No one enjoys lament. In fact, most people I know (myself included) actively avoid the depths of grief and sadness that accompany this practice. It’s the kind of thing we will outrun for as long as we can. But I am convinced that our inability (and/or unwillingness) to lament is actively harming us, and harming the witness of Christ’s church.
If we are paying attention, there is much to be grieved: the deadly, steady uptick of mass shootings and racial violence in the United States, wars and oppression throughout world, global inflation plunging entire populations into poverty and famine, nationalism and extremist rhetoric on the rise, astronomical numbers of refugees and displaced people, and oh yeah—COVID is still around. The list seems endless and overwhelming. But this is the world we live in and the world we are called to love as Christ loves. Tempting as it may be, a loving response is not shutting our eyes and plugging our ears until it stops. And pretending things are okay does not make them so. So what must we do? How do we grieve all these wrongs and losses yet still live and proclaim abundant life?
Despite my own wishing it weren’t so, I am growing firm in my conviction that lament is the answer. In Prophetic Lament, Soong Chan-Rah says that “lament is an act of protest as the lamenter is allowed to express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering. The lamenter talks back to God and ultimately petitions him for help, in the midst of pain. The one who laments can call out to God for help, and in that outcry there is hope and even the manifestation of praise” (p. 44). Seen in this light, lament is not a sign of weakness, a waste of time, or a doubting of God’s sovereignty. On the contrary, lament becomes perhaps the most faithful and honest response to suffering and injustice. The language of Lamentations and the lament psalms in Scripture give us permission to feel the acute pain of things that are not right in the world. Not to mention Jesus himself! Jesus wept at the death of a friend, the stubbornness of Jerusalem, and the anguish of betrayal and suffering in the garden. Jesus will never be the one to tell us not to cry over spilled milk.
Without learning the language of lament, we become callous to grief, embittered by it, or we find ways to control it. If it’s not given a channel to flow through, grief calcifies into rage and bitterness, and we end up perpetuating the harm or violence that causes grief in the first place. Unless we learn to lament as our response to suffering and injustice, we will either ignore them all together or repeatedly manufacture quick fixes to the suffering (which never work, just ask Job’s friends). In contrast, when we are given permission and even words to lament what is wrong with the world, we have a place to channel the pain. We do not have to fear being adversely affected by what we hear because we have a place—a Person—to name all our grief.
Lament, after all, is a language of prayer. And as a practice of prayer, lament is a tool of transformation. When we engage in lament, we are giving voice to a prophetic proclamation that there is another way. Lament is the outcry of pain: “We were not built for this! It should not be this way!” Lament is not despair. In fact, lament has its roots in a hopeful vision of the world and our collective future. We know what should be. We long for shalom—wholeness, rightness, justice, things as God intends. In stark contrast, despair succumbs to the deadly lie that this is all there is.
In lament, we come face to face with the magnitude of what is wrong, and we will not be assuaged with anything less than justice that makes way for true and lasting shalom.
Lament also has its roots in love: love of creation, love of neighbor, love of God. We are instructed to love one another by rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). In lament we grieve alongside those we love—God, fellow humans, and all creation. In the face of tragedy, injustice, and suffering, lament may be the most loving thing we can do as we join in solidarity with another’s grief, even the groaning of creation itself. When we study Lamentations and the lament psalms, we quickly realize those who lament are not looking for quick answers or trying to immediately fix the cause for their laments. Lament refuses to take shortcuts that will offer distraction or the illusion of an easy way out. In lament, we come face to face with the magnitude of what is wrong, and we will not be assuaged with anything less than justice that makes way for true and lasting shalom.
Lament is sorrow and grief and anguish and anger. But it doesn’t stay there. Lament leads us out of rage and into a clear-eyed picture of our broken world and of God’s love for it and for us all. With its roots in love and hope, lament is like a refiner’s fire that both strengthens and purifies us for the work ahead. In lament we confess to the truth, fully agreeing with God about the way things are. There are no punches pulled, no concealer put on the blemishes, no holds barred. And the very same coin holds the other side of the truth: when we agree with God on all that is wrong, we are invited to join God in seeing and working toward what is right.
Lament pulls us to the depths, where we encounter the great suffering and the great joy: We were created for more than this! Humans were created by love, for love, in love. We crave the well-being of shalom because we were created for it! And once we have agreed with God about what is and what should be, we will stop at nothing to see pieces of heaven’s shalom breaking into earth. Our lament becomes a prayer of words and deeds: May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven! Lament is both an individual and a corporate practice of prayer. For those of us who lead congregational worship, it may feel absolutely terrible to lead a lament prayer from the platform if we’ve only ever seen worship as a place of celebration. But lament is holy work too, and we must learn to make room for sacred lament as part of being christ’s Church in the world.
To begin or deepen your own spiritual practice of lament, consider these ideas for personal and corporate lament prayers:
- As you go through the week, pay attention to what you see and hear in the news, in your own relationships, and on the street on your way to work. Wherever there is injustice, brokenness, pain, suffering, or rejection, know that Jesus laments. Ask Jesus to help you join his lament as you proclaim together that it should not be this way! Invite Jesus to share his feelings with you as you join in his love for his people. (Adapted from my book Living the Way of Jesus, available from The Foundry Publishing)
- If you give direction to a congregational service, think about how you can lead a corporate experience of lament in worship. If there is already time given for pastoral prayer or prayers of the people, lament fits well there. Whether you find a written prayer, pray with a psalm or a passage of Lamentations, or write your own, use the time to confess what is not as it should be, state the emotions present, and ask for God’s kingdom to come and will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. If this is a new practice for your congregation, it might be helpful to introduce the lament prayer with an explanation of this prayer practice before you begin
- For small groups and youth groups, you might invite people to write their own prayers of lament. What brings them grief as they look at the world around them? How do they agree with God about what is wrong and what should be? What words can express their longing for shalom? After a time of shared lament, look for the ways God’s Spirit is growing the fruit of hope, love, patience, and joy in your midst. How might the Spirit be stirring the group to usher in justice and shalom?