The Lost Art of Lament:
Part one: The Surprising Hope of Lament
God, are you avoiding me? Where are you when I need you?
Long enough, God—you’ve ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of your head long enough.
Get up, God! Are you going to sleep all day? Wake up! Don’t you care what happens to us? Why do you bury your face in the pillow? Why pretend things are just fine with us? And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt, held down with a boot on our necks. Get up and come to our rescue. If you love us so much, Help us!
I first heard these words in a seminar led by Paul Miller. He asked us to critique some prayers he found in an edgy book of prayers. Arms shot up of people wanting to share their disgust into the roaming mic. “Disrespectful!” “Inappropriate!” “You shouldn’t talk to God that way!” Miller nodded and calmly replied: “Psalm 10, verse 1. Psalm 13, verse 1. Psalm 44, verses 23-26.” The room’s roar hushed to silence as Miller explained they were from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible, The Message. The unfamiliar language had thrown us off to the raw honesty of the Psalms in any translation.
What are laments?
Laments are prayers to God. Some are mournful and tearful, but they’re also raw and messy, infused with energy, passion and loud hope. Laments include reasoned arguments and emotion-full utterances. Though laments can feel disrespectful and uncomfortable, they actually require great faith. Without trusting that God cares and is listening, we would just stay silent.
Miller says laments “connect two ‘hot’ wires—God’s promise and the problem. When that happens, sparks fly.” Laments challenge us to know God’s promises, grab him by the lapels and say, “God, you said ____, but we’re experiencing ____. What are you doing? Show us. Do something!” Laments are desperate. But desperation propels us into God’s presence. And isn’t being in God’s presence what he wants? God loves hearing our unedited hearts.
Laments give us a voice for living in the already/not yet of God’s kingdom. Jesus has already come, but our life in him is not yet fully realized. Romans 8 declares that we wait for him both with hope and with groaning. Author Elizabeth Turnage says, “Hope envisions redemption in the midst of decay.” Laments wrestle with this tension of decay and redemption simultaneously. Laments are the minor-key song of our unfinished stories. Suffering will not have the last word so we can cry, “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13:1)
Confident in God’s character and actions, laments eventually pivot to praise. Sometimes this pivot is the most jarring note of the lament! They don’t always pivot at the same place, and some don’t pivot till the very last verse. Psalm 88 doesn’t pivot. It addresses God as LORD, God of my salvation, but bleakly ends with, “darkness is my closest friend.” Some seasons are just that dark, are they not? How kind of God to invite us to bring our pivot-less darkness to him. But even those seasons aren’t pitch-black. Psalm 139 reminds us that even darkness is as light to him.
Lament versus complaint
What’s the difference between lament and complaint? Miller puts it simply, “A lament is faith. A complaint is rebellion.” Laments are directed to God; complaints grumble about God to anyone but Him. It’s similar to the difference between confrontation and gossip. When you are frustrated with someone but refuse to talk to them directly, aren’t you tempted to leak your thoughts out in gossip? Instead of gossiping about God indirectly, a lamenter courageously addresses him to his face.
Still, we do not approach him with a demanding spirit or a closed fist, but with an open hand. He is God; we are not. David Powlison cautions that laments should be “a plea of faith, not a bitter rant.” How do we tell the difference? A wise counselor graciously told me once that we may need to cross the line between lament and complaint many times before we can know the difference.
How God Responds to Our Laments
How does God respond to our laments? By uniting us to Jesus. Our crucified and resurrected King personally experienced the same kinds of loss and confusion, and infinitely worse. This doesn’t mean we just skip to the end of the story. We can’t pole-vault over the pain; we must go and grow through it. There is no shortcut. Yet God doesn’t waste any of our pain. As author and quadriplegic Joni Eareckson-Tada says, “Sorrow and sin must be always be faced head on. It is this no-nonsense, raw approach that allows hope to grow in the fertile ground left from the ashes of suffering.”
Laments nourish greater intimacy with Jesus. We taste fellowship with him in his sufferings, and fellowship in the power of his resurrection. We pattern our lives after his dying and rising. Paul Miller calls this the J-Curve: moving down toward death, and then rising up in more-abundant life. Jesus is the treasure in our trials. In fact, let this be one of the promises you bring him as you lament: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” Isaiah 45:3
For Further Study
If lament prayers are new to you, start by reading some Psalms of lament: 3-7, 10, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 44,58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 64, 88, 109, 123, 126, 129
Photo by Mary Frances Giles taken at Spanish Banks in Vancouver, British Columbia