The Lost Art of Lament: Part 3 of 3, Practicing Lament
a three-part blog series (Part 1; Part 2)
As I mentioned earlier, Paul Miller’s prayer seminar introduced me to the raw honesty of Hebrew laments. I was intrigued, but when he asked us to write a lament, right then and there, I felt resistance building in my soul. I don’t really have anything to lament over. I’m still not sure what I think about this genre of prayers. I can’t write in a crowded room. And so my excuses went.
What about you? If I asked you to stop reading and write a lament right now, how would your heart respond? “Ugh. Enough already! I’m sick of being sad. Are we ever going to get to the hope part?” Or is it more, “I don’t want to be stuck in grief. If I lean in, I may never come out.”
Why we resist
Resistance to lament is a defense mechanism that stems from fear. We fear the unknown, so we cling to the familiar. This seems normal, but it has unintended consequences. Counselor and author Diane Langberg explains that as we hold tightly to what feels safe and protective, we actually destroy or block what we long for.
So let me ask you: What do you long for? Like, really long for? Some specific desire may come to mind, like for healing, or a spouse, or a child, or a fulfilling career. Behind all of those is a bigger vision for your life. The more you mature as a believer, the more you want an intimate relationship with God, and to be more like him: wise, mature, grounded in truth and love, growing in the fruit of the Spirit, and pouring out your life for others in impactful and lasting ways.
But here’s the thing: The path to that gorgeous life inevitably leads us through suffering. There is no other way, because that is the way Jesus took. No one wants to walk the path of sorrow, but when we walk it, we find him on that path with us. He has already walked this path, so he knows what it leads through, and where it leads to. As a result, there is fellowship with Jesus on the path of suffering that’s different than anywhere else.
Permission to release
Once the seminar room quieted, I decided to give it a try. I realized my heart needed permission to speak this honestly and boldly to God, so I opened The Message version on my Bible app and picked a Psalm, borrowing its language to get me going. And boy, did it! Soon my pen’s stroke was so strong it left raised marks on the back side of my paper. My pace was so quick that my handwriting was almost illegible. I even kept writing past the time he told us to stop.
What happened? I experienced yet another surprising benefit of laments: they release our hearts. I had no idea there were so many questions and frustrations inside of me. My mother was recovering from radiation, our daughters were facing challenges that I could neither make sense of nor fix, and our church was having its own growing pains. I didn’t realize how much all of that was weighing on me till I wrestled and released it. I found myself writing, “And another thing…” and “Here’s one more, Lord…” I had prayed about these things before, but this was different. Giving these words to God somehow felt like his gift to me.
This is how all prayer works, of course. But there is something about lament that opens up a richer, deeper and more intimate relationship with God. Like when you have one of those late-night conversations with a trusted friend. I felt lighter. It was healing and freeing. It opened my heart and mind to new solutions, creative ideas, bursts of fresh hope, and celebration for how he had been answering in ways I hadn’t stopped to notice.
I began to experience why lament is the unlikely companion of hope. We know that hope deferred makes the heart sick. But how can we lament to God without having hope that he hears, that he cares, that he is powerful, and that he loves us enough to answer? Laments cultivate robust hope, because they require us to know God’s character, to cling to his promises, and to lean on them hard. Lament kicks the door open, and hope rushes in. Laments are hope aflame.
Preparing to lament
Your turn. Maybe you know exactly what you want to lament to God about. But if you don’t, let me offer a few suggestions:
Open your bible. What topics and longings does it stir in you? What apparent discrepancies with your current reality does it reveal?
Consider current events, especially those that expose injustice, evil and tragedy. Allow yourself to feel. Let the hardness hang. Don’t rush to resolution too quickly.
Listen to meaningful music. Psalms are, after all, songs. Songs can unlock your heart like few things can. Spirituals, which are historic laments and their modern equivalent of rap and hip hop, might be good places to start to uncover longings, pain and injustice. (See below for more on this.) Visual arts, poetry, literature, or simply getting out in nature can stir your soul deeply.
Writing a lament
There is no single way to lament, but I have found this four-part pattern helpful: address, complain, request, and trust. I adapted it from “My God, My God, Why?” Understanding the Lament Psalms by Stacey Gleddiesmith. I’ll use Psalm 13 (NIV translation) to illustrate the pattern.
v. 1 How Long, O LORD?
Remember, laments are different than grumbling against God because we are directing our hearts to God. David addresses God intentionally. LORD is God’s personal name that he revealed to Moses at the burning bush. It expresses his character as a steadfast, covenant-keeping God. David knows God is committed to him for life. David laments with hope rooted in his personal history.
