis 3 curse. As that curse vanishes, and as God’s people gather around the throne to worship the victorious Son, our need for lament will fade away.

Godly lament produces the fruit of hope in a future in which lament will have no place. So, Christian, gather your sorrows, bring them to your Father, and pour out your heart in lament. He knows, He cares, and He is eager for you to trust Him in your sadness.

[1] These categories are taken from the book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, by Mark Vroegop, by which I have been greatly helped.

[2] For example: https://kenboa.org/biblical/psalms-lament/

 

For more practical encouragement on prayer, take the Pray the Bible course. Pray the Bible will introduce you to the wonderful benefits of praying the Bible as well as several tools for doing so.


Ryan Higginbottom

Ryan Higginbottom teaches mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College. He lives with his wife and two daughters in southwest Pennsylvania where they are members of Washington Presbyterian Church. You can connect with Ryan at his blog or on Twitter.
Ryan Higginbottom teaches mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College. He lives with his wife and two daughters in southwest Pennsylvania where they are members of Washington Presbyterian Church. You can connect with Ryan at his blog or on Twitter.