A Time for Sorrow: The Beauty of Lament

As Christians, we spend a lot of time worshiping God: we praise His name, proclaim His attributes, we celebrate what He has done for us. However we seldom spend time lamenting to God. I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine about worship and lament during which she posed a thought provoking question: when was the last time you sang a song of lament in church? 

So what is lament? The Oxford Dictionary defines lament as “a passionate or demonstrative expression of grief”. [1] But biblical lament is so much more. The Bible Project describes how lament is a form of protest, a way to process emotion, and a way to voice confusion all with the goal of restoring a sacred dignity to human suffering; they sum up the role of lament as “a crucial part of the journey of faith of God’s people in a broken world”. [2]

Lament makes up a significant part of the Bible– more than one-third of the Psalms and the book of Lamentations are dedicated to lament. Indeed, the Israelites had much to lament about: they were enslaved in Egypt only to wander in the wilderness for 40 years; they formed a united kingdom only for it to split in two and for many bad kings to rule; they were besieged and forced to pay tribute to Babylon only to be exiled from their homeland; finally, they came under the control of the Roman Empire. 

While lament often contains strong themes of sadness, anger, and frustration, it is important to remember that the ultimate purpose of lament is to glorify God. During Israel’s times of hardship, God was completely in control of the situation and ultimately moving toward a larger goal– the death and resurrection of His son, Jesus– which fundamentally changed our relationship with Him. God has desired to have a relationship with us and to dwell with us since Creation. The events of Genesis 3 radically changed the trajectory of the world: with one bite of fruit, sin and suffering entered the world and we became separated from the God who once dwelt on Earth with us. That first sin eventually led to the suffering and tribulations faced by the Israelites and us; while we can still trust and have a relationship with God, we are not exempt from facing difficulties and these we can bring before God. One example of human suffering and trust in God is exemplified through Job, whom God allowed to be tested by Satan. As Job faces great suffering and misfortune and converses with others, his responses unfold as an extended lament across several chapters, culminating in Job repenting of his questioning of God’s intentions and praising God’s sovereignty:

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" 
—Job 42:2-6

In looking at the books of Job and Lamentations as well as several Psalms of lament, several key elements stick out in the framework of lament. Firstly, lament begins with a deep cry out to God. In many cases, this is done through rhetorical questions or a series of statements that outline the grievances that are being brought before the Lord. Involved in this is the idea of lamenting as a community. God gives us wonderful communities that we can go to and share in our grief with; we are not meant to go through it alone. Secondly, we must not lose sight of the power and good works of God. After crying out and asking why God has not stuck down Israel’s enemies, Psalm 74 makes a distinct shift in tone, stating “yet God my King is from old, working salvation in the midst of the earth” before recalling events where God has provided for Israel in the past and praising Him for His works. Thirdly, we must place our hope and trust in God. In remembering what God has done in the past and reminding ourselves of His character, we refresh ourselves in His capability and His power. As we seek Him in our seasons of lament, we must trust fully in His sovereign plan and works. After pouring out his heart before the Lord in Psalm 13 David ends by declaring his trust in the Lord stating:

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. 
Psalm 13:5-6

 Finally, while lament is an important part of our relationship with God, we must not overstate the importance of lament. Ecclesiastes 3 states that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven..a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4). In creating time and space for lament, we must also carve out sufficient time for praise and rejoicing in the Lord. 

How amazing is it that we have a God that wants to hear our sorrows? How astounding is it that He gives us the right to lay our complaints before Him? How great is it that there is nothing He wants us to hide from Him? How beautiful is it that we have the gift of lament?

So, when was the last time you lamented? As I reflected on the words of lamentation I have read the past several weeks and reflected on the state of my life and the world around me, I wrote my own prayer of lament, laying out my heart before the Lord:

My heart aches with all creation,
Searching for a glimpse of Your face.

Where are you, O my God?

I pour out my voice to You,
But I do not hear Yours.

Have you forsaken me?

As I watch the walls of this world crumble,
I wait earnestly for You.

Are you present in this, Lord?

How long must we dwell in this place?

You are the creator of the heavens and the earth,
the Lord who created it to establish it,
God Almighty.
You saw that it was good 
and blessed it and made it holy.

You, the God of Israel,
who led your people out of Egypt and through the wilderness,
who crushes armies and makes giants fall,
who sent your son to die on that rugged cross.
Lord of my heart and my life. 

Be present in this place.
Lead me to your heart and to desire you.
Be my rock of refuge in this world,
my strong fortress,
the anchor of my soul.

I put my trust in you, O Lord,
for you are my God,
for you have been gracious to me.
My heart sings of you salvation,
my soul thirsts for you,
O Lord, fill me again.

[1] “Lament.” In Oxford English Dictionary. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/105284?rskey=b8rdeA&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.
[2] “Book of Lamentations Summary: A Complete Animated Overview.” Video, 7:16. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8GDFPdaQZQ.

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