The Lost Art of Lament
Updated: Dec 17, 2021
23 Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! 24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? 25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. 26 Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
It’s nearly Christmas as I write this.
The Christmas season is typically a time of joy. It’s a time of gathering with family and/or friends, sharing in a meal and exchanging gifts. Trees will be decorated. Lights will be hung. Christmas lights are one of my sons favorite things about the season. And I can’t say that I blame him. It’s always been a favorite of mine. As kids we used to ride with my parents through the town looking for Christmas lights. They seemed to know the best places and the most decorated homes. It stands to reason when you live in the same place for over thirty years. We’d play a silly game called “Lights on My Side.” My brother and I would shout out, “lights on my side” when there were (you guessed it) lights on my side of the road. When I drive by lights with my son, the sounds of “ooos” and “ahhhs” and the occasional “that’s so beautiful” fill the backseat of the car and I can’t help but smile. It is a time of joy. Great joy. At the announcement of Jesus’ birth, the angel said to the shepherds in the field, ”Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10-11; ESV). “Good news.” “Great joy.” The two seem to go together. I’ve often wondered about those first few moments when Mary, and maybe with the assistance of a midwife, brought Jesus into the world. It was a very unconventional birth. She was a virgin. They weren’t in a room in their home, or even in the inn. They were in a cave. There was no crib. Joseph likely didn’t have the time nor the materials to build a crib. But there was a feeding trough. There were no family members waiting in the waiting room to greet the newborn. But there was a host of angels. What was the first sound that Jesus made? Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). Likely, Jesus cried. A lament in infancy. Although absent of vocabulary, a baby’s cry says enough; “I’m hungry.” “I’m angry.” “I’m tired.” “I don’t like this.” “This hurts!”
It may seem strange to suggest such a topic during this season, but life is no respecter of seasons. Grief is an invader. Grief is a thief. And there are many (myself, included) who will be facing a “new” kind of Christmas. I understand, at least in part, the cry of a newborn. I don’t remember the first nine months of my existence in my mother’s womb, but what I do understand is that it was a warm place. I was cared for. I had constant human connection. I never knew what it was like to feel lonely. Although it was apparently not very roomy, I managed, at least for a time. And then all of a sudden, like every single human being, I was taken from that place. And you know what? No one ever asked my opinion. The doctor didn’t consult with me. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to come out. But like you, I was brought out into a world that was unfamiliar. It’s cold. There’s strange people with masks (hmmm…..) I get it. I do believe that if someone were to barge into my home and evict me without notice, without any provocation or prior knowledge of it, I would cry. I’d do more than just cry. Do you think Jesus cried? I mean, consider that Jesus didn’t just leave Mary’s womb. He left Heaven. He left His Father’s side. Heaven was all that He had experienced; joy, endless joy; light, endless light; presence, endless presence. Perhaps His cry in the cave outside of Bethlehem was not unlike His cry in the Garden of Gethsemane. The truth of the matter is that we never really stop crying. Death, disease, loss, addictions, failed marriages, broken homes, conflicts, abuse. They dot our lives. Such things are painful reminders that there is just something not right with this world. Indeed, as Paul says, “in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2; ESV). Unfortunately, tears and sorrow are part and parcel of what it means to exist as a human living in this world. Is there a defense from the invasion? The Bible offers an oft-neglected form of prayer, yet it is a type of prayer that fills the pages of Scripture. Scripture even dedicates an entire book to this lost art: Lament.
Some time ago I came across an article written by Esther Allen. It was an adaptation from her book “No More Faking Fine.” I can’t wait to read it. She writes, “Spiritual maturity does not mean living a lament-less life, rather, it means we grow into becoming good lamenters and thus grow in our need for God. The songs of lament are the very songs we need for healing and wholeness, yet how many of us are singing them in our church services today? We often call worship music “praise songs” - and these are good and necessary songs guiding us to praise God for who He is and what He has done for us. But where are the songs asking God for help? Where are the songs expressing the harsh realities of the world we live in, while looking to the only Savior? If we begin to believe God only accepts “happy” songs, our perception of God and the life of faith will be skewed. My silenced cries prevented me from seeing a clear picture of God. Throughout Scripture, we see that God Himself is deeply emotional; each member of the Trinity has experienced grief. God the Father grieves (Genesis 6:5-6). The Holy Spirit grieves (Isaiah 63:10). Jesus grieves (John 11:35). If we don’t allow painful emotions to surface, then we are setting expectations for ourselves that even God cannot meet. Nobody laments more than God Himself. And we are called to be like Him.” In truth, it stings to type those words. It stings to read those words. I’m sure that it will sting to read her book. It stings because I have tried to making a living off of “faking fine.” I’ve always been the “strong and silent” type, and if for any reason I don’t feel “strong” then at the very least I can stay “silent” about it. Yet I am constantly confronted with men and women in Scripture who were not shy about their weakness. I even see a Jesus who did not hide His scars.
So, no, my friend. I am not fine.
And I’m finished pretending.
What a relief it is.
