Lament is a thread that runs through our story as people of faith. It is part of who we are. From the prophets to the Psalms, and Job to the gospels, the theme of honest conversation between a worshipper and God is central.

By lament I mean an honest, heartfelt conversation with God. This is based on the belief that God is just, faithful and steadfast in His love for us. It is the sharing of who we are and how we feel, believing that something needs an upfront articulation. It is a bringing forth of our perplexity, our lack of understanding, our confusion – sometimes with bitter tears – into the realms of our relationship with the God we trust.

However, I sense that it is an area of our spirituality and experience that many of us in church leadership have underplayed or have even forgotten. So, I want to look briefly at what I believe lament to be, highlighting the need for both individual and community lament and addressing why it is so important as we move into a new season.

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Lament is serious business

Lament is not just a small complaint about a minor issue. It is a heart-felt grievance about a matter of deep sorrow and pain. Psalm 13:2 reads: How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

As we read these words, we can feel the psalmist’s sense of frustration and even anger as they ask God why is this even happening? Psalm 22:6 reads: But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.” This is life at its rawest: real, genuine grievances aimed at God; powerful questions borne from times of despair and suffering: where are you God? Why don’t you do something God?

Laments are serious business; they are not an excuse for tears or emotions but deal with serious matters that are a source of struggle needing articulation.” (Rediscovering Lament as a Practice of the Church – Dorey, Duffield and Upton)

Lament is truthfulness

In our lives as believers of Jesus, we often communicate at a surface level. So much of our conversations is designed to keep us from becoming vulnerable. When we ask people how they are, we rarely really want a full analysis of that person’s emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing. We can do the same in our prayers and worship. We can tell God what we think He wants to hear or delve into platitudes and generalities.
Not so with lament.

Laments are active, poetic, truth-telling. Job 3:23 – 26 reads: Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For sighing has become my daily food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me, what I dreaded has happened to me, I have no peace no quietness; I have no rest.” Psalm 55:4 – 5 reads: My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.”

These are just two examples of the raw, sometimes almost brutal, truth that is shared in lament. There’s no desire to hide emotion or feelings. Rather, what is being articulated is the anger, frustration and disappointment that has come about in the disconnect between the worshipper’s perceived reality and the promises of God. These emotions are too real; the hurts are too deep for cliché or banality. Only truthfulness
will suffice.

Lament is faith-filled relationship

Even in the despair and sorrow that the worshipper feels, it is because of their belief in God that they are bringing their lament to Him. There is no sense that their faith in the power or sovereignty of God has in some way diminished. Rather, it is the sense of a lack of understanding of what God is doing or why He is not active in a particular way,

Often, as part of this relationship, there is a sense of journey that the lamenter goes through. Whilst this is not true for everyone, many of the psalms of lament move from a place of anger to a place of renewed hope. The lens changes from an initial focus on the situation to one that centres on God’s power. The mood gradually alters from despair to hope. The writer may start with despair, but as they articulate their issue they begin to be reminded of the care and concern of God for them. Psalm 13 begins with: How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” and concludes with: But I trust in your unfailing love: my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for He has been good to me.”

Theologian N. T. Wright comments on this in an article he wrote for Time magazine: These poems often come out into the light by the end with a fresh sense of God’s presence and hope, not to explain the trouble but to provide reassurance within it.” (Christianity offers no answers about coronavirus. It was not supposed to – Time magazine)

I love that we worship a God who is holy, perfect and sovereign. Yet He is also a God who enters into honest conversation with us; a God who listens and walks with us through our deepest pains and helps us to see something new in our situation; a loving God who does not distance Himself from the frustrations of His people.

Communal laments

Whilst most laments are about an individual’s concerns, there are some that are a call from the community of God’s people. Psalms such as 44 and 79 are good examples of these. They demonstrate the corporate call against injustice and violence, bringing the frustrations of the people before their God.

There is something both prophetic and powerful about a community of faith so moved by situations around them that there is a united lament and waiting before the almighty God. The speaking out of injustice and pain gives voice to grief and despair and is an affirming and uniting act.

I believe it to be a prophetic and powerful act that the church does not engage in enough. In a world of such injustice, pain and violence, I believe that we, as the church, need to lament more about public life. To lose the power of communal poetic lament is to disengage with the pains of the world and, at least in my opinion, to walk away from our God-given calling to be salt and light in the world today.

Walter Brueggemann calls the psalms of lament psalms of disorientation’. He writes: Life is savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance and unrelieved asymmetry. In our time – perhaps in any time – that needs no argument or documentation.” (Spirituality of the Psalms, Fortress Press, p. 25)

There are many people in our nations who feel disorientated. They carry anger in the face of loss, woundedness at not being able to say goodbye to loved ones. Hurting, frustrated, confused people of faith who cannot connect their experience of faith to the promises of God. We cannot give all the answers, but we can give permission and space. We can point to our tradition of lament, gently leading people to engage openly and honestly with the God who meets us in our despair, and who gently guides us in that despair to a new place.

As a church, when we lose lament, we lose the mystery, healing and prophetic parts of our calling. If ever there was a time in our history when we needed to rediscover lament as part of our life and practice, it is now.

Developing a theology and practice of lament

One of the most significant and important things that all communities of faith are going to have to think about, and put in place, is a clear theology of lament. Visit eauk​.it/​c​c​-​l​ament for some simple ideas of how to practise lament as part of a faith community.

Even in the despair and sorrow that the worshipper feels, it is because of their belief in God that they are bringing their lament to Him.