Consider how God has met you in the past, and remember how you experienced him then. Even if it’s hard to reconcile with your current experience, remember that you are talking to the very same God. Use familiar titles and descriptions of God to address him in your prayer.
vv. 1-2 Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Now name your laments, honestly and specifically. After his life fell apart, Job wrote a “loss list.” Write yours. If you need help, ask yourself questions like these: What have I been frustrated about recently? What’s breaking my heart? What’s waking me up at night? What does my mind keep falling to during the day? What have I lost that I might never get back?
List everything – especially the things you think might not count because they’re small or are not as bad as other people’s troubles. And don’t edit your words to sound more pious or composed than you feel. Just let it spill out of you. If you’re still stuck, start with this prompt, “Lord, I’m not okay with ______.” Let yourself get angry at injustice and loss and every enemy of peace and wholeness.
Don’t finish this section too quickly. This is when I wrote, “And another thing, God…” What else do you need to pile on? Imagine God asking you, Anything else? He wants you to pour out everything to him.
v. 3-4 Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
This part is like a child grabbing her parent’s face and saying, “Look at me!” We, too, must grab onto God’s face and not let go. We all want to be seen and understood, and we also want a response. On the simplest level, we must ask God to “Do something!” How do you want him to meet you? Name what you long to be restored. What do you want him to do with what’s broken? Dig deep into what you really want. Show your desperation. Be as specific as possible.
For some of us, this is the hardest part. We know he probably won’t answer immediately, and our circumstances probably won’t change right away. It can feel like writing a letter and putting it in his hands, trusting that he will read it carefully and respond wisely.
But we must not waffle or hedge our bets with him. In the words of an old John Newton hymn, “Thou art coming to a King / large petitions with thee bring / for his grace and pow’r are such / none can ever ask too much.”
vv. 5-6 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.
Here’s the pivot! Sometimes a Psalmist’s expression of trust can be more jarring than his complaint. It might arrive two-thirds of the way in, or even in the last couple of verses, like here in Psalm 13. Wherever it falls, trust God gives us the grace to wrestle as long as we need.
Even if you’re not feeling it yet, acknowledge how the Lord has been good to you. List out anything you can praise Him for, no matter how small. A friend of mine, who was going through a raw and painful season, said that she thanked God for the flavor of her toothpaste. Where is God calling you into a posture of gratitude and contentment? Pray for your trust to be as specific and passionate as your complaint.
Think about the last thing you celebrated enough to post about it on social media, or the last time you called a friend or family member to share something exciting or encouraging. Now connect it with God’s character. What does God’s provision for you in those things say about the kind of God he is? Have you stopped to thank him for these things as well? Lament without thanksgiving tends to lower our gaze and limit our sight of the full picture.
How is it possible to express lament with celebration and trust? Only because of Jesus! Jesus was not just forgotten, but forsaken, at the cross. His enemies were exalted. He did sleep in death so that we never will! We trust in His unfailing love and salvation. We follow the arc of his death and resurrection toward eternal life!
My favorite part of lament is what comes immediately after: sitting quietly with him. These moments of stillness can be some of the most profound, intimate, and tender moments of all. God is a person who loves you, not a concept. Allow yourself to collapse on him and into him. Imagine a child melting into his parent’s chest: safe, secure, known, heard, loved. “Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders.” Deut. 33:12
In the hours and days after your lament, listen for how he will answer you, in his Word and world. Watch for creative solutions He might bring. Look for opportunities to help others move toward him. How might he use you to serve your neighbors with words of life and deeds of love?
Maybe you don’t feel the need to lament right now, but you can lament on behalf of others. Who might you need to introduce to lament, like Paul Miller did for me? Is someone you know misdirecting their grief through anger, overwork, or addiction? Friends? Parents? Even children?
A friend once told me, “We are going toward Glory, but the trip there is hard.” Thanks be to God for being the God of comfort, and for inviting us to bring our unimaginable pain to Him while we wait for his beautiful redemption of all things. Don’t press pain down and press on, but offer up your heart to Him. As we lament, we make space for God to enter. Come, Lord Jesus, Come.
For Further Study
Part 1: Surprising Hope of Lament
Part 2: The Dangers of Not Lamenting
The Women Gather song by Sweet Honey in the Rock on lamenting injustice
What Does Hip Hop Have to do with Lament? by Peter Watts “The biblical laments give us a better understanding for the suffering present in contemporary hip hop music. The lament poetry tells us about a God who is all-loving and good. When we begin to discount the sufferer, they become unheard, nameless, and forgotten. I believe that certain expressions of hip hop music can be categorized as lament in the modern urban context. These cries help us to empathize with the plight of the African-American community who continue to experience God’s faithfulness while enduring violence.”
“My God, My God, Why?” Understanding the Lament Psalms by Stacey Gleddiesmith
A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament Experience Guide by Michael Card
Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament and How to Grieve Racial Violence through Lament by Mark Vroegop
A First Step Toward Racial Reconciliation on The Crossway Podcast by Mark Vroegop