And that’s the point of lamenting prayer. If for some reason you have this perception of faith that ONLY EVER rejoices, that it is somehow lesser, or antagonistic towards faith to express such real and raw emotions, I’d like to read the Bible you’re reading. It’s likely the same one I thought I had been reading. You’ve clearly missed the Psalms. You’ve clearly missed Job. You’ve clearly missed Jeremiah. You’ve even missed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Son of God, God in human flesh, “the Word with God, made flesh” (John 1:1; 14), “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16), this same Jesus grieved. Even though Jesus knew with perfect clarity the will of His Father, we find Him face down on the grass. He’s not leaning over a rock or against a rock. There was no serene Jesus sitting with His face towards the Heavens basking in the light beaming against His face (as is often depicted in art; that never looked like "agony" to me). Matthew tells us that “going a little farther he fell on his face” (Matthew 26:39; ESV). Luke adds an even more graphic picture; “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44; ESV). Leave it to Dr. Luke to add a medical element; hematohidrosis, a rare phenomenon of sweating blood. Jesus clearly does not fake being fine. Can you just imagine the degree of agony, distress, and grief required for such a phenomenon to occur? Can you imagine how heavy Jesus must have felt in this moment? The most I’ve ever left with after a time of earnest and agonizing prayer is a migraine. It’s helpful to note that Jesus wasn’t alone. “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43; ESV). This is a vivid image of Psalm 34:18. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” There is a strong connection between the lamenter and the presence of the Savior. Like a lighthouse that guides the ship to port, a lament paves the way for the presence of God. Then, Luke says, Jesus “rose from prayer” (Luke 22:45; ESV). He didn’t stay in that place.
Esther Allen writes, “Lament is about our most honest expressions of pain. Lament is about tapping honestly into our emotions in a deep and primal way that sometimes transcends words. I am comforted to know that God meets us here, any way we choose to cry out….Too many of us affirm happy emotions while neglecting painful ones. When we lament to God, we see Him clearly on the other side. God does not leave us in lament, any more than He leaves us forever in this messed up world. A lament is a pathway; it serves a purpose. But a lament denied turns into a lie, and this is why God wants us to express them freely.” Those words, “a lament is a pathway,” have stuck with me. A pathway to what? Allen writes, “to real healing. Life in this world is painful - excruciating at times - but reclaiming the language of lament allows God to infuse His very being into ours and equips us to face the challenges of life with perseverance, trust, and a sense of purpose. Faking fine is hurting us, and it’s time to break our habit (and it stings again). A lament, on the other hand, is a cry that God can work with, because it keeps the conversation going just when we need Him most.” Psalm 88 is worth the read. It’s one of those rare Psalms that doesn’t end on a high note. The final note of Psalm 88 is rather sour. “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (Psalm 88:18; ESV). With that, Heman drops the mic and walks off stage. Read through it. “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness” (Psalm 88:11-12; ESV). Would you believe the Bible gives freedom to these kinds of questions of God? There’s no Romans 8:28 hope here. This doesn’t mean that God wouldn’t turn things around for Heman. Heman just doesn’t believe it. He’s not praising God. He is lamenting God. Heman’s attitude here certainly is not blameless, but no where do we get the sense that God considers his feelings illegitimate. The fact that such a prayer is present in Scripture proves, at least to me, that God understands how men speak when they are desperate. But at the very least, Heman is still speaking to God.
What of Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19? Were his feelings and prayers somehow illegitimate? The great prophet, the mighty man of God, who had just called down fire from heaven in a tremendous display of the power of God, and without even turning a page, Elijah is cracking under the pressure. 1 Kings 19 opens up with anything but a mighty image of the great prophet. 1 Kings 19:4, “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” Wow! How things have changed! He is not faking fine. He is anything but fine. He is wanting to die. And as he falls asleep, God sends to an angel to him (remember! Psalm 34:18). The angel doesn’t say to Elijah, “Get it together, man! You’re Elijah! You’re the great man of God!” The angel just cooks him a meal. Twice. God is not validating Elijah’s feelings. But neither is God addressing Elijah’s feelings, at least not yet. But God strengthens Elijah enough to keep going. Was it right for Elijah to feel this way? Probably not. It’s understandable. God’s action toward Elijah is proof that He understands it as well. And we are reminded through the countless moments in the lives of these real people in Scripture, that to lament is to be human and to be Christian. If there is any language of prayer that needs to be recaptured in the life of the church it is the prayer of lament. Lamenting is perhaps one of the most theologically profound actions that we can take. It might even be the most sincere expression of worship. Because in lamenting prayer we are being honest with God about our feelings. Some argue, “why it is necessary if God already knows how we feel?” Yes, God already knows. God knows the depths of your despair. It’s people like me and you who do not yet know “the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19; ESV). He knows the depth of our despair. We only know the depth of His love through our despair. Lamenting is the key that opens the doors.
We know that God is a sovereign God. We know that God is a good God. We know that God’s promises are true, validated in time. We know that God can deliver. We know that Jesus was promised, that He came, that He died, and that the tomb is empty. We know that Jesus will come back and when He does He will correct the order of things; wrongs will be righted; justice will be perfectly served against all injustice; what has been lost will be restored; questions will be answered. I believe this. I know this. You believe this. You know this. Yet we still experience grief and sorrow. Lamenting is the language of people who live between the poles of a hard life and trust in the sovereign God; between knowing God “who goes with you” will “not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6; ESV), yet also wonders, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1; ESV); who rejoices in God “for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1; ESV)); yet also cries, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Psalm 44:23-26; ESV). Lamenting moves us from a place of anguish to a place of help; from a place of help to a place of hope. What if in the moments we feel we’re not getting anything from God we still choose to obey Him, to serve Him, to worship Him, to seek Him, to call to Him? What we may just find is our temporal trusts suddenly fading away. We may just find the foundations of our earthly securities eroding beneath our feet. We may just find that all we’ve ever really needed is Him. We may find that true contentment in God’s person, in God’s presence. What we may find is the coal that was once our faith is slowly becoming a diamond.
Included below is the article referred to in the blog.