What is lament?
Lament provides us language to say out loud what our hearts could only grasp at with inarticulate groans. They provide prayers furnished with language for the seemingly unspeakable. Songs that name the sorrow, poems that give coherent shape to our incoherent feelings in the presence of God, by whom we feel abandoned in our inconsolable pain.
We wonder: what happened? Why did it happen? Do You not care!? We feel confused, even betrayed. In our darkest hour, lament allows us to inquire of God, who is not put out by our questions but instead invites us to be honest with Him about our disappointment and pain, even with raging words of protest.
Rhythms of Lament
Lament refuses denial, insisting that the full truth be told, especially the truth of grief, disappointment, and suffering, which are often swept under the rug in order to avoid unpleasant feelings. It’s a practice of radical truthful-telling, the full articulation of our life before God. When we practice such vulnerable honesty, we find that in having our truths heard and known, we are comforted, even transformed and empowered to new life and well-being.
In lament, there’s an insistent expectation, even demand, of a God who is good and faithful. The psalmist dares to say, “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!” While Psalm 121 confesses that the Lord is the one who neither sleeps nor slumbers but watches over us, here in Psalm 44, the psalmist lets out an honest, raw, even demanding cry out to God. Is this the way one speaks to the Maker of heaven and earth? Is this how you talk to the Holy One? Is this how we address the Almighty God? According to the psalmist, the answer is sometimes, yes.
In the end, to ignore these words or to choose more “polite” words is to believe that God can’t handle our broken humanity. It’s to believe that He’s forgotten how we’re made. But God hasn’t forgotten. He hasn't run out of compassion. In Christ he suffers with us. In Christ he shares our brokenness. He, too, knows what it’s like to pray with loud cries (Heb 5). He, too, grieves and feels distress (Mark 13). He, too, weeps (Luke 19). He, too, has felt abandoned and forsaken (Mark 14-15).
But lament is no faithless cry against God, no prideful attack of an atheist. Lament urges us to—right in the center of our gut-wrenching cry of lament—lift it up in trust that God is good, trust that He has all things in His hands. Though often unable to fully comprehend, let alone resolve, such circumstances, we trust that in some grand, perfectly though mysteriously redemptive way, God works all things for good for those who trust in Him (Rom 8:28). While lament is to be honestly, actively expressed, we need to be careful against indulging in self-pity, hopelessness, and pride.
Yes, our grief and pain are real, and it’s not fair, and it doesn’t make any sense. Those are truths. But God is good, and He’s unchanging. Those are also truths. So in lament we learn to speak the whole truth, not just the truth that we feel at the present moment. Lament allows us to be a community of deep memory, a memory of God’s faithfulness, miracles, and deliverance. And this remembrance leads us to respond rightly to the present moment, even the present moment of grief & pain.
Though grief is deeply personal, lament urges us to go public with our grief. To articulate it, not eloquently but honestly, and share it to be borne with a community as God tells us to bear one another’s burdens.
In consolation, insensitivity, lack of depth, and ignorance often hurt rather than help, producing words that agitate instead of console. So we must learn to simply listen, to be present. To be quick to listen and slow to speak. Neither the absence of human comfort nor the human attempt to diffuse and minimize the emotional response of lament serves the suffering person. It only adds to the suffering. The appropriate response would be to express presence and lament alongside the sufferer rather than explaining away the suffering. Just as God does when we lament with Him.