The Gift of Lament

There is a gap in the Christian faith. More specifically, there is a gap in the experience of the Christian faith at least in much of North America. Worship gatherings abound with positivity, encouragement and edification. Words like “victory,” “power,” and “joy” are among the most common expressions that we actively encourage in corporate worship and leadership loves to see a smiling, dancing, hand-raising congregation. Other gatherings also spend much of their time issuing urgent challenges to believers, calling them to press more and more into the mission field. Give more, try harder. To be clear, these activities in worship are not necessarily to be avoided. By all means, the work of God in the world and in our lives ought to be vivaciously celebrated and the mission that Jesus has given us ought to be urgently pursued. But the experience is incomplete.

Silently, there sit in our churches those who feel none of the above. The brokenness and darkness of the human life has paid them a personal visit (or a hundred) and through great loss, tragedy, doubt, pain, and sometimes pure exhaustion, they attend the corporate gathering and are expected to respond in thanksgiving for the Lord’s goodness time and time again. We provide language for celebration, victory in Jesus Christ, thanksgiving for the Gospel, and commitment to the Christian mission. We, the Church, too often do not provide language for addressing God in heartbreak. Anger. Doubt. Questioning. Uncertainty.

Much of the struggle has its roots in American culture. We avoid uncertainty like a plague. We feel that something in us is wrong or broken in ourselves if there exists any uncertainty or tension, and our avoidance reinforces the idea that such feelings are inherently a bad thing. If someone is only ever shown that lament is absent from the corporate gathering, they will undoubtedly inherit a perspective that it doesn’t belong there.

Ryane Williamson, in content from a Village Church blog, adds, "In our attempts to meet the unspoken expectation of perfection within our Christian subculture, we so often simply refuse to lament. We refuse to acknowledge the dark and difficult realities of our lives and our world in a way that honestly demonstrates our dependency on the Lord.”

A complete and healthy corporate worship would combat this element of culture and help us to contextualize pain, loss, and frustration within the larger picture of our faith. But, that’s not quite what happens, is it?

Personally, I think we most highly value leadership that can lead us to answers. We trust organizations and people that can give us hard, provable facts. So our leadership in our worship may perceive, and in turn propagate a pressure to present a lopsided value on certainty. This leads to a fear of that which we cannot approach with measurable certainty or cannot have answers to. Let’s face it, its an awkward and painful experience to sit in a room with a mourning, weeping friend and have no answer to their pain. It takes practice to become comfortable with that. But any avoidance of pain, uncertainty, or tension in our experience of God teaches followers of Jesus a very distorted and incorrect lesson.

If I am not given language to contextualize any part of my human experience within my experience of God, I have been implicitly taught that either God is absent from that experience or it isn’t important to Him. To ignore lament is to suggest that God is either threatened by our sorrow or pain or is apathetic towards them. Also, to ignore lament is to greatly diminish the value of victory in Christ. To ignore sin is to diminish the need for and beauty of mercy. To ignore a wound is to diminish the value of healing. Our faith, and therefore our worship, must address every part of the human experience. To fail in this is to distort who we perceive God to be and in turn, how He loves us and how we relate to Him.

If I am not given language to contextualize any part of my human experience within my experience of God, I have been implicitly taught that either God is absent from that experience or it isn’t important to Him.

In A Praying Life, Paul Miller writes succinctly that “we think laments are disrespectful. God says the opposite. Lamenting shows you are engaged with God in a vibrant, living faith. We live in a deeply broken world. If the pieces of our world aren’t breaking your heart and you aren’t in God’s face about them, then …you’ve thrown in the towel.” We cannot be attuned to the world around us and not lament. To have a Christlike heart for the world is to lament for it.

On another front, the scriptures don’t teach us to ignore lament or shy away from it at all. They absolutely teach us the opposite. We have an entire book in the canon of Scripture designated for a prayer of lamentation. An immense portion of the Psalms, the book of songs we inherit as God’s people, is lament. This should teach us very clearly that lament is not just a normative part of our faith as human beings, it is necessary and healthy.

Very simply, lament is an opportunity to outwardly express pain or sorrow. We are given examples from the prophets like Jeremiah, who is most likely responsible for what we have as the book of Lamentations, the psalmists, especially David, and most importantly, Jesus. Please never ignore that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked His Father plainly for another way, other than the Cross. Please remember that He asks his Father, “why have you forsaken me?” As recorded in Mark 14, Jesus says to his disciples, "'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,' he said to them. 'Stay here and keep watch.' Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 'Abba, Father,' he said, 'everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.'"Jesus did not remain silent in these moments, yet brought his pain and sorrow right to God the Father. This is a beautiful act of permission for us as His followers to do the very same.

I think we fear lament because we think it’s an implication that God isn’t faithful or isn’t who He says He is. Or in leadership, we hesitate to make room for lament because room for doubt and confusion might make us look like we don’t know all the answers, subsequently fearing that that somehow makes us less trustworthy. But we must care for the whole person if we are to be responsible in leadership. There is a burden and call upon us in our time to release our grip on certainty and teach followers of Jesus that lament is an indispensable part of faith. It is what we do in moments of pain that define what our relationship with God really is. Do we bear our pain in isolation because we feel shame in it? Or do we create cultures where sorrow can be brought uninhibitedly before a loving God who cares for His people?

If you’re looking for somewhere to start, I recommend Psalms 10, 13, 22, and 142. In modeling lament for us, they remind us that we are not alone in sorrow and also give us a model that helps us to always come back to the truth that God truly is present and good, even amidst trials. Lament leads us to be honest with God and also to always return to trusting Him. There are many other Psalms that serve every moment from personal sorrow to corporate suffering, laments of repentance and those of longing for justice in the world. It is the time for worshipers of God to engage with lament in a way that permits every part of our lives to be included in our worship, as well as expands our perspective to pay attention to and cry out for the hurt and injustice in the world.

In embracing lament, we bring nourishment to an experience that has been neglected for far too long. We allow ourselves and those around us to come before God with things that we’ve been afraid to. We allow ourselves to see a much clearer picture of a God who knows and cares for the entirety of the human experience and wants us to run to Him in moments of pain and sorrow, not hide those things from Him.